Alaskan tundra in Denali National Park, Alaska

A Plan to Visit Alaska’s National Parks

[drop_cap]As we look forward to our epic quest beginning in nearly a month, we have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the greatest challenge of all: How to visit all of Alaska’s National Parks. There are eight National Parks in Alaska and four of them are only accessible by bush planes. Yeah, those little planes that always seem to go down in the movies, right? Well rest assured, they’re pretty safe.[/drop_cap]

Alaska might as well be Mt. Everest in the sense that we had no idea how to tackle this magical land. So to get inspired for the research, we created our latest map in honor of Alaska and all those who dream of exploring or already have a loving connection to its lands.

Alaska: The Last Frontier. Latest illustrated map inspired by our research.

Now to dive into the details behind the costliest chapter of this National Park Quest. No storytelling here folks, just simple facts to hopefully help you plan your journey as well. Read on for the detailed steps from park to park.

Here’s the summary:

Detail from our America National Parks map

Parks to visit: 8

Duration of journey: Month of August, 2017 (yep, we’re planning way ahead).

Method: Driving to Alaska with Oscar the Outback, our own vehicle. Either taking Inside Passage, a ferry system along the Pacific Coast, or driving on a highway through Canada. Camping wherever possible. Leaving our car in Anchorage and Fairbanks for flights into 4 parks with no roads. We’ll backpack in the parks we can’t access by car.

Drive to:

  • Denali National Park: (17 on map)
  • Kenai Fjords National Park: (35 on map)
  • Wrangell – St. Elias National Park: (56 on map)

Ferry to:

  • Glacier Bay National Park: (22 on map)

Flights required to:

  • Katmai National Park: (34 on map)
  • Lake Clark National Park: (38 on map)
  • Kobuk Valley National Park: (37 on map)
  • Gates of the Arctic National Park: (20 on map)

Read on for details on why to drive, the estimated route map, detailed info on how to get to each park and the estimated cost of it all:

  1. Why drive to Alaska with our own vehicle (vs. fly / cruise):
  • First off, we are DIYing this Alaska chapter and not going with a tour package.
  • Many folks decide to fly or take a cruise to Anchorage and use that as a starting base, typically renting a car or going by bus. If we flew or took a cruise to Alaska, we’d have to store Oscar the Outback in Seattle. That cost alone is about the cost of renting a car once in Alaska. Plus he’ll get sad without us for so long.
  • It will be cheaper if we can take all of our gear with us.
    • As traveling artists, we have our gear to consider, which we can’t manage with just two backpacks for a month or so.
  • It will save dollars to maintain the same system we’ve been using for the rest of the quest. Meaning sleep in the car if worst comes to worst, rather than rent a hotel room or eat at restaurants.
  • We want the flexibility to change our itinerary or see other things.

Ultimately, our own vehicle is the best way to see more sites, stick to our quest lifestyle, and save money.

  1. This is the estimated route we are taking to get to Alaska’s parks. Note: the map does not include the four parks accessible by flight, only the starting points.

Alaska National Parks Route on Roadtrippers

Breakdown from park to park:

  1. Glacier Bay National Park

The biggest obstacle is getting to Alaska, and we’re considering two options for reaching our first national park at Glacier Bay. One is taking a week-long ferry up the Pacific coast with our car, while the second is driving on the highway through Canada. See below:

  1. Inside Passage Ferry from Washington to Juneau. Oscar gets to ride a boat!
    1. Travel with car on a ferry along Alaska’s Marine Highway, called the Inside Passage.
    2. Route would take us from Bellingham, WA (70 miles north of Seattle) and end at Juneau. Check this list for full ferry terminals and destinations.
    3. Takes about 5 – 7 days.
    4. Can book a room or camp with your tent on the deck.
    5. Stops at a few ports along the way, few hours at each.
    6. From Juneau take ferry to Gustavus, gateway to Glacier Bay National Park.
    7. Then drive 10 miles from Gustavus port to National Park Headquarters at Bartlett Cove.
  2. Drive on highway from Seattle, WA to Juneau, pick from two routes:
    1. Drive 1,773 miles primarily on Cassiar Highway (37)  (must take ferry for final leg to Juneau). 30 hours driving time.
    2. Drive 1,827 miles primarily on Alaska Highway (97)  (must take ferry for final leg to Juneau). 35 hours driving time.
    3. From Juneau take ferry to Gustavus, gateway to Glacier Bay National Park.
    4. Then drive 10 miles from Gustavus port to National Park Headquarters at Bartlett Cove.

So which option do we choose? There are pros and cons of each, explained briefly:

PROs of Inside Passage Ferry ride:

  • Don’t put 4,000 miles on the car used to drive to and from Alaska.
  • Get to see beautiful scenery of the Pacific coast (it’s like a cruise, but with our car).
  • Adds a unique experience to the journey + break from driving.
  • Can camp on the deck (don’t need to book a room).
  • More time to sit back and create some artwork vs. stuck in the car.

