How to Visit Every Amazing Alaska National Park

Located in the extreme north of North America and jutting right out into the Arctic Ocean, Alaska is unlike any other place in the world.

Home to 17 of the United States’ highest mountains, over 100,000 glaciers, and dozens of active volcanoes, Alaska is a dream come true for nature lovers looking to see something vastly different than anywhere else in the country.

The Alaskan wilderness and untouched natural landscapes are immense. Whether you’re looking for a full-blown adventure over glaciers or a few days spent spotting wildlife unique to the state, here are the top national parks in Alaska you need to visit during your trip.

List of Alaska National Parks

National ParkEntry(1)Season(2)Visitors(3)Access
Kenai Fjords National ParkFreeJun-Aug, Best July411,000Train, Road, Cruise, Ferry
Denali National Park & Preserve$15ppMay-Sep, Best August229,521Train, Road
Glacier Bay National Park & PreserveFree May-Sep89,768Cruise, Ferry
Wrangell-St Elias National Park & PreserveFree Sep-Apr (Northern Lights) Summer50,189Road
Katmai National Park & PreserveFree June-Sept, Best July24,764Plane, Cruise
Gates of the Arctic National Park & PreserveFree Summer, Best July-Aug7,362Plane
Lake Clark National Park & PreserveFree Summer, Best July-Aug 18,278Plane
Kobuk Valley National ParkFreeMay-Sep11,540Plane
(1) Free means no NPS entrance fee, but you will need to pay for your tours and transfers to these remote locations (2) Parks may be open year-round, but visitor centers and facilities only available for certain months (3) based on NPS visitor statistics 2021

Alaska’s Most Accessible National Parks

These are the “easiest” parks to access in Alaska and are likely to feature on the itinerary of most visitors to Alaska.

  • Kenai Fjords National Park – Drive south from Anchorage 2.5 hours (also bus and train)
  • Denali National Park & Preserve – Accessible via train (4 hours) or road (2 hours) from Fairbanks or Anchorage (7 hours/4 hours)
  • Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve – access via cruise ship, ferry to Gustavus, or fly
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve – 7-hour drive from Anchorage or a 9-hour drive from Fairbanks

Alaska’s More Remote National Parks

These parks all require a light aircraft to enter which can be cost prohibitive for most visitors (running into the hundreds of dollars per person – so expect thousands $$ for a family)

  • Katmai National Park & Preserve – Flight to King Salmon, float plane to Brook Falls
  • Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve – Flight from Fairbanks to Bettles
  • Lake Clark National Park & Preserve – Flight from Anchorage, King Salmon, or Homer
  • Kobuk Valley National Park – Flight from Anchorage – Kotzebue – Ambler

How to Visit Each of Alaska’s National Parks

Use our guides below to plan your visit to Alaska’s remote yet ruggedly beautiful national parks – covering an incredible 54 million acres.

USA Alaska National Parks Map on a cellphone with collage of national park images

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords is Alaska’s most visited national park, thanks to the fact that it is located relatively close to Anchorage. Unlike most of the other national parks in Alaska, you can easily drive to Kenai Fjords because it is well-connected by a highway.

USA Alaska National Parks - Kenai Fjords

Here, you’ll be treated to views of over 40 glacier masses that blend in with the Pacific Ocean. One of the best ways to explore the park is to book a boat tour, where you’ll get to glide your way among the dramatic glaciers of the park.

Wildlife viewing is a treat at Kenai Fjords as well, with sightings of whales, orcas, seals, and many other animals being very common.

If you’re feeling adventurous, other ways to explore the park on your own are by kayaking and hiking (there are two trails in the park). For the most impressive views, book a helicopter tour, where you’ll be able to get a birdseye view of glaciers, mountain tops, and ice fields.

Not only is Kenai Fjords easily accessible by road and train, but you can also take a ferry from Seward or even an excursion from a cruise ship!

