Photo Credit: Alexyn Scheller in Katmai National Park

Alaska’s National Parks: Insights from Someone Who’s Seen Them All

Alexyn Scheller in Gates of the Arctic National Park with the village of Anaktuvuk Pass behind him

Alexyn Scheller in Gates of the Arctic National Park with the village of Anaktuvuk Pass behind him

Alexyn Scheller’s dream was to visit all 8 of Alaska’s national parks. So he did it! He went with his wife and 2 friends, and his YouTube video about the experience has nearly 30,000 views. We asked him some questions about his experiences and what impact Alaska had on him and you can read his full itinerary below.

Q: First question....why?

A: I’ve always loved national parks, and Alaska has 8! Seeing all of them—and even just planning and traveling to all of them—seemed like an adventure and a challenge, more so than anyplace in the lower 48. So my wife and I decided to take on that challenge right after we got married.

Q: How did you plan it?

A: With every guide and resource I could find. The planning took a year, and we did the 8 parks over 2 trips, taking 10 days for each in 2017 and 2018. Logistics were tricky: Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley parks are relatively close together, for example, but you can’t just fly directly from one to the other. So we did a lot of research and planning. Then we rented camping gear from REI in Anchorage—they were super-helpful.

Alexyn and friends in an Air Taxi

We needed air taxis to reach some of the parks

Q: How did you get around?

A: You name it, we took it: Rental cars, trains, boats, and planes. We needed air taxis to reach some of the parks inaccessible by road. But we had to get used to how they worked—they’re much less formal than regular airlines. Alaskans are very casual about them, but they were a completely foreign concept to us.

Q: What was your first impression of Alaska?

A: We flew into Juneau, and my first feeling was this giant sense of awe: It’s a city not connected by roads and surrounded by wilderness—a hiker’s paradise. My first impression became a lasting one: that Alaska’s beauty isn’t just in the national parks—it’s everywhere.

Sun peaks through the clouds in Kenai Fjords National Park

Q: What was the hardest part?

A: Fitting 4 parks into each of the 10-day trips. Originally thought we could do all 8 in 10 days, but that just wasn’t possible. Even when trying to reach 4 in 10 days, we knew any delays could derail us. At times we got lucky. When we went to Gates of the Arctic in September, they said snow was likely and we couldn’t go in. But we met a guy with a plane who was going to pick up a hunter and offered to take us to Anaktuvuk Pass, a village inside the park. Unexpected things are going to happen to you in Alaska, and they’re often wonderful.

Kennecott Mill in Wrangell St. Elias National Park

There can be towns right in the national parks...The towns were there before the parks, and they’ve become a part of the experience. The wilderness is preserved around them.

Q: What surprised you the most?

A: Two things. First, how culturally diverse Alaska is. Anaktuvuk Pass, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kotzebue—they’re all so different. For example, in remote Kotzebue, the restaurant was also a convenience store and meeting center, while Anchorage is a bustling city with great food and amenities. Second, there can be towns right in the national parks, like Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic or McCarthy in Wrangell-St. Elias. Makes you remember how young Alaska is. The towns were there before the parks, and they’ve become a part of the experience. The wilderness is preserved around them.

Q: How did Alaska make you feel?

A: It truly feels like a frontier—a place where you could explore new lands and make discoveries. I knew I wasn’t the first to visit these parks, of course, but sometimes we were totally alone and it felt like we were the first people there. Other national parks in the U.S. don’t provoke that same feeling; you have to work hard to find a spot to be alone.

Q: Did Alaska change you?

A: I considered myself an environmentalist before, but these trips kicked it up a notch. There just isn’t any place like Alaska—the wilderness and the freeness. In the rest of the country, everything has become so commercialized, and we’ve done so much to push nature back. But when you see it still so wild up in Alaska, you realize how much you’ve lost in the lower 48. I pay close attention to these things now.

Q: Ok, speed round to talk about each park. First up: Wrangell-St. Elias.

A: Wrangell was my favorite! Amazing experience. Wild. Nothing else like it. Getting there is misleadingly easy. You can drive, but the McCarthy Road is 60 miles of rough gravel that takes several hours. Then you make a call from a pay phone to get someone to pick you up. The park itself is enormous, with so many hiking trails. We went hiking on the glacier in the middle of it all; then, just a couple hundred feet away, you’re in the middle of a green forest.

Alexyn and friends stand on the Root Glacier in Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Alexyn and friends stand on the Root Glacier in Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Q: What about Kobuk Valley?

