Yes, These 10 National Parks of the Pacific Northwest Are Really This Breathtaking in Real Life
Sights you must see to believe.
Vast glaciers, arctic sand dunes, Technicolor hot springs, deep blue lakes, fearsome wildlife — all of these spectacles and more prevail in the national parks of the Pacific Northwest. There’s something for everyone within these magnificent landscapes. Book that flight or get that RV ready for an adventure — you’re going to want to see these spectacular spots.
1. Glacier National Park (Montana)
In 1850, 150 glaciers covered what is now Glacier National Park. Now, about 25 are left — and visitors are flocking to see them while they still can. More than 3 million people entered the park in 2017, drawn as much by the retreating glaciers (which will likely be gone by 2030) as by the spectacular scenery of saw-toothed peaks, turquoise lakes, alpine streams, thick forests, and meadows of wildflowers. Shaped by erosion, geologic uplift, and creeping ancient glaciers, the park covers more than 1 million acres.
Established in 1910, Glacier is America’s 10th national park — and one of its most pristine. Tourists originally arrived by train on the Great Northern Railway, whose president, Louis Hill, collaborated with influential naturalist George Bird Grinnell and other conservationists to create what Grinnell aptly nicknamed “the Crown of the Continent.” Glacier National Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.
Built in Swiss Chalet style, the railroad’s Many Glacier Hotel is still operational on Swiftcurrent Lake today. Other historic buildings — Sperry Chalet, Granite Park Chalet, and the Two Medicine Store — are also in use. The park’s other landmarks range from Lake McDonald Lodge, opened in 1914 on Glacier’s largest lake, to the circa 1933 Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile highway that winds through nearly every kind of landscape in the park. But it is Glacier’s wild natural beauty — 700-plus lakes, 175 mountains, and 71 species of mammals — that takes center stage. Even when the glaciers are a distant memory, these treasures will remain.
Visiting Glacier National Park
More than 700 miles of hiking trails crisscross Glacier National Park. Get maps, info, and more at one of three main visitor centers: Apgar Visitor Center near the town of West Glacier, St. Mary Visitor Center near the town of St. Mary, and Logan Pass Visitor Center in the middle of the park. At the last, find trailheads for two of the most popular hikes: the Highline and Hidden Lake trails. See other wonders by classic wooden boat, courtesy of Glacier Park Boat Company, or by bus. The park’s 33 vintage Red Buses make up the oldest touring fleet of vehicles on Earth.
2. Kenai Fjords National Park (Alaska)
Imagine an ice field so immense it covers 700 square miles, so dense it’s up to a mile thick, so powerful it feeds almost 40 glaciers, and so ancient it dates back 23,000 years. This is Kenai Fjords National Park’s Harding Icefield. It’s one of only four ice fields left in the United States, and the largest one located completely within US borders. Ice and snow blanket 60 percent of Alaska’s smallest national park (607,000 acres).
While Harding Icefield is the most impressive feature of the park, Exit Glacier is the most accessible. This half-mile-wide band of ice is in the only section of the park that’s reachable by road from the town of Seward — and a half-hour hike brings visitors up close.
Along the park’s southern reaches, the Gulf of Alaska draws boatloads of gawkers to its frosty fjords. Here, thousands of seabirds nest, neon-blue icebergs drift, and eagle-eyes spy sea otters, harbor seals, Steller’s sea lions, orcas, Dall’s porpoises, and humpback whales. Those even hungrier for adventure can kayak amid the subarctic scenery. Aialik Bay is a popular destination for paddlers, who earn box seats to the symphony of pops, booms, and shudders that result as the ice face cracks and calves nearby.
Other activities range from fishing, biking, and beachcombing, to skiing, snowmobiling, and dogsledding — area pastimes that predate the park’s official establishment in 1980 as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Visitors can also keep their eyes peeled for 29 species of land animal. Mountain goats scale steep cliffs, moose wade through waterways, and black bears slide down snow chutes. It seems the Kenai Peninsula is every bit the playground for wildlife as it is for humankind.
Visiting Kenai Fjords National Park
The Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center is located in Seward, the main portal to the park. During the summer, the Alaska Railroad connects Seward and Anchorage. May to September is the optimal time to go, with calmer seas, longer days, and road access to Exit Glacier. Don’t miss a half or full-day outing to the fjords and coastal islands; boat tours launch from Seward daily.
3. Crater Lake National Park (Oregon)
Crater Lake takes up less than 10 percent of its namesake park, but this cobalt landmark qualifies for world-wonder status. The deepest lake in the US, it’s also considered the cleanest and clearest large body of water on the planet.
Long revered as sacred by the Klamath tribe of southern Oregon, the Gem of the Cascades has a violent past. Mount Mazama was once 12,000 feet tall, but a powerful volcanic eruption in 5700 B.C. caused its summit to collapse, forming a caldera five to six miles wide. Rainwater and snowmelt filled the crater, and over the centuries, life returned to its slopes. At present, the lake is 1,943 feet deep. Fauna such as deer, elk, bobcats, mountain lions, foxes, black bears, porcupines, and bald eagles inhabit its surrounding old-growth forests.
Oregon’s only national park was established in 1902, after conservationist William Gladstone Steel campaigned for its protection for 17 years. In 1909, Steel persuaded a Portland developer named Alfred Parkhurst to construct a lodge on the rim over Crater Lake. The historic Crater Lake Lodge opened six years later.
