Story and photos by Lisa Maloney
“Don’t get too close.” The guide’s warning was a good one: A small group of us had clustered around a moulin on the Root Glacier – a near-vertical, circular shaft in the sheet of ice – and a fountain of meltwater was still cascading into its depths. I might’ve been sidling a little too close to the lip of the moulin, curious for a closer look at this open well into the glacier’s depths.
Having the chance to walk on glaciers is just one of the many reasons to camp out in Alaska’s national parks. Pull up a tent and stay awhile to enjoy the state’s rugged, desperately beautiful wilderness; they’ll even leave the summer sunlight on for you.
But there are a few things you should know first.
The Drive-In Parks: Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali and Kenai Fjords
There are two challenging aspects to Alaska’s national parks. Aside from their sheer immensity, it’s getting there in the first place and dealing with limited amenities.
The good news is that out of Alaska’s eight national parks, you can drive to three of them – Wrangell-St. Elias, Denali and Kenai Fjords. But here in Alaska, “road access” doesn’t always mean what you think it does.
Consider Wrangell-St. Elias, the nation’s largest national park at a whopping 13.2 million acres, and home to the aforementioned Root Glacier. Although you can drive into the park on the McCarthy Road – a 60-mile, mostly unpaved stretch that’s famous for shredding vehicle tires – you can’t quite drive to the National Park Service’s Jumbo Creek Camping Area, which sits near the foot of the glacier.
Instead, you go as far as you can on the McCarthy Road, which ends in a footbridge across the Kennicott River. Walk across the bridge, then either catch a shuttle to the tiny town of McCarthy or walk the roughly half-mile to get there. From there, it’s another 5-mile shuttle ride or hike to the mining ghost town of Kennecott. Then, and only then, you can start the approximately 1.5-mile hike to Jumbo Creek Camping Area.
There’s a reason the Park Service doesn’t actually call this a campground. All you really get is a few flat spaces to pitch a tent, bearproof food lockers and water from nearby streams. It’s free, though, and it’s in the middle of the unbroken wildness and splendid isolation of the nation’s largest national park.
That puts Wrangell-St. Elias right in the middle of Alaska’s “How do I get there?” spectrum. You can drive to the park, but you can’t drive to the campsites; you can walk to the campsites and you’ll get something useful for your troubles (those bearproof lockers), but that’s about it. That said, you can always pay to use a private campground a little closer to the McCarthy Road, or pop for a nearby hotel or lodge room and do your exploring from comfort.
Time for an Access Upgrade
The trip to Denali and Kenai Fjords national parks is much easier. You truly can just drive there, and both parks have RV-friendly campgrounds in them or nearby. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have electrical hookups, but at least there’s space to park and set up camp.
Denali has the most camping options of all, starting with the tent and RV-friendly Riley Creek Campground just inside the entrance. You’ll find many relative luxuries here, such as hot showers, trash collection, laundry, dump stations, a small camp store, firewood and ice for sale, and even limited cell service. Still no electrical hookups, though.
Riley Creek Campground is perched at the intersection of the Parks Highway, which brings you to the park from Anchorage or Fairbanks, and the Denali Park Road – the one and only roadway that actually enters the park. All of Denali’s other campgrounds are strung along that park road like beads on a string, growing increasingly remote and offering fewer amenities as you go futher.
Boondockers will love Kenai Fjords; it’s common to see RVs and campervans posted up in pullouts along the access road to the Exit Glacier Nature Center, which serves as a trailhead for the two maintained hiking trails in the park. There’s also a small, walk-in tent campground just before the nature center, with two accessible campsites. Much like Jumbo Creek in Wrangell-St. Elias, you pay no fees and get pretty much no amenities at these first-come, first-serve sites.
But that’s all right because if you don’t mind a little drive, you can have all the camping amenities you want in the most unlikely of places – right in the middle of downtown Seward.
