Category Archives: Alaska

Denali National Park and Preserve

Overview

At 20,320 feet above-sea-level, Denali is the highest point in North America.  It is also the tallest mountain on Earth measured from base to summit.  Mt. Everest starts from a 13,000-foot plateau, while Denali’s base is only 700 feet.  The park is also home to an incredibly diverse array of wildlife, including our favorite, the hoary marmot.

Highlights

Denali peak, Sled Dog Demonstration, Mt. Healy Overlook Trail, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

The summit of Denali is only visible 10% of the summer, so flightseeing is the most successful option to the see the peak.  While in the park, it is better to focus on the wildlife, so bring a good camera with a zoom lens for moose, caribou, Dall sheep, gray wolves, and brown bears.  Your best chance to see wildlife is to buy a shuttle bus ticket online or at the Wilderness Access Center.  We recommend you only take the eight hour roundtrip to Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66) and spend some time hiking the tundra, instead of going all the way to Wonder Lake (Mile 85).

Best Trail

Most of the park is managed as wilderness so there are no trails, but around the park entrance there are a few.  We recommend climbing as high on the steep trail up Mt. Healy as you can for unsurpassed views of the mountainous area.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Even if the summit of Denali is hidden, the tundra scenery here is incredibly colorful, especially around the bus stop for Polychrome Overlook (Mile 47).

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

There is no admission fee; however, visitors can only get past Mile 15 of the Park Road on a tour bus or with campground or backcountry reservations.

Road Conditions

The Park Road is paved to the Mile 15 Savage River Check Station, past which personal vehicles are not allowed.  The dirt road is groomed, but it can get bumpy in the back of the bus.

Camping

Riley Creek Campground is open year round, a rarity in Alaska.  A reservation at Teklanika River Campground allows you to drive your own vehicle to Mile 29 partway into the park.  


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Explore More – How many earthquakes are recorded annually in Denali National Park and Preserve?

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Top 10 Non-Fiction Books Set in Alaska

Books about Alaska are so plentiful they have inspired their own genre: Alaskana.  This is a list of our favorite non-fiction books about Alaska (leaving off the overrated Coming into the Country by John McPhee, who has written many better books).  As a couple we have visited the state many times, including for our honeymoon.  Scott attended grad school in Fairbanks where he took advantage of the entire floor of the university library dedicated to Alaskana.  Two of the very best books (One Man’s Wilderness and A Naturalist in Alaska) wound up on our list of top non-fiction set in a National Park. Our next list will cover Alaskana fiction.

10. The Blue Bear:A True Story of Friendship and Discovery in the Alaskan Wild by Lynn Schooler (2002)

A descriptive account of traveling Southeast Alaska with the renowned photographer Michio Hoshino.

9. Tracks of the Unseen: Meditations on Alaska Wildlife, Landscape, and Photography by Nick Jans (2000)

Jans is a well-known contemporary non-fiction author in the state who writes great short stories.

8. Stalking the Ice Dragon: An Alaskan Journey by Susan Zwinger (1991)

The daughter of famous naturalist Ann Zwinger offers an interesting, but slightly dated view of Alaska.

7. Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska by Rockwell Kent (1920)

Kent was a successful illustrator when he and his son moved to a remote cabin on Resurrection Bay.

6. Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range by Robert Marshall (1956)

Marshall’s name is synonymous with wilderness and his descriptions of the Arctic are wonderful.

5. Two in the Far North by Margaret Murie (1962)

The wife of naturalist Olaus Murie eloquently described growing up in Fairbanks and their time together in the Arctic.

4. Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man by Doug Fine (2004)

A funny book about surviving an Alaskan winter written by an outsider who moved to Homer.

3. Arctic Daughter: A Wilderness Journey by Jean Aspen (1993)

There are many books about homesteading in the wilds of Alaska, but this is our favorite.

2. Looking for Alaska by Peter Jenkins (2001)

A great introduction to the variety of people and landscapes encompassed by this massive state (and not to be confused with the fiction book with the same title).

1. Alaska’s Wolf Man: The 1915-55 Wilderness Adventures of Frank Glaser by Jim Rearden (1998)

An excellent biography of one of the toughest men to ever trod the Alaskan tundra.

Honorable Mentions

Danger Stalks the Land: Alaskan Tales of Death and Survival by Larry Kaniut (1999)

Known better for his collected Bear Tales, this title covers a variety of ways to die in the Far North.

A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot, Raft, and Ski by Erin McKittrick (2009)

Worth reading just for the logistics required to get from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands solely by manpower.

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Sitka National Historical Park

Overview

Sitka National Historical Park offers a good introduction to the Russian and native influences on this region, as well as a forested trail past beautifully carved totem poles.  Created in 1910, it was the first National Park Service (NPS) site in Alaska, nearly 50 years before statehood.

Highlights

1843 Russian Bishop’s House, Russian Orthodox cathedral, totem poles

Must-Do Activity

Two miles of trails wind through the spruce forest passing more than a dozen totem poles and the site of Kiks.ádi Fort where the 1804 battle took place between Russian fur traders and the native Tlingit community.  To further experience the Tlingit culture, attend a traditional dance at Shee’tka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House. 

Best Trail

The adventurous can summit 3,354 foot Mount Verstovia for unsurpassed views of the harbor and the mountainous heart of Baranof Island.  This steep route takes all day, starting with numerous switchbacks before the trail disappears and scrambling over rocks to the top.  Also scenic, Indian River Trail is a flatter alternative.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Jagged peaks and tiny forested islands make Sitka the most beautiful spot in Southeast Alaska.  Bald eagles abound in trees around the town’s quiet boat docks, while the volcanic cone of Mount Edgecumbe sits zen-like off to the west. 

