Alaska's premier national parks, like Denali, Katmai and Kenai Fjords, mix wildlife, wilderness and wow factor. Spot the 'big five' in Denali (grizzly bear, Dall sheep, moose, caribou and wolf), witness grizzlies fishing for salmon in Katmai, or cruise the Kenai Fjords on the lookout for sea otters, sea lions and humpback whales. Those with a yearning for truly remote places should plan a backcountry expedition to the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Alternatively, voyage through Southeast Alaska on a marine highway that extends south from Glacier Bay through a maze of islands rich in bears and cetaceans.
Alaska: Wildlife Destinations
Denali National Park & Preserve
Denali's star species: Dall sheep • Moose • Caribou • Brown bear • Grey wolf
Established in 1917 as Mount McKinley National Park, Denali takes its name from the Athabascan word for ‘High One’. North America’s highest peak (6,194m) lords over this 24,300-sq-km wilderness – the glaciers and valleys of the Alaska Range sweeping down to vast tracts of lake-studded tundra and a tentative stubble of boreal forest. Winter hits hard in Denali and its wildlife either stays put and copes, or heads south to warmer climes. Year-round residents like caribou, Dall sheep, moose, wolf, ptarmigan and gyrfalcon simply tough it out, while others, like the grizzly bear, hibernate. When spring arrives, there’s a flurry of activity as groggy bears emerge from their dens and millions of migratory birds (including golden eagles from as far afield as Mexico) arrive to breed. Wild flowers bloom from early June to late July. It can be light for 20 hours a day and wildlife is at its most active – including mosquitoes. By early August, the winged menace has disappeared from all but the wettest areas. Autumn colours begin to flush the tundra, bears start to gorge on berries and birds have migration on their minds once more. As bull moose gather harems for the mating season, the first glimmers of the Northern Lights may start to be seen. If snow falls in September, it usually stays until spring.
Denali’s ‘big five’ (moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolf and grizzly bear) can often be seen on a bus ride along the 137km park road – the sole vehicle access into the heart of the park. This provides a better chance of seeing wildlife than hiking, as you have a higher vantage point and the benefit of many eyes. If you plan to explore Denali on foot, be sure to take bear safety precautions. There are approximately 1,800 moose in the park, with bulls weighing up to 630kg. The Denali caribou herd has similar numbers; calves are born mid-May to early June. Keeping to ridges and steep slopes to avoid predators, Dall sheep are found in mountain regions in the east and west of the park, the valleys reverberating with the clash of head-butting rams during the late-November rut. Denali’s wolf numbers fluctuate at around 100. Roaming large areas, the packs feed primarily on caribou, moose and Dall sheep. Grizzly bears, meanwhile, have a very mixed diet in Denali, eating everything from caribou calves and carrion to roots, blueberries and salmon.
Getting there 390km north of Anchorage on Route 3; Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks passes park entrance.
Getting around Private car access as far as Savage River Bridge; shuttle bus and bicycles for destinations further into park.
When to go Park open year round; bus service operates along park road mid-May to mid-September; winter activities available.
Visitor centres Summer visitor centre May to September; Murie Science & Learning Centre year round.
Things to do Guided tours, ranger activities, backpacking, hiking, cycling, fishing, skiing, dogsledding, mountaineering.
Places to stay Campsites, backcountry camping, wilderness lodges.
Further information nps.gov/dena
Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
Glacier Bay's star species: Humpback whale • Steller’s sea lion • Minke whale • Orca • Sea otter • Black bear
Star of many an Alaskan cruise, Glacier Bay’s tidewater glaciers calve icebergs into deep fjords where abundant fish attract marine mammals, such as humpback and minke whale, orca, harbour and Dall porpoise, harbour seal and Steller’s sea lion. In the 200 or so years that the ice has retreated, exposing the 100km-long bay, a forest of spruce and hemlock has taken root, providing a habitat for black bear, wolf and moose. Occasionally, you can spot bears working the shoreline, turning over rocks in search of tideline morsels. With luck, you may even see a ‘glacier bear’, a rare, silver-coloured form. Offshore, sea otters (which number around 1,500 in the park) dive for crabs, molluscs and sea urchins, while sea cliffs throng with nesting colonies of guillemots and puffins. Two of the best adventure activities in Glacier Bay are rafting the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers and sea kayaking in Muir Inlet. Local outfitters can kit you out or arrange guided tours.
