During my time in Alaska I have been in exactly zero national parks. This is not because I dislike national parks (obviously) or that I do not have time, but simply because the national parks in Alaska are, for the most part, inaccessible. This inaccessibility presents a unique challenge when trying to bring a new century of national park enthusiasts. How can one become enthusiastic about National Parks if they can’t even get to them?
The map above shows all of Alaska’s National Parks, shaded in dark green, and other national parks sites shaded in light green. I am located in Anchorage, the urban center of the state with about 300,000 people. The nearest National Parks to an Anchorage resident are Kenai Fjords, located about two hours south near Seward, and Denali, located about 4 hours north of Anchorage and 2 hours south of Fairbanks. The only other Alaska national parks accessible by road is Wrangell-St. Elias on the East side of the state, about a 6 hour drive from Anchorage. All of the other National Parks in Alaska are only accessible by plane or boat. Side note: to put the size of Alaska in perspective, if you laid Alaska over a map of the lower 48 and placed the end of Southeast Alaska at Disney World in Orlando, FL the end of the Aleutian Islands would reach Disneyland in Anaheim, CA.
The three National Parks accessible by road (Denali, Kenai Fjords, and Wrangell-St. Elias) are still inaccessible once you actually get to the parks themselves. Kenai Fjords, the closest national park to Anchorage, was created to protect the Harding Ice Field and aside from one trail leading to a lookout over the ice field and Exit Glacier, the rest of the park is only accessible if you are an experienced sea kayaker or can afford a boat tour of the Kenai Fjord coast line.
Denali, the next closest, is nothing short of incredible. The vast wilderness and seclusion from society can intimidate even the most avid hiker. In fact, it does. Denali is so vast and wild that the only ways to get through the park is to pay for private bus tours along the 90 mile road into the park or to bushwhack and backpack your way through the marshy tundra of bear, wolf, and moose territory.
Next, is Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest National Park. On my way into Alaska, the views of the Wrangell and St. Elias mountains were breathtaking. Spruce forests went on for miles and miles until suddenly a snowcapped active volcano dominated the horizon in the distance. The beauty is evident, but the wilderness is intimidating for the most experienced backpacker. Only two roads go in to our nation’s largest national park with few options for day hikes.
Now, the question for Alaska national parks is, is inaccessibility to the National Park system a bad thing of a good thing? It is a good thing; it is the best thing.
Why? Because the inaccessibility of these parks is the reasons they are still so well preserved. But how do we get the next generation to care about these national parks if they can’t access them?
City and State Parks are the answer for Alaskans. While Alaskans may not have great access to the National Park system here, they have access to the BEST state and municipal park system I have ever witnessed. The stunning Chugach Mountains, which offer loads of recreational opportunity, make up Anchorage’s backyard and part of Chugach State Park and the Chugach National Forest.
A view of the Chugach mountains from a hike to Thunderbird Falls, part of Chugach State Park about 15 minutes outside of Anchorage.
The Anchorage municipal park system is just as stunning with views of the Turnagain Arm and endless trails for mountain biking, cross country skiing, salmon fishing, dog sledding, and hiking. But the problem with almost anything in Alaska is the price. Venturing out in the wilderness is an expensive practice.
Let’s start with the most basic nature activity, hiking! In reality, all you need to go hiking is your own two feet but in Alaska you constantly need to prepare for the worst case scenario. My hiking kit includes, hiking boots (>$100), bear spray ($40, one time use), backpack ($30), water bottle ($15), bear bell ($10), wool socks ($10), rain jacket ($50), under layers (~$30), snacks ($20), and synthetic hiking pants ($50). Also, I still have yet to buy a compass or GPS unit to help me navigate trails as safely as I would like. All together my hiking kit costs upwards of $350. You don’t NEED all of these things to go walk into the woods, but it sure makes me feel much safer. Accordingly, as advocates for safe recreation in nature we must encourage people use the supplies for their own safety in Alaska.
So, in Alaska, how do we create the next generation of park enthusiasts if the parks we represent are inaccessible and the gear needed for year-round outdoor recreation is too expensive? I hope to answer some questions in my next blog.