My blog posts likely contain affiliate links, including for the Amazon Associates program.
Towering snow-capped peaks. Cerulean rivers of ice. Vast expanses of jewel-toned tundra. Water meandering from the mountains to the sea. Alaska is a wild place, and some of its most wild and jaw-dropping natural wonders are protected as National Parks. There are eight National Parks in Alaska – Denali, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St. Elias – and all together they protect some 41,460,625 acres… or roughly the size of Wisconsin!
To try and visit all of Alaska’s National Parks is a huge undertaking – both financially and from a time perspective –, especially as some are remote and inaccessible except by plane or boat. Don’t let that deter you though: each one is a special place worth visiting if you have the time and resources to make it happen on your Alaska trip.
I’ve been fortunate to visit four of the eight Alaska National Parks during my time living in Alaska and return trips since my family moved away. Each of the parks I’ve visited is unique and precious to me personally – it protects an area of land that I consider to be (still, in a small way) my home. While there are issues surrounding the federal protection of Alaska Native lands, I believe the National Park Service works from a good-faith position to ensure these natural wonders are available for generations, and I support that mission.
If you want to visit all of the National Parks in Alaska, it helps to learn more about each one and what it takes to reach them. In this post, I’ll break down the details for all 8 Alaska National Parks, including when to visit, how to get there, what to do, and where to stay. I also include a short section on the 9 other National Park units in Alaska. By the end of this post, you’ll have a sense of what it takes to visit each one – and understand which ones will fit in your own Alaska travel plans.
In this post, I promote travel to national parks that are the traditional lands of the Ahtna Nenn’, Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), Deg Xit’an Ngan’, Dena’ina Ełnena, Dënéndeh, Eyak, Gwich’in Nành, Hän, Holikachuk, Iñupiat, Koyukon, Kuuvuan KaNianiq, Tanacross, Tanana, Tlingit, Upper Kuskokwim, Upper Tanana, Unangax̂ /Aleut, and Yup’ik/Cup’ik peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in October 2021, and was updated most recently in October 2023.
National Parks vs National Park Units
You might be wondering: What is a “National Park?” How is that different than other National Park units?
The National Park System is comprised of 425 units owned and/or administrated by the National Park Service. These range from “National Battlefields” (there are 11) to “National Historic Sites” (74) to “National Recreation Areas” (18) to “National Parks” (63). There are also National Rivers, Lakeshores, Memorials, Preserves, Military Parks, and more.
So what makes the National Parks special? According to the National Park Service, the National Park designation is specific: “a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.” Additionally, National Parks must provide inherent “natural value” – that’s why you see some of our country’s most incredible natural wonders protected as National Parks.
In this post, I’m focusing primarily on National Park units that have the “National Park” designation; I end with a shorter section about each of the other National Park units in Alaska.
Denali National Park & Preserve
Did you know that Denali National Park & Preserve was created by the federal government before Alaska was even a state? Denali National Park was established in 1916 – over 40 years before Statehood!
Today, Denali National Park is the crown jewel of the National Park units in Alaska; it draws many of those millions of visitors each year. The park is over 6 million acres in size, but has just one road, making it both accessible and protected from overtourism that would threaten the delicate ecosystems here.
The Best Time to Visit Denali National Park
Denali National Park is open year-round but with extremely limited access in the winter months. The main park road opens in late May and usually stays open through late September each year, but the best time to visit Denali National Park is in late August and early September when the tundra begins changing color for autumn and the animals are more active while they prepare for the winter months.
How to Travel to Denali National Park
You can reach Denali National Park by train, on the Alaska Railroad, or by car (or bus), along the Parks Highway, which connects Anchorage and Fairbanks. Denali is one of the most easily reached Alaska National Parks.
Once you arrive at Denali though, you’ll need to switch to a designated tour bus if you want to travel into the park itself. The National Park Service established a management plan that limits private vehicles to the first 15 miles of the 92-mile park road; tour buses are the only way to reach the heart of the park and see the best views of Denali and the wildlife that live in the area.
Note: As of 2024, the Denali Park Road is still closed at mile 43 due to ongoing works at the Pretty Rocks Landslide area. The road is currently expected to reopen in 2026 (though most Alaskans – myself included – think it’s more likely going to be 2027). Bus tours continue to operate in to mile 43.
