7 Under-the-radar Alaskan National Parks With Wild Scenery and Incredible Adventures
When it comes to national parks, Alaska has extreme bragging rights. Here are some of the best — if lesser-known — places to explore nature in the 49th state.
Beyond the more popular Denali National Park and Preserve in the wild interior, the astounding blue walls of ice in Glacier Bay and the Kenai Fjords, and historically significant places such as the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, are several less-visited parks, monuments, and preserves where wildlife rules and the presence of humans is slight.
Alaska has some 54 million acres of national parkland in total. While researching my upcoming book 100 Things To Do In Alaska Before You Die (Reedy Press, March 2021), I improved my trivia skills. To take just one example, the answer to the question "What's the largest park in the U.S. National Park system?" is Wrangell-St. Elias at 13.2 million acres. That makes the park larger than Switzerland, Yellowstone, and Yosemite combined — and yet Wrangell-St. Elias saw just 74,518 visitors in 2019.
Here are some places where you can get deep into the wild. (Note that some facilities are closed temporarily due to COVID-19.)
Most visitors reach this 4-million-acre park by floatplane from Anchorage or Port Alsworth. Lake Clark protects the ancestral homelands of the Dena'ina Athabascan people and natural features include shimmering turquoise lakes, creeks, and streams filled with salmon — and bears fishing — as well as glaciers (viewable from the plane) and craggy mountains. One highlight is a moderate hike to Tanalian Falls, where cold glacier water falls over a 30-foot-high ancient lava cliff. Deep in the park on Upper Twin Lake is the rustic log cabin built by wilderness icon Richard Proenneke, who some consider a 20th-century Thoreau. Rustic camping is available in the park, while both bed and breakfasts and all-inclusive lodges are available in Port Alsworth.
Set on the wild, roadless Alaska Peninsula, this park is a fascinating reminder that Alaska is part of the Ring of Fire. Aniakchak surrounds a six-mile-wide, 2,500-foot-deep caldera that was formed in a volcanic eruption so intense it collapsed a 7,000-foot mountain. That was some 3,500 years ago. Aniakchak's most recent volcanic activity was in 1931, and while it wasn't quite as dramatic, ash was strewn some 40 miles away. Inside the caldera, with its cinder cones and other geological features, is the aptly-named Surprise Lake. It is fed by warm springs, glaciers, and melting snow that give rise to the wild Aniakchak River where extreme rafters enjoy huge drops and other adventurous challenges. Humans have existed here for thousands of years, but visitors will want to know that the weather typically is chilly, cloudy, and wet. Even in summer, the National Park Service warns that conditions can lead to hyperthermia. To get here, hire a bush pilot in the village of King Salmon (about 150 miles away) or travel with a tour operator such as Alaska Alpine Adventures, which organizes a 12-day trip for experienced backpackers (from $5,195 per person).
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Up in the Arctic — and only a few dozen miles from Siberia — this rarely visited, 2.7-million-acre park protects a small remnant of the lands that, up until the end of the last Ice Age, connected Eastern Asia and North America. Humans are believed to have migrated across that "bridge," much of which is now submerged under the Chukchi and Bering Seas, thousands of years ago. Today, wildlife proliferates in the stark landscape, and visitors may spot polar bears, reindeer, and walrus. Seabirds and waterfowl — some not seen elsewhere in North America — migrate through in summer. The most popular attraction, though, is Serpentine Hot Springs, where warm waters are surrounded by imposing granite tors, or outcroppings. (A rustic, bring-your-own-everything bunkhouse serves overnighters.) You can fly in to the park from Kotzebue or Nome with bush pilots or, in the winter, by snowmobile or dogsled.
Seeing some of the thousands of resident brown bears fishing for salmon and otherwise hanging out in their natural habitat is the main draw for visitors to this park on the Alaska Peninsula. The main destination is Brooks Camp on the Brooks River where bears are pretty much everywhere — and where you can safely see the creatures from platforms and a 1,200-foot-long viewing bridge. The best bear-viewing months are July, when the salmon are running, and September, when the fish have finished spawning. The Brooks Lodge provides accommodations via a lottery for those who don't want to rough it by camping. Most visitors arrive via floatplane from Anchorage, King Salmon, or other in-state destinations. (Katmai is also a place to see still-steaming volcanos: One of the largest eruptions in recorded history occurred here in 1912 and led to the collapse of Mountain Katmai, creating the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.)
Though this park is 35 miles above the Arctic Circle, visitors can expect a Sahara-like experience, complete with sand and temperatures reaching 100 degrees. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes are 25 square miles of shifting golden dunes that reach heights of up to 150 feet. The fine sand is leftover from about 28,000 years ago, when glaciers retreated, grinding the earth and dusting the valley. Nowadays, life among the dunes includes unique wildflowers and resident bears; herds of caribou pass by twice a year. The national park's only facility is the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center, 80 miles away from the preserve in the village of Kotzebue. Air taxis, like those on a directory managed by the National Park Service, can ferry visitors to the dunes.
Wrangell-St. Elias has North America's largest number of peaks with elevations topping 16,000 feet and more glaciers than any other park. (Its Malaspina glacier is larger than the state of Rhode Island.) It's a wild, rugged mostly-untouched landscape with gold rush history, ghost towns, lake fishing, wilderness camping, mountain climbing, and glacial ice caves you can visit with operators such as St. Elias Alpine Guides. One attraction deep in the park is the long-abandoned copper-mining town of Kennecott, where more than $200 million worth of ore was mined between 1900 and 1938. The parks service has, since 1998, restored some of the buildings, including a general store, post office, and a recreation hall. Nearby is McCarthy, a former ghost town featured on the Discovery Channel reality show Edge of Alaska. The easiest way to get there is by landing at one of the park's 200 bush-plane airstrips.
Larger than Maryland, these parklands north of the Arctic Circle include big glaciated valleys, the rugged Brooks Range, and six designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. There are no roads in the park, which spans 8.4 million acres, making it the country's second largest after Wrangell-St. Elias; the only trails are made by the 490,000 or so resident caribou. Intrepid hikers may trek into the park from the remote Dalton Highway, but most visitors fly in from Fairbanks or the Nunamiut village of Anaktuvuk Pass for day trips or guided overnight treks led by a handful of outfitters. If you're not into roughing it, there's a fly-in, luxury experience at the Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge.