National Park Count: 31
NUMBER THIRTY ONE!???? Holy Cow! Just about 5 years ago I didn’t really even know what the national park scene was all about! If you’d have told me even just 3 years ago that I would now have 31 of the 63 under my belt I would have thought I either won the lottery or married well! But, despite neither of those being true, here we are with number 31: Lake Clark National Park in Alaska.
Alaska has 8 national parks. Three of them are accessible by road (click here for my thoughts on Kenai Fjords, also in this trip, and Denali, from 2017) but the other 5 are…difficult. This one is one of the “difficult ones” but actually isn’t too hard to get to if you have 600 bucks and know what to look for!
Lake Clark is most easily accessible in 1 of 2 ways: by boat from Homer, to the outer shores of the park, or by plane from either Homer or Anchorage, delivering you to a potential variety of spots. Initially, I was gearing up to pay 600 bucks for the boat ride from Homer to the outer shores (Chinitna Bay, specifically) of the National Park to basically watch brown bears digging for clams. The captain told me that it’s a crapshoot on how long the trip ashore is. It is a 5 or 6 hour total tour, but if the majority of tourists want to simply come ashore, snap some pictures of grizzlies for instagram, and then head back out to look for whales, that’s what he does. There is no visitor center there, no signs, no facilities of any kind, just landing on the shore going to a viewing platform and watching the bears. Didn’t sound awesome, but what could I do? The only flight trips I saw at first were for at least an overnight and that one was going to be about 900 bucks per person, based on double occupancy, and I was traveling solo…..sooooo…nope, not in my budget, the boat is was! BUT! After asking around online, I was informed that the same company with the rate I just mentioned, Lake Clark Air, also did a 600 dollar day trip! On their website it is hidden pretty well in custom trips, which is why I didn’t see it! So, after making some phone calls I was booked on Lake Clark Air out of Merrill Field in Anchorage! It was to be a 9ish AM flight to Port Alsworth, the little town right on Lake Clark proper. The flight would take an hour and I would be on the ground until about 5 PM. For the same price as the boat tour, this was a no brainer!
A quick bit of info on Lake Clark National Park. This is a park that, in its entirety, is bigger than the entire state of Hawai’i. Due to its remoteness, however, most people are only able to visit the two ways I describe above. That being the case, one can easily spend several days at some different lodges scattered about in the area, reachable by water taxi or float plane out of Port Alsworth. Truly adventurous people can commission a guide and go backcountry hiking which includes a stop at a cabin built in the last 50 or so years by a guy way out in the middle of the wilderness of what is now the national park. All of these things are prohibitively expensive and probably best done in a decent sized group. So, not for me!
I got to Lake Clark Air hangar around 8 AM, checked in, and soon the little 8 seater Piper took off! The flight path took us high enough to see Denali! That mountain is SOOOO huge and was visible here, at least 130 miles away! Anyway, she wasn’t the focus or even a “maybe I can” on this trip, so it was a pleasant surprise! Our flight was low enough that we traversed the famed Lake Clark Pass below mountaintop height and it was not long that the cirques and glaciers off to the side gave way to the gorgeous Lake Clark under the plane!
Upon landing in Lake Clark (one of two gravel landing strips, mind you), myself and the other guests were led to where we needed to go for whatever our activities planned to be! Lake Clark Air seems to be a very well organized company! I was the only one that came in that day doing my particular trip and the young man who was my very short term guide took me to find bear spray, get my very large bag lunch that was part of my ticket, and then gave me some directions! There is a lodge here, with several rooms, called The Farm Lodge. It is run by Lake Clark Air and the Alsworth group. To be fair, I honestly think I would like to convince someone to come back with me and stay a night or two there, so nice and rustic it looked, and right on the harbor! Now, there were a couple things that surprised me quite a bit right off the bat. Number one, there was a COFFEE SHOP open all day right there, thank goodness!! Their drinks are cheaper than Starbucks! They actually had wifi available for me at their lodge. Every employee seems to be a local and a lot of them are teens. The town is kind of a weird place. The name Alsworth is the name of the family who basically settled it, and the man I spoke too about the flights was Glenn Alsworth who runs Lake Clark Air and a lot of stuff in the town itself. A lot of the residents are somehow in that family circle. The town has roads, and there are vehicles there! They were all gravel roads and most vehicles were trucks or ATV/OTVs but there were some cars??? as well. There are actually are two long airstrips, as another air operator called Lake and Pen Air operates there as well. This is a place where planes are life, for sure, and planes are parked everywhere. There is also a big Bible retreat called the Tanalian Bible Camp located here as well. The name comes, I presume, from Mt. Tanalian, which looms large over the town.
