It’s challenging not to talk about Alaska’s national parks in superlatives—after all, the 49th state claims 60 percent of all land protected by the U.S. National Park Service. Alaska’s total national parkland protects more than 41 million acres (roughly the size of Wisconsin) and encompass biomes ranging from temperate rain forests to arctic tundra.
Within that acreage are the four largest national parks in the United States (Wrangell–St. Elias, Denali, Gates of the Arctic, and Katmai), the 10 highest peaks in the country, the longest tidewater glacier (the 76-mile-long Hubbard Glacier in Wrangell–St. Elias), and more.
Alaska’s national parks also have the distinction of being the most remote (only three of the eight are accessible by road; the other five require a boat or air taxi) and the least visited (five of the top 10 least-visited national parks are in Alaska).
Where to begin in this statistically remote—but profound—wilderness? During seven years living in Alaska, I visited each of its magnificent national parks (multiple times in the case of Kenai Fjords, Denali, and Wrangell–St. Elias) to learn about what makes each unique. Read on for our guide, so you can choose the best national park in Alaska to visit on your trip.
Denali National Park and Preserve
- Why go: To marvel at the highest peak in North America
- Nearest town: Healy, population 1,096, 12 miles away (although there are seasonal shops, dining spots, and hotels a mile from the park entrance, in an unofficial community called “the Canyon” by locals)
The most remarked-upon part of Denali is the 20,310-foot mountain for which the park was named (known to the Indigenous Athabascans as the Great One), but the 6-million-acre national park encompasses much more. What makes Denali so well loved is how egalitarian its adventures are.
If your idea of a good visit involves scanning the landscape for Alaska’s Big Five (bear, moose, Dall sheep, caribou, and wolf) from the comfort and safety of a bus while a certified guide dispenses nuggets of trivia, Denali can deliver. If you’d rather spend days bushwhacking through a complex boreal forest, hunting for an inspiring place to unfurl your sleeping bag, Denali can provide that, too. Other activities include hiking, rafting, and flightseeing (it’s even possible to land on Denali).
It’s important to note that there’s only one road into Denali National Park. While the Denali Park Road is 92 miles long, you can’t drive your personal vehicle past Milepost 15. Beyond there, you need to be on a narrated tour or hiker shuttle. And during the 2022 season, the road will be closed after Milepost 43 due to a landslide.
Where to stay in Denali National Park and Preserve
There are six campgrounds within Denali, but given the park’s popularity, it can be challenging to get a reservation. If you have wilderness know-how, you can get a permit and wild camp most places in Denali’s vast backcountry. If you’d rather not rough it, there are several accommodations just north of the park entrance (McKinley Chalet Resort and Denali Bluffs Hotel are favorites).
Alternatively, two lodges are actually within the park, although due to their locations, both are fly-in only at this time. Historic Kantishna Roadhouse is 90 miles into the park, while luxurious Sheldon Chalet is high up on the mountain (overlooking Ruth Glacier), just 10 miles from the summit.
Katmai National Park and Preserve
- Why go: To photograph brown bears (there are more than 2,000) trying to eat their fill of salmon before winter
- Nearest town: King Salmon, population 327
Katmai, on a remote peninsula in southern Alaska, holds more than 4 million acres, but what draws the most attention is a single six-foot-tall and 250-foot-wide waterfall.
Brooks Falls is famous for two things: hungry brown bears and spawning salmon. Each summer, hundreds of thousands of salmon try (and try again) to jump the falls en route to their spawning grounds farther upstream. Consequently, large populations of brown bears gather here to snatch the fish out of the turbulent waters or paw them out of midair, all in an effort to bulk up for hibernation.
In peak season (usually late June through late July), as many as 50 bears may perch on the lip of the falls at any given time, and an estimated 300 salmon may attempt the leap every minute. Visitors can watch the spectacle from raised wooden platforms nearby.
Another area of interest is the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. In 1912 the Novarupta volcano erupted, turning some of what is now Katmai into a landscape of smoking valleys, steam vents, lava flows, and ash-buried mountains. The post-apocalyptic terrain is the reason Katmai became protected land—the geothermal features are an important living laboratory. Operators like Brooks Lodge and Katmailand offer hiking tours of the Valley.
Where to stay in Katmai National Park:
Visitors to Katmai usually come for a day (Rust’s Flying Service, Regal Air, and others offer trips from Anchorage), though it is possible to stay the night.
There are two options for camping in Katmai. The first is Brooks Camp. It’s on the shores of Naknek Beach; there aren’t designated sites, but there is a 60-person limit, and reservations tend to fill up months in advance. The second option is backcountry camping. No permit is necessary, but you must have all the gear you need to overnight safely in bear country, which is a lot. For more peace of mind, there’s Brooks Lodge, the only proper hotel in the park, with 16 rooms, all of which have two bunk beds.
