by Erin Kirkland
Getting excited for summer means plotting and planning a plethora of adventures, and for many Alaska families, that includes camping. Whether tent or RV, backpack or kayak, Alaska camping is an activity that can transport parents and kids to a happy place of nature appreciation and slow living outdoors.
In our house this process begins early with the making of reservations and revisiting the gear we so carefully (or not) put away last fall. It may be snowy outside, but indoors we’re busy organizing the AKontheGO camping calendar, which for 2017 will encompass just about every road system Alaska can offer.
Wanting to camp with your band of kids and caboodle? Here’s what you need to know and do well before the actual appearance of spring in Alaska.
FIND A PLACE. Alaska may be enormous, but campgrounds are often crowded between May and September, with the most popular (typically along the Seward, Glenn, Parks, and Richardson Highways) filling up fast. How fast? I tried to make reservations for Memorial weekend at a favorite Seward Highway campground and found only 7 sites available, and that was late January. Yikes. *NOTE: Not all Alaska campgrounds offer reservations, but for those that do, now is a good time to start searching.
Typically, campgrounds open for the season mid-May, and close mid-September. That said, some open earlier or later depending upon snowfall, so keep checking the websites below for the latest information.
- For US Forest Service campgrounds and public use cabins, utilize Recreation.gov for reservations. This nationwide portal is great for travel in the Lower 48, as well, and provides a very comprehensive search function. Most campgrounds allow reservations
- Alaska State Parks do not allow reservations, with the exception of Eagle River Campground, operated by contractor Lifetime Adventures.
- Denali National Park’s reservations portal is operated by a third-party contractor that allows for reservations early in the year for the upcoming season of camping, a huge bonus for big families who need multiple sites, groups, or those who have planned far ahead and want to be sure of a favorite spot. Heads up: Camping in Denali NP is FREE until mid-May, if you have the gear and gumption to give it a try.
- The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) does not provide any reservations, so Alaska camping enthusiasts must be vigilant in their pursuit of a campsite. Popular areas include Tangle Lakes and Paxson Lake at either end of the Denali Highway.
- Alaska Wildlife Refuges can provide campers with information about campgrounds, especially those on the Kenai Peninsula where Hidden Lake and Swanson River Road are popular options for those with boating and/or fishing fever.
PLAN YOUR FUN. Is hiking your family’s preferred summertime activity? Or perhaps kayaking floats your boat. Maybe you and the kids have company coming and prefer to just relax for a few nights lakeside, watching the youngsters play while you sip wine and nosh on Alaska-made delicacies. Whatever your reason for camping, plan a few activities around your ultimate campsite location.
Alaska Public Lands Information Centers, conveniently found in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Ketchikan, and Tok are staffed with public lands employees who have the complete scope of knowledge of an area’s family fun. Visitors are also treated to free movies, Junior Ranger books, gift shops, and rack after rack of maps and brochures to help you decide the best fit for your tribe. You can also purchase a 2017 Alaska State Parks Pass, vital for parking access on state land (you need to pay $5 per day otherwise).
Typically, our family plans to spend at least two nights, and preferably three, in any one location to fully soak up all there is to do. Plus, packing and unpacking camping gear – oy.
- Try a scavenger hunt around your campground or site. Add an element of art for older kids by handing them a smartphone and asking them for photos of items on the list.
- Attend lectures or programs at USFS and National Park campgrounds. These not only provide additional knowledge of a place, but kids can usually get some extra attention for rangers, a fun aspect of campgrounds.
- Ask campgrounds hosts for their favorite activities. These folks do what they do because they love the outdoors, and often spend their time roaming the trails, roads, and waterways of their temporary home for the summer.
- Build a fort. Any old kind of fort, using ONLY downed limbs and sticks. It’s fun for the whole family.
- Utilize visitor centers near major forests or parks. Places like Begich Boggs Visitor Center in Portage Valley, Denali National Park’s main visitor center near the entrance, or Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in Juneau provide excellent snapshots of an area’s features, and, if it’s a rainy day, a few hours of indoor entertainment.
For more Alaska camping ideas, especially in the earliest part of the season, you may enjoy these stories from AKontheGO:
Erin Kirkland is founder and publisher of AKontheGO.com. She is author of Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and writes a weekly column for the Alaska Dispatch News. She lives in Anchorage.