Alaskan State Parks

Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America, located in Alaska
Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America, located in Alaska

Alaska is famous for its national parks. But the wild gems protected by the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation are less well known but equally breathtaking and accessible – and summer is the best time to visit them.

 Established in 1970 by the Alaska Legislature, the Alaska State Parks system has become the nation’s largest and grandest; its 130 or so units encompass 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares), while stretching more than 1,100 miles (1,770km) across Alaska. Their numbers include recreation sites and areas, historic sites and parks, marine parks, wilderness parks, state trails, and a world-famous preserve: the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which each winter attracts between 1,000 and 4,000 eagles.

While many are small and located along the road system, a handful rank among America’s premier wilderness parks: Chugach, Kachemak Bay, Wood-Tikchik, Shuyak Island and Denali.

Unspoiled wilderness

Three of those parklands – Denali, Kachemak Bay and Wood-Tikchik – include lands and waters once proposed for national park status. Within their boundaries are rugged mountains, glaciers fed by large ice-fields, centuries-old coastal forests, high alpine meadows that grow bright with wildflowers in summer. Here too there are salmon-rich streams, enormous river-and-lake systems, and all manner of northern wildlife, from grizzlies and wolves, to Dall sheep, wolverines, little brown bats, whales, bald and golden eagles, loons and owls, and scores of songbird, shorebird, and seabird species.

How to get there

Though these parks protect large expanses of unspoiled wilderness, they are, by Alaska standards, surprisingly easy to reach – and in most cases, easy to explore. Even the wildest, remotest state parks are within 325 miles (520km) of Anchorage. Chugach and Denali state parks are connected to Alaska’s road system, while Kachemak Bay is a short boat ride from Homer, an end-of-the-road tourist town 220 highway miles (350km) south of Anchorage. None of the three requires air service to reach the backcountry. While Wood-Tikchik’s wilderness is most easily reached by plane, the park’s lowermost lake is only 20 road miles (32km) from Dillingham, the largest city in the Bristol Bay region. The remotest wilderness park, Shuyak, is less than 100 air miles (160km) from Homer.

By contrast, wilderness within Alaska’s national parks in many cases is remote and expensive to reach. Two-thirds of the national units are more than 300 miles (480km) from Anchorage, and a third are within the state’s Arctic region. Backcountry trips in most national parks require the use of air taxis.

Day trips

Less rugged day adventures can be found at parks like the historic Independence Mine at Hatcher Pass or the Nancy Lake Recreation Area, both in the Matanuska-Sustina area. It is in parks like these where most Alaskans spend their off days hiking, picnicking, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, power-boating, or fishing. Most parks, even those with a deep backcountry are user-friendly. Many have campgrounds, public-use cabins, and trail systems and most require a small fee for parking ($5 to $10 per vehicle) or camping ($10 to $28 per night). Cabins must be reserved in advance and cost $25 to $65 per night.

For more details, contact Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources Public Information Center, 550 West Seventh Avenue, Suite 1260, Anchorage, AK 99501-3557 (tel: 907-269-8400; www.alaskastateparks.org).


Find out more in our Insight Guide to Alaska