Anyway, despite how small the town is, it actually takes a good long while to get from place to place depending on where you need to go! From my landing area I was going to pick up a kayak rental, from Tulchina Adventures, which was all the way at the opposite end of the other landing strip. It was a haul! And to make matters worse, the end of that landing strip is where I thought I was to go, but there was nothing there except a “road” that went down to a pretty fierce looking creek. So I walked about half way back again to the national park visitor center and the ranger told me where that little road met the water there was a side trail leading to a bridge to get where I needed to go… A lot of wasted time here…and when I got my kayak, the lady was extremely polite and friendly, but it is basically a home job situation and then she ATVed the kayak down to the lake edge and I had to walk…probably another quarter mile, and by the time I finally got into the kayak a lot of time had passed!
In any event I finally got in and started my first evey kayaking trip in a national park! This water was cold and my feet were now soaked getting in…the lake is very rocky and no sand to push off from, but this is a strikingly beautiful lake. There are mountains all around, the water is crystal clear, and you cannot see much of the town at all! The sound of planes is ever present though, but I couldn’t complain as that’s how these people survive!
Because of the challenges to merely finding the kayak house, I only was on the water for a bit more than an hour. I was allowed to land the kayak in the area very near where my plane came in. This was a blessing since this spot was quite close to the trailhead for the hike I wanted to do : Tanalian Falls. This was a good hike with a KILLER payoff. The hike to this spot is about 4 miles round trip (you can go much much further) with about 800 feet of elevation gain and is rated easy. Honestly, the beginning of the trail is actually not in national park land, and it’s a decently steep ATV trail up to entering national park land and was not that easy. Most of the elevation gain on this trail in that first half mile or so. But, from there the trail is quite pleasant. Again, this is primitive Alaska back country and in town they said the bears are definitely all around the town, so I was on guard, being a solo hiker. I was getting quite a bit uncomfortable about not seeing any people on the hike but finally saw some people closed to the falls! Much sooner than expected I could hear the roar of water indicating my hike was near an end! These falls are SPECTACULAR. I am guessing the water was nuts due to snow melt, but it was really coming down, and the color of the water…amazing! There is also a short hike up a ledge to get to the top view of the falls….the view of this water is insane! This river eventually makes it way out to the lake. Though I had seen some people coming back from the falls, and I would later see a decent amount more headed to the the falls, my time at the falls was entirely solitary. Not one person. Such an amazing spot, and I had it all to myself! Check out the videos, pardon the poor narration, but the pictures don’t really do it justice!
There is actually a food truck in this town…it was not even high priced, and after my hike I stopped there to refill and concluded my ground trip by checking out the area around the park visitor center more. The weather started looking suspicious for the first and only time of my entire trip, and they rushed to get us out ahead of the storm. We went out on a bigger 10 seat Beechcraft, I guess to avoid bad weather. I got to be copilot! The take off was terrifying and I thought we were going to die, especially when the aircraft went from facing forward to being pushed nearly 90 degrees off that direction. Finally we got up and over the storm! Since we were now flying about 18000 feet as opposed to the 2 or 3000 feet coming in, we were well above the pass, which was disappointing, but we also were able to see Redoubt Volcano and the steam coming from the active volcano, which was certainly neat! A neat approach into Anchorage and we were back on the ground at the end of the afternoon and that concluded my brief visit to Lake Clark National Park!
Overall Impressions: A truly beautiful spot, absolutely stunning, and possibly the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. Remote. Pristine. Not the easiest to get too. And certainly not the easiest on the wallet to fully experience. But just being in remote Alaska, an area that most people never ever get to visit…that’s special.
The Adventurer Final Word:
I am giving this one 4.5 stars for the same reason I have that to Kenai Fjords: limited accessibility to probably a place of unequaled beauty on this planet. This visit encompassed, probably by a wide margin, the least amount of any National Park I have seen, but that one 6 hour or so excursion was pretty memorable! I think if I had limitless funds and could have done overnights and water taxis to other parts of the lake, and what not it would be a 5 hands down!