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Must See National Parks in Alaska
Alaska is massive, and so too is its inherent pristine beauty. The biggest and most sparsely populated state in the US, it is renowned for its spectacular, diverse terrain of wide-open and vast spaces, mountains, forests, abundant wildlife and many small towns.
It is a state of many superlatives, so it is fitting that the eight national parks here should be home to the country’s highest mountain, the largest landmass and some of the most remote and isolated wilderness areas in the world.
No Alaska tour is complete without at least visiting one of these stunning national parks. From the dizzying heights of Denali in Denali National Park and Preserve to the incredible sand dunes of Kobuk Valley National Park, each has its own unique charm. Given that 2016 is when they will be having centenary celebrations, there is no better time to visit Alaska’s natural wonders. Here is an overview of the eight national parks in Alaska to help you choose the kind of experience you are looking for.
1. Denali National Park
Going on with our narrative of superlatives, Denali National Park and Preserve is home to the tallest mountain in North America. Every year, almost half a million visitors come here so as to get an up-close look at the 20,320-foot Denali, although modern explorers prefer to dub it Mount Mckinley.
The name is usually a source of fervent debate among locals, but names aside, the 6 million acres of deciduous taiga forests, high alpine ranges, wide river basins, tundra and snow-covered summits is truly outstanding.
Sandwiched between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Denali is a home ground for grizzly bears, wolves, moose, reindeer, sheep and other animals.
Over 167 species of birds also live here. There is only a single road that leads to the park, a 92-mile unpaved strip that exposes one to striking views of the subarctic wilderness – and which is probably the best way to experience the wildlife of any park. Private cars are not allowed, and this is perhaps a good idea given the road’s steep, winding nature, and of course the irresistible urge to keep peering at the bewitchingly beautiful landscape.
At the end of the road you meet the loon-inhabited Wonder Lake, offering its admirers wonderful reflections of Denali on the days the sky is clear.
If the daylong road trip isn’t for you, there are many other ways to explore the park: backpacking on some of the best hiking trails that you can ever find, whitewater rafting trips on the Nenana River, flightseeing and, for the truly daring, climbing Denali’s icy slopes.
2. Kenai Fjords National Park
From the imposing Harding Icefield, huge glaciers slowly find their way to the sea, leaving in their wake jagged headlands, roughly-shaped fjords and rocky peninsulas. This is the wild setting of Kenai Fjords National Park. It is the smallest national park in Alaska, but this icy wonderland is blessed with a myriad picturesque landscapes and abundant sea life.
Source : 58 National Parks
The best way to capture the beauty of Kenai Fjords is aboard a kayak or boat starting from Resurrection Bay. You will be enamored by numerous smoky fjords, far-flung outlying islands and blue tidewater glaciers. At the calving Aialik Glacier, you’ll get to watch big slabs of ice falling into the sea. But what is perhaps even more bedazzling is the diversity of sea life: orcas, otters, Steller sea lions, humpback whales and monstrous brown bears which eat the fat-rich salmon found in the waters.
You will find bald eagles gliding along the towering cliffs as well as seabirds congregating in large numbers by the shores. If you have more time, check out the Northwestern Lagoon, a tranquil and serene camping place that is ideal for solitary splendor. For lovers of hiking, the Harding Icefield Trail will not disappoint. It is an awesome walk from the Exit Glacier to the Harding Icefield, giving you the opportunity to see black bear along the way.
3. Glacier Bay National Park and Reserve
From the ice-capped mountain peaks to deep fjords, crystal clear streams and tidewater glaciers, Glacier Bay is a land of many contrasts waiting to be explored. Visitors find a vibrant land and seascape that is inhabited by a wide range of flora and fauna that have taken over the areas that majestic glaciers have only just ceded.
Glacier Bay is the national park which receives the most visitors, with almost all them coming through Gustavus, the gateway to the park. Gustavus is a charming, little town which has less than 1000 permanent residents, but it receives hundreds of thousands of visitors during the summer months. The town has a colorful Alaskan history and an interesting geological past which are all part of the fabric of the community. Surrounded by some of the most impressive scenery and pristine wilderness areas left in the universe, the people here are surely very lucky.
If you are not arriving on a cruise ship, there is a day boat which leaves daily from Glacier Bay Lodge to take guests out for an 8-hour glacier ride and whale-watching trip. And what a trip it is, as visitors get to see stunning views of tidewater glaciers, migrating humpback whales, orcas, endangered Steller sea lions, porpoises, harbor seals and many other marine mammals.
There are also many water-based activities such as kayaking, river rafting and boat tours. Kayakers are usually dropped off in the safer arms and inlets from where they paddle past glaciers and camp in the bays along the shorelines either on their own or as part of an organized kayaking tour.
4. Katmai National Park and Preserve
Katmai National Park is host to Mount Katmai, an active volcano which last erupted in 1912. There is now a lovely crater lake where the peak once stood. But what Katmai is most famous for is its abundant bear population. Of all the national parks in Alaska, Katmai is the best for bear-watching. Over the years, the number of bears has been increasing steadily, and in 1980, the region was declared a national park and reserve so as to protect these magnificent animals. Katmai is now so vast that most visitors never cover it all, except the few persistent ones. Other lodges, rivers and freshwater streams are accessible by float planes, offering wonderful glimpses that go beyond the experiences of walking up to Brooks Falls, fishing in Brooks River or taking a bus to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Source : 58 National Parks
At Katmai National Park, bears rule. One of the few remaining pristine habitats for these awesome animals, it offers visitors unparalleled viewing opportunities, and the bears get to go on with their lives largely undisturbed. This unique relationship between people and bears is what makes Katmai a wonderful bear-viewing destination.
