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It’s Time to Plan a Trip to Alaska’s National Parks

With cruise traffic set to be at an all-time low this summer, you’ll be able to have the 49th state all to yourself

While much of the Alaska is hard to reach and inhospitable, it has a whopping two dozen parks and preserves overseen by the National Park Service that are easy to navigate with enough preparation. (Photo: mantaphoto/iStock)
Glacier lagoon

Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.

For many, a trip to Alaska has the same pull as a far-flung vacation. As we anticipate the return of international travel, why not ease into things with a visit to the far reaches of our 49th state? Plus, Canada recently banned passenger ships in all its waters until 2022, cutting off the only route to Alaska by sea. That means it’s likely that many of the state’s most touristed parks, like Glacier Bay, will see far fewer visitors this summer. 

While much of Alaska is hard to reach and inhospitable, it has a whopping two dozen parks and preserves overseen by the National Park Service that are easy to navigate with enough preparation. We picked five sites that showcase the best of the state and included tips on what to do and where to post up while you’re there. The best times to visit land between mid-June and September, so it’s time to start planning. 

Denali National Park

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(Photo: Matt Hage/Travel Alaska)

Arguably the most iconic of Alaska’s national parks, Denali National Park is home to North America’s highest peak, 20,310-foot Denali, and 6 million acres of high-alpine terrain. The park is a two-hour drive from Fairbanks or four hours from Anchorage and has just one 92-mile road that crosses it, which is closed to private cars most of the year. Bike Denali Rental Center rents mountain and e-bikes and hosts a shuttle for cyclists—or hop on a bus to travel a stretch of the scenic roadway.

During the summer months, there’s also the daily Alaska Railroad Denali Star Train (from $174), which offers spectacular views of Denali’s best sights, including Indian River, Hurricane Gulch, and the park’s namesake peak. It departs from Anchorage and stops at Denali seven hours later en route to Fairbanks. Stay in a remote corner of the park at one of 42 private cabins at Denali Backcountry Lodge (from $575), where meals are prepared for you and, because there are only a few designated trails in Denali, guides will escort you off-trail into the surrounding wilderness. 

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Kennicott River in Wrangell  St Elias National Park,McCarthy,Alaska.
(Photo: brytta/iStock)

The country’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias stretches across 13.2 million acres, the equivalent of six Yellowstones. Everything feels bigger here, from the peaks—like 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias, the second highest in the United States—to the icefields and the caribou herds. It’s a 4.5-hour drive from Anchorage to reach the park’s main visitor center. Wrangell-St. Elias Tours provides van shuttles, which operate from May through September, with plenty of stops from Anchorage to Kennicott, an old copper mining village deep in the park, and McCarthy, the park’s barely populated town at the end of a gravel road. Stay a few nights in McCarthy at the historic 20-room Ma Johnson’s Hotel (from $249), and hike the four-mile round-trip Erie Mine Trail to Root Glacier to see a mile-high ice wall, or the nine-mile round-trip Bonanza Mine Trail for sweeping views of the Chugach Mountains, Mt. Blackburn, and Kennicott Glacier.

Glacier Bay National Park

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(Photo: Harold Litwiler/Creative Commons)

Glacier Bay is one of the most visited of Alaska’s national parks, due to the many cruise ships that pull up to port here each day from May through September. But with Canada’s recent ban on vessels in all its waters until 2022, it’s likely that Glacier Bay will see far fewer visitors this summer. The only way to get here is by boat or plane, most of which depart from the town of Juneau—opt for a day tour boat from Bartlett Cove, or fly into the airport in Gustavus. With only a few hiking trails, totaling about ten miles, the best way to see the region’s humpback whales, sea lions, and harbors seals is by paddling some of the 700 miles of shoreline in a kayak. Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks leads guided day trips (from $95). Spend the night at Glacier Bay Lodge (from $239), the only lodging inside the park.

Kenai Fjords National Park

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(Photo: lwtt93/Creative Commons)

It’s glacier paradise in Kenai Fjords National Park, home to some 40 bergs, many of which are receding due to warming temperatures. Get to the park’s gateway town of Seward via a two-plus-hour drive from Anchorage, or a ride on the Alaska Railroad. Once there, hike the stout 8.2-mile round-trip Harding Icefield Trail, which climbs through meadows, forests, and rocky outcroppings before topping out with views of its namesake icefield.

Or take to the water: Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking has chartered boat rides and guided ski kayaking tours to spot sea otters and Pacific white-sided dolphins. Afterward, stop by the Cookery in Seward for a dozen oysters and Seward Brewing Company for a pint of red ale. Take an hour-long boat ride from Seward to Fox Island in Resurrection Bay to reach your overnight accommodations at the eight-cabin Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge (from $1,506), or check out the new Seward Gateway Hotel (from $150), which opens May 9, from the owners of the town’s Harbor 360 Hotel.

Kobuk Valley National Park

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(Photo: Anthony Remboldt/Creative Commons)

Yep, Alaska has sand dunes. You’ll find the Arctic’s largest at the 25-square-mile Great Kobuk Sand Dunes area within Kobuk Valley National Park. This remote, roadless, trailless park is accessible only via airplane—fly from Anchorage to Kotzebue or from Fairbanks to Bettles. Once in Kotzebue or Bettles, you have to fly into the park using authorized air taxis. Watch out for migrating caribou—the Western Arctic caribou herd is the largest in Alaska, at 490,000 animals. With no lodging or developed campgrounds inside the park, staying here involves backcountry camping—the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center can guide you on the best places to set up camp, or you can book a weeklong guided trip using bush planes with Arctic Wild (from $5,900).