In honor of the National Park Trust’s 6th anniversary of Kids to Parks Day, and the current celebration of National Parks Week April 16-24, AKontheGO brings you 6 Alaska national parks to visit with kids; because — national parks + kids = outdoor adventure of the best possible kind.Kids to Parks Day is a nationwide effort to encourage and promote exploration of all parks, in all places, by all people. Scheduled in 2016 for Saturday, May 21, NPT is aiming for record numbers of park-pledgers to sign up on the organization’s website, then get outside and play. Steadfastly moving forward with a mission to preserve all park spaces today for the benefit of park stewards, tomorrow (i.e. our kids), the National Park Trust does an admirable job of providing families the tools they need to have a successful, meaningful park visit.
National Parks Week is billed as “America’s largest celebration of national heritage,” and to make the invitation to visit even sweeter, the National Park Service is offering free admission to all parks, all week long between April 16-24. While most parks in Alaska are not yet open for the season, those in the Lower 48 or Hawai’i will undoubtedly enjoy this affordable access. Hint: Planning a big national park adventure for next year? National Parks Week is a good time to go. NPS can help you plan.
But back to Alaska national parks. The following 6 sites are in no particular order, but all have a cultural, historic, or recreational component valuable to the Alaska experience, for both children and adults.
Glacier Bay National Park: A 25-million acre World Heritage Site, Glacier Bay is most commonly visited by cruise ships offering up-close views of the park’s namesake natural attractions. But there’s more. Tlingit People lived for centuries here before glaciers’ creep forced them to move farther south. Traditions live on in many of the smaller communities nearby. Scientific studies are often conducted within the narrow fjords due to the area’s geologic processes and pure environmental conditions. Visit Park Headquarters at Bartlett Cove and explore the visitor center, hike the trails, or participate in a guided activity to learn more. Some cruise lines like UnCruise Adventures and Alaskan Dream Cruises offer in-depth exploration through kayaking, small boat tours, or even hiking the beaches and hillsides of the park.
Sitka National Historical Park: Taking up a good portion of the town’s forestland, Sitka’s most treasured site is also one of the most beautiful and historic. Preserving the site of a fierce battle between Tlingit People and Russian traders, the park is home to acres of totem poles, trails, and viewpoints overlooking Sitka Sound. Take a ranger-led walk, complete the Junior Ranger badge, view the totems, or watch the short video telling the story behind the poles, and the site. Easily reached from downtown, this is an excellent introduction to Alaska’s rainforest communities and the rich history of its people. We like to walk the trails in the evening for a peaceful end to our busy day. Hint: Remember your bear-aware tactics, as nearby Indian River is a prime salmon stream that feeds not just bears, but eagles too. Be sure to visit at low tide as well, for some fun beachcombing activities.
Kenai Fjords National Park: So accessible, so beautiful, so full of the unexpected. Kenai Fjords is a part land-part sea swath of ice and water that everyone who visits Alaska should visit. On the edge of Kenai Peninsula, a few hours south of Anchorage, the park is the perfect place to bring in hiking, cruising, kayaking, and learning. Start at Exit Glacier Visitor Center near the edge of Seward. Camp in the tent-only campground, or just spend a day hiking the well-marked trails nearby. We like to stay at Seward Windsong Lodge and take the hiking tour with a very knowledgable naturalist/guide, walking up to the glacier itself and along the icy Resurrection River. Take a day cruise into Resurrection Bay and toward the tidewater glaciers and fjords nearby. The tours are a great way to immerse your family in the majesty and mystery of glaciers, icebergs, and Mother Nature’s reason for both.
Wrangell-St. Elias/Kennecott National Historical Landmark: We heard about this trip in a post by contributor Danielle a few weeks ago, and excitement was high when it published. This, the largest national park in the United States, is a must-see. Why? It’s remote, rugged, and yet perfectly illustrates the tenacity of Last Frontier residents and business people. Kennecott is an old copper mining town now being refurbished to teach visitors the story of natural resources and Alaska. It also offers some of the most stunning scenery in the whole state, with hiking trails, glacier climbing, rafting, and wildlife to boot. It does take some time to reach, however, and all visitors should be prepared for a long, rough road to and from. But once there, the historical and cultural opportunities mingle with outstanding recreation, and as our son grows older, becomes even more treasured by our family.
Denali National Park: Much has been written about Denali National Park and kids, a lot of it by me. Although many might offer that Denali is too crowded, too commercialized, and too touristy, I’d counter with the fact that it is also one of the best parks through which to introduce kids to the concept of preservation and stewardship. Think about it. You can only drive 18 miles of the park itself. Rangers lead daily walks and talks and opportunities to learn and grow as an outdoor explorer. Camping is offered in many places deeper within the park to avoid the biggest crowds, and wildlife are abundant. Not to mention the ample opportunity for hiking, biking, and backpacking. Another advantage of Denali is the year-round access it affords, especially during Road Lottery season and shortly after, or during the winter months for some epic skiing or snowshoeing with virtually no crowds, unless you count caribou. Go here. You won’t regret it.
Katmai National Park: This is the place of McNeil Falls, Hallo Bay, and Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. You know, where the bears are. Expensive to visit, difficult to reach (for many families, anyway), Katmai is, however, a place where magical moments can be made with your older kids. AK Kid, 11, has not yet ventured out to Katmai with me, but I anticipate his readiness very shortly. Why? Kids who visit Katmai will be exposed to situations and environments that require quick attention to detail and directions, and to be honest, I just haven’t sensed he’s ready for that. But soon. Bears are the main reason everyone wants to visit Katmai, and my favorite place to explore is under the careful guidance of Hallo Bay Bear Camp, located across Cook Inlet from Homer on the fringe of the park. However, so many people want to visit famous Brooks Camp, where access to the falls and Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes can be accessed. Like bears, fishing, and/or geology? This is the place for you. The perfect trip for an older tween and definitely a teenager, Katmai is an incredible experience of mettle and might, both from a wildlife and geologic perspective. Stay at Katmailand or camp (but be ready for bears everywhere) in the secure sites available. Take the day tour of the valley to see the leavings of Novarupta’s eruption in 1912 that buried Kodiak in ash.
WHERE WOULD WE LIKE TO GO, NEXT?
Lake Clark National Park. I want to see Dick Proenneke’s cabin and hike around Port Alsworth.
Gates of the Arctic National Park. No roads, no trails, but centuries of footprints. I want to add mine. And my son’s.