Wrangell–St. Elias National Park
- Why go: To feel like a true explorer
- Nearest town: McCarthy, population 28
The biggest national park in the United States is vastly underrated.
Its 13.2 million acres (larger than roughly 70 of the world’s independent nations!) encompass everything from glaciers and tundra to temperate rain forests and volcanoes. For adventure lovers, this is the land of promise. The opportunities for exploration—be it hiking, biking, climbing, rafting, fishing, and beyond—are limitless.
Ice climbing is a big draw for adrenaline junkies. It makes sense, considering that more than a third of the park is covered by glaciers (the largest of which is bigger than Rhode Island). Most of those glaciers feed into braided rivers and streams, so packrafting—similar to kayaking, but in an inflatable boat—is wildly popular in Wrangell–St. Elias, too.
Even if you aren’t an avid outdoors person, one more thing might coax you into making the trip: history. Within 35 years in the early 1900s, nearby Kennecott went from a boomtown pumping out copper to a ghost town. Today, park rangers lead guided tours of the iconic red mill buildings and the surrounding townsite.
Where to stay in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park
Within the park some local favorites include Ma Johnson’s Historic Hotel in McCarthy, Kennicott Glacier Lodge in Kennicott, and the opulent 20-bedroom backcountry lodge Ultima Thule (which means “a distant or unknown region”). The latter may offer the most opportunities for exploring the park. Every stay comes with a private pilot and a Piper Super Cub plane so guests can spend their days packrafting on an alpine lake, hiking across glaciers with guides, picnicking in abandoned gold mines, or whatever other adventure they can dream up.
Kenai Fjords National Park
- Why go: To witness Alaska’s glaciers while you can
- Nearest town: Seward, population 2,812
Kenai Fjords is one of Alaska’s most accessible parks—it’s a 2.5-hour drive from Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city.
This national park got its name for its towering fjords, but it’s better known for the slow-moving glaciers that chiseled them over the course of many millennia. The 700-square-mile, 23,000-year-old Harding Ice Field—and the more than 40 glaciers it currently feeds—is actually what earned the area national park distinction in 1980.
More than 50 percent of Kenai Fjords is under ice. Exit Glacier sees the most visitors, largely because it’s the only one you can (almost) drive to. From the parking lot, it’s a two-mile round-trip walk to the toe of the glacier. It used to be closer—there are trail markers along the route that denote where the face of the glacier once sat, showing just how much the river of ice has melted over the years due to climate change.
Another popular way to experience the park is by water. Day cruises (either half- or full-day) depart from the harbor in Seward from mid-March to mid-October. It’s a lovely way to spend a day; pleasure cruisers glide past seals sprawled out on rocky outcroppings, humpback whales seem to defy gravity as they breach, and tidewater glaciers spit growlers (small chunks of ice) and icebergs (massive chunks of ice) into the water below.
Where to stay in Kenai Fjords National Park:
The good news: There’s a campground at Exit Glacier that’s free. The bad news: There are only 12 spots, and they’re on a first-come, first-served basis, and people can stay up to two weeks, so it’s unlikely you’ll get a space.
Your best bet is to find a place to stay in Seward. In downtown, try Hotel Seward. Harbor 360 Hotel overlooks the harbor, and if you opt for a day cruise, it will likely be steps away. Seward Windsong Lodge is a little outside of Seward, but it’s easily one of the best accommodations in the area.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
- Why go: For the bragging rights of having explored the least-visited U.S. national park
- Nearest town: Coldfoot, population 268 (though from here you’ll need to book an air taxi into the park)
Imagine an area about the combined size of Connecticut and Vermont. Now take away all infrastructure and the vast majority of the people. Then transport it to the tundra and add wild rivers, ribbons of unnamed granite peaks more than 7,000 feet tall, vast valleys, and herds of more than 200,000 caribou (as well as a large musk ox population and more than 145 species of birds). That should give you some idea of what Gates of the Arctic is like.
Even though Gates of the Arctic is the second-largest park in the nation, it sees fewer people than any other protected land—visitorship is usually between 5,000 to 12,000 people each year. That’s not because it’s not worthwhile—it’s just exceedingly remote. No roads reach Gates of the Arctic, so visiting requires multiple planes. There also isn’t a single paved road, no maintained trails, and nary a designated campsite. This is true wilderness.
Given its far north location, daylight hours vary widely throughout the year. In the summer, the sun scarcely sets. In the winter, the landscape is lit only by the Northern Lights. Most visitors come with wilderness guides—this isn’t a place you can wing it, even if you are proficient in the outdoors.
