Get to Know the Wild Beauty of Alaska National Parks
Alaska is nicknamed the "Last Frontier." And it's not an exaggeration. Separated from the continental United States by the western part of Canada, this secluded state has a few mid-sized cities and a huge amount of wilderness.
Sadly, you'll need a lifetime even to see a small part of its natural wonders. This is the largest state after all, and much of its nature is difficult to access. In fact, many of its eight national parks aren't connected to the world by roads, so flying or sailing into them are the only options.
Don't be discouraged. On the contrary, take this as a challenge. If you're wondering where to start, here are all eight Alaska national parks, ranked.
8. Lake Clark National Park
Size: 6,297 mi²
Annual visitors: 17,157*
Best gateway town: Port Alsworth
*Visitor numbers are from 2019 since they provide a more accurate picture of travel before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Experience: Lake Clark
If you look at a map, you'll see that Lake Clark is pretty close to Anchorage. So, why is it the third least-visited national park in the country?
Despite its apparent proximity to the state capital, this park is difficult to access, as there are no roads to it. Visitors have to take a small plane to reach the beautiful lake that gave the park its name.
Wildlife photographers make the effort to get to it because the park offers ample opportunities to photograph brown bears. The summer is particularly interesting for a safari, as the bears that come out of hibernation make up for their long slumber by feasting on thousands of pounds of salmon. Other animals you might run into here include foxes, eagles and moose.
7. Kobuk Valley National Park
Size: 2,736 mi²
Annual visitors: 15,766
Best gateway town: Kotzebue
The Experience: Kobuk Valley
You've heard of Africa's Great Wildebeest Migration. But have you heard of Alaska's Great Caribou Migration? Kobuk Valley is the setting for this incredible miracle of nature, in which about 500,000 caribou travel through the park twice a year. If you are able to visit at the right time, this is one of the most memorable experiences you will ever have.
But that's not the only surprising aspect of Kobuk Valley. Here, you'll also find some very impressive dunes. Yes, that's right. Sand dunes. In the middle of the Arctic.
The long Kobuk River crosses the land, providing a way for migration and trade for the indigenous people of the area. For visitors, it also offers plenty of outdoor activities.
6. Katmai National Park
Size: 6,395 mi²
Annual visitors: 84,167
Best gateway town: King Salmon (yes, that's really the name)
The Experience: Katmai
In any other state, Katmai would be considered nearby Anchorage. But this is Alaska. Here, the wilderness has not yet been completely broken up by pesky roads, so you can't easily drive to the park. Instead, you have to take either a water taxi (a boat) or an air taxi (a small plane). If you visit with a tour operator, they'll take care of the transportation.
Most people come to see the circle of life at Brooks Falls. Every summer, bears come here to catch the leaping salmon that are swimming upstream. Don't worry, you'll be on a raised platform and not actually near the bears — for your safety as well as theirs.
Katmai's other main draw is the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. Formed by a volcanic eruption in 1912, this area of the park is marked by ashy landscapes and valleys filled with smoke, lava flows and steam vents. It's truly a geothermal wonderland.
5. Glacier Bay National Park
Size: 5,131 mi²
Annual visitors: 672,087
Best gateway town: Gustavus
The Experience: Glacier Bay
Glaciers, glaciers and more glaciers. That's how people imagine Glacier Bay National Park. If that picture were accurate, we'd still want to go and enjoy the extreme landscapes. But the reality is even more interesting.
Of course, you'll find many glaciers. Over a thousand of them. You may even get to kayak around them. But beyond that, the park protects majestic fjords and evergreen forests. From almost any point in the area, you'll also enjoy snow peaks in the backdrop.
Glacier Bay is the southernmost Alaskan national park. And despite not being around any cities, it's the most visited in the state. This is because it's an incredibly popular destination for Alaskan cruises, which use it to get into the Inside Passage.
4. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Size: 20,587 mi²
Annual visitors: 74,518
Best gateway town: McCarthy
The Experience: Wrangell-St. Elias
Settlers once mined copper near Wrangell-St. Elias, but the area has long been left almost completely to the wilderness. Many people haven't even heard of this remote preserve, despite it being the largest national park in the U.S. With more than 20,000 square miles, it's slightly bigger than the entire country of Bosnia and Herzegovina!
Given its size, it's no surprise that it boasts incredibly diverse landscapes. Rivers cross rainforests, and glaciers float near quiet arctic tundras. But you also have volcanic activity in a large geothermal field.
Ice climbing, rafting, biking and fishing are very popular activities here. But if you have time for only one thing, go glacier hunting. The icy giants are massive here. One, named the Malaspina Glacier, is said to be bigger than Rhode Island.
3. Gates of the Arctic National Park
Size: 13,238 mi²
Annual visitors: 10,518
Best gateway town: Coldfoot
The Experience: Gates of the Arctic
Roughly the size of Vermont and Connecticut combined, Gates of the Arctic is the second largest national park. It's also the least visited.
This true wonderland is almost the farthest north you can go in the U.S. To get here, you'll have to come in by plane. (Really, multiple planes.) Once you're in, you won't find any roads or trails. And don't expect campsites, visitor centers, public facilities or lights. This is nature at its wildest.
But don't make the mistake of thinking this is a land beyond humanity. Far from it. The area has been occupied by Inuit people from time immemorial, and several tribes continue living within it.
When's the best time to come? That depends on what you want. If darkness scares you, summer has the midnight sun and better chances of seeing wildlife. Winter is much harsher, as you'll be within the Arctic Circle. But if the fates favor you, you might get to see the indescribable magic of the northern lights.
2. Kenai Fjords National Park
Size: 1,047 mi²
Annual visitors: 356,601
Best gateway town: Seward
The Experience: Kenai Fjords
If you love water, you'll absolutely love Kenai Fjords. Of course, fjords are the highlight of the park, as are the glaciers that usually accompany them. Many of these glaciers even date back to the Ice Age! Keep that in mind when you're standing there, observing them and connecting to a time from millions of years ago.
But it's not just its natural beauty that has landed Kenai Fjords in the top three Alaskan national parks. One of the best things about the park is its accessibility. Yes, you can actually drive to it (in fact, you can drive pretty near one of the glaciers). And it only takes about 2.5 hours from Anchorage.
Driving is encouraged if you want to spend the day hiking and deciding exactly how you spend your time. That said, do a boat day trip around this park to experience its most incredible landscapes. While cruising on a boat, you're likely to see orcas breaching and get up close and personal to the glaciers.
1. Denali National Park
Size: 7,408 mi²
Annual visitors: 601,152
Best gateway town: Healy
The Experience: Denali
Denali is not easy to get to per se, but it's also not as remote as other Alaska national parks. This balance between relative accessibility and isolation is what helps it rank No. 1.
The park's crowning jewel is Denali Peak. At 20,310 feet, it is the tallest mountain in all of North America. If that isn't enticing enough, consider the possibility of seeing wildlife like moose, grizzly bears and adorable Dall sheep.
In the summer, you can go whitewater rafting on the Nenana River, or see the park from above on a helicopter tour. Winter is much harsher, but hiking or climbing in the snow is still fun.
It really is no wonder that Tripadvisor considers Denali one of the top 10 national parks in the U.S.
Map of Alaska National Parks