Visiting Alaska’s National Parks, Part 1: The Overview
Hello from Kotzebue, Alaska! (Google it…) We are officially four parks away from finishing our year-long national parks journey.
As many of you know, Alaska’s eight national parks make up the last leg of our trip. Our grand finale, if you will.
But it’s very, very complicated.
You see, five of the eight parks in Alaska do not have roads leading up to them. They require ferries, flights, bush planes, and guided tours to access. Even Denali, one of the drive-up parks, requires a special shuttle for accessing the majority of the park. This is a very different pace from our usual, drive-up-and-wing-it approach we used a lot in the lower 48. But of course, it’s also beautiful and amazing. It’s the perfect way to end this crazy adventure.
To kick things off, we thought we’d share a few posts we’ve been working on that pertain to planning Alaska. Each of the state’s eight national parks are unique and take a lot of Googling and calling around to piece together.
We already did all of those things, so we’re going to share as much information as we can with you all on the blog in the next couple of weeks while we’re exploring those parks. (We’re not sure how much service we’ll have, but stay tuned to our Instagram and Twitter for nearly-real-time updates!)
Alright. Here’s the brief overview of Alaska’s amazing national parks. We’ve included how we plan to visit, but also other options for adding to your adventure.
Glacier Bay National Park
- Location: Inside Passage
- Our transportation: two ferries from Skagway, AK ($194 for one round-trip ticket)
- Our activities: short hikes, ranger programs, kayak rentals ($100/day)
- Our overnight: developed free NPS campground in Bartlett Cove
- Dates: July 4-6
Our first stop, Glacier Bay, was the closest park to the mainland, but that didn’t make it any easier to visit. Glacier Bay is located along Alaska’s Inside Passage, near the coastal town of Gustavus. You cannot drive to Gustavus, so we are driving to the town of Skagway, hopping on a ferry to Juneau, catching another ferry to Gustavus, then taking a taxi or hitching a ride into the Bartlett Cove area where you can access the national park.
Through our research, this is the cheapest way to visit the park ($388 for two round trip ferry tickets), although it is also possible to fly to Gustavus, or take a cruise ship through the bay.
Advance planning is very necessary, as only one ferry per week arrives to (on Mondays) and departs (on Wednesdays) the small town of Gustavus from Juneau. There are no direct ferries to Gustavus from a driveable port, we decided to make the best of it: we ferried from Skagway to Juneau on a Saturday and spent all day Sunday exploring Juneau. It’s Alaska’s capitol, after all.
Once we arrived in Gustavus on Monday afternoon, we hopped on the Glacier Bay Lodge bus shuttle the ten miles into Bartlett Cove and set up camp at the only small walk-in campground. We toured the visitor center, attended a few afternoon ranger programs, and took some short hikes around the park. During our full day, we rented a kayak ($100/day for a double kayak) to explore the bay, namely the nearby Beardslee Islands. (We actually have our own inflatable kayak, but it would have cost $104 to transport it on the four ferries, so we figured we’d save some dollars and hassle by renting). In the afternoon, we finished exploring the park. The ferry departed Gustavus at 12:00 pm on Wednesday.
Additional options: There is a day cruise option through the bay — and to the namesake glaciers — for $204 per person, but we decided against it. We are taking a long day tour exploring Kenai Fjords National Park, which seems to offer similar scenery.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
- Location: Southeast
- Our transportation: drive from Skagway, 11.5 hours
- Our activities: hiking, ranger programs, half-day guided glacier & ice cave tour by McCarthy River Outfitters
- Our overnight: free camping along McCarthy Road
- Dates: July 8-10
From Skagway, we drove another full day to get more into the heart of Alaska. Wrangell-St. Elias is one of the three parks you can drive to, making it seem very manageable at the moment. It’s the biggest national park in the system (at over 13 million acres), so its sheer vastness is intimidating, but the main park road, McCarthy Road, makes the park easier to access. Going into it, we didn’t know exactly how our three days there would hash out, but we did know that a few ranger programs are offered at the visitor center and there are several free camping options along the McCarthy Road that we planned to take advantage of.
