I was both nervous and excited as we packed ourselves into the smallest plane I’d ever seen. It would be the first of many flights we’d have to take to visit the eight National Parks in Alaska. But we felt confident that if we could actually make it to all of these parks, we’d hit our goal of seeing all of them.
While we drove to Alaska, and navigated around the state by van, only three of the parks are actually accessible by road. That means we had to charter tiny, costly bush planes to take us to the more remote parkland in our 49th state. This was by far the most expensive leg of our journey, as detailed in our cost analysis of the trip.
Despite all the planning, I wasn’t certain everything would go smoothly. Everyone told me to prepare for the weather to turn against us at any moment (a scary thought miles up in a plane just big enough for us and the pilot), and I was worried we might not have allotted enough time for the driving we’d need to do to get around Alaska.
The good news? Summer north of the Canadian border boasts extremely long days, and we found ourselves with plenty of time for driving, bush plane flights, and late-night excursions into parks under the famed Midnight Sun. And, since we’d traveled the Alcan Highway from Canada to Alaska before, we knew the sights were well worth it (even if civilization was sparse). We braved barfing and bears while spending about a month exploring the parks in Alaska.
This is the fifth of a six-part series of articles chronologically describing our trip to every National Park in the United States. You can read the other parts of this series by clicking the links below:
You can also use these links to jump to a particular park within this article:
41. Glacier Bay National Park in Gustavus, Alaska
Quick Overview: Gustavus is the gateway city to Glacier Bay National Park, which preserves 600,000 acres of marine ecosystem, the largest managed by the NPS, and over 1,000 glaciers that cover roughly 27% of the park. While there are roads in the town of Gustavus, there are no roads leading to it. That means you’ll need to plan your passage by air or sea. There are frequent flights and ferries that’ll take you from the state’s capital city, Juneau, to Gustavus. The only problem is that you’ll also need to find a way to Juneau — it isn’t on the main road system either! So you’ll need to do a little more planning, but Glacier Bay is worth it. We ended up parking near the Seattle airport and leaving our van behind temporarily when we ventured to Glacier Bay.
When We Visited: Our trip to Glacier Bay spanned the last four days of May. Some days were overcast, but we only needed our heavier coats on the boat tour into the bay because of the wind.
Our Top Tip: While expensive, it was worth the one-night stay at Glacier Bay Lodge to have everything included, like shuttle rides to and from the airport. The National Park’s visitor center is actually in the lobby of the lodge, and hiking trails lead from this hub of the park. There’s also a restaurant on site, and they were very accommodating to our dietary requests. Admittedly, a more affordable option would have been to camp nearby, which in retrospect would have been very doable since the lodge has publicly accessible shower facilities.
What was Unforgettable: As we headed back to the lodge on the boat tour, we spotted a grizzly bear ambling along the shore in search of a clammy snack. The boat took us in for a closer look, and at one point, the bear stretched out its limbs as if to pose for a picture.
What Sucked: While the boat tour took us closer to the iconic aspects of this park, the hiking trails around the lodge left us wanting.
42. Kobuk Valley National Park on Alaska’s North Slope
Quick Overview: Kobuk Valley National Park was established to protect the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes along the Kobuk River as well as the caribou migration routes through the area. The official visitor center for Kobuk Valley is pretty far from the park itself, in a village on the northeastern side of the state (not on the road system) called Kotzebue. Some of the flightseeing tours and adventure groups leave from this village, but we decided to combine a stop in this park with a stop in Gates of the Arctic on a single flight out of Bettles, another village not on the road system but much closer to Fairbanks. We drove up the Dalton Highway to Prospect Creek “Airport” (aka Pump Station 5), left our van for the day, and flew with Brooks Range Aviation into Bettles to catch another plane into the parks.
When We Visited: June 10th was our scheduled flight, and the weather was perfect.
Our Top Tip: We took a float plane and landed in a lake. If we were to fly into the park again, I think we’d consider landing directly on the sand dunes to experience them more fully.
What was Unforgettable: The unexpected sight of the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes was impressive. They’re the largest active sand dunes in the arctic, and it’s just a bizarre visual out in the middle of the forest.