What to Do in Denali National Park
As I just revealed, the best things to do in Denali National Park are to see the mountain, Denali – which means “The High One” – and keep an eye out for Alaska’s Big Five (moose, Grizzly bear, Dall sheep, caribou, and wolf). There are lots of other activities and things to do in Denali and the surrounding area, including flightseeing (with a glacier landing!), river rafting, and hiking.
Where to Stay in Denali National Park
Denali National Park has six campgrounds within the National Park, all of which are great if you love camping and can get a reservation for the place you want to stay. You can also get a permit and go camping on your own in the backcountry of Denali National Park.
If camping isn’t your style (it’s NOT mine!) never fear! There are several hotels in an area called Nenana Canyon near the entrance to Denali National Park road; there are also a few lodges deep in the backcountry in the town of Kantishna. Here are my top recommendations for where to stay in Denali.
Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve
As its name suggests, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve is north, in Alaska’s Arctic region. Like, really north. In fact, it’s the northernmost national park in the National Park system, and entirely north of the Arctic Circle.
Gates of the Arctic is a “wilderness park,” located entirely within the Brooks Mountain Range. There are no roads or trails in the park at all! If you’re looking to escape the “crowds” in parks like Denali, Kenai Fjords, or Glacier Bay, Gates of the Arctic is a good place to plan a trip – it receives an average of just 10,000 visitors per year, making it one of the least-visited National Parks (#2 on the list in 2022!).
The Best Time to Visit Gates of the Arctic National Park
Since Gates of the Arctic is one of the two Alaska national parks located above the Arctic Circle, it experiences endless summer days when the sun never dips below the horizon. The weather gets surprisingly nice, with average daytime highs in the 60°Fs in the southern parts of the park (40°Fs-50°Fs in the northern parts) and lows in the 30°Fs-40°Fs.
Winter is basically inhospitable for the average visitor, with highs dropping to -20°F-40°F (below freezing). Additionally, services – including flights and on-ground support in the gateway communities of Bettles, Anatuvuk Pass, and Coldfoot – are virtually non-existent during the winter months.
For these reasons, the best time to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park is during the summer months of June, July, and August.
How to Travel to Gates of the Arctic National Park
As you might guess, Gates of the Arctic is less visited than other parks because of how remote and difficult to reach it is. From Fairbanks, there are a couple of ways to reach Gates of the Arctic National Park:
- Fly to Bettles or Anatuvuk Pass and book an air taxi into the park.
- Drive to Coldfoot and book an air taxi into the park.
- Fly to Anatuvuk Pass and hike into the park.
- Park along the Dalton Highway and hike into the park.
You’ll need to visit Gates of the Arctic prepared with everything you need for the duration of your trip – all food, water, and wilderness gear, as well as bear-resistant food containers to deter the local residents from visiting your camping spots. There are no services, amenities, or cell service in Gates of the Arctic.
If you aren’t looking for a multi-day wilderness adventure, a number of outfitters provide day trips and flightseeing excursions; you can reach out directly to inquire who offers this service. In my opinion, the best way to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park is by flying to Bettles (where the main visitor center is located) and taking a serviced day flight or overnight excursion into the park.
What to Do in Gates of the Arctic National Park
“Gates of the Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on earth,” according to the National Park Service. As such, there are very few formalized ways to visit Gates of the Arctic – and basically no infrastructure for tourism.
The most common activities in Gates of the Arctic are hiking, camping, and backpacking, but if you bring the gear and knowledge, you can also enjoy fishing, river float one of the six Wild Rivers within the park, and go canoeing or kayaking on the park’s many lakes.
If your main goal is to experience Gates of the Arctic briefly and get your National Parks passport stamp, you can do so at the Bettles Visitor Center or at the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center in Coldfoot.
Because Gates of the Arctic is so undeveloped, it’s a choose-your-own-adventure park: as long as you arrange an air taxi to drop you off and pick you back up, the rest is up to you!
Where to Stay in Gates of the Arctic National Park
Wherever you lay your head! Jokes aside, there are no hotels in Gates of the Arctic National Park; backcountry camping is the only way to stay in the park itself.
There is a lodge – the Bettles Lodge – next to the airstrip in Bettles. Google also says that the native Nunamiut Corporation operates a lodge in Anatuvuk Pass but I can’t verify that through any other sources. Another reason to plan your trip to Gates of the Arctic through Bettles!
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
Like Denali, Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is one of the most popular parks in Alaska – in part because so many of the cruise companies make it a stop on their itineraries. Covering 3.3 million acres, Glacier Bay is mostly land but really only accessible by water.
