Destination Spotlight: National parks of Alaska
It’s more than twice the size of Texas, the next largest state, and bigger than all but 18 sovereign countries. It’s the third least populous state in the union. Alaska has a lot of land and not too many people, so it’s no wonder that the state warrants its own national parks region. Alaska boasts a total of eight national parks, second only to the nine of California. These Alaska parks are worth a look.
The highlight, of course, is the 20,310-foot-tall mountain which is the highest peak in North America and gives the park its name. But over more than 6 million acres, there is much to explore. Along the 92-mile road the traverses the park, visitors can see a diversity of wildlife, including caribou and several bear species. The topography features tundra, taiga forest, lakes, glaciers and mountains. For adventurous spirits, dog-mushing and heli-skiing are popular activities.
Visiting cruise ships spend a full day and are joined by a park ranger so passengers can get the full Glacier Bay experience, which includes icebergs and calving glaciers plus bears, goats, otters, seals, sea lions, bald eagles and many other bird species. Those exploring by land can visit a Huna tribal house, the first permanent clan house in the area since advancing glaciers swallowed up Tlingit villages along the shore of the bay 250 years ago. The rich waters also are frequented by orcas, whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins.
At more than 13 million acres, it’s the largest of the national parks. It has a wide range of terrain, going from the waters of the Gulf of Alaska to the peak of Mt. St. Elias at 18,008 feet. The Wrangell Mountains are a string of volcanoes — some still active — that form the spine of the park. With climate zones from tundra to temperate, there is a variety of wildlife, including grizzlies, caribou and Dall sheep on land; salmon, trout and whitefish in the water; and terns, gulls and eagles in the air.
Mountains, ice and ocean meet at this park outside Anchorage. Harding icefield is the central feature, with nearly glaciers surrounding ice-cold waters that the Sugpiaq people have fished for a millenium. The Exit Glacier area is accessible by road from Seward, although when the snows hit in mid-November, the road closes and cars give way to snowmobiles and dog sleds. When the weather warms, retreating glaciers yield to pioneer plans such as fireweed before shrubs and small trees such as Sitka alders rise up from the soil.
Gates of the Arctic
The name is no joke, and with no roads and a remote location, this is the least visited national park. But the 10,000 or so souls who visit each year are treated to unspoiled wilderness. Visitors fly or hike into the park, which saw the first nomadic hunter-gatherers arrive about 13,000 years ago. Not much has changed in Gates of the Arctic since, with the rhythm of the seasons dictating activity. Temperatures hover around -20 to -50 in winter before hibernating animals begin to stir in spring and birds arrive from all over the word to enjoy the endless summer days.