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The Insider’s Guide to Alaska’s National Parks (Part 1)

Alaska is home to several spectacular national parks, some of which are inaccessible by car alone. There is such awesome scenery and wildlife to be seen — so let’s get started with Part 1!

Denali National Park

Photo of caribou walking in front of Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park

Nearly 400,000 people every year visit Denali National Park to get a look at the North America’s highest peak. The magnitude of Denali (aka Mount McKinley) is symbolic to the massiveness of Alaska.

The 237 1/2-mile drive from Anchorage is thrilling, and the variety of landscapes change with the seasons. Once you’re there, park shuttles and tour buses rattle up and down the Denali Park’s lone road.

Depending on the weather or your mood — or both — you have the option to leave the road and hit the backcountry on foot. You can exit anywhere along the way, take a walk, then pick up a later bus to complete your passage through the park.

Air taxis are also available to take the most intrepid of explorers deep into the mountains where they can land atop a glacier. There’s no better way to digest the scope of the mountain and park than to see them from the air.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Photo of backpackers in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

This is the largest national park in the U.S., and it represents everything that’s compelling about Alaska: accessible glaciers and towering mountains — Mount St. Elias stands 18,008 feet tall.

Despite all the thick backcountry, Wrangell-St. Elias is an accessible park with an unusual level of infrastructure and visitor support. A long day’s drive (246.5 miles) will bring you to a 59-mile gravel road that leads to the heart of the park, which rests on the Alaska-Canada border. (If you rent a car, be sure the agency permits travel on gravel roads.)

Just outside park boundaries, a rough road leads from Chitina into the tiny tourist town of McCarthy and its neighboring ghost town, Kennicott. A licensed operator runs guided glacier hikes and ice climbing excursions, as well as excellent tours of the historic Kennicott copper mill, a 13-story dilapidated structure built into the side of the mountains above town. It’s worth checking out if you’re interested in human history.

Glacier Bay National Park

Photo of Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Glacier Bay National Park is 482 miles from Anchorage and hosts more visitors than any other park in Alaska. It’s also geographically located off the beaten path of the Alaskan tourist industry in the southeast Alaska panhandle.

Here you’ll see some of the most sublime vistas of active glaciers the state has to offer. If you sign up for a boat tour you might even glimpse a mammoth-sized piece of glacier spectacularly calving into the ocean!

Most of Glacier Bay’s visitors arrive by sea. A fair number of visitors arrive via kayak, either on unsupported solo trips or on shorter guided excursions. Gustavus is the nearest gateway town to Glacier Bay; it’s reachable by water and air.

This summer, the Alaska state ferry system will add Gustavus to its routes, so now there’s no excuse.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park - calving glacier

This exquisite National Park is a mere 126 miles south of Anchorage. The massive Harding Icefield overlays much of the park, and dozens of glaciers branch from it, many of them flowing into the glacially carved fjords that give the park its name.

The drive to the park is spectacular, followed by an easy trip over from the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. Once you’re there, boat and kayak operators take over and guide you to the park’s dramatic land and seascapes.

Lake Clark National Park

Photo of Telaquana Lake at Lake Clark National Park

Lake Clark National Park isn’t too far from the more populous areas of Alaska — only 158 miles. It receives very low annual visitorship due to the fact that no roads exist leading into the park.

All visitors must book a float plane to experience all the glory and splendor. Those who do are treated to awe-inspiring views of three converging mountain ranges, picturesque lakes and lush rainforests. We swear you won’t be the same after this trip!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Insider’s Guide to Alaska’s National Parks, coming soon!

Photo credits: Denali NP 1 2Wrangell-St. Elias NP, National Park Service, Alaska, Lake Clark NPClickrBee