  • Entry fee: Free
  • Best time to visit: The park is open year-round but is best visited during the summer months of June through August for better weather conditions.
  • Closest major airport: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
  • Stay: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge – only accessible by boat from the coast, or stay in Seward or Anchorage and access as a day visitor

Denali National Park and Preserve

Home to the highest peak in the United States and six million acres of pure Alaskan wilderness, Denali National Park is a humongous park that offers some of the best the Frontier State has to offer in terms of nature while still remaining accessible.

USA Alaska National Parks - Denali

To cover as much ground as possible, you can drive the park’s 92-mile scenic road (you may only be able to go the first 15 miles in your own vehicle – unless you win the “golden ticket“- an annual road lottery).

Not only will you get to see some of the best scenery at Denali, but you’ll also get access to plenty of hiking trails in case you want to park the car and explore further afield.

Other fun activities include kayaking down wild rivers and wildlife spotting (keep your eyes out for caribou, wolves, moose, and bears!)

If you consider yourself an experienced hiker and feel up for the challenge, you can also hike Denali Mountain. This humongous 20,000 feet tall volcano is the highest in the United States and on every peak collector’s bucket list!

Be aware that getting to the summit is no easy feat as you’ll need to be ready to brave camping in Arctic conditions and hiking over icy terrain.

Most will opt to take a bus tour through the park to get the best possible views. There are both narrated and non-narrated options, ranging in price from around $100 to $240 per adult ($40 – $100 for kids). They last between 4.5 hours and 12 hours – learn more here.

  • Entry fee: $15
  • Best time to visit: Open year-round but best to visit during the summer for activities and bearable weather. Buses to Denali National Park only run between May and September.
  • Closest major airport: Fairbanks International Airport
  • Stay: Camping, or privately run options within the park include Skyline Lodge and Camp Denali – book well in advance

Glacier Bay National Park

If you want to see some of the best Alaska has to offer in terms of views and wildlife, a visit to Glacier Bay National Park is guaranteed to please.

USA Alaska National Parks - Glacier Bay

Here, you’ll get to immerse yourself in a world of enormous glaciers, glorious snow-capped mountains, and pristine Alaskan wilderness.

A few of the best things to do at Glacier Bay include hiking four of the trails available along the shores and rivers of the park in search of wildlife (Humpback whales, sea lions, sea otters, wolves, blacktail deer, moose wolves, mountain goats, bald eagles, seals, black bears, and rare blue glacier bears are all present here), fishing on Glacier Bay, rafting down the Alsek River, and kayaking on Bartlett Cover.

Since there are no roads connecting Glacier Bay to the rest of Alaska, most visitors to the park arrive on a fantastic cruise journey over a 65-mile waterway filled with glaciers.

If a cruise isn’t your thing, two other ways to reach Glacier Bay National Park are by flying in or taking a ferry to Gustavus, a small town on the edge of the park.

(NB 2021 visitors are significantly down due to the pandemic and lack of cruise ships, it is usually Alaska’s most visited!)

  • Entry fee: Free
  • Best time to visit: Glacier Bay is open all year, but visitor services are only available between May and September.
  • Closest major airport: Gustavus Airport
  • Stay: Glacier Bay Lodge or aboard your ship

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

At 13.2 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is the biggest national park in the United States, measuring almost the same as the state of West Virginia! It is, however, the 8th least-visited national park.

Due to its vast size, getting to some of the locations inside the park can be quite challenging, making this one of the best national parks in Alaska to visit for avid adventurers who don’t mind roughing it up.

USA Alaska National Parks - Wrangell-St Elias

One of the favorite activities for visitors who want to get a taste of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is driving down McCarthy Road, a 62-mile dirt road that takes you somewhat deep into the park.

This drive provides wonderful views of the landscapes as well as the chance for plenty of wildlife encounters (you may get to spot bears, eagles, moose, and more).

If you’re up for some serious adventure, you can try your hand at ice climbing the gigantic Root Glacier or go backpacking at Skolai Pass for beautiful views of canyons, waterfalls, and more sights than most visitors don’t get to see!

As a fun fact, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is often nicknamed “the mountain kingdom of North America”. This name is well deserved, especially considering the park is home to nine of the highest peaks in the United States.

Aside from getting to see sky-high mountains, other sceneries you’ll get to enjoy during your visit include alpine lakes, dense forests, humongous lakes, and tundra, as beautiful as it can get.