A: A lot of my friends think I’m crazy, but a pilot flew us in—with his dog in the back of the plane—and dropped us off for the day. We had to trust he would come back for us! He just said, “I’ll pick you up later. Stay on the dunes.” He was talking about the Sand Dunes, which is what most people want to see here. They’re gorgeous and otherworldly—seems like an impossible sight in the middle of the Arctic. We hiked around about half of the day, and sure enough, he came back to pick us up.

Alexyn and friends walk across the sand dunes in Kobuk Valley national Park

The sand dunes were gorgeous and otherworldly—seems like an impossible sight in the middle of the Arctic

Q: Tell us about Gates of the Arctic

A: Fascinating. Kids show up when planes land in the village of Anaktuvuk Pass and ask the pilots to buy them Yoo-hoo. At the ranger station, the only ranger hadn’t seen anyone for a week—he was hanging out in his socks. He told us to just walk to any edge of town to get to the park, then keep walking toward the mountains. It was beautiful. Shark-fin-like mountains everywhere, dramatic valleys, no vegetation because you’re above tree line, tons of caribou droppings.

Alexyn and friends hike into Gates of the Arctic National Park from Anaktuvuk Pass

Shark-fin-like mountains everywhere, dramatic valleys, no vegetation because you’re above tree line...

Q: How about Katmai?

A: The air taxi to get there cost a few hundred bucks each, and the lodge is several hundred bucks a night, so we were happy we had reserved a campsite. It’s just $10 a night, but you have to book months in advance. It was scary at first, because you see bears outside the electric fence that surrounds the campground. But they don’t want to bother you. Prior to the trip my wife loved watching the Katmai Bear Cam. So at Brooks Falls, seeing that first bear felt like a celebrity sighting after seeing live video of these bears for months. Even the location itself is like a location that’s a celebrity, since it’s one of the world’s most videotaped places. Really an exhilarating experience. And in June, it was also very uncrowded.

A bear peers out over the water in Katmai National Park

...at Brooks Falls, seeing that first bear felt like a celebrity sighting after seeing live video of these bears for months.

Q: And Lake Clark?

A: We went in September, past when most people would visit to see bears. We took an air taxi to Port Allsworth and stayed at a B&B-type lodge that looked out over a lake—just beautiful. The park itself is massive; you’d need to spend at least a week there to really get into it. Would love to come back and canoe or kayak. We found a lot of great hiking trails from Port Allsworth that made for a really low-key stop, just absorbing all the amazing nature.

View flying into Lake Clark National Park

View of turquoise lakes flying into Lake Clark National Park

Q. How about Kenai Fjords?

A: We experienced it on a boat and kayak trip from Seward. The amount of wildlife there is spectacular. Lots of people go to Glacier Bay, probably because they’re on cruises, but I thought the wildlife and scenery was much more spectacular in Kenai Fjords.

Kayak in front of Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park

Kayaking in front of Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park

Q: Tell us about Glacier Bay.

A: This was our first of the 8 national parks—picked it because it was close to Juneau, and Juneau was the closest airport to home, so it seemed like a good place to start. We stayed at Glacier Bay Lodge and took a day cruise boat from there. Also hiked the trails around the lodge. We found out you could arrange to be dropped off in the Glacier Bay backcountry and camp for a few days. I’d love to go back and do that.

View of a tidewater glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

View of a tidewater glacier from the day cruise in Glacier Bay National Park

Q: And last but definitely not least, Denali.

A: We took the train there from Fairbanks, and then rode the bus down the Denali Park Road to see wildlife. It’s very different experience from other parks, especially if you’re used to Yosemite or Yellowstone where you drive through the park. To get deep into the park, you have to take a bus. This has really preserved the park and kept it wild. We were there in early fall, so the tundra was changing colors, and we saw these huge brown bears foraging for food for winter. And we were lucky enough to see Denali, which is often obscured by clouds.

Alexyn Scheller stands in from of Denali in Denali National Park

...we were lucky enough to see Denali, which is often obscured by clouds.

Q: What’s your advice for someone planning a trip?

A: Alaska is many environments. It’s a rainforest. It’s a desert. It’s huge! So don’t try to do it all at once. And stay flexible; if you’re traveling independently like we were, plans will likely go awry, so make sure you have enough time to roll with it. Don’t try to cram everything in. Also, while the national parks are amazing, don’t miss out on the in-between places—they give Alaska its character, what makes it this great frontier. If anyone is interested, here’s my itinerary, with links (part 1 & part 2) and the cost of what everything was back in 2017 and 2018. Or, jump to itinerary below.

