The Complete Guide to Alaska's National Parks

Mt. McKinley- Alaska
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Visit the Land of the Midnight Sun and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most stunning landscapes the U.S. has to offer. Alaska has pristine wilderness throughout its eight national parks, unmarked by throngs of tourists, where wide open spaces are plentiful. Keep reading to learn about the differences between the parks, how to get to each one, and what you can do once you’ve arrived.

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Katmai National Park and Preserve

Katmai National Park

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For the best chance of seeing bears, Katmai National Park, located on the northern Alaska Peninsula northwest of Kodiak Island, is your best bet. This area protects wild salmon, and thus, attracts thousands of brown bears. Brooks Falls viewing platform is a popular—and safe—spot for snapping photos of the bears catching salmon as they jump upstream. Backcountry hiking and camping is a fun way to experience the park for experienced adventurers that are bear-aware. Fishing, rafting, and flightseeing are other popular activities.

Good to Know: In addition to safeguarding and studying the salmon and bear population, the park interprets active volcanism neighboring the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.

Fun Fact: Brooks Camp is the most popular spot in the park, located 30 air miles from King Salmon, only reached via float plane.

Getting to the Park: The park is remote and inaccessible by vehicle, and there are few services available once inside. You’ll have to get there via plane or boat.

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Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali National Park

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Perhaps the most widely known and recognized, Denali National Park is home to the tallest peak in all of North America: Mount Denali reaches 20,310 feet in the sky. View more than 6 million acres of protected wilderness, home to moose, wolves, caribou, black and brown bears, and Dall sheep. The best time to visit the park is mid-May to mid-September.

Good to Know: Only one road winds through the 92 miles of park and, unless you enlist the services of a park bus, you can only drive on the first 15 miles. If you’d like to use travel planning services to design a custom itinerary, including activities and transportation, look no further than Pursuit’s Alaska Collection.

Fun Fact: Denali National Park is the only park that uses the services of sled dogs. These dogs are busy in the winter, keeping tabs on the park, and in the summer, rangers offer demonstrations for guests.

Getting to the Park: Alaska Highway 3 is the only road entrance into the park, making it easy to navigate to the entrance of the park (at mile number 237), 240 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks. The Alaska Railroad is another option, which connects Anchorage to Fairbanks and runs to the entrance of the park. 

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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Glacier Bay National Park

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Explore southeastern Alaskan wilderness by visiting Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, where marine waters make up over a fifth of the park, and all of the land is within 30 miles of the coast. You’ll likely see bears, moose, and mountain goats along the shore and humpback whales, sea lions, sea otters, and orcas in the sea.

Good to Know: Natural features and ecosystems are a big reason to visit this park as well. The borders of the park are home to ice fields, river systems, and glaciers—seven tidewater glaciers and 1,045 terrestrial glaciers.

Fun Fact: One of the world’s largest protected areas, the 25 million-acre World Heritage Site, is located at Glacier Bay. 

Getting to the Park: The park may be found west of Juneau, reachable only by plane or boat—no roads directly lead to the park. Many cruise lines make this part of Alaska accessible through an Inner Passage tour, which combines excursions of kayaking, fishing, and hiking.

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Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Gates of the Arctic National Park

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Treat yourself to a wilderness experience like no other with a visit to the Gates of the Arctic National Park, the least visited and most remote of all of Alaska’s national parks. Located above the Arctic Circle, this destination is one of the best places to view the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights.

Good to Know: You may be surprised to learn that there are no roads, trails, or campsites within the park.

Fun Fact: The park got its name from the stunning outlook of the two peaks, Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags, which edge the Koyukuk river like a gate.

Getting to the Park: Visitors must fly or hike into the park, starting in Fairbanks. Multiple small airlines fly daily into the gateway towns of Bettles and Anaktuvuk Pass. You’ll have to plan ahead, ideally using the services of an experienced outfitter, and see the park in the summer for rafting and hiking or in the winter for dog mushing and skiing.

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Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

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You’ll feel like you’re a part of the ice age when visiting Kenai Fjords, where 40 glaciers flow from the Harding Ice Fields to the sea. Panoramic views of mountains, ice, and sea will leave you in awe.

Good to Know: Explore the fjords on a guided boat tour or kayaking adventure; experience Exit Glacier, the only section of the park accessible by road; hike the 8.2-mile Harding Icefield Trail; and learn about the delicate ecosystems through a ranger-led talk.

Fun Fact: Three public-use cabins are available for visitors for overnight stays in the park.

Getting to the Park: Situated just outside Seward in south central Alaska, Kenai Fjords is accessible in the summer months via Seward Highway National Scenic Byway. Fly into Anchorage and begin your adventure. The Alaska Railroad is another option, which connects Anchorage to Seward. To view the fjords, tidewater glaciers, and wildlife, boat tours provide day trips.

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Kobuk Valley National Park

Kobuk Valley National Park

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While you can see caribou migrating through many of Alaska’s national parks, it’s on the eastern frontier of Kobuk Valley National Park that you’ll see them splash across the great Kobuk River during their fall migration as they jet out onto the Onion Portage peninsula.

Good to Know: For 8,000 years, Onion Portage has been home, albeit briefly, to many different nomadic cultures that survived by hunting and fishing. The ancestors of the modern Inupiat hunted here.

Fun Fact: Wild onions grow along the banks of the Kobuk River, giving the Onion Portage its name.

Getting to the Park: Very remote, with no accessible roads, small planes are the only way to reach the park. Fly into either Anchorage or Fairbanks, take a commercial plane to Kotzebue or Bettles, and then take an air taxi to the park.

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Sitka National Historic Park

Sitka National Park

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Old growth spruce and hemlock groves can be seen throughout Sitka National Historic Park, the site of a conflict between Russian traders and Kiks.ádi Tlingit indigenous people. This park is family-friendly with many children’s programs, and it’s fairly easy to get to, unlike many of the other parks in Alaska.

Good to Know: You’ll see totem poles from the Tlingit and Haida people along the coastal trail at Alaska’s oldest national park, established in 1910.

Fun Fact: The Russian Bishop’s House is a marker of Russia’s colonial history in North America. Ranger-led tours of the house are available.

Getting to the Park: Located in Sitka, on the Baranof Island, access to Sitka National Park is relatively easy. Access the outer coast of the Inside Passage by air or sea, through charter air services, ferry, or cruise ship.

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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

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America’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is a whopping 13.2 million acres of diverse landscapes. From temperate rainforest to cold tundra to braided rivers to receding glaciers, you’ll see it all at this park.

Good to Know: This park is an adventurer’s paradise—skiing, mountain biking, river rafting, backpacking, flight seeing, and hiking can all be enjoyed here.

Fun Fact: Nine of America’s 16 highest peaks meet in the park on four different mountain ranges: Wrangell, St. Elias, Chugach, and the Alaskan Range. Mount Wrangell is an active volcano, erupting last in 1900, yet steam can still be seen rising out of its vents.

Getting to the Park: Finally, there’s a park you can drive to (or take a shuttle service)! The main park visitor center, Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center, is located at mile marker 106.8 on Highway 4, Richardson Highway, 200 miles northeast of Anchorage and 250 miles south of Fairbanks.

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