There are plenty of campgrounds spread all over the park and several cabins. Staying inside the park is highly recommended, especially if you want to explore as much of it as possible.

  • Entry fee: Free
  • Best time to visit: You can visit Wrangell-St. Elias National Park any time of the year, but most people visit between September and April to see the northern lights. Summer is also a great time to visit for good weather conditions.
  • Closest major airport: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
  • Stay: Kennicott Glacier Lodge and a few options around McCarthy

Katmai National Park & Reserve

If you want to feel as though you’re inside a scene of Disney’s Brother Bear movie, look no further than Katmai National Park.

Even though getting here isn’t a breeze, Katmai is very well worth your efforts because it homes plenty of brown bears. Sights are common all over, but the ultimate place to see them is at Brook River, where mother bears and cubs are often seen fishing for salmon.

To get there, you can hike a short trail to reach the viewing platforms, but be aware that bears also use this trail to get to the river!

USA Alaska National Parks - Katmai

Aside from seeing glorious views of bears catching salmon, other wonderful things to do at Katmai include boating on Naknek Lake, hiking Dumpling Mountain. You can take a helicopter tour over the park or drive to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes to see the impact a rare volcanic eruption had on the park.

Note that Katmai is not accessible by road and can only be reached by plane.

You will first need to fly to King Salmon Airport and then take a short float plane ride to the park. There are camping amenities and cabins inside Katmai, so you can spend the night.

  • Entry fee: Free
  • Best time to visit: July is the best month to see the bears fishing for salmon, as they usually start arriving at Brook Falls at the end of June.
  • Closest airport: King Salmon Airport (AKN)
  • Stay: Brooks Lodge (walking distance to Brooks Falls!)

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve

If you’re looking for a national park in Alaska that is rarely visited but still very accessible, Lake Clark National Park is a wonderful choice.

Located only a hundred miles southwest of Anchorage, this glorious national park receives only about 20,000 visitors every year, making it a wonderful destination to visit to escape the crowds if you don’t necessarily have time to see the north.

USA Alaska National Parks - Lake Clark

During your visit to Lake Clark, you’ll be treated to expansive views of glaciers, mountains, and the ocean. Moreover, you’ll also find lakes, rivers, and even two active volcanoes!

Hiking and kayaking are two of the favorite activities at Lake Clark. As a bonus, this is also a wonderful place to see brown bears, with some 200 of them roaming in the area. Other creatures like Beluga whales, sea otters, wolves, moose, and more can also be easily spotted!

  • Entry fee: Free
  • Best time to visit: The summer months are ideal for visiting for mild temperatures and accessibility.
  • Closest major airport: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
  • Stay: The Farm Lodge (Port Alsworth)

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

If true Alaskan wilderness is what you’re after, Gates of the Arctic is sure to deliver. Be aware that visiting this national park is not for everyone, especially when you consider there aren’t any roads through the park or amenities – you’ll have to live off the land and have some serious navigation and survival skills to make it here!

USA Alaska National Parks - Gates of the Arctic

Because of its remoteness, you’ll barely see any other people at Gates of the Arctic. In fact, you’re way more likely to spot a grizzly bear or a wolf than a person!

Most people access this park by flying on an air taxi from Fairbanks to the town of Bettles. This is the easiest way to access the park, but others also include canoeing or rafting down rivers and hiking.

Keep in mind that if you visit independently, you will need to arrange for an air taxi to drop you into the park and pick you back up again.

There are a few tours available if you really want to visit the Gates of the Arctic without risking things too much. Still, be prepared to rough it up here seriously!​​

Moreover, if you want to visit the Gates of the Arctic but don’t want to backpack or camp in the elements, there is a lodge in Bettles where you can spend the night.

  • Entry fee: Free
  • Best time to visit: Summer is really the only wise time to visit Gates of the Arctic. This is the only time of the year when the park is somewhat accessible and temperatures are okay for hiking, rafting, and backpacking.
  • Closest airport: Bettles Airport
  • Stay: Only backcountry camping, or stay in Bettles

Kobuk Valley National Park

Located just above the Arctic Circle, Kobuk Valley is just as remote as the Gates of the Arctic.

