Picture of a car driving along a road at Denali National Park

Mount McKinley is the highest peak in North America.

Photograph by Francoise de Valera, Alamy

By Robert Earle Howells

Gateway Airport: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

Using Anchorage as a hub, these out-and-back drives lead to three huge national parks and some of the world’s most expansive and spectacular wilderness scenery.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

The country’s largest national park represents everything that is compelling about Alaska. It is vast—bigger than Switzerland. It showcases towering mountains (Mount St. Elias stands 18,008 feet tall) and accessible glaciers. The state’s human history is on display in the historic mining communities of McCarthy and Kennicott. And, appropriate for Alaska, getting there is an adventure: a long day’s drive to reach a 59-mile gravel road that leads to the heart of the park. (If you rent a car, be sure the agency permits travel on gravel roads.)

The Route: Anchorage > Alaska 1 (Glenn Highway) > Alaska 10 (Edgerton Highway) > McCarthy Road > Wrangell-St. Elias

On the Way: Be sure to stop at the park’s main visitor center, located outside the park in Copper Center, for the latest on road conditions as well as maps and books.

At approximately mile 17 on McCarthy Road you’ll cross the Kuskulana Bridge, a picturesque trestle bridge built in 1910 to serve the railroad. It spans a canyon and towers 238 feet above the raging muddy water of the Kuskulana River.

Stay: Kennicott Glacier Lodge is a modern hotel built in 1987 in the spirit of the ghost-town mining village of Kennicott. The 25-room lodge has views of the Chugach and Wrangell Mountains, and the Kennicott-Root Glacier confluence is so close you can hear the trickling of glacial meltwater. To get there, leave your car in McCarthy, walk across the Kennicott River on a footbridge, and meet the lodge shuttle for the five-mile drive. Rates start at $185 a night.

Eat: The McCarthy Lodge dining room surprises visitors with its emphasis on local foods, such as wild Copper River red salmon, and fresh ingredients, including greenhouse-grown vegetables.

Don’t Miss: Even if you stay in Kennicott, be sure to spend time in McCarthy. Stroll its few streets to get a sense of what it’s like to live in a true Alaskan bush community, and visit its little local-history museum to get a sense of life here during the heyday of copper mining nearly a century ago.

If the weather’s clear, get up high with Wrangell Mountain Air, based in McCarthy. Only on a flightseeing tour can you begin to appreciate the vastness of the Wrangell-St. Elias wilderness.

Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: You can’t do better than the terrace of Kennicott Lodge, with its view of Kennicott and Root Glaciers and a dramatic mountain backdrop—unless you walk up a little higher toward Bonanza and Jumbo mines for an even better view.

Walks

  1. Easy: Get face-to-face with a glacier by taking the two-mile Root Glacier trail up the lateral moraines of the Kennicott and Root Glaciers before reaching the Root. Even better, do it with St. Elias Alpine Guides, who will provide crampons and guide you out onto the ice.
  2. Moderate: Hike the steep uphill trail past an old tram system to the ruins of Bonanza Mine (4.5 miles), or to Jumbo Mine (5 miles), where you can see old mine buildings and tools and gain great views of the Kennicott Valley.

Side Drive: In the far north part of the park, the gravel Slana-Nabesna Road runs 42 miles. Great views of the Wrangell Mountains open up as you proceed south. The other prime attraction: solitude, in a little-visited part of the park. Be sure to check with the visitor center regarding road conditions before embarking on this drive.

Oddity: How did they do it? That’s the question that comes to mind when you glean the extent of the mining operations around McCarthy and Kennicott—amazing feats of construction, massive timbers and machinery, and particularly a railroad that crossed a glacier and penetrated such rugged country.

Before You Come: Read, and admire the photos in, My Wrangell Mountains by photographer Ruedi Homberger, who documents the Wrangell-St. Elias wilderness from the air and from the summits of the mountains.

Park website: nps.gov/wrst

Seasonal Notes: Highways to the park are plowed year-round, but the park road to McCarthy doesn’t open until early May. Lodges in the park are open from late May to mid-September.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords is a place of ice and water. The massive Harding Icefield overlays much of the park, and dozens of glaciers branch from it, many of them flowing into the glacially carved fjords that give the park its name. This may not sound like an ideal formula for a driving tour, but the drive to the park is spectacular, and once you’re there, boat and kayak operators take over and guide you to the park’s dramatic land and seascapes.

The Route: Anchorage > Alaska 1 (Seward Highway) > Alaska 9 (Seward Highway) > Kenai Fjords

On the Way: As you drive down from Anchorage between Turnagain Arm and the rugged mountains of Chugach State Park, keep an eye peeled on those rises for mountain goats.

Stop off to see beautiful Portage Lake and Portage Glacier in Chugach National Forest. At Mile 55, turn left on Portage Glacier Highway, continue five miles, and then turn right at the sign for the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, which is right on the lake. There you can buy tickets for a boat ride that takes you near the mouth of the glacier.

Stay: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, a wilderness lodge on a private inholding on Aialik Bay, is the only lodging within the park. It is set on the shore of a protected lagoon with a view of Pederson Glacier and is reachable only by boat with Alaska Wildland Adventures. A two-day, one night package is $695.