I had the chance to visit Glacier Bay for the first time in 2021, and am eager for a return trip to spend more time in the area.
The Best Time to Visit Glacier Bay National Park
The best time to visit Glacier Bay National Park is when it is open and accessible – during the summer months. If you’re noticing a pattern, good job! (Most Alaska National Parks are only open and/or accessible during the summer, so that’s the best time to visit!)
The nearby gateway town of Gustavus is a good barometer for the weather in Glacier Bay: the months of May through August have the least precipitation, clearest skies, and average daytime highs between 60-65°F. Tourism peaks in July and August, as it does across Alaska, so a good time to avoid the crowds is in late May or late August. We visited in mid-September and experienced a range of weather in Glacier Bay – from sunny blue skies to torrential rain and tumultuous seas.
How to Travel to Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park protects a series of glaciers and mountainous waterways in Southeast Alaska, and as such is only accessible by boat or plane. Most people visit as part of a multi-day cruise; ships big and small take a day to navigate the waterways to visit the tidewater glaciers of this fjord system. (We visited on our Alaskan Dream Cruise, which took us deeper into the park and provided an on-board overnight within the park, as a smaller ship.)
You can also visit Glacier Bay National Park on your own: arrange transport (by plane or boat) to Gustavus, then stay in the area and take one of the official day cruises into the park, which are arranged by the National Park Service.
Finally, you can arrange a flightseeing tour to Glacier Bay; operators fly from Haines, Skagway, Juneau, Yakutat, and Gustavus. As this is the quickest way to visit the park, I explain how in more detail in my one-day Glacier Bay itinerary.
What to Do in Glacier Bay National Park
The name says it all: the primary thing to do in Glacier Bay National Park is to navigate the waterways to see glaciers! In particular, Glacier Bay is home to several impressive and active tidewater glaciers that you can cruise right up to.
Additionally, it’s common to see wildlife in Glacier Bay, including seals, otters, sea birds (like puffins!), and even whales. We also saw eagles and a bear during our time visiting the park. There are some cool other experiences too, including interstadial stumps (old trees from before the last major ice age), cultural experiences (at the Huna Tribal House near park headquarters), and hiking near Bartlett Cove/Gustavus.
If you choose to visit Glacier Bay by flightseeing, you’ll obviously see glaciers that way, and can spot wildlife far below you as you soar over the dynamic landscape.
Where to Stay in Glacier Bay National Park
As you might guess from the limited access to Glacier Bay and limited infrastructure in a town the size of Gustavus, there are limited options for where to stay. There are two main ones:
- Bartlett Cove Campground is located, as the name suggests, in Bartlett Cove. The campground is open from May 1st to September 30th each year, and is first-come, first-served for sites.
- Glacier Bay Lodge is also located at Bartlett Cove. There are 56 rooms on the property, which includes both standard rooms and deluxe rooms in outbuildings, as well as a main lodge building (which is also the Visitor Center). You can also book the Glacier Bay Lodge on Hotels.com.
There are a few other independent properties in the Gustavus area too: the Glacier Bay Country Inn, the Gustavus Inn at Glacier Bay, Glacier Bay’s Bear Track Inn, Wild Alaska Inn, the Blue Heron Bed and Breakfast, Cottonwood Lodge & Cabin Rental, and Aimee’s Guest House.
Katmai National Park & Preserve
Following on the theme of difficult-to-reach but jaw-dropping National Parks, Katmai National Park & Preserve is only reachable by boat or plane. This helps protect the nearly 3.6 million acres, 9,000 years of human history, and 2,000 brown bears that you can find in the park.
If you want that postcard-perfect shot of a salmon jumping into a bear’s mouth, this is the best national park to try and get that shot (but it’s not the only Alaska National Park where you can do that, so read on!).
The Best Time to Visit Katmai National Park
Can you guess, based on the parks I’ve shared so far? You’re right! The best time to visit Katmai National Park is during the summer, specifically during July when the salmon are running and the bears are most active.
Katmai National Park has several salmon runs, but the most prolific is the red/sockeye salmon, which typically peaks in late June and into July. Bears are aware of this primo buffet and come to the waterways in Katmai to feast on salmon doing their best to jump up Brooks Falls on the Brooks River.
Despite the carnage you might see, 200,000-400,000 salmon make it past the bears to reproduce further upriver and continue the salmon run each year.
