Hayley van Dinter
Travel Designer

Hayley van Dinter
National Parks of Alaska

The National Parks of Alaska

The native Aleuts named this place Alyeska — the Great Land — and it’s easy to see why. Possessing half of the U.S. National Parks, Alaska’s vast wilderness truly offers some of Mother Nature’s best work. Here you’ll witness epic drama, with soaring mountains, giant glaciers and dazzling wildlife.

Stretching across millions of acres, Denali National Park and Preserve and Glacier Bay National Park are Alaska’s top two attractions, but sister parks — Wrangell-St. Elias, Kenai Fjords and Denali State Park — share equally in beauty and natural wonders.

Denali National Park

Getting There: 5-hour drive/8-hour train ride from Anchorage; 3-hour drive/4-hour train ride from Fairbanks.
Time: At least 3 days: 2 to get there and back, and another to explore the park.
How to do it: Personal vehicles aren’t allowed past the 15-mile mark of the 93-mile park road. Plan to take a bus tour, because you’ll want to go farther than that. Tours range from 6.5–13 hours round-trip, and offer the spectacle of endless vistas, glorious peaks, and of course the chance to see wildlife like brown bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and moose. Or ride the park shuttle bus, which lets you hop on and off to hike. This option often makes you feel like you have Denali to yourself, you may not even see another person until the bus comes back to pick you up. Another option: overnight at a campground or backcountry lodge. Whichever you choose, Denali makes it easy to feel like you’re in remote Alaska.


Kenai Fjords National Park

Getting There: 2.5-hour drive/4-hour train ride south of Anchorage.
Time: You can do a long day trip from Anchorage, but try to allot two days.
How to do it: A day cruise is the best way to see the park: You’ll find calving glaciers, steep cliffs along the shoreline, seabirds, and chances to spot whales and other marine mammals. The only part of the park you can get to by car is Exit Glacier, a definite highlight. Walk right up to its face, or plan a longer hike to overlook the vast Harding Ice Field.


Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Getting There: To the town of McCarthy inside the park, it’s about a 7-hour drive from Anchorage and a 9-hour drive from Fairbanks
Time: At least 3 days: 2 to get there and back, and another to explore the park.
How to do it: You have 2 route options—both primitive. First is the more popular McCarthy Road, which takes you to the charming community of McCarthy. Walk across the footbridge (no vehicles allowed in town), and there’s typically a shuttle a shuttle to Kennicott —a thriving mining town abandoned long ago.  In addition to touring the mine, popular activities include guided glacier hikes, flightseeing, and rafting. Your second option to reach the national park is via the Nabesna Road, on the park’s north edge, a 42-mile journey where you may not see another soul. Also a mining road, the Nabesna follows a valley between two mountain ranges, with some trails and a campground along the way. Stop to fish in the lakes, hike up a volcano, and enjoy the panorama of the Wrangells—as entrancing a view as any other in the state.


Tracy Arm

Pros: lots of bergs, big and blue; tight, tight fjord; wildlife
Cons: Not that big of a glacier, only one inlet to explore

Fifty miles southeast of Juneau is a long, narrow fjord leading to the North and South Sawyer Glaciers.  These glaciers extend deep under water, putting pressure on the glacier ice, squeezing out air pockets and fractures. The resulting ice is deep, cobalt blue and big icebergs, sometimes extending over 30 feet out of the water. And in Tracy Arm, which is under a ½ mile wide, these bergs look really big. That narrowness is also what is striking about this area. Ships navigate tight S-Turns en route to the glaciers, with 3,000-foot cliff sides on either side of the boat. There’s a sense of exploration and adventure when traveling the 27 miles up to the glaciers, waiting to see the next waterfall, mountain goat or bear. And once you get up the Arm, you can usually cruise to within ½ mile of the South Sawyer Glacier, where there are often 100-200 seals hauled out on ice floes between the ship and the glacier.


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