Visiting Alaska’s National Parks, Part 3: The Cost
It is insane to realize that we are one Denali video (look for it next week!) away from sharing a post and video from EVERY NATIONAL PARK.
But our mission is far from finished. We set out to share our entire year-long journey, and that includes more than just the parks. There is still planning, preparing, collecting gear, budgeting, arguing, not showering, and other issues to account for yet.
We plan to keep sharing about the National Parks and our time visiting all of them for as long as people will listen. We have always intended to be honest and open with our experiences, and we want to continue that trend today.
In our ongoing series about visiting Alaska’s National Parks, we have already covered a few logistics:
Part 1: Overview of the Parks
Part 2: The Itinerary
Today, we’re getting really honest. We’re talking all about money.
Up front, I will tell you that visiting Alaska’s eight national parks is a pricey endeavor. Five of the eight parks do not have roads leading to them, and bush planes and ferries are not free. So right away, there are costly complications. Even Wrangell-St. Elias, one of the drive-up parks, requires an overnight parking fee and $5 per person per way shuttle van to get to the main part of the park.
But visiting the parks in Alaska is an amazing experience. Keep reading.
We are going to list out our Alaska expenses by park. These expenses cover transportation (except gas for our car), accommodations, and activities in each park. We didn’t include groceries, gas, or the $5 souvenir walking stick pin we picked up at each park, because
my husband is cheap and doesn’t represent the average traveler these costs vary.
We knew we wouldn’t be back to Alaska for quite a while, so we didn’t hold back as much when it came to making the most of each park. We saved money by taking regularly scheduled flights (rather than tours or chartered flights), backcountry camping a majority of the time, and participating in free ranger programs. We booked everything about 3-5 months in advance of our July 2016 visit.
I have provided company names & links for your convenience. Some of the companies gave us a discount for sharing about their business, and those are indicated with an explanation and an asterisk. There aren’t reviews listed here, but I’d tell you if we didn’t have a good experience with any of these local businesses. (Hint: we had all good experiences!)
If you have questions about specific costs or want more information about how we got to these numbers, please email us at switchbackkids(at)gmail.com. We are happy to help you work through these complicated logistics, as we wish someone would have done for us six months ago!
There are several ways to visit Glacier Bay, the most popular involving a cruise ship. We decided to come by public ferry and stay in the park’s free campground to save money. Instead we splurged on a double kayak that allowed us to view humpbacks breaching and sea otters playing. We stayed for two and a half days.
- We spent $488
- Ferry from Skagway to Juneau – $57 x 2 = $114
- Ferry from Juneau to Gustavus – $40 x 2 = $80
- Full-day sea kayak rental through Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks – $100 for a double
- Variety of ranger programs and talks = $0
- Bartlett Cove NPS campground – $0 x 2 nights
- Ferry from Gustavus to Juneau – $40 x 2 = $80
- Ferry from Juneau to Skagway – $57 x 2 = $114
Driving to Wrangell-St. Elias via the McCarthy Road was not nearly as dramatic as we anticipated. Since we were able to camp for free, we opted for the guided glacier tour, complete with crampons and ice-blue glacier water breaks. We had three days to explore the Kennecott area of Wrangell-St. Elias.
- We spent $134
Kobuk Valley & Gates of the Arctic
We really bit the bullet with these two parks. Because of time constraints and my cautiousness over being dropped off in the middle of the wilderness, we decided to book a flightseeing tour that would drop us down into Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic out of Kotzebue. There isn’t easy camping in the small village of Kotzebue, so we relaxed (and showered!) at Bibber’s BNB for two nights.
- We spent $2,050
- Alaskan Airlines flight from Anchorage to Kotzebue – $0 with credit card bonus miles
- 3.5-hour flightseeing tour to Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic with Golden Eagle Outfitters – $1,800*
- Bibber’s BNB in Kotzebue – $125 x 2 nights = $250*
- Two candy bars in Kotzebue – $20 = jk we couldn’t afford to buy any food in Kotz!
Although our time in Kenai Fjords was squished to two days, we really filled those two days with a 9-hour day cruise one day and a 10-mile hike the next. Both of these activities secured top spots in our Alaska hall of fame. We worked out a media discount with Kenai Fjords Tours and used another coupon to get BOGO campsites at a private campground in Seward.
- We spent $216
After five parks had gone smoothly, we were confident going into the next two parks located on the Alaskan Peninsula: Lake Clark and Katmai. A local airline called Lake and Pen Air helped us coordinate (and gave us a discount on) three one way flights so we could make the most of our time and money during this leg. We had about three days to spend exploring each park.
- We spent $290
- Flight from Anchorage to Port Alsworth with Lake and Pen Air – $195 (normally $270 per person) x 2 = $290
- Backcountry camping in the park – $0
- We spent $1,539
- Chartered flight from Port Alsworth to King Salmon with Lake and Pen Air – $600 for both of us
- Flight from King Salmon to Brooks Camp with Katmailand – $206 (round-trip) x 2 = $412
- Brooks Camp campground – $12/night per person = $48
- Bus tour to Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes – $96 ea. = $96 (with TourSaver coupon)
- Flight from King Salmon to Anchorage through Alaskan Airlines – $247 ea. = $359 (with Alaskan Airlines companion discount)
- Cab when we realized we landed at a different airport than where our car was (whoops): $24
It was a huge sigh of relief to reach our car again after our final flight of the trip landed back in Anchorage. We knew that regardless of weather or bush plane schedules, we’d be able to reach our final destination in the morning. We snuggled up in a Walmart parking lot in Anchorage and in the morning, we drove the four hours to Denali. It was important to us that we get into the heart of the park, so we paid for a campsite and the camper bus to reach the back of the park for two nights. Other than that, we decided on free ranger programs and short hikes for entertainment.
- We spent $100
- Wonder Lake Campground – $16 x 2 nights = $32
- Camper Bus – $34 ea. = $68
- Sleeping in the car outside the park = $0 🙂
For those keeping track, that’s a grand total of $4,817. Not counting food or gas. Our month in Alaska accounted for about a fourth of our year’s entire budget. And you know what? We’re one hundred percent okay with that. Does it sit well with us that we spent over $1,500 in less than three days in Katmai? Not really. But when we think about the six days in Capitol Reef where we only spent money on a pie, we breathe a little easier.
Regardless of how you visit Alaska, you will be spending money. I’d suggest you accept that fact before heading there. 🙂