How to Travel to Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park is another Alaska National Park that’s relatively inaccessible; most people visit by plane and a few come by boat (if they have the time and the budget to do so). Katmai is located out on the Alaska Peninsula, a short flight from Anchorage or Homer (on the Kenai Peninsula).
While most people only visit Katmai as part of a day trip, you can also book a multi-day stay that includes a flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, Alaska (where the Katmai Visitor Center is located) followed by a shorter floatplane flight to the one park lodge.
My top recommendation is the one-day (10-12 hour) Katmai bear viewing excursion offered by Rust’s Flying Service out of Anchorage. They’re a great Alaskan company that’s been around for decades and has a good reputation. In 2024, that tour is priced at $1295 plus taxes per person, so start saving now!
What to Do in Katmai National Park
As you’ve probably guessed, the primary thing to do in Katmai National Park is wildlife viewing – specifically those brown bears that come into the park looking for a salmon feast every summer.
You can also go off the beaten path for some backcountry hiking and camping in Katmai, though be sure to educate yourself on bear safety since it’s pretty much a guarantee in this part of Alaska. Fishing is also an option, though there are specific rules at every stage of that process from permitting to population management.
Where to Stay in Katmai National Park
Brooks Camp is the name of the primary site for tourism within Katmai National Park; it’s where you can stand on viewing platforms to watch the bears at Brooks Falls.
There is a sixty-person campground at Brooks Camp, which is a good option if you have the gear and are up for an adventure. Otherwise, you can book a stay at Brooks Lodge; it’s the only formal accommodation within Katmai National Park. You’ll take two planes to reach Brooks Lodge if you book a stay there. It’s $1350 per person to fly from Anchorage and another $955 per night to stay at the lodge, so budget accordingly (2024 prices) – oh, and start planning for 2025 now, because the 2024 lottery for accommodations at Brooks Lodge has already closed.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Kenai Fjords National Park is the other “accessible” Alaska National Park, as it’s a short drive from Anchorage to reach the gateway town of Seward; this is the park my family and I used to visit the most often when I was growing up in Alaska.
However, as the name suggests, Kenai Fjords is a waterway park similar to Glacier Bay National Park, which means you still have to change modes of transportation if you really want to experience all this park has to offer.
The Best Time to Visit Kenai Fjords
Can you guess? You’re right! The best time to visit Kenai Fjords National Park is during the summer months in Southcentral Alaska (May to September). In fact, this is pretty much the only time you can easily visit the national park, as it’s when the private companies that offer boat tours are operating; some offer tours as early as March or as late as October, but the park (like so many in Alaska) basically closes down during the winter.
(There are a few smaller operators who occasionally offer tours outside this window; the best way to confirm is by contacting them directly using my list of Kenai Fjords cruises.)
How to Travel to Kenai Fjords
As I mentioned, you can drive from Anchorage to reach Kenai Fjords National Park from its gateway city of Seward. It’s a nice 2.5-hour drive along the Turnagain Arm and onto the Kenai Peninsula, or you can take the Alaska Railroad if you prefer not to rent a car during your Alaska trip.
Once you’re in Seward, there are two areas of Kenai Fjords that you can visit:
- Exit Glacier is the only part of the National Park that you can visit by car. An access road near town takes you to a visitor center and several good hiking trails. This road closes during the winter.
- The main waterways of Kenai Fjords National Park are accessible only by boat; there are a number of tour operators that offer glacier and wildlife viewing tours all summer – here is my ranked list of the best Kenai Fjords cruises.
What to Do in Kenai Fjords National Park
As I just mentioned, the top thing to do in Kenai Fjords National Park is to take a day cruise to view glaciers and see wildlife. Some of the wildlife you’ll spot include whales – humpbacks, orcas, and other species on occasion –, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and plenty of sea birds including puffins. There are also dozens of glaciers to see, including several tidewater glaciers that flow right down to meet the waterways of the fjords they carved.
Additionally, you can go kayaking throughout parts of the park with the support of charter companies and water taxis; there are also hiking trails throughout the land parts of the park, including Exit Glacier.
Where to Stay in Kenai Fjords
Seward is the place to stay near Kenai Fjords, as, ya know, you can’t stay on the fjords themselves. Within Seward, there are plenty of hotel options. I recommend the Harbor 360 Hotel right on the water, its sister property the Gateway Hotel, or the Seward Windsong Lodge which is a little way out of town but one of the nicest options.