This small town serves as a gateway for cruises into the wildlife-rich waters around Kenai Fjords National Park, and yes, technically you’ll be camping in the middle of a city. But when that city comes with the sort of stunning waterfront scenery you get in Seward, it’s hard to mind. Many of the campsites have front-row seats to the beautiful waters of Resurrection Bay, alternately blue-green or steely gray depending on the light. From your campsite, you might even see seals, sea lions, sea otters, and on rare occasions, breaching humpback whales.
But what about the five Alaska campgrounds you can’t drive to? For most people the answer is simple – you fly – and that’s where a simple camping outing starts turning into a full-on expedition. Of those five parks, only Glacier Bay National Park is accessible by Alaska Airlines, and those flights into Gustavus, the park’s tiny gateway community, are only available during the summer.
For anything else you get to hop in a small plane, which gives you a much more intimate feel for the air than a jet does. Every little swirl of turbulence becomes what pilots describe as potholes in the sky. You’ll sure feel a bump if you hit one!
Glacier Bay is also the best of these parks for tent campers, and it’s not entirely due to the more robust air service. There’s just one campground in the park, Bartlett Cove, and it’s a lovely, convenient place to stay if you’re pursuing water adventures in the park. It’s just a short hike from the docks, so you can easily hop on a day tour for whale-watching or rent a sea kayak and use the National Park Service’s tour boat as a water taxi to leapfrog a little farther into the wilderness.
However, there’s no public transport to speak of, in and around Glacier Bay, and the grocery options here are incredibly limited as well. With that in mind, you should either plan to bring all your food with you (and store it in the bearproof caches at the campground) or splurge on expensive meals at the nearby Glacier Bay Lodge, which also doubles as a visitor center.
The Planes Get Smaller
Keep that advice about flying in food handy, because you’re going to need if you want to camp at the last four of Alaska’s national parks. These are the truly remote destinations, with no grocery stores to shop in if you’ve forgotten something and sometimes no buildings at all.
You may know one of those parks very well already – Katmai National Park, home to the famous Katmai Bear Cam, a collaborative endeavor between the National Park Service and Explore.org. Every year the cameras offer a live feed to massive brown bears fattening themselves up on salmon before winter comes.
If you’d like to see the action in person, there is a tent campground at Katmai. Brooks Camp is situated inside an electric fence for both your safety and that of the bears, and it’s a rustic, backcountry setting with essentially no amenities. But if you’re looking for a way to stretch your budget and enjoy more time watching the bears do their thing – while also enjoying a one-of-a-kind backcountry adventure in Alaska – this is it.
Lake Clark National Park is similar, in that it’s a popular destination for bear-viewing day trips, but there are no established camping facilities here, and unlike Katmai there’s no remote lodge within the park boundaries. Instead, all the local lodge/B&B offerings are on private land nearby.
Just getting to Katmai, Lake Clark, or Alaska’s other two national parks – Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley – is an adventure in and of itself. Your best option is almost always to hop on a small plane, where every seat is the window seat and one lucky passenger might get to ride in the copilot’s seat.
The Last Big Two
A trip to Gates of the Arctic or Kobuk Valley requires a full-on expedition. There are no amenities or established camping areas whatsoever, and no groomed or maintained trails. In fact, there aren’t any buildings at all. The visitor center for each park is in the gateway communities from which you can usually charter a plane: Bettles for Gates of the Arctic and Kotzebue for Kobuk Valley.
For most people, a trip to either of these parks will be a true guided excursion, flying in and backcountry camping as you either float out on one of the rivers that act as travel conduits in these remote regions, or wait for another plane to pick you up.
But in the end, it’s not the size of the place that gets you to a national park campground, or the length of an expedition into the parkland backcountry that really matters.
It’s about the precious life experience you’ll gain as you go trekking on glaciers, hiking through some of the world’s most magnificent scenery, or as you watch quietly while a brown bear sow stashes her cubs near your tour group for safekeeping.
Then it’s time for your own safekeeping – returning to your tent or RV secure in the knowledge that for at least one more day you get to curl up safely beneath a blanket woven of stars and clouds, then wake up tomorrow and experience the wonder all over again.