America's national park system has spanned the evolution of natural history and progress since it was first established in 1916 by then-President Woodrow Wilson. Designed to preserve and protect wild and scenic places for the present and future, the Park Service has evolved to encompass all 50 states and U.S. territories. This includes Alaska, where some of the last completely remote, roadless, and wild parks, preserves, and historical areas exist. Alaska has 24 national park units within its 663,000 square-mile boundary and receives more than 2 million annual visitors, a testament to the Park Service's commitment to those making their way to the Last Frontier.
If one truly wishes to experience Alaska's national parks from the perspective of adventurers who discovered and designated these important areas, try these often-overlooked places. Sure, Denali National Park is spectacular. But have you ever considered a trip to Kotzebue or Nome? What about the far-off icefields near Seward? There's more to Alaska's national park system than that which can be viewed from a car or train. The Park Service turned 100 in 2016, and to celebrate, the agency put out a call to the world: "Come visit your parks."
01 of 07
Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
Nome is most famous for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and various reality television shows, but it's also the gateway to one of the most beautiful and intriguing preserves in America. Theories abound about whether humans crossed a "land bridge" between Asia and North America centuries ago, and you too can stand on the same ground. Take time to visit Serpentine Hot Springs and soak in this traditional Inupiat pool that was also popular with gold miners in the early 1900s.
Reach the preserve and sites via Alaska Airlines from Anchorage or Fairbanks, then by small plane, foot, or snow machine in the winter.
02 of 07
Glacier Bay National Park
The national park most cruise visitors talk about, Glacier Bay is located in Southeast Alaska. Made up of 3.3 million acres of rugged coastline, deep fjords, and namesake glaciers, the park is also Alaska's only World Heritage Site, with 25 million acres designated for perpetual protection.
Glacier Bay consists of one facility, a headquarters located in Bartlett Cove near the town of Gustavus, where small cruise ships, kayakers, and other recreational boaters can tie up and explore the area. Larger cruise ships must rely upon rangers who arrive on board via small launches to spend the day giving passengers an up-close experience to Glacier Bay's wildlife, geology, and environmental science.
03 of 07
Aleutian World War II National Historic Area
Alaska was immersed in one of the fiercest battles of World War II, but many people are unaware of it even today. The Aleutian Island Chain is one of the state's most remote coastal areas, with violent weather and only a sea or air-based mode of transportation to get there.
Historically the home of the Aleut (Unangax) People for nearly 10,000 years, the Aleutians were a hotspot of wartime strategy in the early 1940's. Japanese forces were seen advancing upon the Kiska and Attu areas, and a raid on Dutch Harbor kicked it all into gear in June of 1942, with soldiers invading Kiska and Attu shortly thereafter. Also of note was the subsequent evacuation and internment of thousands of Native families to wet, rainy Southeast Alaska, causing many hardships and a decline in health.
Today's visitor can wander the landscape pockmarked with bomb craters, bunkers, and old Quonset huts. Don't miss Fort Schwatka and the Museum of the Aleutians in downtown Dutch Harbor, or the World War II Museum located near the main airport.
04 of 07
Kenai Fjords National Park
Accessible, scenic, and offering diverse recreational options, Kenai Fjords National Park is an easy two hours from Anchorage, near the small town of Seward. Acting as a doorway to 40 glaciers flowing from the Harding Icefield, the park is unique in that visitors can drive, hike, float, or fly to its different landscapes.
Exit Glacier is the most-often visited, and President Obama made a trip there in 2015 to assess and address the potential effects of climate change. Indeed, one can trace the reduction of Exit Glacier from the main road, and on up the trail to its face. Stop by the visitor center, take a guided hike, or camp in the tent-only sites nearby.
The best way to explore the park, however, is on the water, looking for whales, sea lions, puffins, otters, and bald eagles. Tidewater glaciers soar at the end of narrow fjords, and the occasional bear or mountain goat can be spotted navigating the steep cliffs dotted with brushy trees and grass.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Lake Clark National Park
Does the thought of a week spent fishing the icy-cold rivers and lakes of Alaska sound appealing? How about observing the daily life of a brown bear, or visiting the home of one of Alaska's most revered homesteaders?
Lake Clark National Park is reached via a one-hour small-plane flight from Anchorage and offers visitors the chance to truly come face to face with nearly every bucket list item of outdoor recreation.
Port Alsworth is home to the main visitor center and access to much of the park's activities. Stay at the General Lodge, or hop another plane, pick a trail and camp near Twin Lakes where homesteader Richard "Dick" Proenneke built his own cabin that now is on the National Historic Register.
Kayaking and canoeing are also stellar at Lake Clark, with outfitters and many lodges offering single or multi-day trips. Don't forget your fishing pole!
06 of 07
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The largest national park in the entire system, Wrangell-St. Elias is known for its volcanic field spanning 2,000 square miles and towering mountains that dwarf the valleys below.
Massive by area, the park is mecca for rafting, climbing, backpacking, and hiking enthusiasts for its remote location. But many visitors find Wrangell-St. Elias accessible via the Edgerton Highway, a 60-mile dirt road leading to the tiny hamlet of McCarthy and Kennecott National Historical Landmark.
Formerly a copper mine, Kennecott was shuttered in the 1930's after a successful operation and is now undergoing extensive restoration by the National Park Service. It alone is worth the visit to Wrangell-St. Elias and visitors enjoy exploring the townsite and mines, hiking the trails, and climbing on ice at Root Glacier.
07 of 07
Kobuk Valley National Park
Caribou. Ancient sand dunes. 9,000 years of human history. This is Kobuk Valley National Park, located in northwest Alaska, entirely above the Arctic Circle.
The only way to reach Kobuk Valley is through the city of Kotzebue, and by airplane since the park is very remote and no roads or trails lead directly to it. Once there, though, almost 2 million acres of backcountry await the experienced visitor, with access to backpacking, packrafting, fishing, and wildlife photography.
Every year, more than 500,000 caribou migrate through the Kobuk Valley, following the ancient tracks of their descendants. Grayling populate the Kobuk River, and Alaska Native People spend summers living a subsistence lifestyle along the sandy banks.
Kobuk is also the only place in Alaska with true sand dunes, a desert of sorts created centuries ago by two glaciations that led to sediment being blown into one enormous, 200,000-acre span of sand dunes. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are the largest active dune field in Arctic North America.
The Alaska Region of the National Park Service provides helpful, practical tips for visiting each of its park units, including information about transportation, wildlife, camping, and guided adventures. A good place to begin planning is via the Public Lands Information Centers in Ketchikan, Anchorage, Fairbanks, or Tok. Here, visitors can talk with volunteers or rangers, purchase permits, and establish a safety plan for these remote areas.