It's certainly not breaking news that Alaska has an outsized share of our nation's national parks. But it's past time to give local travelers a nudge to get out and see the natural wonders in our own backyard.
After all, visitors from around the world plan and save to come and see "The Great One" and the bears of Katmai National Park. For those of us in Anchorage, it's easy to get to many of the parks. Some are a bit more expensive to reach, but they're still close by.
Don't blame me if your visiting friends and relatives shame you into planning their trip to one of Alaska's national parks. Since you live here, everyone thinks you're an expert. Let's review some of the basics:
1. Denali National Park and Preserve
This year is the 100th anniversary of the park. The park is becoming more popular all the time, so if you want to go, it's important to plan ahead. You can drive up to the park entrance, then take a shuttle bus into the park and camp. Or, you can take the Alaska Railroad and stay at one of the hotels near the park entrance. Then, take one of the bus tours into the park to see the wildlife and (if you're lucky) the mountain. The railroad and the hotels, including the Princess Lodge and Denali Bluffs offer packages and specials from Anchorage.
If you want to go deep into the park, stay at one of the lodges at the end of the park road, including the Kantishna Roadhouse or Denali Backcountry Lodge. When you book your package, it includes the private shuttle bus to the end of the road. You also can take the bus one way, then upgrade to fly back with Kantishna Air.
Of course, seeing Denali by air is spectacular. If you want the perfect Christmas card shot, go to the Talkeetna airport and fly up to one of the glaciers on the mountain. You can fly with K2 Aviation, Talkeetna Air Taxi or Sheldon Air Service on one of their daily flights.
It is possible to walk in to the park, if you go up to Exit Glacier in Seward. But most people will see the park by boat on a tour with Kenai Fjords Tours or Major Marine Tours. Smart travelers will stop by the Alaska Sealife Center for an closeup look at the birds, sea mammals and fish in the park. It's especially fascinating for kids to see the critters closeup before the boat ride.
For a full-immersion park experience, check out the ecolodge run by Alaska Wildland Adventures. Called the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, it's tucked away near Aialik Bay, which is on the tour route for the popular national park boat cruises. But you won't see the lodge, as it's hidden in the trees. When you stay at the lodge, the package includes a glacier-and-wildlife cruise, as well as all meals and activities. The lodge's huge panoramic windows look out on to Pedersen Glacier.
3. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
This is the nation's largest national park: 13.2 million acres. This is one of my favorite parks—and it surprises me more Alaskans have yet to see it. The word is getting out around the world, though. The park is especially popular with Europeans and Australians. While there is limited road access from the north on Nabesna Road, there aren't any services—it's strictly access to some trails and campgrounds.
I take the McCarthy Road, which starts in Chitina. You can drive from Anchorage to Chitina in about five hours, passing through Glennallen and Copper Center. After you cross the Copper River, it's a two-hour, 60-mile drive. The road is built on the old railroad bed, back when the Kennecott Mine was the world's largest copper mine. It's a great story about the mine, which operated 100 years ago. You still can see the abandoned ghost town—and even take a tour in to some of the main buildings at the Kennecott Mines Historical Landmark.
You can't drive into McCarthy. Rather, you park your car and walk across the footbridge. There are campgrounds near the parking lot, or you can stay in McCarthy. You can also stay in the ghost town of Kennicott by the mine at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge. It's located about 5 miles up the hill from McCarthy.
There are great trails for biking and hiking. Local guides will take you up on the Root Glacier for a hike or to do some ice climbing. Check with St. Elias Alpine Guides for a package where they float from the foot of the glacier down to the confluence of the Nezina River. Then, they pull out and a plane lands on the beach to fly you back to the airport. It's quite a trip, with some million-dollar views of the old mine, the glacier and the river valley.
4. Katmai National Park and Preserve
This park was established in 1918 to protect the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which was created by the massive volcanic explosion of Novarupta. One of the highlights of a visit to the park is the daytrip from Brooks Lodge up to the valley overlook. There's a new visitor center where you can gaze out on the valley. Most of the "smokes" are gone, but the massive volcanic flow completely changed the are 100 years ago—and you'll learn how during the trip.
Part of the daylong tour is hiking down from the overlook to the valley floor, where you can see the Ukak River cutting a vicious canyon through the rock and pumice. It's a great trip, for $96.
It takes some planning to get out to Brooks Lodge. You can fly to King Salmon from Anchorage for as little as 5,000 Alaska Air miles each way starting June 23. You can fly earlier, but it costs 12,500 miles each way with PenAir. From King Salmon, fly with Katmai Air up to Brooks Lodge for $214 roundtrip.
The big attraction these days is the bear population at Brooks Lodge. The bears come to feed on the red salmon as they swim up the Brooks River. The chokepoint is Brooks Falls—and there are viewing platforms at strategic locations.
You can fly from Anchorage to Brooks Lodge for the day to see the bears for $778 per person with PenAir. Or, you can fly out and camp overnight, see the bears and take the valley tour. Or, you can stay at Brooks Lodge in the cabins to do some fishing on the famous river.
Everyone who lands at Brooks Lodge (even for the day) gets to go to "Bear School" run by the National Park Service. That's because the bears wander in and out of the camp all the time.
There also are bear-viewing daytrips from Homer to see the bears in Katmai on the other side of Cook Inlet. Hallo Bay Lodge provides both daytrips and overnight packages.
This park is even closer to Anchorage than Katmai, but it seems more remote to me. I've only visited once, in November. We had friends who were caretakers at a lodge across from Port Alsworth, on the shores of Lake Clark. It was very cold and windy on the crossing. Since then, I've flown over many times—and it looks prettier in the summer.
Dan Oberlatz of Alaska Alpine Adventures is my go-to expert on the area. He operates kayak and hiking trips there. Several air taxis fly from Anchorage to Port Alsworth, including Lake & Peninsula Airlines and Lake Clark Air.
6. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Located just 60 miles from Juneau, this is a surprisingly accessible getaway because of Alaska Air's mileage deals. For as little as 5,000 miles each way, you can fly from Anchorage to Juneau and on to Gustavus—on Alaska Air.
Be careful choosing your connections, though, or you could get a "free overnight stop" in Juneau.
Most people visit Glacier Bay on a cruise ship. In fact, it's so popular there's a quota to limit the number of big ships that can sail the giant bay, which butts up to the Canadian border.
But if you stay overnight in Gustavus or Bartlett Cove, you can take the Glacier Bay day tour, which departs at 7:30 a.m. each morning. The eight-hour tour is narrated by a park ranger. The cost is $195 per person. Watch for black, brown bear, sea lions, eagles, whales (humpback and orca) and other critters. At the top of the bay, we saw a chunk of ice the size of the Hotel Captain Cook fall off of one of the glaciers.
There are two other national parks in Alaska: Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley. I've flown over both of these parks, but don't know much more than that. And yes, they're still on my "bucket list."
There are more parklands than just the national parks. There are national historic parks in Skagway (Klondike Gold Rush) and in Sitka. There are national monuments and preserves, too. You can get a good overview of the parklands at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in downtown Anchorage.
Representatives from many national park concessionaires will gather as part of the annual Alaska Summer Showcase on Mar. 25 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center (disclaimer: I'm organizing this event). Tickets are $8 in advance at Eventbrite. All of the exhibitors will be giving away a trip for two.
Remember — your friends and relatives think you're an expert. Maybe it's time to beef up on your in-state knowledge and live up to its big reputation.
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.