As you embark on your Alaska immersion, taking in the grandeur and arresting beauty of the Great Land, ponder for a moment the great conservationists who took strides to preserve this majestic landscape. You’ll be visiting the protected lands that make up Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Kenai Fjords and Lake Clark national parks, all magnificent in their own unique ways and worthy of intensive exploration.
Denali, perhaps the biggest name in the state, is home to 37 species of mammals who roam the unfenced six million acres in solitude—keep an eye out for moose, caribou, and yes, grizzly bears! Of course, this is home to North America’s tallest mountain, Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet tall. Don’t miss the award-winning visitor center, lauded for its environmentally friendly design.
In Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, you must tackle a glacier—strap on your crampons and hike on immense Hubbard Glacier with an expert, or the Malaspina, larger than the state of Rhode Island. The park is six times the size of Yellowstone and is replete with mountains, glaciers, rivers, and wildlife, from Dall’s sheep to mountain goats. Outdoor activities run the gamut from hiking and climbing to kayaking and rafting. Check out the remnants of the gold- and copper-mining towns that date back to the early 20th century.
At Kenai Fjords, a coastal wonderland, you’ll drift along, spotting Steller’s sea lions, harbor seals, puffins, and maybe even orca and humpback whales. Sure, it’s the state’s smallest national park, but it makes up for it in the sheer abundance of seabirds (20 species) and wildlife (27 land mammals and 10 marine mammals). We’re particularly enamored of Harding Icefield, up to a mile thick in some spots and feeds into almost three dozen glaciers—the icefield is a remnant of the sheet of ice that covered the state in the Pleistocene era.
It’s the brown bears you’ll love at Lake Clark National Park, which conservationist John Kauffmann called “Alaska’s epitome.” Countless seabirds, immense glaciers, rugged volcanoes, alpine peaks, and rushing rivers make for a stunningly diverse region. Black and brown bears alike gather here beneath the Sitka spruce—Alaska’s state tree. The active volcanoes of Iliamna and Redoubt vent gasses every so often and Redoubt erupted as recently as 2009. Archaeological findings suggest that the Denai’ina Indians, among others, have lived in the region for many centuries, thanks to great salmon fishing and game-hunting opportunities.