Additional options: flightseeing tours from Anchorage, guided tours through the park, accommodations at the Kennicott Lodge
Gates of the Arctic
- Location: Northeast
- Our transportation: fly from Anchorage to Kotzebue (using miles from our Alaska Airlines credit card), then take a bush plane tour that will touch down in Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley ($1,800 total for both parks)
- Our activities: flightseeing
- Our overnight: None in the park; but we’ll stay at Bibber’s BNB in Kotzebue ($165 per night, and the cheapest option in the remote Kotzebue)
- Date: July 12th
After much deliberation, we decided to book a bush plane flightseeing tour that would combine landings at both Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley from the northwestern remote city of Kotzebue. To increase our chances of completing the tour (sometimes it is delayed or canceled because of weather), we will stay for three full days in Kotzebue. Our day tour to these two remote parks, landing in the heart of each, will only last about four hours. This was a tough pill to swallow, considering we’ve spent an average of four to five days in each park up until this point. To fully experience a national park in twenty minutes is not an easy task.
There is another way to visit Gates of the Arctic, by driving up the Dalton Highway, parking at a certain spot along the road, and hiking (bushwhacking really) into the park boundaries. This option is certainly cheaper and more adventurous, but we inevitably decided to combine two parks into one tour because (1) we already had to take a bush plane in order to visit Kobuk Valley and the combo would “only” be $600 more, (2) we wanted to see the heart of Gates of the Arctic, which would be nearly impossible by hiking, (3) I don’t feel adventurous or skilled enough to bushwhack my way into the wilderness of Alaska, and finally, (4) we simply didn’t have enough time in our schedule to drive the extra 18 hours up and back the sketchy Dalton Highway.
- Location: northwest
- Our transportation: fly from Anchorage to Kotzebue (free using Alaska Airlines credit card miles), then take a bush plane tour that will touch down in Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley ($1,800)
- Our activities: flightseeing
- Our overnight: none in the park, but we’ll stay at Bibber’s BNB in Kotzebue
See Gates of the Arctic.
- Location: South-central
- Our transportation: drive 2 hours from Anchorage
- Our activities: tour of the fjords ($189 each), hiking Exit Glacier, ranger programs, ranger-led hike of Harding Icefield
- Our overnight: nearby developed campground in Seward at Miller’s Landing
- Dates: July 15-17
After coordinating many flights, it will be refreshing to drive up to this park. We hope to get a little rest the night we drive from Anchorage, because the next morning, we will join an 8:30 a.m., nine-hour cruise tour of the Northwestern Fjord. Two concessionaires offer tours through the park that vary from three to nine hours and about $80-$250. It’s not necessary to join a tour, but we felt it would be worth our money to tour either Kenai Fjords or Glacier Bay by day cruise. We’re excited for this “soft-adventure” day.
On our second day at Kenai Fjords, we are planning to join a ranger-led hike of the 8-mile Harding Icefield trail. This program only happens on Saturdays in the summer and is deemed strenuous. We plan to camp two nights in a nearby developed campground called Miller’s Landing.
Additional options: In addition to these activities we selected, visitors can explore the city of Seward where the park is located. Seward can be accessed from Anchorage by a 2-hour drive or a train ride. There is also a first-come, first-served campground run by the park, but it only has seven sites and we’ve heard it’s not very awesome.
- Location: Southwest
- Our transportation: flight from Anchorage to Port Alsworth ($483 round trip per person)
- Our activities: hiking, exploring the Port Alsworth area
- Our overnight: camping near Port Alsworth
- Dates: July 18-20
From Seward, we’ll head back up to Anchorage for flights connecting to our next two parks. Lake Clark will be first, and we’ll fly from Anchorage to Port Alsworth, a village inside the park and home to the park headquarters. We will set up a base camp near Port Alsworth, and head into the park for a day of hiking and exploring.