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/sitk/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

There are no roads to Sitka, so you have to take an airplane, cruise ship, or ferry.  The main road on Baranof Island is paved and it is less than a mile walk to access the NPS visitor center from downtown.

Camping

Campsites are available at Blue Lake down a dirt road east of town in Tongass National Forest or at Old Sitka State Historic Park near the ferry terminal.

Explore More – When did the official transfer of Alaska from Russia to the U.S.A. take place on Castle Hill in Sitka (then known as New Archangel)?

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

Overview

Broadway in Skagway, Alaska still looks much like it did during the 1897 gold rush, lined with boardwalks and bustling with activity, especially when a cruise ship is docked.  Paved streets instead of mud are one major difference between now and when 30,000 stampeders came here aboard ships from Seattle.  The National Park Service (NPS) visitor center is located inside the old railway depot and the NPS owns several other historic structures including the Mascot Saloon and Jefferson “Soapy” Smith’s Parlor.  The NPS also runs a free museum in downtown Seattle, Washington inside the historic Cadillac Hotel.

Highlights

Mascot Saloon, Gold Rush Cemetery, Lower Reid Falls, Chilkoot Trail, Cadillac Hotel museum (Seattle)

Must-Do Activity

Start at the visitor center with the 25-minute introductory film then wander the boardwalks up Broadway to see historic false-front buildings that never burned since the 1897 gold rush.  If you want to learn more about the infamous “Soapy” Smith and laugh really hard, then I recommend purchasing tickets to the Days of ’98 Show offered multiple times daily in the summer. 

Best Trail

The NPS cooperatively manages the Chilkoot Trail with Parks Canada who issues all permits (in Skagway) for backpacking the 33-mile trail.  The trailhead is in the ghost town of Dyea, about 12 miles west of bustling Skagway.  Almost every trekker takes 3 to 5 days to hike one way into Canada and return on the White Pass Railroad.  It is cheaper to only hike the U.S. side and spend two nights at the always empty Pleasant Camp.

Instagram-worthy Photo

During the winter of 1897-98, over 30,000 people hauled one-ton of food and gear per person over the 3,501-foot Chilkoot Pass on their way to the Yukon Territory.  Photograph the 100% slope of the “Golden Stairs” in the summer, as it can be nearly impossible to access in winter.

Peak Season

Summer due to cruise ships and the fact that the rest of the year experiences heavy snowfall.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/klgo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

It is free to explore downtown Skagway’s buildings, but overnight backpacking on the Chilkoot Trail has fees ($20.30 per person for U.S.-side only) and is limited to only 50 permits per day to cross the border into Canada.

Road Conditions

Paved to Skagway and the dirt road to Dyea is good enough for all vehicles.

Camping

There is a car campground in Dyea.  Specific backcountry campsite permits (like Sheep Camp) can fill up early.

Explore More – How many times did the average stampeder have to ascend the Golden Stairs to haul one-ton of food and gear over 3,501-foot Chilkoot Pass?

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Overview

At 13.2-million acres, Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest unit in the National Park Service system, but most of it is remote wilderness.  Some of the tallest peaks in Alaska and several active volcanoes are held within its borders, between Fairbanks and Valdez.  The main visitor center is located along the Richardson Highway, north of the turnoff for the 92-mile long (mostly dirt) road connecting McCarthy and Kennecott to the rest of the state.

Wrangell

Highlights

Kennecott Mine buildings, Root Glacier, flightseeing tours

Must-Do Activity

The discovery of the richest copper ore in the world led to the building of the Kennecott mining town and railroads to transport its products across the Copper River in the 1910s.  The beautifully preserved and restored town is partially owned privately and publicly by the National Park Service, and it is continually undergoing renovations.  You can only enter most of the iconic red buildings on a private guided tour (fee).

Best Trail

Take the Root Glacier Trail from Kennecott with a guide to learn the basics of glacier route-finding.  A guide company provides the crampons required for walking and detours around dangerous moulins, which can be hundreds of feet deep.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The deep blue ice of Root Glacier makes for otherworldly photos, especially if you pay for a tour into an ice cave underneath the glacier.

The ice wave and beginning of a fun s-canyon

Peak Season

Summer is the only time of year McCarthy is accessible by car instead of snow machine.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/wrst/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

The park is free to enter.  We paid $110 per person for a full-day guided tour with St. Elias Alpine Guides.

Road Conditions

Two dirt roads enter the park and are passable for all vehicles when snow free: the 92-mile long McCarthy Road and the 42-mile long Nabesna Road in the north.  A pedestrian bridge is the only access from McCarthy across the Kennicott River, where you can pay for a van ride into Kennecott.

Camping

There are private campgrounds on the McCarthy Road, as well as one at Liberty Falls State Park.  No permits are required for backpacking, but it is recommended to file a trip plan with the NPS.

Scott on the footbridge over the Copper River on the way to McCarthy
Scott on the footbridge over the Kennicott River on the way from McCarthy to Kennecott
Mt. Blackburn (over 16,000 feet high) was revealed by the early afternoon
Mt. Blackburn (16,390 feet high) revealed from its usual cloudbank

Scott along the creek flowing through the ice

Alaska 2009 937
Mt. Sanford, Drum, and Wrangell are visible from the main visitor center on a clear day.
WRST web.jpg
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Explore More – What is the name of the park’s glacier that is larger than the state of Rhode Island?

WONDON WAS HERE

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