Kobuk Valley National Park
Looking for another Alaska National Park where you can escape the crowds? Kobuk Valley National Park is a good contender. Home to mountains, rivers, and even sand dunes, Kobuk Valley is an incredibly diverse park given its remoteness and extreme climate.
Based on visitation numbers, Kobuk Valley is a little easier to reach than its neighbor, Gates of the Arctic, and thus more popular. Average visitation is usually around 17,000 people per year though (#3 on the list of least-visited parks) – so no need to worry about running into a traffic jam (there are no roads) or crowds on the trails (there are no trails) while exploring this remote, arctic park.
The Best Time to Visit Kobuk Valley
Kobuk Valley is located far north in Alaska, several degrees above the Arctic Circle. It experiences extended summer days and long winter nights – so when would you want to visit? Summer is the best time to visit Kobuk Valley National Park.
The Northwest Arctic Heritage Center (visitor center) is located in Kotzebue roughly 80 miles from the park, and is open between May and September; the park is technically open year-round for those willing to brave the elements.
How to Travel to Kobuk Valley
There is one way and two directions from which you can access Kobuk Valley: you can fly from Anchorage to Kotzebue or from Fairbanks to Bettles (like Gates of the Arctic), then take an air taxi to reach the National Park itself. As with Gates of the Arctic, this means that the logistics of visiting are almost as challenging as the remote, backcountry you’ll have on your own in the park – there are no roads, no landing strips, and no other amenities to support you once you arrive.
Unlike Gates of the Arctic though, there is no practical way to hike into Kobuk Valley – you’ll need to arrange an air taxi. As mentioned though, you could arrange this with a pilot out of Bettles so that you visit both parks in a single trip.
What to Do in Kobuk Valley National Park
For most people, the reason to visit Kobuk Valley is to A) say they’ve been there and B) escape on a backcountry hiking or camping adventure. As long as you bring the appropriate gear and practice Leave No Trace principles, you can have free reign of the land to explore as you see fit and are able.
It’s also common to plan a visit to Kobuk Valley as a river float; you can arrange for an air taxi to drop you and an inflatable watercraft off and follow the Kobuk River back toward its terminus in the Bering Sea. There are also one-day flightseeing options from Kotzebue and Bettles if you don’t need boots on the ground to consider a park “seen” or “been.”
Finally, wildlife spotting is incredibly common in Kobuk Valley, especially toward the beginning and end of the season when caribou move through this land on a common migration path.
Where to Stay in Kobuk Valley
With no tourism infrastructure within the park, the only option for overnight accommodation is camping. There are a couple of more popular areas for this including the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes and Onion Portage, though there are virtually no restrictions on where you can stay.
If you prefer to rest your head on a pillow in a permanent structure, your options are limited. You could stay at the Kobuk River Lodge in Ambler (a flight from Kotzebue) and arrange day tours into Kobux Valley with a local outfitter like Onion Portage Adventures, or similarly stay at Bettles Lodge and do the same.
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
While most people think first of Katmai National Park as the destination to see brown bears in Alaska, there’s a neighboring park where you can also see them – and for a longer window of time each summer!
Lake Clark National Park sits on the Alaska Peninsula north of Katmai and is thus a closer flight from Anchorage or Homer. As the salmon run is later and longer in Lake Clark compared with Katmai, you can potentially see bears from late July all the way through September!
The Best Time to Visit Lake Clark
As just mentioned late summer is the best time to visit Lake Clark National Park, as it’s when the salmon run up the waterways of the park and bears enthusiastically stock up on calories before the coming winter.
Lake Clark is open year-round, but most people visit between June and October – and most flightseeing companies only offer tours during that time. You can certainly arrange a private charter during other parts of the year, if you’re looking for a different kind of experience.
How to Travel to Lake Clark
Though it is certainly closer to the big city of Anchorage, Lake Clark National Park is no easier to access than its southern neighbor, Katmai. To reach the park, you’ll need to take a plane – either a flightseeing trip for a day or an air taxi if you want to stay for a few days in the park.
For a daily flightseeing excursion, Rust’s Flying Service also offers Lake Clark bear viewing from Anchorage; it costs $1195 per person plus tax. On the 11-hour tour, you’ll spend only 70 minutes in the air and the rest on the ground, based on Crescent Lake in the park. From there you’ll enjoy bear viewing and a rustic lunch. (I know there are other providers from Anchorage as well as Homer but don’t have any direct experience with them.)