Q: Any plans to come back?

A: We now have a 6-month-old, so probably not soon, but we want to. I still have a list of things I want to do, like backpacking a week in Wrangell-St. Elias. My wife wants to go back to Katmai.

Watch Alexyn Scheller’s video and be inspired to plan your own adventure to all 8 national parks!

Alexyn's 8 Park Challenge - Overview

Alaska is too big to conquer in one trip, so in order to visit all 8 of its national parks, it will require 2 trips split between 20 days. It will require a plane, train and automobile in order to see all of the national parks, and probably be a bit on the expensive side.

Trip Length: 10 Days (2017), 10 Days (2018)
Trip Dates: Friday 8/26- Monday 9/4/17
Estimated Flight Cost: ~$650 pp (From RIC)
Total Trip Cost: ~3000 per Trip

Drive to:

  • Wrangell – St. Elias National Park

Train To:

  • Denali National Park

Ferry to:

  • Glacier Bay National Park
  • Kenai Fjords National Park

Flights required to:

  • Katmai National Park
  • Lake Clark National Park
  • Kobuk Valley National Park
  • Gates of the Arctic National Park

Part 1: August 25 - September 4, 2017

DayMorningAfternoonEveningNightCost
0 - Friday 8/25TravelTravelTravelTravel
1 - Saturday 8/26JuneauJuneau4:30 Flight to GustavusGlacier Bay Lodge$95 for Flight

$269.98 Per Room

2 - Sunday 8/277:00 FerryGlacier BayGlacier BayGlacier Bay Lodge$225 for Boat Tour

$269.98 Per Room

3 - Monday 8/28Gustavus12:30 Boat to Juneau, AK8:10 Flight to FairbanksFairbanks$44 Ferry to Juneau

$240 Flight to Fairbanks
$250.38 Per Room

4 - Tuesday 8/298:00 Flight to Gates of the ArcticGates of the Arctic6:00 Return to FairbanksFairbanks$780 Flight to GOTA
5 - Wednesday 8/308:15 Train to Denali12:10 Arrival at DenaliDenaliDenali$158 Train to Denali
$373.43 Per Room
6 - Thursday 8/317:00 Bus to DenaliDenaliDenaliDenali$44 Bus in Denali
$373.43 Per Room
7 - Friday 9/1Denali12:30 Train to Anchorage8:00PM arrival at AnchorageAnchorage$133 Train to Anchorage
$243.66 Per Room
8 - Saturday 9/2AnchorageDrive to SewardSewardSeward$344.09 Per Room
9 - Sunday 9/3Kenai Fjords KayakingKenai Fjords KayakingDrive to AnchorageFlight Home$426.90 Kayak Kenai
$114.03 Rental Car
10 - Monday 9/4TravelTravelTravelTravel

Juneau, Alaska

  • Weather: H 60 / L 48 with near-constant cloud cover. Sunrise around 6am and sunset around 8pm.
  • Note: We can store luggage at the airport. Just check it.
Tidewater glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

Bright blue tidewater glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

Gustavus, Alaska (Glacier Bay National Park)

  • Weather: H 60 / L 49 with near-constant cloud cover. Sunrise around 6am and sunset around 8pm.
  • Nights: Saturday 8/26, Sunday 8/27
    • Glacier Bay Lodge: One Double Bed, Two Twin Beds
      • $593.96 Total(Paid in Advance)
      • Need to to take shuttle from Airport to Hotel

Back to Juneau

  • Fly to Fairbanks, AK
    • Cost Varies, but is roughly $240 per person
Air taxi in Gates of the Arctic National Park

Air taxi to Gates of the Arctic National Park

Fairbanks, AK

  • Weather: H 58 / L 42 with near-constant cloud cover. Sunrise around 6:30am and sunset around 9pm.
  • Nights: Monday 8/28, Tuesday 8/29
    • Hampton Inn & Suites Fairbanks
    • 433 Harold Bentley Avenue, Fairbanks, AK 99701 T: 1 907-451-1502
    • $500.75 (Paid at Arrival)
  • Check Out: Aurora Ice Museum (Latest Tour Time is 7:00pm)
  • Eating: Pump House Saloon
  • Notes: Fairbanks has Uber

