Glaciers and national parks larger than states. Miles of untamed natural beauty. More four-legged inhabitants than two. The sheer vastness of Alaska’s natural treasures, from diverse landscapes that range from temperate rainforest to frigid tundra, to a dizzying variety of wildlife, are unlike any other in the United States. In the summer months, whales break the water’s surface and bald eagles soar overhead. When the weather cools, the Northern Lights dance across the sky for all to see. Alaska is the ultimate stage for Mother Nature, and the show is simply unforgettable. With the arrival of June and summer just around the corner, now’s the perfect time to explore Alaska’s majesty! But before we “head outdoors,” let’s take a look at the history behind the wilderness. The largest of our fifty states, Alaska was admitted to the Union as the 49th state in 1959. Acquired by the U.S. in 1867, the territory was dubbed “Seward’s Folly” after U.S. Secretary of State William Seward arranged to purchase the land from Russia. Critics of the purchase believed that the land had nothing to offer — that is, until gold was discovered in the 1890s and a stampede of prospectors and settlers moved in.
While Alaska is relatively new to statehood, people have inhabited its lands since 10,000 BCE. At that time, a strip of land extended all the way from Siberia to Alaska, and migrants followed herds of animals across it. Of these migrant groups, several remain in Alaska to this day, including the Athabaskans, Aleuts, Inuit and Yupik.
Although the state stretches across a mind-boggling 600,000 square miles (19 different U.S. states can fit comfortably inside Alaska’s borders!), much of that land is virtually uninhabited. With eight national parks to its name, it can be hard to choose which region of Alaska to explore first. Here are just a few of our favorite parks to learn in:
When Alaska's indigenous people migrated to non-Native communities in the early 1900s, the villages and totem poles they left behind soon became overgrown by forests and eroded by weather. In 1938, the U.S. Forest Services founded a program aimed at salvaging these remarkable monuments. Natives worked to teach younger artisans the art of carving totem poles, and over time the totems were repaired to their original splendor or carefully duplicated. After Alaska received statehood in 1959, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Totem Bight State Historical Park has fourteen Tlingit and Haida totem poles scattered across 11 acres, a truly beautiful record of Native history. Use this totem guide for more historical context as you virtually explore these “silent storytellers.”
Covering 325,240 acres (roughly half the size of Rhode Island), Denali State Park is a superb place to soak in the beauty of the Alaska Range. The park is home to an especially rich variety of birds, boasting more than 130 species — including the willow ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird! Ready to head out on the water? Hop in your virtual kayak and take to the serene waters of Byers Lake in Denali State Park. As your paddles dip from side to side, let your eyes wander past the glittering water to the soaring peaks and rustling trees that surround you. Is there anything more invigorating?
To the west sits a much larger neighbor, Denali National Park and Preserve. An impressive six million acres of wild land, you can’t help but feel humbled as you set out to explore this ancient plot. Home to North America’s tallest peak, Denali has been a mecca for mountaineering and hiking for decades. Fossils proudly display the park's prehistoric past, reminding you that dinosaurs once walked where you now stand. Glaciers cover one-sixth of the park, flowing stoically down mountains and feeding rivers. Wild animals roam the land, unaffected by your presence. (After all, there is only one road running throughout the entire park.) This video showcases some of the many wonders you’ll encounter in this national treasure.
Alaska’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias spans a mind-blowing 13.2 million acres of land — that’s the equivalent of six Yellowstone National Parks! Featuring four major mountain ranges and the world's longest interior valley glacier, this park is a hiker’s paradise. In addition to its stunning vistas, Wrangell-St. Elias is also home to several historic mining sites. An extraordinary relic from America's past, the Kennecott mill town and mines represent an ambitious time of exploration, discovery and technological innovation. Want to learn more? This video dives into the history behind the mines.
A historic site of protection for the volcanically devastated region surrounding Mount Katmai and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Katmai has a prestigious reputation. Home to an active volcano that produced one of the largest eruptions in Alaska’s recorded history, hikers can now visit the beautiful crater where its peak used to be. The park is also an important North American habitat for bears. It’s estimated that more bears live on Alaska Peninsula than people, and Katmai is home to about 2,200 of them. You can safely enjoy this rare glimpse of brown bears up close in the wild.
Ready to quit your day job and become an Alaskan Park Ranger? Find out if you have what it takes! Follow Environmental Protection Specialist Christina Kriedeman as she works to protect natural resources and shares what inspired her to work in a national park. Want to explore with younger generations? Enroll in free at-home classes with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where you can study wood bison and grizzly bears as you deepen your understanding of the Alaskan landscape.
Road Scholar has been leading educational trips to Alaska since 1997. We hope to see you there soon! Until then, you can browse our educational adventures here.
Road Scholar Recommends:
The Last Frontier: A Local Look into Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness → Passport to Southeast Alaska: By Hiking Boot, Kayak & Boat → The Best of Alaska’s Inside Passage → Coastal Alaska: Glacial Waters, Breathtaking Shores → Wild About Alaska: Glaciers & Wildlife With Your Grandchild →
About the Author JoAnn Bell, Senior Vice President, Program Development and Strategy, develops and manages more than 5,500 learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states. JoAnn’s extensive travel industry experience informs her expert insight on everything from where to find the world’s most charming streets to must-see hidden gems across the globe.
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