Top 10 Places In Alaska You Must Explore
Alaska! Some call it the last frontier. It’s so expansive that it would cover the entire Midwest region of the United States if it were overlaid upon it. Yet, in all its vastness only 12 state highways connect its many magnificent regions to one another. Fortunately for those who enjoy experiencing an area’s natural wonders, Alaska offers fantastic car- and RV-camping throughout that small, but lengthy highway network. This year, make it your next frontier to explore. To help, here’s a look at 10 great locations that showcase Alaska.
1. Denali State Park/Denali National Park
This is a must-do. The continent’s tallest mountain, Denali (Mount McKinley), towers over these two parks. Five units in the state park offer 118 campsites, with more inside the national park adjoining it. Denali State Park is only 100 miles north of Anchorage and close to the entrance of the national park. Visits to Denali National Park are controlled by reservations for tour buses and very limited access by private vehicles at restricted times during the summer. While there are campgrounds within the national park, camp at the state park for less hassle. Since both parks are within the grandeur of the mountain, it’s easy to visit the other Denali during the day.
Byers Lake, in the eastern half of the state park, offers canoe and kayak rentals, and trails abound throughout the region. Hikers along the western boundary, bordering the national park, have spectacular views of the mighty mountain.
A great side trip on the way up from Anchorage is a stop at Talkeetna, a funky Alaskan town that’s used as a staging area for climbers heading for Denali’s summit.
2. Chena River State Recreation Area (SRA)
Renowned as a wilderness hot springs spa, Chena is also the name of the river that flows northeast of Fairbanks. The SRA features several campgrounds along the road that parallels this northern river. Famous for its grayling (catch-and-release only) in the river, several nearby ponds are also stocked with keepers. The Chena River region is equally alluring for campers who enjoy paddling through the river’s Class I-II rapids. Wildlife abounds, but black and brown bear sightings are rare and seen mostly in the backcountry. Moose are more common as they feed in the ponds and sloughs along the entire length of the Chena River.
Chena Hot Springs is a privately owned operation that offers packages as well as day use in an outside, naturally heated pool as well as an indoor area.
Fairbanks offers activities from museums to mushing. The Fairbanks region offers splendid shows of northern lights, particularly as fall turns to winter. Several other campgrounds are available, notably the 78 campsites at Harding Lake SRA, less than an hour south of Fairbanks.
3. Quartz Lake – Lost Lake
This SRA is located deep within the eastern interior of Alaska, just a few miles north of Delta Junction. If you are a camper who likes to fish, this is your campground. Quartz Lake and the more secluded Lost Lake are teeming with rainbow trout and silver salmon, and offer some of the “best road-accessible fishing in Interior Alaska,” according to the state’s own Department of Natural Resources.
Lost Lake offers 12 campsites to Quartz’s 16, and also offers less-crowded camping. A private vendor rents boats to get out to the better fishing away from the weedy shoreline. Swimming and hiking trails are also available at Quartz and Lost Lake.
South of the campground, beyond the city of Delta Junction, there are roads to the spectacular mountains of the Wrangell-St. Elias range. This area offers eastern access to the remote Denali Highway leading toward the entrance of Denali National Park.
4. Tangle Lakes BLM Campground
There was one big reason friends and I ventured into the interior to Paxson and pitched a tent at Tangle Lakes: We wanted to drive the Denali Highway. Because it was Tangle Lakes, we brought our fishing rods, too. Those reasons alone are enough to put this campground on your “must camp” list. But the real value in this campground lies in its fishing for grayling and lake trout; berry picking in the fall; and breathtaking scenery viewed from ridge-top hikes.
The Denali Highway starts a few miles east of Tangle Lakes at Paxson and runs west for about 130 miles to Cantwell on the Parks Highway. It’s a beautiful valley with grand vistas displaying incredible fall colors on the slopes and in the river valley. Even if you don’t camp here, take the ride. You can always camp within an hour beyond either end of this wilderness highway.
5. Lake Louise SRA
Located just west of Glennallen, Lake Louise is yet another campground offering great opportunities for lake trout, grayling, burbot and whitefish. Most of Alaska offers fantastic bird-watching opportunities, but Lake Louise is one of the few campgrounds that actually promotes its birding, so it must be pretty good. The big draw at Lake Louise is the colony of fresh-water cormorants seen nowhere else in the state. Gulls, trumpeter swans and other waterfowl extend the list of bird sightings in the area.
Late fall campers have a chance to experience the migration of the Nelchina caribou herd. Sightings of caribou are common throughout this region of Alaska.
Lake Louise offers 58 campsites and a boat launch. South of Glennallen the road splits; one way to the southwest toward Valdez, the other to the southeast toward Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and the Kennecott mine area, known for its spectacular scenery and gold-mining history.
6. Chugach State Park
Located north and south of Anchorage, Chugach State Park is a three-unit treasure literally in the backyard of the state’s largest city. The Eklutna Lake Campground’s 45 sites are within an hour’s drive north of Anchorage. It’s a paddler’s heaven that also has an active ATV trail along its northern shoreline. It can be noisy, but you’re camping close to beautiful sites like Eagle River, Anchorage and other Cook Inlet attractions.
Eagle River Campground (57 sites) is located just south of the town, Eagle River, and is 12 miles from Anchorage. The campground is adjacent to Eagle River, a popular paddling destination, and it accepts reservations.
