Sky-high mountains and snowy forests might conjure up the image of Alaska in your mind, but this land has much, much more to offer than hiking trails and pinecone trees. It's one of the few truly untouched places of natural beauty.
Photographers aren't the only people who'll be glad to visit Alaska. Outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds - hikers, adventure sportspeople, and even just those who have a love for nature will love Alaska. It has nine world-famous National Parks and protected areas dedicated to conserving its wildlife, including The Denali and The Gates of the Arctic National Parks.
While it might seem that all these national parks are in one US state geographically, keep in mind that it's impossible to cover all of them in a few days due to travel constraints, as some of these parks are only reachable by boat or plane.
1. Denali National Park
The NPS website of Denali National Park describes itself as a 'display of the human connection to a vast, and above all, wild landscape'. With the most beautiful landscape in Alaska, nobody's disagreed yet.
Created in 1917, this park should be the first stop on your list. Its six million acres play host to a wide range of animals, from iconic mammals like Dall sheep, grizzly bears, wolves, moose, and caribou, to magnificent birdlife like golden eagles and bald eagles.
- The nearest city to Denali National Park- Fairbanks, located 125 miles northeast of the park entrance.
- Best way to reach Denali National Park- Catch a plane to either Anchorage (ANC) or Fairbanks (FAI), followed by a bus or train to Denali National Park.
- Best time to visit Denali National Park- The months of May to September are perfect, with pleasant weather and lots of shuttle buses available for transport.
2. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Made to protect the ecosystem in 8.4 million acres of Alaska's central Brooks Range, Gates of the Arctic National Park is one of the best Alaska national parks. The park showcases a secluded, cut-off arctic mountain ecosystem that has no roads or trails. Additionally, Gates of the Arctic National Park doesn't protect just wildlife: it also houses the area's original human residents. They practice a culture of living off the land that has existed for thousands of years.
- The nearest city to Gates of the Arctic National Park - Fairbanks, located 253 miles away.
- Best way to reach Gates of the Arctic - Visitors access the park by small airlines booked over in Fairbanks or by hiking along the rugged trails.
- Best time to visit Gates of the Arctic - Summer months of May to September, when flora and fauna are in full swing.
3. Glacier Bay National Park
The wild coastlines, deep fjords, and immense glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park contrast sharply with the forested lands of other parks and preserves, presenting a unique scenery you won't find anywhere else.
This biosphere reserve plays host to the Hung Tlingit, the natives of the area, and a large variety of exotic animals. If lucky, a casual trek through the park might offer a glimpse of a black bear munching on fresh fish or one of the many secretive packs of wolves that live inside Glacier Bay!
- The nearest city to Glacier Bay National Park - Juneau, is located a negligible 54 miles away.
- Best way to reach Glacier Bay National Park - The only way to get to Glacier Bay is by chartered plane or boat from nearby Juneau or Gustavus.
- Best time to visit Glacier Bay National Park - The best time to visit Glacier Bay is during July and August when temperatures remain between the low 80s to high 40s.
4. Katmai National Park and Preserve
Katmai National Park and Preserve was initially declared a national monument to preserve the outcome of the 1912 volcanic eruption and the emerging natural laboratory that has been researched hence. Over time, though, Katmai has become a singular name among Alaska national parks and is focused on protecting its iconic brown bears.
Brown bears aren't all you'll find inside, however. When you aren't enjoying the verdant waterfalls and fjords, you can look at feeding bears, weasels, snowshoe hares, and even cute little beaver dams!
- The nearest city to Katmai National Park - King Salmon, found about 5 miles down the Naknek River.
- Best way to reach Katmai National Park - Most of the time, visitors choose to fly in by seaplane from Anchorage (290 miles) or King Salmon.
- Best time to visit Katmai National Park - Katmai National Park is best seen from June to late September when you can find its iconic bears out and lounging in the sun!
5. Kenai Fjords National Park
A total of almost 40 glaciers meet to form the crowning spot of Kenai Fjords National Park, dotted with icy lakes and lush, green forests that remain untouched even today. Hiking along the challenging Harding Icefield Trail remains a popular pastime for visitors, and if that's not it, you can go kayaking in the eponymous Kenai fjords. It's also one of the best places to visit in Alaska because you'll get a chance to see horned and tufted puffins, which are rapidly going extinct worldwide.
- The nearest city to Kenai Fjords National Park - The park is located right outside Seward, 126 miles south of Anchorage.
- Best way to reach Kenai Fjords National Park - You can easily reach Kenai Fjords National Park by driving along the Seward Highway and joining up to the AK-9 road.
- Best time to visit Kenai Fjords National Park - Choose the months of May to early July, as the passes for Exit Glacier close by first snow!
6. Kobuk Valley National Park
Alaska might be famous for its stark and desolate beauty, but Kobuk Valley National Park is as far from those qualities as you can get. Located a close 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle, this National Park is a boreal forest of deep brown spruce and birch carpeted with the lush green of caribou moss.
Wild animals inhabit every inch of this rich expanse of life found just before the Arctic Tundra, ranging from the caribous that migrate across the bisecting Kobuk river every year to the bears that have frequent dens in the forests.
- The nearest city to Kobuk Valley National Park - Kotzebue, located a far 98 miles away
- Best way to reach Kobuk Valley National Park - You can easily find air taxis at Kotzebue or Bettles airfields.