If you want to plan a multi-day trip, you’ll need to arrange an air taxi. There are a number of providers operating out of many communities in the Anchorage area, on the Kenai Peninsula, and even Kodiak, but these flights are less structured than flightseeing tours and typically just take you from point to point. Once you’re in the park, you’ll need to arrange for yourself – either by bringing the gear for a backcountry adventure or staying at one of the communities or cabins in Lake Clark.
What to Do in Lake Clark National Park
By far the most popular activity in Lake Clark National Park is bear viewing. This is what brings the vast majority of people to the park each year.
For those who want to spend more time in the park, there are good opportunities for hiking – especially near Port Alsworth, which is also home to the park Visitor Center –, camping, and backpacking throughout the wilderness. Some people also arrange for canoeing or river floating and both fishing and hunting are an option in Lake Clark – with specific permitting and restrictions you need to know before you go. (As expected, the National Park Service has all of the info available online.)
Where to Stay in Lake Clark
In addition to backcountry camping, there are actually a lot of accommodation options for overnight/multi-day visitors to Lake Clark. From wilderness lodges to bed & breakfasts to public-use cabins, you can find something that fits your budget and travel style in Lake Clark National Park. It really depends on where you’re staying, so be sure to research different areas in terms of the access available, activities you want to do, and places to stay once you get there.
Wrangell-St Elias National Park & Preserve
Last, but certainly not least, the final National Park in Alaska is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. I say “certainly not least” because Wrangell-St. Elias is actually the largest National Park in the system – a whopping 13.2 million acres! This is twice the size of Denali National Park, and frankly a bit inconceivable even once you’ve visited both parks.
Unlike other Alaska National Parks, Wrangell-St. Elias has a nice balance of remoteness and accessibility, making it a popular park for those with enough time to travel there.
The Best Time to Visit Wrangell-St. Elias
While it’s open year-round, like the other National Parks in Alaska, the best time to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is during the summer. Further south than some parks on this list, summer is relatively longer; you can usually visit easily between mid-May and mid-September. There are two visitor centers – Copper Center and Kennecott – that are typically open from late May to mid/late September.
How to Travel toWrangell-St. Elias
Get excited: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is accessible by car! Most people make the drive from Anchorage to visit Wrangell-St. Elias or add it as a stop on your Alaskan road trip itinerary. It’s certainly not a day trip – it takes 4.5 hours to drive from Anchorage to any access points for Wrangell-St. Elias, but it can be done in a 2-3 day trip.
If you want to get into Wrangell-St. Elias, you’ll need to make an additional three-hour drive from Copper Center (the more accessible visitor center) to the town of McCarthy within the park. For this reason, budget yourself one day of travel on either side of how many days you have to spend in the park itself.
What to Do inWrangell-St. Elias National Park
While there are lots of things to do in some of the other accessible parks (Denali, Kenai Fjords), I think that Wrangell-St. Elias has the most of any! In addition to those great Alaskan pastimes like hiking and backcountry camping, you can also learn about Alaskan history by visiting Kennecott Mines. This site was critical during the mining chapter of Alaskan history and helped contribute to the economic growth of early Alaska.
You can also arrange a flightseeing tour if you want to try and get a sense of how big this park truly is, or give your hiking legs a break (after visiting all of the other parks!) and go river floating with a local guide company.
Wrangell-St. Elias also has one of the most robust ranger programs among Alaska National Parks, on par with what Denali offers. They offer interpretive hikes, walks, and talks to bring this unique park to life for visitors.
Where to Stay inWrangell-St. Elias
When it comes to where to stay in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, there are so many options that even the National Park Service doesn’t list them all… That said, here are some ideas to narrow down the list. I’ve heard great things from readers who’ve stayed at the McCarthy Lodge – which is now called Ma Johnson’s Historic Hotel. There’s also the Kennicott Glacier Lodge in nearby Kennicott
If you want a real splurge, Ultima Thule has been on my personal Alaska bucket list since I read a story about it in AFAR back in 2018. This backcountry lodge is accessible only by plane and gives you a chance to unplug in the expansive wilderness of Wrangell-St. Elias.
Other National Park Units in Alaska
In addition to the National Parks in Alaska, there are a number of other units in the National Park Service that help preserve the history and culture of The Last Frontier. Each of these is worthy of its own trip if you have the time and budget.
