At first glance, most might not believe that this landscape of dunes, hills and meandering rivers is found in Alaska, let alone a part of Alaska north of the Arctic Circle. Comprised largely of broad wetlands in a valley between two mountain ranges, three large fields of sand dunes still remain here from what researchers believe was once 200,000 acres of dunes left behind after glacial retreat between 2.8 million and 11,700 years ago. While only 20,500 acres worth of dunes remain, the dune field here is the largest group of arcitc dunes in North America. In addition to leaving behind these great sand dunes, the glacial retreat opened the area to its iconic caribou and soon, the native peoples who still call this area home became the first humans to dwell here. This is Kobuk Valley National Park.
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 park conserves the Biscayne Bay region, stretching from Miami down the southern tip of Florida to Homestead and then out to seat at Elliot Key, the northernmost of the Florida Keys. An ecosystem linked to that of Florida’s famous Everglades, the area preserves both an important south Florida ecosystem as well as a piece of Florida history with human habitation dating back at least 10,000 years ago. This water wonderland has brought together native peoples, presidents, millionaires, pirates, farmers, researchers, exiles and outdoorsmen over the years. Rainbow colored fish and coral lie beneath the crystal blue waters and emerald islands
The year 1980 was a banner year for the National Parks System with nine national parks opening that year - more than any other on record. Channel Islands became the first of those nine national parks, and bolstered the conservation and preservation efforts of America's growing environmental movement. Today, visitors still come to tour the five of the seven Channel Islands preserved within the park's boundaries while researchers and scientists have been able to use the area's endemic species to learn more about the natural world.
Known as the Little Missouri Badlands, this area went from being the home of nomadic native tribes to a sportsman’s paradise before it was decided to preserve the area in memory of Roosevelt and his legacy as a conservationist. Known today for its feral horses and spectacular views of the Northern Lights, this park features some of the most unique scenery in the Great Plains with views that are breathtaking no matter the season. It is easy to see how anyone who spent time at Theodore Roosevelt National Park would come away with a desire to protect the natural beauty of America.
Badlands National Park has long been sacred to the Oglala Lakota and today, portions of the park are surrounded by the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Lakota once roamed this area and the nearby Black Hills freely, and now work to ensure their ancestral lands are preserved for future generations. A national monument since the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1978 that the Badlands achieved national park status. By then, the land had seen the clashes between its native inhabitants and homesteaders, the last of the ghost dances, been used as a U.S. Air Force base, and a touchstone for the members of the American Indian Movement. Inhospitable as they may seem, the Badlands are iconic not only because of the natural wonders found here but also because of the cultural history and legacy they stand for.
The relative isolation and natural beauty of this area has led to many cultures making their homes here or at least creating their myths about how this area came to be. The forbidding nature of the area made it seem unconquerable to some and despite several attempts to settle it in the modern day, Capitol Reef remained largely untouched. Soon, it was determined the rugged beauty of this area was best preserved for future generations, a testament to the sheer power and force of nature. It would take nearly 50 years before the dream of preserving Capitol Reef was realized.
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