Because more than 2,200 bears inhabit the park, visitor are usually educated on how to stay safe in bear country. The temptation to take the perfect bear photo can be overwhelming, but bears also need space to move, play, eat and rest.
5. Kobuk Valley National Park
If you really want a genuine taste of the wilderness, come to Kobuk National Park. Part of the Arctic Circle, it does not receive as many visitors as the other national parks in Alaska, but it is still an environment like no other, stunning in raw, wild nature beauty. And while you may not see many other people during your visit, you will have plenty of caribou for company. In fact, more than 400,000 of them are always roaming the park and its environs.
While mention of the Arctic conjures mind images of barren snowfields and windswept tundra, Kobuk Valley National Park is anything but desolate and bare. The vast boreal forest expands to the north before giving way to a huge expanse of arctic tundra, creating a woodland of birch and spruce and carpeted by an undergrowth of moss and caribou lichen.
The Kobuk River cuts through the park, slowly pushing its waters across the landscape for 61 miles. Baird Mountains are located to the north of this river and the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes – the Arctic’s largest active sand dunes – lie to the south.
In the short summer months, the valley springs to life as mighty bears lumber across the tundra looking for berries and foxes and wolves roam the woods hunting for their next meal. The rivers are awash with ducks, loons, geese and swans, salmon and shellfish. If you would like to spend a few days in the calm of the wild, Kobuk National Park and Preserve is the ideal destination for you.
6. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Reserve
The northern most national park in the United States is the sort of destination that mountain-gazers and trekkers adore. Even by the lofty stands of Alaskan beauty, this national park and preserve provides epic sceneries of unending rugged mountains, six wild rivers, mighty boreal forests, glaciated valleys and, of course, the arctic tundra vegetation. It is also home to wolves, caribou, Dall sheep, golden eagles, grizzly and black bears. Foxes and wolves also roam the park in search of food.
Source : 58 National Parks
The entire park lies to the north of the Arctic, and there are no established roads, trails, campsites or visitor facilities in the park. You can access the park either by walking or by using a charter plane, but most people choose the flying option. Give yourself enough time to enjoy the gentle beauty of this expansive wilderness. Plan carefully so that you carry everything you need, and ask for suggestions about areas and trails to explore.
New visitors soon discover that the ecosystem of the park is virtually intact despite people having lived with the land for thousands of years. The rivers sill flow through the glacier-carved valleys, the caribou use the same age-old trails and endless summer light slowly fades into dawn-lit night skies of the winder. At the Gates of the Arctic National Park and reserve, the perfect story never ends.
7. Lake Clark National Park and Reserve
Would you like to venture into an area where you can momentarily become part of the wilderness? Lake Clark National Park is one such place; blessed with incredible beauty, steaming volcanoes and pure rivers. It is a land where salmon run, bears forage, and craggy hills reflect in the shimmering, cobalt-blue lakes. You can find solitude in every bend of the river and shoulder of a mountain.
Lake Clark National Park is tucked away in the wilderness of southwestern Alaska. The lake is unique to Alaska because of the junction formed by three mountain ranges, and there are also rain forests to the east and tundra on the west side.
Make sure you spend some quiet moments watching brown bears grazing at Silver Salmon Creek or Chinitna Bay, where protein is in plenty. You could also visit Dick Proenneke’s historic cabin located on upper Twin Lake or go for adrenaline-packed backpacking trips with colleagues over the tundra slopes.
Since there are no formal roads to access the park, most people use small aircraft, flying from Anchorage, Kenai or Homer. There are air taxis available for drop-off purposes as well as a variety of guide services for expeditions throughout the park.
8. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Reserve
Measuring more than 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest in the country. It features four mountain ranges that tower over the wide-open lands, including Wrangell and St. Elias Mountain Ranges which are volcanic. The latter is the tallest coastal range on earth. A quarter of the park is covered by ice, making it the area with the highest concentration of active glaciation in North America. Alaska is truly the land of superlatives.
You fly over the park and see mountains beyond mountains, rivers upon rivers, ice upon rice. You move down the rivers and see moods, hues and mountains changing by the minute! And as you take a walk in the tundra, Dall sheep and mountain goats stare at you, then go back to grazing. Black and brown bears are always moving in the park.
The park is known for its favorable weather; summers are usually warm and sunny by Alaskan standards. In July and August, temperatures reach 26C. There are two roads used by small communities, the remnants of the mining towns which thrived in 1900s. Beyond exploring the old mining towns, you can go hiking, hunting and sportfishing, river rafting, kayaking, ice climbing, horse riding bird-watching and mountaineering.
When visiting any of the national parks in Alaska, always prepare well in advance. Take everything you need with you, especially if you will spend a few nights in the wild. Finally, make sure your return with many, many memorable memories.
Image Sources : Pixabay.com unless otherwise stated.