Gates of the Arctic National Park

Denali National Park

  • Weather: “Expect sun, wind, rain, and clouds, and expect them all on the same day. Snow can fall any month of the year.” Avg H 57 / L 36; sunrise around 5:45am and sunset around 8:20pm.
  • Nights: Wednesday 8/31, Thursday 9/1
    • Denali Bluffs Hotel: 2 Full Beds
    • Mile 238 4 George Parks Hwy, Denali National Park, 99755, AK
    • $746.86 (Paid at Arrival)
    • Need to to take shuttle from Train to Hotel and Hotel to Park
  • Denali National Park: You have to take a bus to the actual park
  • Bus: 7:00 am departure from Wilderness Center in Denali (4:00pm arrival, but that’s flexible)
Grizzly bear in Denali National Park

Grizzly bear in Denali National Park

Anchorage, Alaska

  • Weather: H 57 / L 43. Sunrise 6:51 am, sunset 8:58 pm.
  • Nights: Friday 9/1
    • Hampton Inn Anchorage- 2 Queen Bed
    • 4301 Credit Union Drive, Anchorage, AK 99503 T: 1 907-550-7000
    • $243.66 (Paid at Arrival)
  • Car: Pick up Rental at Anchorage International Airport
    • $170.07 (Pay at Counter) Full Size 4 Dr.
    • Hertz Pickup/ Drop Off Location: 4555 International Airport Road, Anchorage, AK 99502-1018
  • Check Out: Chugach State Park

Seward, Alaska

  • Weather: H 59 / L 47 with heavy cloud cover. Sunrise 6:54am, sunset 8:59pm.
  • Nights: Saturday 9/2, Sunday 9/3
    • Best Western Plus Edgewater Hotel: 2 Queen Beds with Balcony View
    • 200 5th Ave, Seward, 99664, AK
    • $688.18 (Paid at Arrival)
    • Need Taxi from Train to Hotel
  • Things to Do: Dinner Cruise ($100), Hikes at Kenai (Free)
Whale splashes in Kenai Fjords National Park

Whale splashes in Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords National Park

  • Activity: Kayak Kenai
    • $426.90 Per Person (½ Deposit, ½ at Location)
    • 7:15am Departure, ~5:30pm return
    • Bring the Following:
      • Rain Jacket (Available to Rent for 10$)
      • Rain Pants (Available to Rent for 10$)
      • Warm Synthetic Layers (non-cotton)
      • Water Bottle
      • Sunglasses / Sunscreen
      • Camera

Fly Home: Anchorage, Alaska

  • Car: Rent car back to Anchorage
  • 304.19 (Pay at Counter) Full Size 4 Dr.
    • Hertz Pickup Location: 600 Port Avenue, Seward, AK 99664
    • Hertz Drop Off Location: 4555 International Airport Road, Anchorage, AK 99502-1018
  • Check Out: Chugach State Park

Part 2: June 8 - June 18, 2018

DayMorningAfternoonEveningNightCost
0 - Friday 6/8TravelTravelTravelAnchorage$211.74 Hotel
1 - Saturday 6/96:10 Plane to Kotzebue, 7:50 arrivalKobuk Valley National ParkKobuk Valley National ParkKotzebue

$567.64 AA flight
~$1550 bush plane
$357.28 hotel

2 - Sunday 6/10

Kotzebue

Kotzebue6:40 plane to Anchorage, 9:40 arrival

Anchorage

$567.64 AA flight
$259.65 hotel
3 - Monday 6/11AnchorageAnchorage4:00 Flight to King SalmonKing Salmon$676 Ravn Flight
$880 Katmai Flight
$54 Campground
4 - Tuesday 6/1210:30 flight to BrooksKatmaiKatmaiCamp in Brooks$384 Land of 10,000 Smokes
$54 campground
5 - Wednesday 6/13KatmaiKatmai, 3:00 flight back to King Salmon

6:00 flight to Anchorage

Anchorage$456 Katmailand flight
$666.40 AA flight
$303.11 hotel
6 - Thursday 6/14Drive to Wrangell St. EliasDrive to Wrangell St. EliasWrangell St. Elias National ParkWrangell St. Elias National Park$278 rental car
$324 triple Hotel
7 - Friday 6/15

8:00 glacier hike tour

Wrangell St. Elias National ParkWrangell St. Elias National ParkWrangell St. Elias National Park$528 glacier hike

$324 triple hotel

8 - Saturday 6/169:30 tour of Kennecott MinesDrive to AnchorageDrive to AnchorageAnchorage$264.94 hotel
$112 Kennecott tour
9 - Sunday 6/177:00am flight to Lake ClarkLake Clark National ParkLake Clark National ParkLake Clark National Park$2,880 hotel, food, & airfare
10 - Monday 6/189:00am flight to AnchorageAnchorage8:02 flight homeTravelRed eye flight
$11,000

