Finding Alaska's Best Landscapes: A Park Ranger's Guide

John Baston has been protecting Alaska’s parks and guiding travelers for 25 years. In our pursuit to find Alaska’s most dramatic landscapes, John reveals a few extra surprises North America’s far north has in store for those who are willing to explore a little further.


Photo © John Baston

Alaska isn’t just an icy land in the north. Its diverse landscapes include vast mountainous areas, long expanses of tundra, an immense temperate rainforest, and over 30,000mi of shoreline. It’s safe to say you could explore Alaska for the rest of your life, and still not have seen it all!

Flightseeing and Brown Bears in Denali

North America’s highest mountain rises proudly out of the Alaska Range.  The famous Alaska Railroad can take you there from either of the state’s two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks. 

Once you arrive you’ll want to sign up for a bus tour on the Denali road, where it’s possible to see the ‘grand slam’ of wildlife all in one day as you roll across the treeless tundra. 

The national park was originally created to protect the white Dall Sheep from hungry miners. Brown Bears roam the tundra in search of ground squirrels and berries. Moose can be seen feeding on willows, and Caribou can be seen sometimes alone and sometimes in a herd. I’ve seen a river otter playing with its pups on a riverbank, owls flying in daylight, and wolves caching fresh bits of moose meat. You are out there in nature’s domain.

Head out to the Kantishna District deep inside the park, and stay a few nights for best chances to see wildlife and ‘the mountain’ stripped of its clouds.  This old mining district hosts four lodges, and is the best place to see Denali.

If it’s clear, you won’t want to miss connecting with Kantishna Air or K2 Aviation in Talkeetna for some flightseeing in a small airplane. Getting a view from above the park and beside the mountain is an experience of a lifetime.

Hiking in Denali, Alaska. Photo credit: John Baston

Glacier Walking and Fishing for Halibut in The Kenai

Conveniently located south of Anchorage is the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska’s recreational wonderland – and this place has it all.

The Chugach National Forest and Kenai Fjords National Park offer hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Here, you can hike deep into the rainforest, climb a small mountain covered in wildflowers, or strap on some crampons to walk across glacial ice.

Don’t miss the Exit Glacier Trail for a short hike and a close up view of ancient ice melting into the torrential Resurrection River.  Hike 4mi (6.5km) up the mountains above the Exit Glacier to its source, the Harding Icefield.  This perpetually frozen lake is over 30mi (48km) long, and provides an icy cap to the entire Kenai Peninsula.

The Kenai coastline is dotted with small towns, where you can hire a boat and try your luck at fishing for giant halibut and salmon. The town of Seward, named after Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state who negotiated the purchase of Alaska in 1867, is the gateway town for Kenai Fjords National Park.

Departing the Seward Harbor are all-day boat tours, taking visitors out towards the Gulf of Alaska where it’s common to see sea otters, orca, and huge flocks of puffins. Throughout the Kenai there are lodges, inns, and campgrounds to accommodate budgets for all travelers.

Hikers on a glacier that can only be accessed by a helicopter ride. Photo credit: John Baston

Kayaking the Maritime Wonderland of Southeast Alaska

To the far south is a place unlike the rest of the state. Seemingly disconnected (physically and politically), Southeast Alaska is a long stretch of islands, fjords, and small towns that aren’t connected by roads. It’s a maritime world, a boater’s paradise.

Whether a kayak or a cruise ship is your thing, you’ll find beauty in the calm, protected waters of the Inside Passage.  Here, there are islands that have more bears than anywhere else in the world, and tons of humpback whales that have come to consume the copious balls of bait fish. This is the place to go if you want to see the glaciers that tumble down from lofty heights, crashing into the sea. 

Only 50 of Alaska’s 100,000 glaciers make it all the way down to the ocean, and all of them are in the southern part of the state! 

Alaska’s charming historic capital, Juneau, is a great jumping off spot for whale watching, bear viewing, sea kayaking, and exploring smaller seaside communities like Sitka, Haines, and Gustavus.

Alaska’s Southeast is for those who love the ocean and its creatures, glassy reflections on the water, clean fresh air, and spending time wandering on the shoreline of uninhabited islands.

So, what’ll it be? Denali, Southeast, or the Kenai?

Want to know more about the USA? Check out our podcast. Hang out with orcas in Alaska, follow the barbecue trail through the Deep South (with a vegetarian), strap on your skis in Colorado, and learn about the thriving Creole cowboy culture.

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