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Fly to the National Parks: Check out AlaskaFly to the National Parks: Check out Alaska

Alaska’s national parks are astounding—especially from the air. Alaska is vast and remote; FAA webcams are a vital resource. Carry a sat phone, tracker, bear spray, and survival gear. Flying here takes planning and time, but the rewards are endless. Unlike in the lower 48 states, it’s generally legal for a Part 91 flight to land inside Alaska’s national parks (except portions of Denali, which has more visitors). But you’ll be landing off-airport and unless you have a tailwheel with big tires, you could get into trouble. If you want to land off-airport, the safer choice is to confine your landings to designated airports or strips and hire an experienced bush pilot who is familiar with the local terrain and weather. Below is a list of Alaska’s parks and some highly rated guest lodges or outfitters that will help you get the most out of this bucket-list trip.

  • Just south of Denali National Park, the rivers and lakes are loaded with king salmon. The folks at Bent Prop Lodge can take you to secret fishing spots. Photo courtesy Steve and Nadine Burak.
  • Glacier Bay icebergs, as viewed through the bubble windows of the Mountain Flying Service deHavilland Beaver. Photo courtesy Paul Swanstrom.
  • Paul Swanstrom of Mountain Flying Service picks up clients who have camped on a glacier. Photo by Paul Swanstrom.
  • Hikers enjoy the beauty of Root Glacier at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Photo courtesy St. Elias Guides.
  • Paul Claus on flight safari in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with guests of his Ultima Thule Lodge. Photo courtesy Ultima Thule Lodge.
  • Flightseeing the south-central Alaska coast above Kenai Fjords National Park in an Alaska Float Ratings Super Cub. Photo by Joseph Erickson.
  • The entire Bristol Bay drainage of southwestern Alaska, which includes Lake Clark and Iliamna Lake, is home to the world’s most productive salmon runs, which in turn feed thousands of Kodiak brown bears. Photo by Dave McCoy Photography, courtesy Intricate Bay Lodge.
  • A Quest Kodiak aircraft prepares to land at Port Alsworth airport on Lake Clark. Photo courtesy Quest Aircraft.
  • Two happy young fishermen proudly display their sockeye salmon catch. Photo courtesy Glen R. Alsworth, Jr. and The Farm Lodge.
  • Flying over Turquoise Lake, Lake Clark National Park. Yes, many of the glacier-fed lakes in parts of Alaska really are this color. Photo by and courtesy of Glen R. Alsworth, Jr.
  • The Little Mulchatna Lodge, on Fishtrap Lake, is accessible only via floatplane and was a favorite hideaway of famed musician John Denver. Photo courtesy Little Mulchatna Lodge.
  • Flightseeing Denali, North America’s tallest peak. Denali means “The High One” in the Athabascan language. Photo by Frank Flavin, courtesy State of Alaska.
  • Aerial view of the Yukon River looking north-northwest over Slaven’s Roadhouse near the Coal Creek Airstrip in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Photo by Josh Spice, courtesy NPS.
  • The two-story Slaven’s Roadhouse, on the Yukon River two miles downstream from the Coal Creek Airstrip, is open for public use and is equipped with a propane stove. Intrepid adventurers can float the Yukon River from the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve’s headquarters in Eagle, near the Canadian border, 1,979 miles across Alaska to the Bering Sea. Photo by Josh Spice, courtesy NPS.
  • The jagged Arrigetch Peaks of Gates of the Arctic National Park get their name from a Inupiat word that means “fingers of the outstretched hand.” Photo courtesy Tyler Klaes.

Glacier Bay National Park: Haines is the flightseeing jump-off point to Glacier Bay’s stunning mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and beaches. Paul Swanstrom offers exciting tours in his de Havilland Beaver. In the spring, he straps on skis for glacier landings and then switches to tires in summer for beach and tundra adventures. Gustavus is where you’ll find more land- and water-based tourism and the Glacier Bay Lodge.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve: America’s largest national park also holds many of Alaska’s largest glaciers—you’ll be awestruck flying over them. Fly to McCarthy to see the famed Kennecott Mine or hike the Root Glacier. Stay at Kennicott Glacier Lodge or go with Ultima Thule Lodge for the ultimate bush-and-glacier-flying/fishing/skiing/hiking experience. If Paul Claus can’t fly you there, nobody can.

Kenai Fjords National Park and Kodiak Island: From Wrangell, fuel up at the gravel Cordova, which parallels a road. Land at Seward and drive north to Moose Pass for a seaplane rating, kayak the fjords, or fly over the incredible Harding Ice Field on your way to Homer for halibut fishing before you continue to Kodiak Island to see the bears.

The Farm Lodge on Lake Clark, inside Lake Clark National Preserve. Land at Port Alsworth and charter a floatplane from Lake Clark Air. Photo courtesy Glen R. Alsworth, Jr.

Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve: Southwestern Alaska hosts the world’s greatest sockeye runs and the giant bears that feast on them. Look for bears along the western shore of the Shelikof Strait in Katmai National Park and head to Kulik Lake and the Kulik Lodge. Iliamna Lake is Alaska’s largest freshwater lake and home of the new Intricate Bay Lodge (float access only, they can pick you up). North to Lake Clark, where you can land at Port Alsworth, stay at the Farm Lodge and visit Richard Proenneke’s cabin (in which he lived alone for 30 years) with Lake Clark Air. Total solitude (except for all the moose and bears) are yours at the late John Denver’s favorite hideaway, Little Mulchatna Lodge, which inspired his song “Alaska and Me.”

Denali National Park and Preserve: Want to land a giant king salmon? South of the park and 24 nautical miles southwest of Talkeetna is the Bent Prop Lodge. They’ll take you to secret fishing places in their Beaver. Denali is North America’s highest peak at 20,237 feet. Its 18,000-foot base-to-peak rise is the largest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level. The National Park Service has specific Denali flightseeing procedures to avoid conflicts in the air and limit ground noise. North of the Alaska Range, several airstrips have accommodations nearby. McKinley National Park Airport is a mile from the McKinley Chalet Resort (free shuttle); they can arrange river rafting, ATV, or flightseeing tours. Fly west along the 92-mile-long Denali Highway (offset north as far as practical from the road) to the Kantishna airstrip just past Wonder Lake; arrange pickup with the Kantishna Roadhouse.

Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve: Fairbanks has a great aviator’s campground adjacent to the float pond on the east ramp; flight service across the street is open 24/7. About 124 nm east of Fairbanks, Coal Creek is a rough gravel strip inside the densely forested, remote, and virtually road-free Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. Stocked public-use cabins, an old mining camp, and a historic dredge with tools are nearby.

See the aurora borealis at the Bettles Lodge, north of the Arctic Circle and near Gates of the Arctic National Park, which is five times larger than Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Bettles Lodge.

Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Northern lights. No roads. Incomparable beauty and isolation. On the ground, you’re part of the food chain. Land at Bettles for fuel and the historic Bettles Lodge. They can fly you over the jagged Arrigetch Peaks or drop you for a customized fishing, hiking, or floating trip into the Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park or Kobuk Valley National Park and the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes. Cross the treacherous Brooks Range to Barter Island, Kaktovik, and the famed Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Only the Arctic Sea lies before you; few have ever stood here.

Alaska's national parks
Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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