Almost two-thirds of national parkland in the United States—more than 41 million acres—is located in the 49th state. “To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote. Thanks to protections set in place one hundred years ago this summer, Muir’s description still rings true. But the path to preservation hasn’t always been easy. In Fairbanks, federal legislation that set aside public lands provoked hundreds of people to protest; a petition for the “Alaska Secession Law of 1979” was drawn up, and a straw effigy of President Carter was torched. When Congress created Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in 1980, some locals were angered by the perceived threat to their way of life. A Park Service airplane was set on fire; park employees were refused service at a restaurant and a gas station. Despite flashes of discord, Alaskans today welcome more than two million people to the state’s majestic parks and preserves each year. One need only spot the tracks of a moose or see the light reflect off a glacier to appreciate the gifts of these wild places.
The Alaska summer, when days get warmer and longer and the sun hesitates to set, is the best time to experience the breathtaking scenery and enchantment of America’s largest state. Some of these places—like the sand dunes surrounded by wetlands—are best experienced with sunglasses and hats. Others—like a whaling festival and a polar bear excursion north of the Arctic Circle—may require warmer clothing, but offer rare, unforgettable glimpses into local life.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
More than four million acres of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve are coated in ice. Some of its 150 glaciers are larger than Hong Kong. Others have never been explored. Shimmering deep blues to teals, their crystalline structure is so densely compacted that they absorb every color of the spectrum except for blue, which scatters. At Root Glacier visitors can strap on crampons and walk the ice, admiring deep ravines, glacial pools, and streams, and sites like Jumbo ice cave and Stairway Icefall—a glistening wall of ice 7,000 feet high. Views are constantly changing. Locals say they can now gaze at vistas that were obstructed by glaciers in the 1930s. Indeed, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the lower 48, with ground temperatures steadily increasing since the 1970s.
Time itself is frozen at the Kennecott Mine, which shut down in 1938 after more than 4.5 million tons of ore had been extracted. (Named after the Kennicott Glacier and its eponymous explorer, Robert Kennicott, an errant e wended its way into the company name.) Once, a hand-pulled cable car brought some 550 miners across the river to work. Now a footbridge connects visitors to the buildings—abandoned bunkhouses, a company store, even a hospital with one of Alaska’s first x-ray machines—left casually as they were, as though they would reopen anytime. What remains has been preserved by the cold, dry climate.
The nearby hamlet of McCarthy—winter population 40—was once a bustling town thriving from copper wealth, even during the Great Depression, attracting miners and alpinists, bootleggers and prostitutes. One of its most vocal residents in the ’90s was a pastor cum newspaper editor and publisher who reported on local happenings while his wife chronicled such events as moose plundering and cabbage pickling. Today, McCarthy’s biggest landowner is a reality TV host on Edge of Alaska.
A hundred miles away in Cordova sprawls the Copper River Delta, a natural mosaic composed of ponds, sloughs, muskegs, glacial streams, and willow trees, framed by jagged mountains. Ecologists call these 584 square miles “the most important stopover in the Western Hemisphere.” Every year millions of shorebirds—giant trumpeter and tundra swans, Arctic and Aleutian terns, greater yellowlegs and red-necked phalaropes—can be seen and heard flying overhead, in a rhythmic spring migration.
Established: December 2, 1980
Visitors in 2015: 80,366
When to go: For birds at Copper River Delta, April 25 to May 15
Where to stay: The Kennicott Glacier Lodge (a replica of the old mining buildings) and Ma Johnson’s Hotel
Editors’ choice: Flying over the “Dr. Seuss House” or Goose Creek Tower, a spindly, 12-story home that looks into the park