Dubbing Lake Clark Alaska’s most underrated National Park is very debatable. Elizabeth argued for Wrangell-St. Elias. But I say for the ratio of awareness to park beauty and opportunities, it’s hard to beat the lesser known, inaccessible 6 million acres of undeveloped 4 million acres of rugged mountain and lake wilderness that is Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
- Cheap and scenic flight – There are no roads into the park. All access is by flying in or boating to the coastal section. The Visitor Center is located in the one small town that is surrounded by the park, Port Alsworth. So we chose to fly there with a bush plane company called Lake and Pen Air that is headquartered in Port Alsworth. The company makes regularly scheduled flights between Anchorage and Port Alsworth, so you can get a round trip for $540. Plus they allow you 50 pounds of gear and can carry your bear spray and camp stove fuel (unlike the big commercial airlines).
We especially loved flying in from Anchorage because the ride is gorgeous. We flew over gigantic glaciers and expansive, snowy peaks and saw Redoubt Volcano beside us. I’m sure some people would be willing to pay that price just for the flightseeing.
- Backcountry camping on lake – I was super surprised that we ended up finding one of our favorite backcountry campsites at Lake Clark. When we got there, we had no idea where we were heading to camp. The park has no campgrounds or official backcountry campsites and you have to hike a ways from Port Alsworth to get out of private land and just pick a place to pitch your tent for free. It was a bit intimidating to go camp in an unknown spot in the wilderness of grizzly country. The next day we packed up our backpacks again and headed down one of the few trails around Port Alsworth. After a few miles, we ended up reaching this lake with an awesome unofficial campsite. There was a bench, fire pit, great lakeside view and a perfectly clear tent site. The bonus was a ballin’ site for our hammock where we took multiple naps (read our recent post about why we love camping with our hammock). Plus, there was a canoe with a couple paddles at the spot that, according to some locals we talked with, is available for anyone to take on the lake. If we had more time, I would’ve loved to take the canoe even farther to the back of this ~10 mile lake and camp there too.
- Fly fishing – I really regretted not bringing my Wetfly backcountry fly fishing rod to this park. Even though we were backpacking, it weighs less than a pound all together and packs up super small. I brought it on our 3-day Isle Royale backpacking traverse no problem. The Rangers told me there was great fly fishing in the Tanalian River. I wish I could’ve checked out some good looking sites less than a half mile from our campsite both above and below Tanalian Falls.
- Solitude- Since Port Alsworth is the biggest of only a few points of access for the park, we expected to have company in our area of the park. Not the case. We hiked all 6.5 miles of established trails and our campsite was at a central spot, but we only saw four groups – mostly locals on weekend hikes and backpacking trips – during our entire visit. On our second day we climbed 3.5 miles and 3,500 feet to the top of Tanalian Mountain and got expansive, and cloudy, views of lakes Clark and Kontrashibuna. We saw zero people.
- Nice people- We didn’t see many people, but those we did meet were super helpful. Our pilot, Chris, was really friendly and told us all about the features we were passing as we flew from Anchorage to Port Alsworth. He even took us on the scenic route over the top of the mountains because there was turbulence down in the valley and our load was so light. Then, since we arrived in the evening, the Lake and Pen Air owners kindly offered us to camp for the first night on the side of their airstrip and use their bathrooms in the hanger. The Lake Clark rangers were just as nice. When I called ahead to tell them to ask about borrowing their bear canisters and say we wouldn’t arrive until after the Visitor Center closed, Ranger Lucas offered to drop off two canisters and trail maps at LPA for us. To pick up when we got there. Also, before we arrived Ranger Tia had been happy to email back and forth with us and provide lots of great info on making the most of our park visit.
- More to explore – The park brochure brags that Lake Clark “beckons anglers, wildlife viewers, river runners, campers, backpackers and mountaineers.” There are three wild rivers – Tlikakila, Chilikadrptna and Mulchatna – that offer opportunities to fly into world class float trips and sport fishing, day trip bear viewing tours into Crescent Lake and Chinitna Bay, day tours to the Richard Proenneke Historic Site (see his crazy story in People of the Parks), multiday kayaking possibilities from Port Alsworth to Little Lake Clark and tours and routes for endless backpacking trips (Tour Saver even had a BOGO for an 7-day all-inclusive trip from Turquoise to Twin Lakes for $3,350).
Needless to say, we only scratched the surface at this quintessential Alaska park. The people are few, the adventures are endless and, in my humble opinion, Lake Clark the most underrated National Park in Alaska.