Between the Sierra Nevadas and the Wasatch Mountains is a dry, arid section that is part of a much larger and much more diverse region. While just under 200 square miles, this land mass is actually part of a more than 209,100 square mile region home to the largest area of contiguous closed watersheds despite being considered to be largely a desert. Reaching as far north as the cascade Range and Columbia Plateau and as far south as the Mojave, this region is not as desolate as many initially suspect and boasts many diverse animal and plant species. A microcosm of the larger basin for which it is named, Great Basin National Park shows that there is much more than meets the eye in this unique ecoregion - both above and below the ground.
Originally preserved due in part to its extensive underground cave network, the park today contains the Basin and Range Province of the much larger Great Basin itself. Located less than 15 miles from the Nevada-Utah state line, this national park is located off the beaten path, surrounded by small unincorporated communities and ghost towns. Its nearly 300 miles to Las Vegas in the south or 230 to Salt Lake City in the northeast. However, those who venture out will have a chance to see an untouched segment of America, a place of rock arches, underground caverns, canyons, mountains, lakes, pine forests and mountain meadows.
Once home to one of the most intricate trading networks in prehistoric Alaska, the area that now contains the national park has become home to Russian explorers and traders, American researchers and soldiers, prospectors, merchants, and now national park rangers. Shaped by glaciers and volcanoes, the park was once home to the largest copper lode in the country. It was the explotation of minerals and oils that made conservationists realize the importance of preserving the natural beauty of this ancient land. Today, the park protects everything from formations millions of years old to historic structures constructed in the past century. The story of Wrangell-St. Elias is, in many ways, the story of Alaska itself.
The Dena’ina and Yup’ik peoples still live in and around the park, practicing subsistence the same way native inhabitants of the park have for nearly 10,000 years. Later a refuge for those seeking to live a solitary life among nature, the park today faces threats from mining operations nearby continue to show the importance of preserving this unique natural landscape. In addition to being the seventh largest national park in the United States, Lake Clark is considered one of the least visited. Despite this, the park is the year-round home to two cities and hundreds of residents.
One of the least visited national parks in the country, Kobuk Valley has no roads leading into it, requiring visitors to fly in via air taxi from local cities like Nome. Still, there are numerous ways to see the park once inside ranging from boating to hiking to dog sledding. The iconic dunes for which the park is known are what draw most visitors, ranging from tourists to researchers. NASA is even working to do research here as preparation for Mars exploration. However, Kobuk is much more than its dunes. Rivers have long proven a great way to navigate this area and create beautiful shapes from above. Ancient peoples and their modern descendants are connected here through historical sites, archaeological discoveries and subsistence living. Stargazers come out for a glimpse of the northern lights here. Kobuk Valley National Park may just change any preconceived notions about Alaska.
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