Our research is editorially independent but we may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Alaska never had a chance to become overdeveloped or spoiled, as conservation was an early initiative in many of its most beautiful natural attractions. Its 8 national parks cover and protect millions of acreage, which is there for the public to respect and enjoy. Some of our list items are so remote, they have to be accessed by seaplane. While this is more of a boat, plane and road trip, here is an outline to get you started on your ultimate Alaskan road trip.
YOU'RE ALL SET!
Look out for our newsletters in your inbox soon.
Glacier Bay National Park is a popular site for cruise ships that navigate by major points of interest, but even if not on a cruise, one can tackle this particular park in a single day. If you’re lucky you’ll see whales majestically splashing in the water, but sea lions aren’t too shy about having onlookers observe while they sunbathe on the rocks. Travelers can opt to fly into the small town of Gustavus, or to Juneau, from where they can take a boat or plane tour into the park. Boating is an efficient way to see a lot quickly and up close.
Wrangell-St. Elias is one of the most stunning coastal national parks in the United States. Alaska’s terrain seems to repeatedly try to outdo itself, and here you can see contrasting surfaces from rock to glacier, paired with rivers and flowers—one couldn’t describe it well enough to do it justice. Luckily, two roads create decent access to the park, McCarthy or Nabesna, which are both noted to be quite bumpy but traversable. From the roads, trailheads can be seen, which can be a portal to an extreme climbing challenge or a simple walk, so research beforehand.
Katmai is best explored via floatplane, and it’s exciting just to land on the water alone—basing out of Kodiak, Anchorage or Homer will ensure ample charter options. Exploring this park can be done within a day, but those wanting to truly delve into Katmai can fly over, then book a cabin at Brooks Camp, where there are bear viewing platforms and almost certain sightings. Being that there are ferocious bears literally walking all over the place, scooping salmon out of the rivers and such, opting for a guided drive seems like the best bet. Taking a guided fly fishing tour along the Brooks River is a once in a lifetime way to see Katmai as well.
You’re in a similar situation when visiting Lake Clark National Park, as there isn’t a road system. You’ll need to fly in from somewhere like Anchorage. But the fact there aren’t really any marked trails or a defined way to go somehow adds to the endearment. When people come here, they hike, especially around the crystal clear waters. And you better bet that some amazing fishing is at your fingertips, whether from the banks or on a boat excursion out into open.
Not for the faint of heart, Kobuk Valley National Park has been listed as the least visited national park, thanks to its extreme landscape and accessibility that requires Indiana Jones-like skills. Fly into Kotzebue from Anchorage, then from there choose how you’ll tackle this adventure. Those with immense training can float either the Salmon or Kobuk River to see natural formations and ancient habitat. And in both the spring and fall, majestic caribou are on the move. You may literally see no one else here but the pilot.
Kenai Fjords National Park is idealistic to every thought we’ve ever had about Alaska—vast glaciers, mountains, blue water and lots of animals define the icy land. Folks also travel from all over the world to immerse in some of the best birdwatching imaginable—we’re talking precious puffins, awe-inspiring bald eagles and falcons. While some do take charter flights from Anchorage, the scenic byway via highway AK-9 is ladened with breathtaking sites.
Head north for 367 miles to reach famed Denali, which sits more in the center of the State. Anchorage is just shy of 240 miles away if you decide to switch up the list a bit. Denali, while still incredibly wild, has a bit more structure in place via roads and lodging, and the park promises a wide range of memorable exploration options from more extensive excursions to a simple hike. Experts recommend taking as many days as possible to delve into Denali, but the Park Road is the main vein. To venture beyond 15 miles allowed to private vehicles, you must board one of the tour buses. The mountain passes, occasional grizzly sighting and heavenly lakes are worth it.
You can’t visit a National Park further north than Gates of the Arctic—it’s crazy to think you’re north of the arctic circle when standing vulnerably in the misty fields against the Endicott or Schwatka Mountains. Ancient and vaguely touched, hiking out into Gates of Arctic should be taken seriously, as this is the real deal of all remote places. Bettles, which is 356 miles from Denali, or Coldfoot which is 375 miles, will have to be your home base since the only way to get out here is by charter plane.