Aside from its location in the Arctic, there are two things that make Kobuk an extremely unique national park to visit. For one, it is home to the largest sand dunes in the Arctic, and secondly, it homes humongous herds of caribou!

Besides homing sand dunes in a place where you’d least expect to find them, Kobuk also encompasses mountains, rivers, forests, and a wide array of wildlife that call its diverse ecosystems their home.

Hiking is a favorite activity here, but other things you can do during your visit include boating down the Kobuk River, seeing the annual migration of caribou, and flightseeing for a birdseye view of the park.

Keep in mind that getting to Kobuk can be challenging. You can fly from Fairbanks to Bettles or from Anchorage into Kotzebue, where you can take an air taxi to reach the park.

  • Entry fee: Free
  • Best time to visit: Summer is the best time to visit for bearable temperatures. The visitor center of Kobuk is only open between May and September.
  • Closest airport: Ambler Airport (ABL/AFM)

More Tips & FAQ for Alaska National Parks

  • In addition to our usual road trip essentials packing list, you’ll want bear spray with you. Additionally, don’t be surprised you’ll need sunscreen and insect repellent in the summer.
  • Be flexible with your plans. Light aircraft can only take off if weather conditions are clear. Things can be canceled; wildlife is certainly not guaranteed. Go in with expectations set not everything may go to plan!
  • Budget for your trip. It is far from the cheapest family vacation you’ll ever make but we’re sure you’ll agree oh so worth it!
  • Book early! With remoteness comes exclusivity. Lodging in most parks is extremely limited for stay overnight; you may want to plan up to a year in advance for a family vacation in Alaska.
Can I use America the Beautiful for Alaska National Parks?

You can, but note the only Alaska National park with an entry fee is Denali; all the other parks do not have an NPS fee. You will, however, need to pay private operators to help get you to the more remote parks.

Can I road trip from the Lower 48 to Alaska’s National Parks?

It is possible to visit some, but not all, of Alaska’s national parks by road. The most accessible and possible to reach by road are Denali, Kenai Fjords and Wrangell-St Elias.

Glacier Bay is the closest to the lower 48, however, note you will still need to park your vehicle and take a ferry for the final stretch.

Bear in mind, that driving from Seattle to Anchorage is about 2260 miles – it’ll take 41 hours if you drive non-stop! Certainly not for the faint-hearted, we recommend most families will be better flying to Anchorage and picking up a rental vehicle from there.

How much of Alaska is a national park?

Alaska’s eight national parks and preserves cover 54 million acres of largely rugged wilderness.

What are the Alaska Big 5?

For wildlife spotters, these are Grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and wolves.

Why do some lists have 10 national parks in Alaska?

In addition to the eight designated national parks, there are two national forests – Chugach National Forest and Tongass National Forest, managed by NPS.

Which Alaska National Parks can you see by cruise ship?

If you want to ditch your own wheels, Alaska is certainly the place for it. There are many cruise lines that will assist visitors to see the highlights of Alaska, combining ship & land packages.

The most accessible Alaska national park for cruise ships is Glacier Bay. Cruise ships will also pass Hubbard Glacier (Wrangell-St Elias), where day tours are also possible. Select cruises with longer itineraries will include the Algnak River for wildlife spotting on the Katmai peninsula.

Denali is also a popular cruise land tour, despite being 200 miles from the shore! (Princess and Holland America cruise lines even have their own lodges in Denali!)

Popular companies to book with include Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean.

Most Alaska cruises either depart or end from Seward, or you can pick up cruises that leave from Vancouver and Seattle.

When is the best time to visit Alaska’s National Parks?

By far the best time is summer. Although parks may be open year-round, many are all but inaccessible in the winter; visitor centers close, and tour operators close out of season.

July & August give you the best chance of clear days, though the season can run from May to September. If you’re after the fewest crowds but still bearable temperature, look to early September.

Have you ever visited any of these national parks in Alaska? Which one was your favorite and why? Tell us all about your experiences in the comment section below!

© Family Road Trip

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