Sheer numbers may not do it justice, but the relative size and scope of this Alaskan wilderness is enough to baffle minds alone. Six mountain ranges stretch through various parts of this park, some of which contain still active volcanoes. Home to the largest subpolar icefield in North America, glaciers give way to rivers, stretching across the flatter lands like spiderwebs. Bordered by Alaska’s famed copper river, this area was once the source of one of Alaska’s biggest mineral rushes and evidence turn-of-the-century prospectors can still be found in the areas they eventually abandoned. The stories they told of the awe-inspiring views and natural wonders of this area would start a 72-year campaign for a national park designation. Today, this area is the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
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.
While the term fjords conjures up images of Scandinavia for most, Alaska has a wealth of these glacier-created formations with the Kenai Peninsula being particularly famous for them. Taking a trip back in time to the last Ice Age might be as simple as hopping on a ship in Anchorage, Kenai, Homer or Seward then heading around the peninsula in the Gulf of Alaska. The home of one of the largest ice fields in the country, more than half of the park is still covered with ice. While many of the few visitors who come here do not leave the cruise ships they use to pass through the park, those who do set foot in Kenai Fjords have a chance to see some of the most beautiful scenery Alaska has to offer, whether they choose to do so by climbing a glacier, from a dog sled, on boat or on foot.
A place of great natural and human history, the Katmai National Park and Preserve showcases a side of Alaska not many see. Roughly the size of Wales, this national park has been largely unvisited and undeveloped throughout its history - though the animals don’t seem to mind. The fourth largest national park, Katmai is also one of the least visited parks. While the interesting volcanic phenomena witnessed in the park led to its initial preservation, the park managed to gain acreage over time as part of efforts to protect Alaskan wildlife, both those that dwell on the land and in the waters of the park. It was one of several Alaskan parks established in 1980 as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
For thousands of years, this area of Alaska has been in a constant cycle of growth, retreat and rebirth as glaciers continue to shape the area. Because of its unique environment, the park has been preserved not just as a national park but a marine park, wilderness preserve, a biosphere reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Researchers also use the park as a living laboratory to see how glaciers have and continued to shape the earth. More than that, it is a sacred place to the native peoples who have long called this area home and relied on his natural wealth for their survival. The story of Glacier Bay is one of survival against all odds
On Dec. 2, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the creation of seven national parks, all of which were located in Alaska. Gates of the Arctic became the first sheerly based on the alphabet, and became the second park established in the state after Denali. Today, Alaska is home to eight total national parks and is second only to California in the number of national parks by state. Remote and often hard to access, Gates of the Arctic has the dubious honor of historically being the least visited national park but is also the second largest of all the national parks - all the more reason to visit this amazing landscape.
The story of Denali is the story of Alaska and to a larger extent all American frontiers. It began life as the hunting ground of Native American tribes, soon found itself overrun by peoples of European descent attempting to tame its wild and now is working to reconcile its future with its past. Denali has been a national park longer than Alaska has been a state, but it still keeps the Alaskan wilderness as untouched as it appeared when the first miners, missionaries and merchants first appeared in the shadow of the high one.
From areas that once housed vibrant native cities to mining boom towns and gold rush flops, there are plenty of reasons why places in Alaska have found themselves abandoned. Within these abandoned places, we can find keys to Alaska's past and the unique histories behind this unique state.
Afognak - The Native Village
Dedicated to all things travel, places I have been and places I want to go.