Additional options: Lake Clark was a tough park to decide on how to plan it. There are many day and overnight excursions running from Anchorage and Homer, and some are fairly reasonable. (The cheapest we saw for a day trip from Anchorage was $600 per person.) Benefits of a guided tour include fewer hassles and logistics to figure out. A day tour would also be more likely to drop you off in the heart of the park. We also were briefly tempted by an overnight tour we found for $850 per person, including meals and a stay at one of the remote wilderness lodges in the park. And while these admittedly still sound pretty nice, we decided to stick with the spirit of our personal adventure to insure we’ll have enough time in each park to get the full experience. Plus, we feel we are taking a hit experience-wise with combining Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic, so we don’t want to do that twice.
- Location: Southwest
- Our transportation: chartered flight from Port Alsworth to King Salmon (expensive, and depends of number of passengers), then King Salmon to Brooks Camp ($202 round trip per person)
- Our activities: tour to Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes ($88 each), bear viewing at Brooks Falls
- Our overnight: developed campground at Brooks Camp
- Dates: July 20-22
Katmai is a very similar bear (pun intended) to Lake Clark. And if there are several day trips to Lake Clark, there are dozens more options that travel to Katmai daily from Anchorage and Homer. Katmai tours promise the classic, bear-catching-salmon-from-a-waterfall view, and most of the time, visitors see it. Just like with Lake Clark, we checked out numerous options for visiting Katmai. And the option that made the most sense to us was to work out a deal with a chartered flight company from Port Alsworth to King Salmon, then take the regularly-scheduled flight from King Salmon to Brooks Camp in the park. A company called Katmailand operates flights from King Salmon to Brooks Camp, and also offer many package tours for staying in Brooks Camp.
We will arrive at Brooks Camp and spend some time looking for bears from the viewing platform at the lodge. On our only full day, we will fork over the $88 for a full-day bus tour to Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes from Brooks Camp, which we hear is totally worth the money. We should have more time to view bears that evening and the following morning, and we’ll fly back the next afternoon.
The tricky situation with Katmai was camping. Apparently, the developed campground at Brooks Camp fills about a year and a half in advance (for the month of July at least) and must be reserved ahead of time. Since we weren’t aware of this high demand for campsites, we missed out on nabbing a spot early. But after reading reviews and speaking to a ranger, we heard that spots often open up due to cancellations from visitors who purposely overbook. We hoped this was the case, and after checking dozens of times, a couple of days ago we snagged two spots! If we had been unlucky, we still would have had the option of hiking 1.5 miles into the backcountry and setting up camp there.
- Location: central
- Our transportation: drive from Anchorage, take camper bus to Wonder Lake
- Our activities: hiking, bus tour stops, wildlife viewing
- Our overnight: developed campgrounds: Riley Creek, Wonder Lake, and Teklanika
- Dates: July 22-27
Our grand finale is a big one: Denali, the most popular national park in Alaska. This one will be either be a giant sigh of relief if everything else works out, or it will be used partially as back-up days for tours that had to be rescheduled. We’re hoping for the sigh of relief of course.
The front 15 miles of Denali can be accessed by car, but beyond that, visitors must take a shuttle or tour bus to see the rest of the park. We are arriving late, so we will camp at the drive-up campground called Riley Creek for night one. The next morning, we’ll hop on the “camper bus” which is cheaper ($34 per person for the duration of your stay) but requires that you have reservations at one of the two deeper campgrounds or a backcountry pass. We will camp two nights at Wonder Lake, and two nights at Teklanika, which should offer us plenty of opportunity to hike and explore the park. Our last night will be back at Riley Creek before we begin the long, sixty hour trek back home.
There are many additional options for visiting Denali. The Alaska Railroad runs right up to the park. There are plenty of guided tours. Denali Village offers all the amenities and services visitors need. But our last park will be a good symbol of what our entire journey has stood for: adventure.
And that’s the plan.
We have already successfully finished visiting half of these parks, and we have just a few to go. Thanks for coming along for the ride!