Eat: The larger tour boats that serve the park have generous buffets that inevitably include fresh Alaska salmon. In Seward, gateway to the park, fresh seafood is everywhere.

Don’t Miss: A boat tour is the way to behold the extent of the beauty of the park’s fjords and glaciers. Take a full-day tour to reach such massive tidewater glaciers as Aialik and Holgate. You might witness them calving. Along the way you’ll see abundant seabirds, sea lions, and, very likely, whales. The park website lists boat-tour operators.

Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: Even if you’re not up to the challenging four-mile climb to the top of the Harding Icefield Trail, go up a mile and a half or so for a stunning view of the valley that contains the terminus of the Exit Glacier.

Walks

  1. Easy: Exit Glacier is the only glacier in the park you can drive and hike to. Short trails begin at the Exit Glacier Nature Center and lead to a view of the glacier (0.5 miles), the toe of the glacier (1 mile), or the edge of the glacier (1.2 miles). Signs along the way indicate the rate at which the glacier has receded.
  2. Challenging: In the course of a steep, steady ascent of the four-mile Harding Icefield Trail, you enter the frigid realm of the Pleistocene Epoch, or what’s left of it. You’ll skirt Exit Glacier along the way, and hear its cracking ice. But reaching the Harding Icefield is the real payoff—700 square miles of the same glacial ice that blanketed much of south-central Alaska thousands of years ago.

Side Drive: Although the little harbor town of Whittier is not in the park, a side trip there is worthwhile, especially on a clear day when you can appreciate the town’s setting on Prince William Sound.

Oddity: The drive and walk to Exit Glacier is a passage back through time—first through mature Alaska forest, then through alders and shrubs, and then to the ice itself, dating from the Pleistocene epoch. Signs along the way tell the story.

Before You Come: Read A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast by Linda Cook and Frank Norris. It tells the geologic and human history of the Kenai Fjords region, and is available online at nps.gov/history/history/online_books/kefj/hrs/hrs.htm.

Park Website: nps.gov/kefj

Seasonal Notes: Boat tours and lodging operate only in summer, but the Exit Glacier part of the park is open in winter for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and dogsledding.

Denali National Park

Long before “awesome” got downgraded to describe a decent burger, Denali (aka Mount McKinley) practically owned the word. The continent’s highest peak (20,320 feet) is such a dominant presence in six-million-acre Denali National Park that you feel it even when the mountain is shrouded in clouds, which is two-thirds of the time. Whether or not the clouds lift, the drive from Anchorage is thrilling, and the drive through the park—which you’ll hand over to the park’s shuttle drivers—gives you a sense of the expansiveness of the land that surrounds the massive mountain.

The Route: Anchorage > Alaska 3 > Denali

On the Way: Take a 15-mile detour to the town of Talkeetna, mustering place for Mount McKinley climbers and a lunch stop with plentiful options. Denali State Park has great hiking and, at the Veterans Memorial inside the park, an excellent view of Mount McKinley.

Stay: Camp Denali, deep inside the park, has high-ceilinged, woodstove-heated pine cabins scattered across 67 mountain-view acres, and a short walk to showers and facilities gives you a slight sense of roughing it. $1,635 for three nights, all-inclusive.

Eat: About ten miles south of the park entrance on Alaska 3 is 229 Parks, which serves creative alternatives to the usual salmon-bake fare, and utilizes fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

Don’t Miss: There’s no better way to digest the scope of the mountain and park than to see them from the air. Several air taxi services run flights out of the main park entrance and from Talkeetna.

Taking the shuttle through the park on the sole road that traverses Denali is a must. But don’t just sit on the bus to the end of the line. Get off almost anywhere along the way and take a walk—the Polychrome Overlook area, for example—and pick up a later bus to complete your passage through the park.

Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: The views are endless along the park road, but one that is exceptional is one you can drive to—Mountain Vista Trailhead at Mile 13. What do you see? The great mountain, of course, if the clouds cooperate.

Walks: Denali is unusual in that it has very few trails. Walking here is mainly a cross-country proposition. You can hop off the park shuttle anywhere and flag down another one after your hike. Your best bets are places where gravel river bars make for reasonably easy going—for example, the Toklat River at Mile 53. Consult rangers at the park visitor center for further suggestions.

Side Drive: Although the full length of the 92-mile park road is closed to private vehicles, you can drive as far as Savage River (Mile 14), where there’s a parking area and a trail paralleling the river on which you gain a quick sense of isolation.

Oddity: Denali has the only working dogsled team in the National Park Service. In winter, they run patrols and deliver researchers and supplies into the wilderness. In summer, rangers train the dogs (Alaskan huskies, of course) and run demos (using sleds with rollers) for visitors several times a day. The kennels are 1.5 miles from the visitor center. You can walk or catch a shuttle bus.

Before You Come: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount McKinley, making Hudson Stuck’s account of that climb, The Ascent of Denali, a timely read. If that climb sounds like a walk in the park, read Art Davidson’s Minus 148°, an account of the first winter ascent of the mountain.

Park Website: nps.gov/dena

Seasonal Notes: The park is open year-round, although the park road is plowed only as far as park headquarters. The park shuttles operate from May 20 through the second Thursday after Labor Day. Lodge facilities in and near the park are open approximately those same dates.

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