Wow. We have finally completed our Alaskan adventures; successfully visiting all 16 national park units (administered by the National Park Service) in the state of Alaska. Our journey took us to all regions of the state, including the rainforest, mountains, forests, windswept tundra, volcanos, sand dunes, hot springs, archipelagos, wild & scenic rivers, glaciers, fjords, historic mining towns, native villages and many tiny towns far off the grid served only by air.
Our modes of transportation included cars, boats, trains, buses, commercial flights, bush planes, float planes, kayaks, canoes, skiffs, water taxis, ferry boats, tour boats, fishing boats, big and small cruise ships, bicycles and many many miles on foot.
Some of the off the beaten path and unique places we visited included Chicken (formerly named Ptarmigan), King Salmon, Kotzebue, Bettles, McCarthy, Paxon, Port Allsworth, Circle, Eagle, Dyea and more. Many of the places we have visited most people have never heard of, including some of the national parks.
Our journey began with our first trip to Alaska in 1997, when we visited Denali and fell in love with the state. This year, 2021, was our 5th trip to Alaska together. Every visit and experience has been wildly different.
National Park Units in Alaska
Alaska contains more than 1/2 of America’s national parklands. 89% of the state is federally owned of which the National Park Service administers over 52 million acres. Alaska contains the country’s largest National Park as well as several of the least visited.
We like to categorize the national park units by how easily accessible they are!
Parks you can drive to:
- Denali National Park
- Kenai Fjords National Park
- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
- Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
Parks you fly or boat to:
- Klondike National Historical Park (you can drive in from Canada, but there are no roads there from within Alaska)
- Glacier Bay National Park
- Sitka National Historical Park
- Alegnak National Wild River
Parks typically only accessible by plane, usually small bush planes:
- Katmai National Park & Preserve
- Aniakchak National Monument & Preserve
- Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
- Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve
- Noatak National Preserve
- Kobuk Valley National Park
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
- Cape Krusenstern National Monument
*Note: folks can hike into these parks and some of them are also accessible in the winter by snow machine.
We both agree that Aniachak National Monument & Preserve is the most amazing place we have ever been. Landing at Surprise Lake inside the crater of a dormant volcano and setting up camp, knowing we were the only human beings there, was mind boggling. The only living things sharing the crater with us were bears, wolves, caribou and foxes. Luckily we only saw these from a distance.
We could walk in any direction and discover something new. Best of all, the animals had no fear of us. Just curiosity!
Our Biggest Surprise
The national park unit that surprised us the most was Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Flying in from Kotzebue, we flew over what land that looked like a giant sponge with flocks of birds everywhere. Then the landscape changed to tundra and hills, covered in huge granite rocks (called tors) that just seemed to have been thrown randomly. We didn’t realize how big they were until we walked amongst them. Some of these rock formations were 50 feet high.
Another surprising aspect was the hot spring. The bathhouse was a great surprise and after being in the wilderness for weeks, the bunkhouse felt like the Ritz. Funny to think we were closer to Siberia than anywhere else.
The Ones We Want to Return To
Alaska is such a massive state and the parks are so enormous, you simply can’t capture it all in one visit. We could say we would like to go back to them all, but we tend to not want to return to places we have been, simply because our experiences have been so good it might be hard to duplicate them.
But there are a few places that we really would like to revisit if we have the time:
Katmai National Park & Preserve – a one day trip into the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes was not really enough. We would love to go back and camp and hike there. The landscape is just incredible.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve – We had a ton of fun at McCarthy and Kennicott, and it was fun to visit the glacier but that was just a small sample of the 13+ million acre park. We’d love to get farther into the park, maybe on a hike!
Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve – We never thought we would say this, but we really wouldn’t mind returning to this one. Our time on the river was amazing but it was just a tip of the iceberg. It would be amazing to go back and visit the Brooks Range, maybe for a base camp adventure.
We really could go on and on… there are surely things that we didn’t see. But overall, we are happy that we made the investment to really experience each of these national park units. We learned a lot about Alaska and also about ourselves. Some of the trips really made us dig deep. We had some amazing weather, and then there were days when we asked ourselves what the the heck were we doing here. Certainly we got the full Alaska experience and we are delighted that we did.
Need Help Planning Your Visit?
If you would like some ideas or suggestions for your trip to Alaska, feel free to send us a note.