Where to stay in Gates of the Arctic
There are no lodges, cabins, or allotted campsites in Gates of the Arctic. Where you stay depends on where you find to pitch your tent.
Some (relatively) nearby options that involve wooden walls instead of nylon tents include Coldfoot Camp and Bettles Lodge. The latter also offers guided backpacking trips in the Gates of the Arctic.
Kobuk Valley National Park
- Why go: Hike the jewel-toned tundra, climb the Baird Mountains, or marvel at the sand at the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes
- Nearest town: Kotzebue, population 3,283
Truly the only thing that has changed this landscape over time is nature. As with Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley has no roads, trails, or infrastructure. Which is to say: The wilderness here is magnificent and unspoiled.
The lack of roads means the area sees one of the last great large mammal migrations on Earth. Every year, half a million caribou travel between their calving and summering grounds in what is now Kobuk Valley National Park. It’s a ritual that has been going on for more than 10,000 years.
While that migration happens on the tundra, it’s not the only biome within the park. You may be surprised to learn that North America’s largest Arctic dune field, Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, is here. The 20,500 acres of rolling dunes were formed over thousands of years as glaciers dragged across the landscape, pulverizing the rocks beneath them into sand. It’s a landscape so otherworldly that NASA has used it for training programs (and to better understand the environment of Mars).
Where to stay in Kobuk Valley National Park
Your only option is backcountry camping—there are no designated campgrounds or lodges. The National Park Service recommends contacting the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center for tips on the best places to make camp.
There are a handful of options in Kotzebue, the closest town and likely where you’ll start and end your trip, including Nullagvik Hotel and Bibber’s B&B.
Another option is to stay at Kobuk River Lodge in Ambler or Bettles Lodge in Bettles. Both are a flight away from Kotzebue but can arrange day trips into Kobuk Valley with local guides.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
- Why go: Jagged peaks, cerulean glaciers, and marine animals, including sea otters and humpback whales
- Nearest town: Gustavus, population 493
Glacier Bay is dreamy. Here seven tidewater glaciers flow from the mountaintops and calve millennia-old ice into the sea. While that dramatic spectacle earned the park its name, it’s hardly all it entails. The park spans 3.3 million acres, encompassing a craggy coastline, protected fjords, snow-capped peaks, emerald-green forests, a Huna Tribal House, and such wildlife as mountain goats, porpoises, and sea birds.
The park is a favorite destination for cruise ships—there’s something both exciting and haunting about creeping through a waterway filled with icebergs of various shapes and sizes to get close to the face of the glacier. Granted, it’s important to remember that this park has witnessed one of the most dramatic examples of climate change: In the past 200 years, the ice has receded more than 65 miles.
Where to stay in Glacier Bay National Park
Interestingly, most people who visit Glacier Bay do so by ship and never set foot on parkland. But it is possible.
As with many other protected lands in Alaska, accommodations can be challenging to come by and aren’t often in the park itself. From May 1 to September 30, it’s possible to camp within the park, either at the Bartlett Cove Campground or in the backcountry, provided you file for a permit and go through an orientation, in person or online.
Another option in the park is Glacier Bay Lodge. The 56-room hotel is set among Sitka spruce trees, just feet away from the park headquarters. For something more luxurious, you may consider Gustavus Inn. It’s 10 miles from Bartlett Cove (by road) on a beautiful homestead.
Lake Clark National Park
- Why go: Brown bears—glorious, rotund brown bears
- Nearest town: Port Alsworth, population 200
Lake Clark is an enticing cocktail of glacier-covered mountains, two active volcanoes (Mount Iliamna and Mount Redoubt), scraggly coastline, and salmon-rich rivers that have long drawn a healthy population of brown bears to their shores.
Like Katmai, Lake Clark is renowned for bear viewing, and many day-trippers shoot in to fill their camera memory cards with the animals feasting on fish. But you’d be remiss not to spend at least some time at the 42-mile turquoise lake for which the park was named. It’s wreathed by towering mountains and is an excellent spot to look for moose, fox, and Dall sheep or spend an afternoon fishing.
Know that the park is only accessible by plane. Operators like Rust’s Flying Service and Regal Air, among others, offer day trips to Lake Clark from Anchorage. Itineraries usually include roughly four hours on the ground and a packed lunch. However, backcountry lodges on the park’s outskirts also offer (longer) day trips for their clients.
Where to stay in Lake Clark National Park
Lake Clark has a surprising number of lodging options, given how remote it is. Like most national parks in Alaska, campers can stake their tent almost anywhere they please within the park. The National Park Service also operates a handful of (very rustic) public use cabins. In the nearby town of Port Alsworth, there’s Alaska Backcountry Fishing Lodge, the Farm Lodge, Tulchina Adventures, and Wilder House Bed & Breakfast, to name a few places to stay.
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