Notes: Weather

  • Anchorage - Highs in 50s, lows in 30s/40s.
  • Kotzebue - Highs in 30s/50s, lows in 20s-30s.
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park - Highs in 50s/60s, lows in 30s/40s.
  • Lake Clark National Park - Highs in 50s, lows in 30s/40s.
  • King Salmon - Highs in 50s/60s, lows in 30s/40s.
  • Brooks Lake - Highs in 50s/60s, lows in 30s

Anchorage, Alaska

  • Hotel: Hilton Garden Inn (Leave Carry on Luggage at Hilton Garden Inn)
  • Cost: 211.74
Sand dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park

Sand dunes in Kobuk Valley National Park

Kobuk Valley National Park

  • Get to Kotzebue, Alaska at 8:00am
  • Book A Bush Flight to the Sand Dunes http://www.arcticbackcountry.com/welcome-1.htm
    • Flying there is $1200 for all 4 people and includes a 30 minute landing. Its 250 an hour for every extra hour he stays.
    • We are flying with “Arctic Back Country”, and have been communicating with a lady named Stacey. (907)442-3200
    • Estimated Cost: $1,700
  • Things to Do:
    • Arctic Ocean
    • Northwest Arctic Heritage Center(Get your stamps here)
    • Suliancich Art Center (Art store)
    • Kayak Rental ($20, Half Day Rental)
  • Places to Eat:
    • Bayside Restaurant
    • Hotel Restaurant
  • Flight from Kotzebue to Anchorage: ~$300 Round Trip
  • Hotel: Anchorage Hotel
  • Cost: $259.65

Katmai National Park

  • Remember: Go to REI and get camping rental equipment, Go to Camera store to rent telephoto lens.
  • Getting There: Fly from King Salmon to Brooks Camp after landing in King Salmon (Branch River Air) ($880RT)
  • Things to Do: Brooks Camp Bear Viewing
    • All visitors to Brooks Camp are required to begin their stay by attending a brief bear safety talk outlining park regulations.
  • Camping: Brooks Camp Campground(Note: Rent Equipment at REI in Anchorage, we switch campgrounds after 1st night)
  • Cost: $54/night
Campground at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park

Campground at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park

Exploring the features of the Root Glacier in Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Exploring the features of the Root Glacier in Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Wrangell St. Elias National Park

  • Rent a Car: Pick up ca from Hertz at 9:00PM on 6/13→ 5:30am on 6/17
    • Total Cost: ~280 for 2 Days
  • Drive to McCarthy, AK
    • Total Time, Apx 6:30, Apx. 300 Miles
  • Hotel:
    • Ma Johnson’s Hotel (http://www.mccarthylodge.com/)
    • Cost: $299/Night for 2 Nights
  • Things to Do:
  • McCarthy Lodge and Golden Saloon
  • Kennicott Mines (5 dollar bus ride, $28 tour we can take through the same as the glacier hike)

Lake Clark National Park (Port Alsworth Entrance)

From Anchorage

  • http://www.lakeclarkair.com/package7.html
    • Cost: $720 Per Person (with Hotel & Food Included. We say grace at Dinner/Breakfast)
    • 7:00am Flight from Anchorage to Port Alsworth, Alaska
  • Hotel: The Farm Lodge (http://www.thefarmlodge.com/)
  • Cost: Included with Airfare
  • Notes:
    • Home to the park visitor center as well as trails to waterfalls and kayaking locations
    • Walk the 7.5 Miles trail to Tanailan Falls
    • Rent Kayaks
Trail views in Lake Clark National Park

Trail views in Lake Clark National Park

Anchorage, Alaska

Things to Do:

  • Tony Knowles Coastal Trail (Downtown/Coastal Trail)
  • Portage Glacier
  • Wildlife Conservation Center (Home to a bunch of animals)
  • Anchorage Museum
  • Anchorage Market and Festival (Sat/Sun)
  • Potter Marsh (Wooden Walkway)
  • Alaska Escape Rooms
  • Ghost Tours of Anchorage

Eat:

  • Moose Tooth Pub and Pizzeria (#1)
  • Beartooth Theatrepub and Grill (Dinner/Movie)
  • Glacier Brewhouse
  • Orso
  • Simon & Seaforts Saloon & Grille
  • Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse

Fly out

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