Destinations, June 1998
In any state, there are attractions that everyone's heard of, that every guidebook touts, that every visitor has to see. Then there are the places the locals haunt, where the crowds are sparse and the mentions in Let's Go are glancing. In Alaska, these places are the state parks, 3.2 million acres of protected lands divided among 127 parks, almost any of which would be considered monstrous in the Lower 48. But here, in the land of Denali and Glacier Bay National Parks, the state lands are afterthoughts. Only a small percentage of visitors to Alaska ever stop at a state park, even though one, Wood-Tikchik (see page 125), is larger than Delaware — and has considerably more caribou.
To rectify this oversight, we've chosen three of the finest state parks in addition to Wood-Tikchik, each of them easily reachable from a major town or highway and frequented mostly by resident Alaskans and the local brown bears.
Chugach State Park (907-345-5014). An unspoiled 495,000-acre backyard for Anchorage, which abuts its western boundary, Chugach is a greatest-hits version of Alaskan landscape. It contains everything from tundra to coastal waters to glacial peaks, and includes Alaska's most-climbed mountain, 3,550-foot Flattop. A scramble up this slope provides unmatched views of the Alaska Range as well as Cook Inlet directly below. The true beauty of Flattop, however, is that you can sip your morning mocha at Anchorage's Qupqugiaq Cafe and be on the mountain's slopes an hour later.
Denali State Park (907-745-3975). A three-hour drive from Anchorage on Parks Highway, 325,460-acre "Little" Denali is almost as prone to RV overload as its famous national-park sibling. But like Big Denali, it has its untrampled backcountry, if you know where to look. In this case that's Kesugi Ridge, a five-mile-wide spine of rock that runs for 25 miles, with networks of trails heading off on either end. Low (about 4,500 feet) and gently rolling, Kesugi is especially attractive to Anchoragites because, unlike the national park, Little Denali's 36 miles of trails are permit-free.
Kachemak Bay State Park and Wilderness Park (907-235-7024 or 907-262-5581). Situated on the southern edge of the Kenai Peninsula, these side-by-side units provide 350,000 acres of mountains and sea, all within sight of that slice of Alaskan bohemia, Homer. A haven for kayakers, who can explore the evocatively named Glacier Spit, Kachemak also includes one of the state's most accessible glaciers, Grewingk, which can be reached via a flat 3.5-mile trail from the beach. Getting to the park is a bit tougher: You'll need to hire a water taxi that will pick you up in Homer (907-235-7771; about $70 round-trip). The boat ride, while scenic, can sometimes be a bit too buoyant: Kachemak Bay's tides are among the largest in the world, with an average differential of 15 feet between high and low. Bring your lunch and picnic after you arrive.
For additional information about these or the other state parks in Alaska, call the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Public Information Center at 907-269-8400.