Alaska is home to eight gorgeous national parks. Experiencing them seems elusive to some, but what many don’t realize is that five of the eight can easily be accessed, with a bit of planning, from beautiful Anchorage — the gateway to amazing wilderness preserves and mountains.
Anchorage is a great base to experience Denali National Park and Preserve, Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, Katmai National Park and Preserve, and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
Basing your trip in Anchorage allows you to also experience fantastic restaurants, hotels, and wonderful Alaskan culture during your visit. Anchorage is also an ideal location because it’s easy to access through the air, and other transportation options that abound here. Lake Hood Seaplane Base is the world’s largest and busiest floatplane airport, and many of the national parks can only be accessed by plane or water.
I spent a month in Alaska, and here’s what I loved about its stunning national parks — and some tips for visiting.
1. Denali National Park And Preserve
Located between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Preserve is in Southcentral Alaska. Drive the 240 miles north from Anchorage or take the famous Denali Star Train on the Alaska Railroad. During the summer, private buses and van services operate daily from Anchorage and can be arranged by a travel agent or through companies online.
We chose the train to enjoy the picturesque and relaxing experience. You get a different view from the train tracks than from the road, as we drove it on a later date. We also booked other interesting excursions on the railroad’s website.
If you are fortunate enough to see Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, you’ll leave with unforgettable memories when you visit Alaska’s interior wilderness. Often, the 20,310-foot peak, the tallest in North America, is shrouded in clouds and mist. We were lucky to see that iconic peak on our day trip into the park.
Every visitor to Denali hopes to see the prized Big Five: Dall sheep, bears, wolves, caribou, and moose. We spotted three of the five, albeit from a distance. No moose came into our view that day, but the Dall sheep were scattered on the hillside, safe from their wolf predators. We also spotted a small herd of caribou as they pranced and rolled to escape the flies commonly found on the tundra in the summer.
The most exciting experience on the bus excursion was witnessing two bears in the wild. The tour leader stopped the bus for several minutes and directed our gaze to a far-off meadow. Because the bears were quite a distance away, most passengers couldn’t see them: This is where my camera’s long lens came in handy, and I enjoyed an up-close view.
- Bring binoculars or a long camera lens so you don’t miss any dramatic wildlife encounters.
- The core season is mid-May to mid-September in Denali National Park, with most services and activities available. Private vehicles can only drive a small portion of the main road in Denali. Transportation deep into the park is limited to bus traffic. Be sure to reserve well in advance.
- At the end of Denali Park Road, the former gold-mining camp of Kantishna offers lodging accommodations in the summer. The drive to Kantishna is 95 miles on a dirt road.
2. Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park And Preserve
On our 144-mile drive from Tok to Valdez – a day’s drive to the east of Anchorage – endless stunning mountain views of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve accompanied us. We couldn’t get enough of the astounding majesty of the snow-covered peaks.
Wrangell-St. Elias is America’s largest national park and includes nine of the 16 highest peaks in the country. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the world’s largest international protected wilderness.
Two roads lead into the park – Nabesna Road and McCarthy Road. Both are dirt roads maintained by the State of Alaska, and four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended. The Yakutat District along the coast cannot be reached by car unless you take a ferry. Cars and trucks are available for rent in Yakutat.
Make Yakutat your base for hiking, surfing, canoeing, kayaking, and birdwatching. Hire guiding services for small boat tours or flightseeing excursions.
The best way to see the largest tidewater glacier in North America, Hubbard Glacier, is by boat or cruise ship. The glacier stretches for six miles across Disenchantment Bay.
Kennicott, a ghost town, and McCarthy are historic mining towns and are an outstanding recreational opportunity. McCarthy is on the National Register of Historic Places and easily accessible via a quick flight on a small plane from Anchorage. Take a shuttle van from McCarthy five miles up the road to Kennicott, where you can visit the abandoned copper mining camp and take the ghost town walking tour. The scenes are a photographer’s dream.
3. Kenai Fjords National Park
Seward, 125 miles south of Anchorage, is one of Alaska’s oldest and most scenic communities and is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. It makes for an unforgettable day trip to Anchorage and is easily accessible by road or the Alaska Railroad.
The park, also known as America’s Playground, is often inaccessible during winter. Seward, however, is accessible all year round via the Seward Highway, which is designated a National Scenic Byway.
The landscape, carved eons ago by glacial ice, is a protected space preserving a unique blend of glaciers, marine and land wildlife, and snow-capped mountain fjords.
Wildlife And Wild Views
Cruising in Kenai Fjords National Park affords the best view to see tidewater glaciers and wildlife such as humpback whales, sea lions, porpoise, harbor seals, puffins, bald eagles, and many other types of marine birds.
Harding Icefield, Exit Glacier, And Puppies, Too
The central feature of Kenai Fjords National Park, Harding Icefield, stretches for 700 square miles. Forty glaciers flow from Harding Icefield into icy waters and create lush forests. Joining a park ranger for an interpretive talk, a short walk, or a day hike is a great way to learn more about Kenai Fjords National Park.
Exit Glacier offers an exciting opportunity to get close to a glacier on land. It is also the home to the Exit Glacier Nature Center and the trailhead for the Harding Icefield Trail.
Excursions like the Real Alaska Tour where we walked out to Exit Glacier, took a dog sled ride, and collected puppy licks at the Seavey family homestead and kennel in Seward made many fond memories for us. The dog sled experience was one we talked about long after our return to the lower 48.