Getting there West of Juneau; accessible only by sea (tour boat, cruise ship etc) or air. Alaska Airlines has a daily summer service between Juneau and Gustavus, 16km by road from the park headquarters at Bartlett Cove. Alaska Marine Highway Ferry LeConte calls twice weekly at Gustavus during summer months.
Getting around Buses run between Gustavus and Bartlett Cove, where boat tours are available to tidewater glaciers.
When to go Late May to mid-September.
Visitor centres Bartlett Cove, May to September.
Things to do Boat tours, ranger activities, hiking, camping, mountaineering, kayaking, rafting, fishing, flightseeing.
Places to stay Backcountry camping, wilderness lodge, cruise ships.
Further information nps.gov/glba
Katmai National Park & Preserve
Katmai's star species: Brown bear • Moose • Lynx • River otter • Sea otter • Steller's sea lion
Each summer, when the sockeye salmon migrate from Bristol Bay into the creeks, rivers and lakes of the Naknek drainage, Katmai’s Alaskan brown bears rub their paws in anticipation. Around 100 stake out the Brooks Falls area, snatching leaping fish in their jaws and pounding through shallows in pursuit of a slippery feast. Various wooden platforms provide superb (and safe) views of the spectacle.
Bears hog the limelight in Katmai, but take a hike in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and you stand a good chance of seeing other wildlife, such as red fox, wolf, lynx, wolverine, porcupine, moose and caribou. Named after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta, which dumped ash over 64 sq km and caused fumaroles to steam from buried rivers and glaciers, the starkly beautiful valley can be accessed along a rough road between Brooks Camp and Three Forks Overlook. Katmai’s coastline is also worth exploring. You can stay in wilderness lodges or join a wildlife cruise in search of sea lion colonies. Grey whales and orcas are also regular visitors to the Shelikof Strait between Katmai National Park and Kodiak island.
Getting there 470km southwest of Anchorage by plane.
Getting around Alaska Airlines flies Anchorage to King Salmon, the park headquarters; air taxi charters and boats serve Brooks Camp and various lodges in the park’s interior and along the coast.
When to go Park open year round; national park services at Brooks Camp available June to mid-September; prime bear-viewing months July and September.
Visitor centres Brooks Camp and King Salmon.
Things to do Bear watching, hiking, backpacking, fishing, boating, ranger activities, bus tour to Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes.
Places to stay Brooks Camp campground, backcountry camping, wilderness lodges, coastal cruises.
Further information nps.gov/katm
Kenai Fjords National Park & Preserve
Kenai Fjords's star species: Sea otter • Steller's sea lion • Dall’s porpoise • Humpback whale • Black bear
The Ice Age lingers in Kenai Fjords, its coastal peaks smothered in the Harding Icefield – source of some 38 glaciers. You can drive to Exit Glacier and explore a network of trails through cottonwood forest and across a gravel moraine to the frozen snout of the glacier itself. The more demanding, full-day Harding Icefield Trail climbs high above the tree line for stunning views across a panorama of ice and snow. You’re likely to see black bears on this trail (particularly in salmonberry thickets), so make some noise to avoid surprising them. Boat trips depart Seward throughout the summer. The park’s tidewater glaciers are only within range of a full-day tour, while a half-day cruise in Resurrection Bay will still give you opportunities to spot Kenai’s outstanding marine life.
Getting there Near Seward, 200km south of Anchorage, via Seward Highway or Alaska Railroad (May to September only).
Getting around Shuttle bus service to Exit Glacier, boat tours, water taxis to coastal backcountry areas.
When to go Park open year round, but Exit Glacier road closed winter.
Visitor centres Seward and Exit Glacier, May to September.
Things to do Boat tours, ranger program, hiking, camping, mountaineering, kayaking, fishing, flightseeing, dogsledding.
Places to stay Backcountry camping, lodges, cabins.
Further information nps.gov/kefj
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wildlife travel essentials: alaska
The 2,400km Alaska Highway starts in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and ends at Delta Junction. Cruise ships and ferries ply the Alaska Marine Highway along the Inside Passage, across the Gulf of Alaska and west to the Aleutian Islands. Destinations on the Alaska Railroad include Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, Portage, Seward and Talkeetna. Bush planes reach remote areas.
WHEN TO GO
High season is June to August when daytime temperatures range from 15-27C. May and September have lower prices. Expect unpredictable weather at any time of the year. Layered clothing is best.
Alaska is GMT-9