Alaska National Parks: Where to Go and What to See
Alaska is a paradise for nature lovers. Looking for the best way to experience Alaska’s rugged backcountry? Head to any one of the Frontier State’s national parks.
Alaska is home to dozens of national parks, historic landmarks, and preserves. In fact, the state has more parks than all of the state on the entire East Coast combined. And thanks to the vast size of Alaska, you’ll find a wide range of ecosystems and parks to explore, from the alpine backcountry of Denali National Park, the state’s most well-known park, to the icy blue glaciers of Glacier Bay National Park.
Ready to start planning your adventure to Alaska’s National Parks? This brief guide has everything you need to know, including:
- How many national parks are in Alaska
- Which parks you should visit
- Sites to visit and things to do in each park
- The best time of year to visit
- And how to get around
How Many National Parks Are in Alaska?
Alaska is home to dozens of parks, preserves, and historical parks managed by the National Park System. Yet, there are eight national parks in Alaska, encompassing millions of protected acres of beautiful land. They include:
- Kenai Fjords National Park
- Glacier Bay National Park
- Denali National Park and Preserve
- Katmai National Park and Preserve
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
- Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
- Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
- Kobuk Valley National Park
In addition, you’ll find a range of National Park Service-managed properties, including Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, the Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, and the Sitka National Historical Park.
An Overview of Alaska’s Top National Parks
Which are the best parks to visit in Alaska? Although each park offers its own unique experience, some are very isolated, making these parks difficult to visit.
Yet, several parks, including Kenai Fjords, Denali, and Wrangell-St. Elias are accessible by car, and Glacier Bay offers dozens of yacht charter and cruise options. Therefore, that’s why these are the four most visited parks in the state. Here’s what to expect from each one:
Kenai Fjords National Park
Located on the Kenai Peninsula, 120 miles south of Anchorage, Kenai Fjords National Park offers a little bit of everything: Towering, ice-covered mountains; dense forests; wildlife and glacier viewing; and sparkling blue waters. The park is unique in that its accessible by road year-round, via the Seward Highway, a National Scenic Byway.
The Harding Icefield – one of the largest in North America – is a must-see destination in the park. Numerous trails provide expansive views of the icefield, and it’s also a popular location for helicopter tours. Some of the top things to do include:
- Tour the Fjords – Get on a charter and take to the namesake fjords. Boat tours are the perfect way to see the park’s stunning tidewater glaciers, and the fjords are also prime territory for spotting whales, sea lions and eagles.
- Take a Day Hike – Climb the Harding Icefield Trail for expansive views of one of the largest icefields in North America. There are numerous trails near Seward that are perfect for a day hike, but the Harding Trail is one of the best.
- Seakayaking – The calm summer waters of the fjords are the perfect destination for sea kayaking. Explore the glaciers up-close on a kayaking adventure.
Towns to Visit: Seward, AK
How to Get There: A train or drive from Anchorage, or via cruise or yacht charter
When to Go: Visit Kenai Fjords in the summer, especially June, July and August. During fall and winter, the waters are often too rough for boat tours, and some roads become impassable due to snow.
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay is a vast wonderland of glaciers, marine wildlife, waterfalls and temperate rainforest. In fact, the park encompasses more than 3 million acres, and is part of a World Heritage Site.
Not only is Glacier Bay where to go to see tidewater glaciers, it’s also one of the best destinations in all of Alaska for whale watching. During the summer months, a variety of marine mammal species – including orca, humpback and grey whales – lounge in the cooler waters. The best things to do in Glacier Bay include:
- Whale Watching at Icy Strait – Located at the park’s southern entrance, the Icy Strait is a stunningly beautiful playground for a variety of whale species. Take a charter to the Strait or join a whale watching tour, and be sure to bring your camera.
- Rainforest Hiking – Glacier Bay’s temperate rainforest is lush and beautiful. Hike through the rainforest along Bartlett River Trail.
- Visit Tribal House – The Huna Tribal House features totem poles, artifacts and history of the Huna natives. Learn about the region’s natural and cultural history here.
- Glacier Tours – There are seven tidewater glaciers in the park. Tour the best, including Johns Hopkins and Margerie glaciers.
Towns to Visit: Gustavus or Bartlett Cove, AK
How to Get There: Glacier Bay is only reachable by boat; options include ferry, cruise ship or a private Alaska yacht charter.
When to Visit: Summer months are prime whale-watching season. The park is open year-round, but most services are only available from May 15 to September 15.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali is Alaska’s most renowned park, and as such, it draws outdoorsy adventurers from around the world. Encompassing some six million acres of wilderness, with only one stretch of road through the entire park, Denali is the destination for solitude and an escape to nature.
The park boasts a variety of biomes, including the sprawling taiga forest, known for its resident grizzly bears, and the high-alpine tundra, including Mt. Denali, the highest point in North America at 20,310 feet. If you want to escape to the backcountry, Denali is the place to go. Here are some must-do activities:
- Whitewater Rafting – The Nenana River is a thrill seeker’s dream. Numerous outfitters operate along the river and help rafters navigate the rugged waters.
- Wildlife Viewing – Don’t forget your binoculars! Many come to see the Big Five: Reindeer, sheep, grizzly, moose and wolf. And there are plenty of opportunities to see these animals, while hiking, from viewing vistas and on guided tours.
- Camping – Whether you’d like to head into the backcountry, or prefer the comforts of car camping, Denali offers numerous places to relax and unwind. Try Wonder Lake, a campground near the namesake peak.
Towns to Visit: Denali Park or Cantwell, AK
When to Go: If your plan is to take to the outdoors, head to Denali from late May to early fall. Most buses and services are in operation, and the weather is mostly pleasant.
How to Get There: Denali is reachable by car, typically from Fairbanks or Anchorage. Within the park, you’ll find public and private shuttles.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
This park may not be well-known, but it’s one of the best. Encompassing more than 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias stretches from the Gulf of Alaska to the towering mountains above. In Wrangell, you’ll find a variety of natural escapes – from seakayaking to ice climbing – as well as many cultural and historical sites, including the Kennecott Ghost Town. Some must-do experiences in Wrangell-St. Elias include:
- Flightseeing – Wrangell is a hub for floatplane and helicopter tours. Soar above the park and take in Wrangell’s glaciers, rugged mountain ranges and wildlife.
- Sport Fishing – Wrangell is a sport fishermen’s dream. Fish the Copper River watershed and hunt for Arctic grayling, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon and massive Northern Pike.
- ATV Tours – Explore the park’s backcountry on an ATV tour. There are numerous ATV trails cut through the park, allowing for day and multi-day itineraries.
Towns to Visit: Copper Center and Chitina, AK
When to Go: The main season runs from mid-May to early September. By September snow is usually on the ground.
How to Get There: Located about 200 miles northeast of Anchorage, Wrangell-St. Elias is reachable by car.
Plan Your Dream Getaway in Alaska
Want the adventure of a lifetime? It doesn’t get better than a tour in one of Alaska’s National Parks. From a private yacht charter in Glacier Bay, to a backcountry hike in Denali, Alaska offers a range of thrilling experiences. If you dream of the backcountry, head to Alaska!