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Alaska Travel Guide

From Mild to Wild: How to See Alaska’s National Parks

No matter which way you do it, there's no better time to plan a trip to see Alaska's natural wonders.

Alaska is a state of superlatives, so it’s fitting that the state’s eight national parks contain the nation’s highest peak, the largest landmass, and some of the wildest and most remote wilderness areas in the world. Each of the parks is distinct and you can experience them in a variety of ways, from a luxurious berth on a cruise ship to backcountry hiking, and everything in between. Here are three ways to experience four of Alaska’s most diverse national parks—Denali, Glacier Bay, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St. Elias—from mild to wild.

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Denali National Park Tour Buses

Denali National Park is a must for every Alaska itinerary. It offers a wealth of wildlife from bears to moose, and if the weather gods are smiling, views of glorious Denali (formerly called Mt. McKinley), North America’s tallest peak at 20,320 feet. It’s also easily accessible, connected by the state’s highway system (it may be surprising for those in the lower 48, but most parks here are not accessible by car) and by the Alaska Railroad.

There’s only one road into Denali and it’s not open to private vehicles. You must either take a tour bus or a shuttle bus, and the difference between the two is vast. The tour bus has narration about flora, fauna, and wildlife and offers a comfortable ride on a motor coach. For the best views of wildlife and Denali, opt for one of the longer excursions, such as the 11–12-hour Kantishna Experience.

The national park’s own shuttle bus offers more flexibility but less comfort on converted school buses with less narration. However, if your goal is to get outside and hike, this is your best bet since you can hop on and off and pick up another bus going in either direction.

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Denali National Park Flightseeing

For a different take on Denali National Park, and an “only in Alaska” experience, try a flightseeing tour. The focus will be on Denali, the tallest mountain in the world when measured from base to summit, rather than wildlife. Most flightseeing leaves out of Talkeetna.

K2 Aviation has options at different price points, but we like the fly and hike trip where a floatplane lands on Moraine Lake for a hike in the shadow of Denali. You’re unlikely to meet other hikers in this pristine wilderness and the views are breathtaking.

INSIDER TIPAlaska’s bush planes can take some getting used to. They are generally small, at 6-10 seats (you may even sit co-pilot), with one to two propellers. If you have a tendency to get motion sickness, take a seat at the front of plane, sip cold water, and chew on mints or ginger candy. Also, focus on the beautiful scenery rather than trying to capture it in photos. Finally, feel free to talk to your pilot, who will surely try to put you at ease.

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Denali National Park Dog Sled Expeditions

Fascinated by the Iditarod? In love with huskies? Then seeing Denali from a dogsled may be just the thing for you. Denali National Park offers summer dog sled demonstrations and kennel tours where you can meet the dogs that help patrol the park in the winter. Sled dogs have an important cultural and historical role in Alaska and allow park rangers to have the least impact on the wilderness area (dog sleds being less disruptive to wildlife than a snowmobile, for example).

Earthsong Lodge offers Denali Dogsled Expeditions in the winter. On day trips or multi-day overnight trips, the park is essentially yours alone and you can even drive your own dogsled team. Check out Denali National Park’s cute puppy cam for some heart-melting videos and live streams of the spring or summer litters.

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Glacier Bay National Park Day Boat

Spectacular glacier views and migrating humpback whales are just some of the highlights at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Gustavus, the gateway to the park, is a 30-minute scenic bush flight from Juneau. It’s also accessible by cruise ship, both small and large, and the Alaska Marine Highway ferry, the least expensive option.

If you’re not already arriving a cruise, a day boat leaves from Glacier Bay Lodge every day and takes guests out on an eight-hour glacier and whale-watching trip. Smaller cruise ships, like Un-Cruise Adventures, come all the way into Bartlett Cove, but larger ships welcome aboard a park ranger for interpretive programs—all see stunning views of tidewater glaciers, icebergs, and whales.

The “glacier” in Glacier Bay may make you may think of a cold and icy landscape, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in the summer. While the water is always cold, the air temperature is mild in the 70s and the trees are lush—this is spruce-and-hemlock rainforest, after all.

INSIDER TIPThe best times to go to Glacier Bay are May and June, the driest months of the year. However, this is not the best time to visit Denali (late summer is better).

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Glacier Bay National Park Kayak Bartlett Cove

For a view from the water and a bit more adventure in Glacier Bay National Park, take a sea kayak tour or rent one out of Bartlett Cove with Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks. From the kayak, you may see humpback whales who come into the protected cove to eat krill. You can actually hear them breathing—the sound of pressurized air as they surface is unmistakable and unforgettable—as is the knowledge that they are floating in the same water with you, with only a thin kayak shell between you. Gorgeous Mt. Fairweather, one of the highest coastal mountains, and other peaks in the Fairweather range are also on prime display here. There is a sense of peace that kayaking in this wild place affords that’s unlike any other.

INSIDER TIPIt’s always a good idea to dress in layers and bring rain gear, as it may be sunny and warm one minute and chilly the next. Glacier Bay is tidal, so opt for a guided kayak trip if you’re unfamiliar with reading the tides. For a wild adventure, rent a kayak and camp, or take the day boat out to backcountry camp.

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Gustavus Inn

It’s hard to imagine building a well-appointed bed and breakfast out of nothing, with no roads to bring building materials or fresh food in, but that’s just what happened with the Gustavus Inn when a homesteading family arrived in 1928. The family that currently runs the inn (and has since 1965) was another Alaska original story: Jack and Sally Lesh packed eight kids into a converted school bus and headed from Massachusetts to Alaska to try their hand at frontier living; three generations later, the family still runs the inn. There is a vegetable garden and greenhouse that provide produce for the meals, made with other local ingredients. It’s a comfortable base to relax and a short shuttle ride from Glacier Bay National Park. You can also charter a fishing expedition or take a ride on a loaner bike.

