Alaska Gears Up for a Summer of National Parks

The Denali Star travels through Denali National Park.
The Denali Star travels through Denali National Park.

Throughout 2016, National Parks in Alaska will be marking the National Parks Service’s centennial by offering new activities and initiatives; tour operators and cruise lines will also be running special itineraries.

New this year, the Alaska Railroad will offer a National Parks by Rail package, an eight-day trip that includes rail travel, accommodations and excursions in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Denali National Park and Preserve, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and Kenai Fjords National Park. For families with older children, the flightseeing tour of Gates of the Arctic National Park and bear viewing at Lake Clark are particularly popular.

Rail travelers can also go heli-hiking, river rafting or driving on a Jeep in Denali, as well as driving near the Arctic Circle as part of its lineup of day trip options.

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Also in Denali, thrill-seekers can check out the new Denali Park Zipline, which opens this year. Participants must be at least 8 years old and weigh between 70 and 280 pounds to participate in the course, which consists of eight ziplines and six suspension bridges. Kids under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Denali will also be opening new trails at the park’s entrance, as well as a new trail from the Eielson Visitor Center.

For a bit of Gold Rush history, there’s the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, which on May 6 will open Soapy Smith’s Parlor, once the den of notorious outlaw Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Guests can also view the “Women of the Gold Rush” exhibit.

In Glacier Bay National Park, late August will see the opening of the Huna Tribal House, which will serve as a cultural gathering place for the Alaska Native Tlingit clan and will offer guests insights into local culture. Clients can visit the tribal house by traveling overland from Gustavus. Overnight accommodations are also available at Glacier Bay Lodge.

By Land and By Air

Tour operators are celebrating the centennial too with new summer packages. John Hall’s Alaska’s land-and-sea National Parks of Alaska tour takes in six national parks: Katmai, Wrangell-St. Elias, Gates of the Arctic, Denali, Kenai Fjords and Glacier Bay. Older kids may also enjoy the Grand Slam Alaska tour, which starts with a ride on the Alaska Railroad for a narrated tour of Anchorage before continuing to Fairbanks for a chance to visit Iditarod legend Susan Butcher’s Trail Breaker Kennel. Grand Slam guests also visit Denali, Dantishna, Wonder Lake, the Hubbard Glacier and an Alaska Salmon Bake.

Alaska Heritage Tours has an eight-day land tour that explores Denali (out of Anchorage). Guests can also visit Kenai Fjords on a five-day program with an all-day guided sea kayak excursion, day cruise and guided hike.

Alaska Wildland Adventures’ 11-day Grand Journey includes a stay at the only lodge in Kenai Fjords plus visits to Denali, the Chugach National Forest and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

All Alaska Tours, Inc. has a rail and road package that explores Kenai Fjords, Wrangell St. Elias and Denali, plus a choice of either Katmai or Lake Clark. There is an optional extension to the Gates of the Arctic National Park, too.

For a lower-impact option, Aramark is offering a Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali that travels eight hours and 53 miles into the park on a narrated bus tour, with a full view of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley).

Flightseeing is also a popular way to explore Alaska. Rust’s Flying Service offers fly-in hike or rafting excursions in Denali and Lake Clark. Arctic Circle Air offers the chance to fly over the Arctic Circle on a daytrip, as well as flightseeing above Gates of the Arctic National Park.

Ponant will offer seven Alaska cruises this summer.
Ponant will offer seven Alaska cruises this summer.

By Sea

Small ship cruise lines are also launching numerous ways to explore Alaska’s National Parks this summer.

Alaskan Dream Cruises has three trips ranging from eight to 11 days that include stops in Glacier Bay National Park. The eight-day Alaska’s Glacier Bay & Island Adventure has an August 7 departure that caters to families with children ages seven and up. This sailing has a youth expedition leader and activities geared toward children, including a visit to the Sitka Sound Science Center for an up-close encounter with marine animals, an opportunity to discover Alaska Native history through dance, carving and storytelling, and (if weather permits) the chance to join the “Killer Whale Club” by jumping into the waters of a wilderness bay. Children 15 and under get 15 percent off cruise fare.

Un-Cruise Adventures offers guests the chance to visit Glacier Bay during the week of August 25, which is the actual anniversary day. Guests will get a commemorative gift and the chance to take part in a special onboard celebration. The Family Discoveries program takes $500 off the regular rate for children ages eight to 13.

Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic offers two Alaska itineraries this season: the eight-day Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness and the 15-day A Remarkable Journey to Alaska, British Columbia & Haida Gwaii sailings. Kids can take part in hands-on science using a video microscope, learn about conservation and get lessons with the line’s naturalists.

Ponant’s seven Alaska cruises itineraries aboard Le Soléal this summer will range from eight to 15 days with stops at such destinations as Point Adolphus, Skagway, Tracy Arm, Haines and the Katmai Peninsula. Departure points include Seward, Vancouver, Juneau, Nome and Anchorage.

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