One Of The US' Most Vast And Unbelievably Beautiful National Parks Is A Barely-Visited Gem

Although it's a mere 100 miles south of Anchorage, you can only get to Lake Clark's 4 million acres of wilderness by plane, landing on a gravel airstrip at tiny Port Alsworth, or arriving by float plane at your chosen destination within the park. Just over 18,000 visitors made it to the park in 2021 (70% in July and August), making it the third-least-visited national park in America. It's also one of the best little-known national parks for a family vacation with features that make it uniquely appealing for select visitors, from guided day trips to see bears in their natural habitat to overnight excursions in a wilderness that would test the mettle of Bear Grylls.


Those who don't come just to see the bears are often on a mission to see what may be the quintessential Alaska homestead: The log cabin built by the late Richard Proenneke and immortalized in his 1973 memoir, "One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey." Before shows like "Alaska: The Final Frontier" and "Life Below Zero" made off-grid lifestyles the stuff of Millennial fantasies, Proenneke was living the off-grid lifestyle for 30 years. His cabin, which is open to the public, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Even if his cult classic book isn't what drew you to Lake Clark in the first place, you should definitely stuff a copy of the book into your backpack for airplane reading on your way there.


A pilgrimage to bear country

As a major salmon-run headwater, Lake Clark attracts hungry brown bears during the June-August spawning season. Bears are omnivores, and eat everything from berries and honey to clams and wildflowers, but salmon is what they feast upon to bulk up in preparation for hibernation. Like an excursion to see the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands, a bear-viewing tour to Lake Clark is an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime bucket list adventure. This isn't an easy DIY endeavor, as there are no stores or restaurants in the park, and campground camping is limited. The park has established bear-viewing locations that it encourages visitors to use, protecting curious children from equally curious cubs, and to protect the bears from getting too comfy with their human observers. 


Your best option is to book an all-inclusive bear-watching trip that includes airfare and a stay in a lodge or glamping safari tent, and naturalist-guided days watching Grizzly cubs cavort and frolic by the lakeshore. This Redditor's comment about arriving at their favorite National Park says it all: "We flew past active volcanos, massive glaciers, over a pod of whales, and landed on this pristine, turquoise lake and watched bears catch salmon for an entire day. I just literally can't imagine somewhere I'd rather be."

Backcountry that's not for beginners

None of the backpacking routes in Lake Clark National Park can be found on a list of U.S. National Park trails that are only for experienced hikers. Why? Because the routes here don't follow a trail at all. You could use any of those difficult hikes as a warm-up for Lake Clark, but to complete the next-level challenges offered by this unforgiving yet majestic wilderness, you'll need expert backcountry skills. Expect challenges you won't face in more popular destinations; for instance, there are no trails in the park, beyond a few modest loops from the only town, Port Alsworth, so once you head into the wild, your route-finding and bushwhacking abilities will be put to the test by the tundra.


Even with your trusty emergency satellite personal locator beacon in hand, the help you can summon might take days to reach you, should you break your ankle, or become hypothermic after falling into the cold water. Then there are those bears. If you do go it on your own, the park offers the use of a required bear-proof canister to store all your food and toiletries free of charge. In some shoreline areas, you are also required to surround your camp with a portable electric bear-proof fence. 

While you can do this trip independently, or even as a solo hiker if you've a wealth of experience, if ever there were a time to splurge on a guided backpacking trip, this is it.