CONS of Inside Passage Ferry ride:

  • Our first estimate is about $2,000 for two people and car, vs. rough estimate of $300 in gas to drive. That’s one way. BUT consider cost of miles on car.
  • Can’t access your car, only when docked at a port.
  • Less flexibility. You’re stuck on a boat, even if it is a stunning ride.
  • Less opportunity to stock up on food.

PROs of Driving on the Highway:

  • Cheaper in the short term ($300 app. in gas)
  • Flexibility, can take detour and possibly see more.
  • Can stick to the same set-up we’ll be familiar with (i.e. car camping, etc.)

CONs of Driving on the Highway:

  • Wear and tear on car + miles.
  • More likely to face obstacles (if car breaks down, can’t find place to camp, etc.)
  • It’s. A. Long. Long. Drive. 33 hours = 4 days, and that’s if we’re huffing it at 8 hours per day.

It seems there are more pros for taking the Inside Passage than cons, with the biggest hurtle being the immediate cost.

Check out this great traveler’s account of her journey along Alaska’s Marine Highway: Ferry-camping in Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Here are also some informative FAQs about the ferry provided by Viking Travel.

  1. Wrangell-St. Elias – America’s largest National Park

This park spans an area greater than Vermont and New Hampshire combined and there are many sections to consider. We’ll start our introductory visit at the main visitors center: Copper Center Visitor Center Complex.

  • After Glacier Bay, take ferry back to Juneau, then ferry back to land.
  • Drive from Juneau to Wrangell-St. Elias Copper Center Visitor Center.
  • Driving time from Glacier Bay: 17 hours and 31 minutes.

  1. Kenai Fjords National Park

Phew, this park is a mere 6 hours from the main visitor center at Wrangell-St. Elisa, a breeze after the previous legs. The route goes right through Anchorage, which is only 3.5 hrs away. This will make the perfect stop to stock up on food and experience city life for a bit.

  1. Katmai National Park – Cannot Drive to

Driving to Katmai is not an option, so this will be the first air taxi experience.

  • After Kenai Fjords, drive 2.5 hours from Seward back to Anchorage.
  • Fly twin-prop aircraft from Anchorage to the village King Salmon (1 hour, 20 minutes).
  • Fly a boat plane from King Salmon to Brooks Camp, Katmai NP (20 minutes).
  • Book flights with Katmai Air (roundtrip per person is about $650 – $750).

  1. Lake Clark National Park – Cannot Drive to

Driving to Lake Clark is not an option, so once back in Anchorage we’ll take our next flight to Lake Clark.

  • After Katmai, arrive back to Anchorage.
  • Fly to Port Alsworth (1 hour).
  • This is a good place to start, as the park’s only trail system leaves from Port Alsworth.
  • Book flights via Lake and Peninsula Airlines or Lake Clark Air.
  • Both Katmai and Lake Clark are known for their summer bear sightseeing, so a “flightseeing” option is available. Check out Rust’s Flying Service.

  1. Denali National Park

Yes! We can get back in Oscar and drive to Denali, at least to a certain point. First, stock up on supplies in Anchorage.

  • After Lake Clark, arrive back to Anchorage.
  • Drive to Denali Park Road, entrance to the park. Driving time: 4.5 hours.
  • Drive 15 miles down Denali Park Road, the limit for personal vehicles. The road is actually 92 miles long.
  • From here, take bus deeper into park, or backpack / hike from this location.

  1. Kobuk Valley National Park – Cannot Drive to

The last two parks in Alaska are the most daunting and remote considering they’re both north of the Arctic Circle. Here we’ll travel north by car to Fairbanks, but we’ll have to fly into both parks. The National Park Service provides a list of authorized air taxis.

Bettles is a good starting point for Kobuk and Gates of the Arctic.

Apparently it is possible to drive to Bettles, but only in deep winter. Check out this family who documented it: Driving into Bettles.

You have to cross some rivers without bridges – obviously they must be frozen to do so!

We could technically drive very close to Bettles.

If we are feeling super adventurous, we can drive north to a town called Coldfoot where there’s an airstrip. The Bettles Lodge said we could arrange a short bush flight to get picked up from Coldfoot. The route there is along the famous Dalton Highway which continues on all the way up to the Arctic Ocean. It’s the northernmost route in North America, used primarily by truckers.

Wow, we could drive to the Arctic Ocean.

Apparently it’s a wild ride, as documented by this New York Times article: Driving Alaska’s Dalton Highway. Would Oscar be up for that adventure?

Back to the plan for Kobuk Valley:

  • After Denali National Park, drive to Fairbanks, Alaska (starting from McKinley Park, entrance area of Denali). Driving time: 2.5 hours.
  • From Fairbanks, take flight to Bettles.
  • There is only one hotel called Bettles Lodge and reservations are made in well in advance (after calling, we’re told they’re taking reservations NOW for August, 2017).
  • Fun fact: Bettles was settled in 1868 during the Alaska Gold Rush and its airstrip was built during WWII.
  • Book flights via one of these air taxi services.
  • Flight to Kotzebue, where park headquarters and visitor center is located.