Alagnak Wild River
If you liked the sound of all the river floating you can do in other Alaska National Parks on the list, Alagnak Wild River is a great option – especially if you’re also planning a trip to Katmai National Park since the river’s headwaters start near that park.
As you might guess, planning a float trip on the Alagnak is a big logistical challenge – but not impossible. All it takes is the time, commitment, and budget to have a truly unique Alaskan adventure that most Alaskans haven’t even tried.
Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area
If you are fascinated by history – especially World War II history –, and are willing to travel for it* then Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area is a must-visit. You can only reach this site, located on Amaknak Island in the Aleutian Island chain, by plane. Once there, you’ll need a car to reach the primary historic sites, including Fort Schwatka, and the rest of the small community of Unalaska.
*Be sure to check out my friend Ashley’s site, Destination WWII for more historic travel ideas.
Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve
If even the 10,000-15,000 people who visit Alaska’s least-visited National Parks (Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley) sounds like too many for you, Aniakchak National Monument will fit the bill. Fewer than 150 people visit Aniakchak annually, but it offers many of the same experiences in other parks: backcountry hiking, camping, and river rafting.
Most fascinatingly, the primary geologic feature in Aniakchak is a huge volcanic caldera, a reminder that this is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and a volcanic and seismically active place.
Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
I remember learning about the Bering Land Bridge in school growing up in Alaska – and visiting a museum called Beringia in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory on summer vacations with my family. (They have this terrifying huge giant sloth statue!) In any case, the Bering Land Bridge – or Beringia – is widely accepted as the way homo sapiens arrived in North America some 16,500-30,000 years ago.
Today, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve protects an area of land that served as the first entry point for all the species that crossed the exposed land between (today’s) Siberia and Alaska during the Pleistocene Ice Age. As yet another extremely remote Alaska National Park unit, Bering Land Bridge is accessible by plane and offers a wide range of outdoor activities once there; there are opportunities to see unique Alaskan and Arctic animals too – including walrus! The visitor center is located in Nome.
Cape Krusenstern National Monument
Another National Park unit in the Arctic, Cape Krusenstern National Monument shows evidence of human habitation for at least 5,000-9,000 years – underscoring Iñupiat legends and stories about their traditional lands here.
One of the best ways to explore this large, remote park is by flightseeing though you can certainly opt to go backpacking here too. One of the popular activities is birding since many migratory birds call the coastal waterways home – and you can also spot wild musk oxen here.
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Curious about the gold rush history in Alaska? I always was, as a kid – so my parents made sure to take me to mines and other sites whenever we traveled. One such place was Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which is located in Skagway. (There’s also a small visitor center in Seattle since that’s where most prospectors boarded ships bound for Skagway and the Klondike fields!)
In addition to a Visitor Center and a number of historic boom-time buildings in town, there are a number of hiking trails that allow you to explore the land these intrepid folks landed and headed inland to try and mine their fortunes.
Noatak National Preserve
Located north of Kobuk Valley and west of Gates of the Arctic National Parks (and bordering them both), Noatak National Preserve is the northernmost National Park unit in the entire U.S. And as one might expect, it is both remote and faces an extreme Arctic climate.
The only way to reach Noatak is by plane from Kotzebue, similar to Kobuk Valley. Inside the park, you can enjoy backcountry adventures or float the Noatak River on its 425-mile journey to the sea.
Sitka National Historical Park
Sitka National Historical Park is one of the smallest National Park units in Alaska – and easily accessed from the town of Sitka. Also called “Totem Park” by locals, this forested area protects a historic site for the Tlingit people of the region and displays many historic and replica totem poles from the Indigenous people of Southeast Alaska.
It’s easy to visit Sitka National Historical Park on a trip to Sitka (even if you’re short on time) and many people who take cruises in Alaska have the opportunity to visit the Visitor Center and go for a walk among the trees and totems here.
Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
Located in the heart of Interior Alaska, the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve is a huge area of protected land east of Fairbanks toward the Canadian border. It protects some 130 miles of the 1,800-mile Yukon River and the entirety of the Charley River basin, both of which were critical for the historic exploration of Alaska.
Reaching this National Preserve is logistically complicated (plane, car, and boat are all necessary), but once you arrive there are historic sites to explore and two fantastic rivers to float down.
Have any other questions about visiting these Alaska National Parks and National Park units? Let me know in the comments!