4. Katmai National Park And Preserve
Katmai National Park and Preserve is open year-round. The park is four million acres of remote, wild, and spectacular country and lets visitors witness the bears feasting on salmon returning to their spawning grounds. It’s popular with sport fishers and big brown bears.
There are few services in the park. The park is almost exclusively accessed by plane or boat, which are easily arranged in Anchorage. A floatplane will carry you from Anchorage to King Salmon.
Brooks Camp is the most popular destination in Katmai and can only be accessed by a small floatplane or boat. Amenities include lodging, hot meals, world-class fishing, and backcountry adventures. Bear-viewing platforms, managed by park rangers, allow visitors to get close to the salmon-foraging bears.
Two options for overnight stays in Brooks Camp are the campground and the lodge. Brooks Lodge is the only lodge in the Brooks Camp area and is the only NPS concessioner in Katmai offering overnight accommodations and food & beverage service. Reservations are necessary, and you can make them on the Brooks Lodge website.
- Bear viewing platforms have a limited capacity, with rangers managing the space. Sometimes, especially in July, the wait times can exceed an hour.
- Make your reservations as soon as the window opens in early January for a July visit. Check out Visit Anchorage for more information.
Valley Of Ten Thousand Smokes
The largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century occurred in Katmai National Park and Preserve in 1912. The Ukak River water, buried by the ash, flashed into steam. The superheated steam forced out of vents in the ash called fumaroles inspired the name Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Day-long bus tours of the Valley run daily from Brooks Camp. A park ranger leads an optional hike down to the Valley floor. Make reservations and pay a fee online at www.katmailand.com.
- The bus trip is easy and the hike is moderate difficulty.
5. Lake Clark National Park And Preserve
Undeveloped wilderness, self-reliance, and solitude are the operative words to describe Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. It is exceptionally remote, isolated, and rugged. It’s not on the road system and requires access by small plane, which can be arranged from Anchorage. Bush pilots in Anchorage say that Lake Clark is just out the back door. It’s a one-hour flight into Port Alsworth on the southeast shoreline.
This vast wilderness boasts the largest salmon runs in the world.
This 50-mile-long lake offers fishing, kayaking, and canoeing out to Tommy Island. Lakeshores, coastal beaches, and high tundra are excellent areas for hiking. Do it on your own or hire a guide.
Port Alsworth is the field headquarters and visitor center for Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The visitor center is the only place with maintained trails in the park and is only open in the summer.
Exciting bear viewing opportunities, day hikes out of Port Alsworth, camping and backpacking, and fishing in some of the most pristine fishery habitats in the national park system are readily available. Photography and fly fishing at Tanalian Falls are excellent. Add to this list biking, powerboating, river rafting, birdwatching, and hunting.
A visit to Dick Proenneke’s Cabin is a must at Upper Twin Lakes. Dick Proenneke, one of Alaska’s foremost wilderness icons, helped make this National Park a reality.
Meals And Lodging
You must provide your meals when visiting Lake Clark National Park and Preserve unless you are staying at a lodge. You may be able to arrange meals with a lodge in advance.
Visitors may travel and camp where they like in this trail-free wilderness, with only a few exceptions. All camping is primitive; no facilities or designated campsites exist.
- Add extra days before and after your trip in the event of weather delays.
General Tips: By Land, Sea, Air, Train, Or Ferry
Decide first where you want to go and what you want to do when you get there. Then find the transportation that has the appropriate equipment to take you there. My goal was to try as many different modes of transportation as possible in Alaska, and I achieved 16 of them.
Many national parks in Alaska can only be accessed by water or plane. Roads may be gravel and accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles only. Floatplanes and air taxis are common and easily arranged in Anchorage.
Note that rental car companies may limit where you can drive their vehicles, prohibiting travel on gravel roads.
The ever-popular Alaska cruise is a great way to see Alaska. We chose a soft adventure cruise that included kayaking off the ship’s back and shore walks every day. It helps to do some training before a soft adventure cruise to build a little upper body strength for paddling.
Hiking boots are recommended for hiking over rough terrain. Because I’m pretty short, it was challenging to keep up with all the other hikers. I was always bringing up the rear. If this happens to you, make lots of noise as you move through the forest. Sing, or do like we did by calling out, “hey, bear; hey, bear.”
Of course, luxury cruises are available, and those leaving from Anchorage typically include more glacier and wildlife viewing opportunities. On a cruise to Hubbard Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, a friend wrote to say that their captain turned the ship in all directions so that every passenger could experience the magic of an unobstructed view of the glacier. One of the most memorable experiences on our small cruise ship was when the captain brought the ship so close to an iceberg that we felt the spray from its waterfall.
The Alaska Railroad offers rail transportation throughout Southcentral and Interior Alaska. Learn about and make reservations for day trips, overnight getaways, and week-long itineraries on their website. That’s how I made most of our reservations, found out what was most important to see, and how to make the transportation connections out of Anchorage. They made my trip planning and execution simple with excursions to fit our lifestyle and things we wanted to see.
The Alaska Marine Highway is a system of ferries that cover 3,500 miles of Alaska coastline. The slow travel allows you to create your independent adventure, and the marine highway port of Whittier is just a quick drive south of Anchorage. Our motorcycle friends thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie with other passengers on the deck of the ferries for their two-wheeled journey.
You can reach anywhere in the tamed world or the wilderness from Anchorage, Alaska. As they like to say at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport — world-class and world-close.