What Sucked: The plane we took over the Brooks Range into Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic was just large enough to seat the two of us and the pilot. I think there was a lot of rough air because of the storms brewing in the mountains, and it definitely got to us. We got very sick on these flights, so we were pretty much non-stop vomiting into a Ziploc bag. At one point, the storms created an incredible rainbow above the beautiful arctic landscape, but neither of us could even hold our lunch long enough to get a picture.
43. Gates of the Arctic National Park in the Brooks Mountain Range
Quick Overview: An area of pure, unspoiled wilderness, Gates of the Arctic National Park contains no roads, signs, hiking trails, or buildings. It is America’s least-visited National Park, but only because it is so far from human civilization. That said, the park does have a visitor center in the town of Bettles, and if you make it up the Dalton Highway to Coldfoot, there’s an interagency office that can tell you about all the parks in the area.
When We Visited: In our road trip following college graduation in 2012, we skirted the eastern border of the park on the Dalton Highway in our little Honda Civic, which was an incredible adventure all on its own. This time, we wanted to “make it official” and get into the park, so we flew in on June 10th, on the same flightseeing tour we took to see Kobuk Valley. The temperature was great, but we did hit some rain on the way back to Bettles.
Our Top Tip: While we enjoyed the views from above, we would have preferred to drive further up the Dalton and hike in a little ourselves. There aren’t any trails, even from Coldfoot, so you’ll need to be prepared to make your own way from the road through the brush (and mark your path so you can get back to the highway).
What was Unforgettable: Any way you choose to appreciate Gates, you will marvel at its boundless wilderness and tremendous size. As the northernmost National Park, it’s entirely within the Arctic Circle, with no human beings in sight (not even park rangers). Gates is second in size only to one other National Park, which happens to be in Alaska too: Wrangell-St. Elias.
What Sucked: Flightseeing allowed us to experience two of the hardest-to-access National Parks in one day at a price we could (barely) stomach, which let us check Kobuk Valley and Gates of the Arctic off our list and achieve a major shared goal together. We felt accomplished. But in many ways, we definitely shortchanged ourselves. There is a lot more to experience in these remote places, and if you want to go, you should plan to take a week or more, and live wild and free in one of the few places on Earth you still can.
44. Denali National Park next to Healy, Alaska
Quick Overview: The most popular park in Alaska is without a doubt Denali National Park, which is home to the tallest peak in North America, Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley). The park is about 4 hours from Anchorage and about 2 hours from Fairbanks. Luckily, anywhere you drive in Alaska is just beautiful. When you get to Denali, you’ll turn onto the park road, which takes you 92 miles into the protected wilds of the park, but you can only go about 15 miles of it in a private vehicle. To go beyond the Savage River, you’ll need to be on a bus tour, a bicycle, or on foot.
When We Visited: We were in Denali around mid-June. Again, we got really lucky with all our timing on these parks because we were able to enjoy very comfortable weather with no big storms or anything.
Our Top Tip: Take full advantage of the Midnight Sun and go to Denali after everyone else leaves (after 10 pm). It will still be plenty light enough for hiking and seeing all the sights, without competing with other tourists for a glimpse of the Alaska Range. We took a long hike after midnight in complete solitude, and the sun was still out.
What was Unforgettable: The peak of Denali rarely shows itself; its height keeps it shrouded in cloud cover most of the time. We got lucky during our two days in Denali, and for a brief five minutes, we got to see the top of the mountain.
What Sucked: The bus tour is not worth it. You’re mostly just sitting on a bus for like 12 hours to go to the end of the park road and back. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some “dots” on the horizon that you’ll be told are wild animals, but even with binoculars, they’re tough to make out at that distance.
45. Lake Clark National Park by Port Alsworth, Alaska
Quick Overview: About 100 miles southwest of Anchorage is a lesser known park by the name of Lake Clark. A variety of ecosystems can be found in the park, which means that most major Alaskan animals can also be found here. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is about two-thirds wilderness, and, since it isn’t on the road system, you’ll have to book passage by plane, typically flying out of Anchorage on a one-hour flight. We left Anchorage a little after 9 am and got back to Anchorage a little after 7 pm, giving us a full day to explore the park from the visitor center in Port Alsworth.
When We Visited: Since we did a day trip with an aviation company, I actually have exact dates for when we visited. It was Father’s Day, June 16th, which I also remember because we had to call our dads before we left the service area of Anchorage. The weather was very comfortable for hiking.