INSIDER TIPWinners of the James Beard America’s Classics award in 2010, the food, including sourdough pancakes with spruce tip syrup and rhubarb jam is not to be missed.

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Lake Clark National Park Bear Viewing

The most famous spots to see bears in Alaska are Katmai National Park—you’ve seen the photos of bears plucking salmon from Brooks Falls—and Kodiak Island’s National Wildlife Refuge. For an immersive and exclusive bear-viewing experience, where you are one of tens instead of hundreds, head to Silver Salmon Creek in Lake Clark National Park. On the edge of the wilderness in the Alaska Peninsula, in a remote park only accessible by bush plane or boat, you can witness coastal brown bears in the wild and often see a sow and her cubs. Silver Salmon Creek Lodge offers comfortable lodging and excellent trained bear-viewing guides that will take you close to the animals, which have become accustomed to humans but are very much still wild.

It’s an exhilarating experience to observe bears at close range with nothing separating you. Early in the summer season, they can be seen eating grasses or digging for clams at the beach, later in the season, they feast on the salmon that have returned to the creek. At the end of the summer, they dine on berries—2,000 or more a day. Each month offers a different viewing experience.

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Lake Clark National Park Kayaking

On the other side of the mountains from coastal Silver Salmon Creek is Port Alsworth, the headquarters of Lake Clark National Park. Kayaking opportunities abound on 50-mile-long Lake Clark and Twin Lakes. Alpine Adventures offers a seven-day kayak and hike trip on Lake Clark, but kayak rentals are also available. North of Lake Clark, on upper Twin Lake is historical Richard Proenneke’s Cabin, which you can visit. An Alaskan icon, Proenneke built this cabin out of the wilderness using tools he also built himself and his story of simple living resonates in this wild and scenic place. Due to the remote nature of the park, lodging options are few and pricey. However, the Farm Lodge and luxurious Winterlake Lodge will keep you warm and well-fed, and prices include a flight from Anchorage and all meals.

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Lake Clark National Park Flightseeing

With only a day to spare on your Alaska itinerary, you can still get in some brown bear viewing to check off your list of ultimate Alaska experiences. Take a flightseeing and bear-watching tour with Regal Air to the Alaska Homestead Lodge, also on Silver Salmon Creek. You’ll get outside and to the bears right away and then break for lunch before taking the 90-minute flight back to Anchorage. Almost all bush flights in Alaska offer gorgeous views, but this one is especially memorable, as it takes you past Lake Clark’s snow-capped volcanoes, including Mount Iliamna and Mount Redoubt.

INSIDER TIPAn all-day tour may seem long, but with the midnight sun in full effect in the summer, you’ll likely need surprisingly little sleep.

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Wrangell–St Elias National Park Glacier Hike

A taste of off-the-grid Alaska awaits in the towns of Kennicott and McCarthy, gateways to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This park is the largest in the country, with 13.2 million acres and many mountain ranges, including the Wrangell, Chugach, and St. Elias, within its borders. It’s therefore a haven for climbers, but you need not be an alpinist to have an amazing adventure here.

Even though the park itself has few facilities or even trails, it’s accessible from the Alaska Highway system. A drive here rewards visitors with scenic views of mountains and glaciers and the occasional wildlife spotting from the road—look out for moose.

St. Elias Alpine Guides will outfit you with crampons for an exhilarating hike on Root Glacier, with views of mammoth Kennicott Glacier and the Stairway Icefall. The experience of stepping onto this vast, ancient, and ever-changing mass of ice has been known to make people weep. Guides can tailor the trip to the fitness level of the group, but it’s typically about five miles (two miles to get to the glacier, two miles back, and one mile hiking on the glacier). You’ll spot blue holes, streams, and rushing rivers through the ice.

INSIDER TIPIf you plan to drive to Wrangell-St. Elias, make sure you have a spare tire—the last 2 hours of the trip (60 miles) on the McCarthy Road are unpaved and have been known to puncture tires.

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Wrangell–St Elias National Park Rafting Trip

For even more adventure in Wrangell-St. Elias, St. Elias Alpine Guides offer rafting trips from McCarthy that last from one to 16 days, as does Copper Oar. The trips require minimal paddling and no experience with rafting. You sit back and enjoy the scenery and interpretation of the natural features of the Nizina Canyon while floating along on the glacial river. A one-day trip will take you out on the water, includes a picnic lunch, and will bring you back via bush plane, providing a spectacular aerial view of the glaciers and mountain peaks.

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Wrangell–St Elias National Park Mine Tour

For being this far off the grid and into the wilderness, McCarthy and Kennicott, a historic mining company town and the good-time town that cropped up just a few miles down the road, offer a surprising amount of luxury and comfort. The McCarthy Lodge has a fine-dining restaurant that would be at home in New York City. It’s a wonderful and unexpected treat in this frontier outpost of Alaska—try the tasting menu and wine pairing. Next door is the bar, the Golden Saloon, where the Thursday open mic night is a must-do for a taste of local scene. Across the road, Ma Johnson’s hotel offers rooms in a historic boarding house.

A 10-minute shuttle ride away from McCarthy is Kennicott, an old mining ghost town. The Kennecott Mine offers an interesting look into copper mining in the early 20th century, and you can tour the well-preserved mill. For a stay in Kennicott, the Kennicott Glacier Lodge is the only hotel in town, it’s a replica of one of the mining buildings and is decorated with artifacts from the boom days.

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