  1. Gates of the Arctic National Park – Cannot Drive to

Our last park in Alaska, Gates of the Arctic is similar to Kobuk logistically speaking, with no roads, trails, and limited services. There is the lodge in Bettles, and backpacking is permitted but recommended for experienced folks with excellent survival skills.

  • After Kobuk Valley, head back to Bettles.
  • Check out Gates of the Arctic NP visitor center in Bettles.
  • Fly from Bettles into the park, depending on what the game plan is. The pilot of the aircraft may drop you off and say “See you in a week!” if you want to backpack. Check out this detailed and exciting story about a week-long backpacking trip in Gates of the Arctic: A Backpacking Trip into the Arrigetch Peaks, Gates of the Arctic.
  • After a little more digging, we came across this awesome looking guided backpacking option: Alaska Alpine Adventures

Route After the National Parks

We’ll greet Oscar back in Fairbanks where hopefully he was snoozing safely in a long-term parking facility. Then we’ll make our way back down to Seattle, either driving the estimated 41 hours, or taking the Inside Passage route back.

One question you may be asking is:

How much will all of this cost?

In our previous post How Much to Visit all National Parks, we estimated $9,000 for this Alaska chapter. Now that we’ve done more research, here is the breakdown of anticipated costs:

  • Gas: According to the Roadtrippers app, gas will be about $1,200 (not including extra excursions). If taking ferry from Washington, we estimate cutting that price in half to $600.
  • Food + Laundry: A generous monthly budget of $600
  • Ferry fee into Juneau: $200
  • Park entrance fees covered by our Annual Pass
  • Campground fees: $200
  • Bush flights: Rough estimate $6,400 altogether
  • Long-term parking in Anchorage and Fairbanks: $200
  • Miscellaneous: (things we didn’t think of): $500

TOTAL cost to visit all Alaska National Parks: $9,300

If going via Inside Passage from Washington: $10,700

*The hardest information to find is accurate bush flight pricing due to the number of flights and variety of options. This will take a lot more research and resourcefulness.

*This price is based on roughing it, so no hotel stays. You could get a tour package for all of the parks, they exist in abundance.

As we continue to plan…

Of course, we won’t head out to Alaska without a spirit of spontaneity and creativity. There will surely be some unexpected challenges, but we look forward to tackling them. For now we’ll just continue to dream about this far away place and plan best we can.

Any gurus or natives who have advice to share, we’re all ears.

And if you want to remember your Alaska journey with the map featured in this post, check it out on Hike & Draw.

Alaska – see you soon!


  1. Good Luck with your NP quest. I’m planning a similar road trip next July from San Jose, CA. Only difference: For Kobuk Valley and Gates of the arctic, instead of Bettles, I’m flying to Kotzebue, and take an Air Taxi from there – might also take the Bering Land Bridge National Monument (weather, time and costs permitting)

    1. Thank you Sashi! Wow good luck to you as well. We’re hoping our ideas for Alaska will hold true, it’s been awhile since that plan so we shall see. I’ll have to get in touch with you closer to July and see how your plans are going 🙂

  2. Thank you for this great information. I am 70 and plan to take one or two really good photos in each NP. That keeps my eyes active. ..Alaska first. Best wishes.

    1. That’s wonderful, and a great project! We are tackling Alaska last, you’ll have to let us know how things really are and share your photos with us :-). Thanks for writing.

    1. Hi Bill! That’s awesome.. Your project sounds amazing. We haven’t made it yet, Alaska will be at the end of our journey this summer. We’ll share more about it on our blog then 🙂

  3. Thanks for the info- I also use Roadtrippers to plan our trips. I have taken my kids to 24 so far and we are planning out a route to visit 6 more this summer. Since I am the only adult traveling with 3 kids, Alaska may not be anytime soon, but I appreciate that you documented this for others interested. Have a great trip!

    1. That’s awesome and admirable to take your kids to so many parks 🙂 – you must have so many beautiful experiences. Well surely when kids are older you can have an adventure in Alaska together. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Hi! I just stumbled across your blog and it’s great. I too am questing to visit all 59, I’m about 15 in so far. I’m a travel nurse so I’ve been using that to travel a bit of the country and visit the parks in that region of the country to help defer costs. I just arrived in Anchorage for a three month nursing contract yesterday and I’m planning to hit up all eight Alaska parks while I’m here. It’s certainly a bit more involved than getting to any of the other parks! After reading I think that I’ll copy a lot of your routes in getting to the parks. I wish I had done a bit more pre-planning like you’ve done, there’s no way I’ll be getting into Bettles Lodge at this late notice. Oh well! Look forward to following.

    1. Hey Kyle! Combining your profession and passion for national parks is an awesome way to see all 59 – we’d love to read your blog if you write one. Yeah Alaska is definitely a challenge.. sounds like 3 months will give you a good amount of time to get even to the remote ones. Happy the routes can help out, it’s incredible how big this country is. Keep in touch 🙂

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