- Best time to visit Kobuk Valley National Park - Like most National parks in Alaska, summer is your go-to option. However, if you want to witness the famous wildflowers of the Park, delay it a bit and choose to visit in late June.
7. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, found just north of Katmai National Park, is another road-less paradise for nature lovers that need a welcome reprieve from the bustle of city life. Steaming volcanoes, teeming salmon runs, and foraging bears are just some of the things you'll see after flying into the park.
Crescent Lake, one of the many highlights of Lake Clark National Park, is a definite entry on the list of places to visit in Alaska, as it offers excellent fishing and bear-viewing opportunities. If you can make it during the dawn hours when it's at its most beautiful, that's a bonus too!
- The nearest city to Lake Clark National Park - Anchorage, located 100 miles northeast of Lake Clark.
- Best way to visit Lake Clark National Park - Travel mostly occurs by planes, and we recommend chartering your air taxi into Lake Clark beforehand!
- Best time to visit Lake Clark National Park - Opinions conflict, but we'd say summer because that's when the warm weather and bear viewing are at their best.
8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
The largest National Park you'll find in the US, Wrangell-St. Elias is the very picture of the Alaskan wilderness. Four mountain ranges meet up in this National Park, including nine of the highest mountains you'll find in United States territories. Storms often peek around these mountains, but the weather stays quiet enough in summer to view many of the animals that call this National Park home, like bears, Dall sheep, and even sea lions.
Wrangell-St. Elias also has several historic mines, with many of them having been excavated and declared safe. We recommend bringing a guide, but it's worth your time to explore the outer reaches of some of these for a blast from the past.
- The nearest city to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park - Copper center, located just above 53 miles away.
- Best way to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park - Car or shuttle services to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is readily available from Copper Center or Anchorage. Two roads, McCarthy and Nabesna, also lead into the Park.
- Best time to visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park - Early May to mid-September are the best months to visit Wrangell-St. Elias, as it usually starts snowing by the end of September.
Tips for Visiting Alaska's National Parks
Before you book your flight into the first Park, though, check out this detailed list of tips for visiting Alaska's National Parks:
- Visit during the shoulder season: You might think the best time to visit Alaska is during the peak season, but you'll also have to contend with crowds. Among others, this can reduce your chances of seeing significant wildlife.
- Be wildlife aware: Being wildlife aware means being aware of the natural habits of the wildlife in these parks. Don't feed any animals or birds, and ensure you stop by visitor's centers to get informed!
- Hire a travel designer: Hiring a travel designer from Voyayge to plan your trip can help you make the most of limited vacation time while minimizing your expenses. The designers are knowledgeable about the cities of Alaska and the must-see attractions of Alaska's wildlife parks as well.
- Charter your flights beforehand: If you're hiring a seaplane to fly into a particular park, it's a good idea to charter your flight beforehand, so you don't get stuck waiting for days. The congestion is also a big problem during the peak season rush.
- Dress appropriately: Weather in Alaska can often prove to be unpredictable, which is why it pays dividends to dress in layers you can add and remove as needed.
- Don't miss the Northern Lights: If you're considering an off-season trip, it might be worth postponing till the winter months so you can catch the Northern Lights!
- Travel light when visiting the parks: It's common sense, right? Bringing lots of extra luggage, even if you're staying over in a camping ground or lodge on park grounds, can be cumbersome and delay you by hours every trip.
- Go whale watching in Alaska: While you're in Alaska, it would be a shame to miss out on one of its favorite pastimes. You can easily find a whale-watching cruise ship with refreshments along the coast, and especially near Anchorage.
Other Activities and Attractions in Alaska
Anchorage, the capital of Alaska, is a fantastic place and full of wonders for people who haven't spent their lives there. Below, you'll find three of the best things to do in Alaska:
- Ride the Glacier Discovery Train, which opens up many unique day trip options for kids, parents, and couples.
- Head down to the Anchorage Museum, which houses art and history galleries dedicated to the history of this hauntingly beautiful territory.
- Last but nowhere near the least, grab a pan and make your way down to Crow Creek, where you can try to find flakes of gold!
Be very careful when exploring outside the main town, though, as even solid patches of snow can be treacherous marsh.
Located not more than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is close to giving Anchorage a run for its money. This town houses attractions, exciting spots, and state parks, among other things, but some of them are an absolute inclusion on a list of the top things to do in Alaska:
- Go reindeer viewing at Running Reindeer Ranch, an award-winning family-owned ranch located inside a stunning boreal forest.
- If you're the outdoorsy type, trek along the Angel Rocks trail, found within the Chena River State Recreation Area, and enjoy beautiful views of the Chena Dome, Bear Paw Butte, and the Alaska Range.
- Grab a drink at the HooDoo Brewing Company, famous for making some of Alaska's most famous beers. In particular, grab a taste of their Belgian Saison. It's delicious!
In the end, it's clear that if you're looking for a way out from the daily slog of the city, there's no better option than taking a week off to visit some of the most famous Alaska national parks. Whether you only see famous ones like Denali and Glacier Bay or go for a full tour including other parks like Kenai Fjords and Kobuk Valley, there's no doubt that you'll have the time of your life relaxing in these phenomenal parks!