Our Top Tip: Some guides will tell you to go to Richard Proenneke’s cabin at Upper Twin Lake, but seeing the cabin is really all there is to do in that area of the park. We opted to go to Port Alsworth, by way of Lake and Pen Air, and I’m so glad we did. The people that live in that community are friendly and welcoming. The little bit of civilization around the airstrip was enough to make us feel at home, and the hike out to Tanalian Falls and Kontrashibuna Lake was beautiful.
@tripofalifestyle Can’t beat Alaskan summers #alaska #explorealaska #aerial #planetour #optoutside #exploremore #traveltiktok #takemeback #lakeclark #findyourpark ♬ Coastline – Hollow Coves
What was Unforgettable: The cool teal waters of the lake, the green islands dotting the coastline, the snowy-white peaks of the surrounding mountains — it all came together to present a picturesque park landscape.
What Sucked: On our way back from our hike, we got a little lost on the trails, so our last moments in the park were spent rushing to the airstrip and hoping we were going in the right direction to catch the only flight out of this wilderness.
46. Kenai Fjords National Park close to Seward, Alaska
Quick Overview: Kenai Fjords National Park, named for the many fjords created by glacial movement from Harding Icefield, is partly accessible by road but mostly not at all. The Kenai Fjords visitor center is located in Seward, Alaska, about 20 minutes from Exit Glacier, which is the only part of the park you can access on your own. There are flightseeing tours of the larger Harding Icefield as well as a few water taxis that can take you closer into the fjords where there are coastal campgrounds. It’s difficult to truly grasp the size of this park without seeing a map of the region.
When We Visited: It was mid-to-late June when we were down in Seward, and we honestly really enjoyed that small town as well. For the couple of days we spent in this part of Alaska, the weather was overcast and cool.
Our Top Tip: Don’t fly here. Drive the coastal highway from Anchorage to Seward to take in the awesome views. Once you hit the park, consider continuing all the way to Homer. It’s a great little town, and the sights are unbelievable.
What was Unforgettable: Along your hike to the mouth of Exit Glacier, signs indicate where the glacier used to extend to in years past, showing its massive recession over time due to climate change.
What Sucked: There were a lot of people hiking to Exit Glacier when we visited during the day. We wish we had taken advantage of the 24-hour daylight of summer and done the hike at midnight like we did in Denali to have the whole place to ourselves.
47. Katmai National Park near Homer, Alaska
Quick Overview: The most popular attraction in this park is the community of brown bears it protects. There are more than 2,000 bears in Katmai National Park, and depending on when you go, you may end up meeting a few of them. Brooks Camp is the most popular place to visit because that’s where you can capture the iconic visuals of bears fishing salmon out of Brooks River, but the park headquarters is in the town of King Salmon. We opted to only visit the Brooks Camp area.
When We Visited: We did an afternoon day trip with Steller Air out of Homer. It’s about an hour and a half flight over the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes (a gorge filled with volcanic ash) to get to Brooks Camp. Our flight was on June 20th, but it was overcast and pretty chilly. We were glad we brought jackets.
Our Top Tip: Time it right. Peak bear viewing season is during July, but if you visit then, you’ll be competing with all the other tourists for time on the viewing platforms. Sometimes it gets busy enough that they have to rotate guests so everyone gets time to see the bears.
What was Unforgettable: We weren’t sure if we were going to see very many bears because the salmon had just started running again, and it was still pretty early in the season. Luckily, that meant we had the bear viewing platforms all to ourselves, giving us a front row seat to watch five different bears fish salmon out of Brooks Falls, gobble them up, and go back for more over the course of a few hours. It was incredible.
What Sucked: Like diving with sharks, it’s a little scary to be in this wilderness with the world’s largest concentration of brown bears. You’re not allowed to carry food with you as you hike, but there are a few designated dining areas by the Brooks Lodge and the visitor center on Nanek Lake, where most folks enter the park, and at the other float plane access site 1.5 miles away on Brooks like, where we entered the park. Before departure, we had a quick snack, and as we were packing up the plane, a massive bear meandered down the coastline toward us. We were pushing off as the bear turned away from us to go back inland, but it was definitely unnerving to know we attracted him with our snacks and could have been one ourselves just a few minutes later. Be careful.
48. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park by Copper Center, Alaska
Quick Overview: The land within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest area the National Park Service manages (six times the size of Yellowstone), and it contains several mountain ranges, including the western Saint Elias Mountains, the entire Wrangell range, and the eastern Chugach Mountains. You can catch glimpses of these mountains from Glacier Bay and along the Alcan Highway on your way in or out of the state.
When We Visited: It was later in June when we stopped through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on our way out of Alaska. The weather was definitely warmer now that we were solidly in the middle of summer.
Our Top Tip: You have to take McCarthy Road to get deeper into the park where you can hike along Root Glacier, one of the main attractions. Once you get to the end of McCarthy Road, there’s an information center where you can buy bus tickets to take you into Kennecott, an old mining town that serves as the access point for the glacial hike. Give yourself enough time to take the bus back to McCarthy Road, and it will likely take a full tank of gas to get you this deep into the park and back out.
What was Unforgettable: On our hike to Root Glacier, we noticed that the surrounding landscape was dark and dirty. When we finally arrived at a clearing and saw the ice, we noticed it sort of blend together with the dark land. That’s when we realized that the dark landscape was actually dirt-covered ice, and we had been walking alongside the glacier the entire time. Its scale is unfathomable.
What Sucked: The drive into the park is long and devoid of any interesting sights along the way. And then you have to turn around and retrace the entire path on the way out.
49. Voyageurs National Park near International Falls, Minnesota
Quick Overview: Named for the French traders who traversed the waterways here between northern Minnesota and Canada, Voyageurs National Park is about 40% water and is better enjoyed from that perspective. There are several tours you can take out to Rainy, Kabetogama and Namakan lakes, which can bring you closer to the park’s popular wildlife. On our tour, we saw baby eagles and beaver dams.
When We Visited: After a long trek through Canada on our return from Alaska, it was the beginning of July by the time we got to Voyageurs, and summer definitely made itself known during our visit. It was hot, humid, and the bugs were out in full force.
Our Top Tip: Book a boat tour. That was the only enjoyable experience we had in the park.
What was Unforgettable: For me, the best thing was seeing the baby eagles and learning more about them on our boat tour. The tour guides passed around egg replicas, taxidermied claws, and pointed out all the nests. In one of them, three babies were waiting for some lunch. It was pretty cute.
What Sucked: The bugs and the heat made for a miserable exploration of this park. We literally gave up on several hikes because big black flies were just battering into us nonstop.
50. Isle Royale National Park via Houghton, Michigan
Quick Overview: Isle Royale (pronounced as “royal” like the color blue and not “royale” like the James Bond movie) is a very isolated piece of rock in Lake Superior that’s actually closer to Canada than any US city. There are several ferry and float plane choices that will get you to the island, but when we were headed to Isle Royale, many of the cheaper and quicker options had filled up. We ended up taking the Ranger III ferry, which departs from Houghton, Michigan, where the visitor center is located, to dock at Rock Harbor on Isle Royale — a six-hour journey each way. In Rock Harbor, there are two restaurants, showers for campers, a large campground, the lodge, and a gift shop. The rest of the island is empty, except for a few campgrounds throughout, until you get to the other side at Windigo, where there are a few cabins, another campground, and other camping amenities like showers and laundry services.
When We Visited: The cool waters of Lake Superior kept the park a comfortable temperature even when we were there in early July. Our ferry ride over was pretty chilly, as was the evening we spent camping, but during the day it was pleasant and warm, depending on how much hiking we were doing. We opted to keep on the long sleeves and pants due to mosquitoes, but they only really bothered us at dusk.
Our Top Tip: Bring your own entertainment if you end up taking the same ferry as us — six hours each way is a long time. We chose to be productive and write articles for the blog during that time, but we also pre-loaded some movies and TV on the iPad for after the sun went down.
What was Unforgettable: We waited a few hours after sunset for a super dark sky to stargaze, and the heavens did not disappoint. Just look at that photo. It was an incredible experience to see that on the horizon and hear the wolves howling in the distance.
What Sucked: The timing of the ferry was not ideal. We had to wake up early both days to take the super long boat ride that had very limited views once we were out in the middle of the lake.
Want to know more? On our National Parks page, you can browse a list of all the parks in this series (plus some more parks that were added after we took our original trip).You’ll also find info on the converted van we traveled in and how much it all cost.