The Eagle River Nature Center is a “must-see” attraction operated by a private vendor. Its trails offer spectacular scenery along the river and up mountain valleys, and its interpretive displays offer a quick introduction to Alaska’s natural treasures.
Bird Creek Campground offers 28 campsites settled 20 miles southeast of Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm. Just 10 miles closer to Anchorage is Beluga Point, an archeological hunting site where Native Americans speared the whales that swam close to the rocky, shelved shoreline. Several trailheads lead hikers to overlooks of Turnagain Arm and Anchorage.
7. Anchor River SRA – Anchor Point
If you’ve driven to Anchor Point to camp at the nearby SRA, you’ve driven as far west as you possibly can on the National Highway System. This entire western stretch along Cook Inlet is cluttered with campsites and RV parks. Five sites in addition to Anchor River offer nearly 200 places to pitch a tent or park your rig.
The views across the Inlet are part of those core visual treasures that make Alaska so appealing; three volcanoes can be seen from along this shoreline. It’s also one of Alaska’s premiere fishing areas offering three species of salmon, Dolly Varden and steelhead.
Attractions along the way to Anchor Point include the incredible king salmon fishing on the Kenai River in Kenai, the rafting on the river itself and birding on the Kenai River flats. There are also hikes into the Russian River area, filled with rich Russian Orthodox history, just north of Anchor Point at Ninilchik.
A few miles down the Sterling Highway, beyond Anchor Point, is Homer — a destination unto itself. The “Spit” area offers shore camping, halibut charters and shuttles to prime kayaking waters, and excursions across the bay to Halibut Cove. Go ahead and camp in Anchor Point, but plan to spend days visiting Homer!
8. Seward Waterfront Municipal Campground
The trip down from Anchorage through Girdwood and past Portage Glacier primes the traveler for scenery to come. The route to Seward is one of the most beautiful in Alaska.
Yes, it is as pedestrian and unnatural as it sounds, but the view from the front of your tent of the natural amenities in Seward more than make up for the location. On the negative side, you are camping right in town within the harbor area where privacy is not even an option. This is parking lot camping, but you’ll be busy hiking, visiting museums and taking in spectacular glaciers. So you’ll appreciate sitting outside your camper looking at snow-capped mountains towering over Resurrection Bay.
Upon reaching Seward, one quickly sees the activities awaiting visitors, such as hiking up to Exit Glacier to watch it slowly crawl down the mountain, or traveling along the waterfront to the Alaska SeaLife Center, a public aquarium featuring on-water and below-the-surface live displays of Alaska’s marine wildlife. If you want to develop your sea legs, book a charter into Kenai Fjords National Park; you’ll be blown away by sightings of whales, puffins, glaciers and mountains. You can’t really say you’ve seen Alaska until you’ve experienced a glacier tour in Seward, Whittier or Valdez.
9. Chilkat State Park – Chilkoot SRA
Visitors who take the ferry to Alaska still have to drive from Haines in the southeast through the interior to either Anchorage or Fairbanks and to all the points between and beyond. A great break from three days at sea, and a sense you are finally camping in Alaska, awaits campers at Chilkat State Park or in the Chilkoot SRA.
Chilkat State Park is eight miles south of Haines and features 35 campsites. Several trails offer vistas of the inlet and the visitor center helps visitors key in on views of three local glaciers.
Chilkoot SRA is five miles north of the ferry terminal in Haines at the south end of spruce-forested Chilkoot Lake. The lake is fed by the Chilkoot River and, consequentially, has great salmon runs. Chilkoot also has a robust population of brown bears. Its campground offers 80 sites, a boat launch and picnic shelter. Visitors in late fall may witness more than 3,000 bald eagles roosting in the cottonwoods along the river where they feed on spawning salmon.
10. Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park
Although the island of Kodiak is obviously not on the contiguous Alaskan road system, it does offer car campers who ferry out to the “Emerald Isle” a chance to see coastal Alaska at its best. The Southeast has road systems stemming out from each of the towns along the Inside Passage and beyond, but you have to ferry between communities.
The ride out to Kodiak via either Seward or Homer presents the visitor with some of the most scenic coastlines in the state. Of the three major campgrounds along Kodiak’s road system, Fort Abercrombie is the most attractive. The Buskin River Campground and Pasagshak offer good sites, but are more attune to fishing. The craggy rocks, expansive bays with whales, otters in kelp beds and puffins make Abercrombie a showcase of what Kodiak is all about.
This list of 10 locations is the meager tip of the iceberg when it comes to the recreational opportunities available in the state of Alaska. There are literally thousands of places to camp in the Last Frontier for tents and RVs alike.
Alaska Bear Safety Tips
Alaska has brown and black bears. The best bear safety is avoidance. Learn as much as you can before you visit/camp in bear country. Here are a few important safety tips:
- Check local information on bear activity in the areas in which you’ll be visiting.
- Always make noise; never surprise a bear.
- Give bears plenty of room, especially a sow with cubs.
- Leave your dog in camp or at home!
- Never leave food out, store in car or bear-proof containers.
- Keep a clean campsite (no food or food odors in tent).
- Use bear-proof garbage containers when able.
- Do not camp/cook near bear trails, salmon streams or other food sources.
- Always try to remain calm.
- Learn how to handle yourself if approached or attacked.