Today, the lodge’s back porch lends a spectacular panorama of the lake and Wizard Island, a smaller volcanic cone protruding from the water. Views also abound at the Sinnott Memorial Overlook, built in 1930, and on Rim Drive, a scenic 33-mile road that rings the lake.
Around the park, 90 miles of hiking trails ramble through soaring pine forests, blooming meadows, and craggy peaks. Still, the greatest marvel is Crater Lake itself. It’s so vividly blue that Native American myth maintains the mountain bluebird was gray before bathing in its waters.
Visiting Crater Lake National Park
The park is open year-round, though some roads, trails, and amenities close seasonally because of snow. Join a ranger for a guided ascent up Watchman Peak or a cruise around Crater Lake. Popular, easy hikes include Plaikni Falls (2 miles) and the Pinnacles (0.8 miles), as well as the 0.8-mile Sun Notch loop for views of the lake’s Phantom Ship island. Prefer to drive? Mount Scott is the highest point in the state that you can access by car.
4. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve (Alaska)
Blue glaciers. Steaming volcanoes. Wild rivers. Turquoise lakes. Hulking bears. Lake Clark National Park takes the best Alaska has to offer and condenses it all into 5,625 square miles. Created in 1980, Lake Clark sweeps from the coast of Cook Inlet, over the spine of the Chigmit Mountains, to the alpine tundra of the interior. Yet despite its diverse beauty, the preserve receives only 23,000 visitors a year. Most enter through Port Alsworth, a small community on the east shore of Lake Clark. Here, trailheads lead to the Tanalian trails network — the only maintained trail system in the park — with day hikes to Tanalian Falls and the peak of 3,570-foot Tanalian Mountain.
The highlight of Lake Clark is its namesake lake. Fifty miles long, brilliantly aqua, and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it’s a popular spot for canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. Elsewhere in the park, outfitters facilitate float trips on the preserve’s three Wild and Scenic rivers. The water presents unique opportunities to view Lake Clark’s 37 species of land mammals, including the Mulchatna herd of more than 100,000 caribou. Along the coast, travelers spot beluga whales, harbor seals, sea otters, and puffins. Even within its more trafficked areas, the park remains one of the least visited in the entire NPS. This ensures a pure, peaceful, and exclusive encounter with Mother Nature.
Visiting Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
Port Alsworth, the main gateway to the park, offers guides, gear rentals, a visitor center, and lodging, such as Farm Lodge. Several air-taxi services make the one-hour flight to Port Alsworth from Anchorage. Though the park is open year-round, summer is the best time to visit, when temps hover in the 50s and 60s.
5. North Cascades National Park (Washington)
Washington is nicknamed the Evergreen State, and nowhere is the color green on fuller display than in North Cascades National Park. Created in 1968, North Cascades boasts more plant species than any other national park — 1,630 and counting. Its borders encompass eight types of forest, from ponderosa pine to mountain hemlock. Lichens and moss cover literally everything. Even the lakes are vivid shades of green.
Some 400 miles of hiking trails take visitors deep into the park’s verdant environment — a place so enchanting that writer Jack Kerouac stayed for two months in 1956, working as a fire-tower watchman on Desolation Peak. He went on to write about the experience in his novels, The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels.
Despite its literary fame and location just a 2.5-hour drive from Seattle, North Cascades remains one of the least-visited parks in the NPS. Only one paved road — the North Cascades Scenic Byway — leads into the interior. The relatively few who travel it are rewarded with vistas of snowcapped summits, alpine meadows, pastoral rivers, and more than 300 glaciers — the most in any national park outside of Alaska.
About 110 inches of precipitation fall on the park’s western section each year. This explains the lushness and innumerable waterfalls. In this sylvan setting, the colors appear more intense, from Kerouac’s “blue sunshine sky” and “sea of marshmallow clouds,” to the majestic evergreens stretching up to meet them.
Visiting North Cascades National Park
Two national recreation areas — Ross Lake and Lake Chelan — function together with the national park as the North Cascades National Park Service Complex. A number of permitted companies provide services within the complex, including boat tours, horseback riding, rafting, fishing, paddling, cycling, climbing, and hiking. Stay in a floating cabin at Ross Lake Resort, and don’t miss a ferry ride on the Lady of the Lake to the remote community of Stehekin.
6. Kobuk Valley National Park (Alaska)
Thirty-five miles above the Arctic Circle lie the largest arctic sand dunes in the world. Formed 14,000 years ago as retreating glaciers ground rocks into sand, the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes, together with two smaller dune fields, cover 30 square miles. Some dunes rise as high as 100 feet. The place to see this geologic curiosity is Kobuk Valley National Park.
Established in 1980, the 1.7 million–acre park gets its name from the Kobuk River valley that cuts through its center. Sixty miles of this wide waterway (Kobuk means “big river” in Inupiaq Eskimo) run within park borders. Flanking the valley are the Baird and Waring mountains, as well as boreal forest and treeless tundra.
No trails exist in the park, except those blazed by migrating Western Arctic caribou, the largest herd of the species on Earth. However, visitors (only 15,500 in 2016) rarely spot the park’s elusive wildlife. Most merely fly in for the day to picnic on the peculiar dunes. Still, even this brief encounter is one for the books, as travelers set foot on a wild landscape unchanged for millennia.
Visiting Kobuk Valley National Park
Learn about Kobuk Valley at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center in Kotzebue, the closest major town with air service to and from Anchorage. From Kotzebue, air taxis touch down on the dunes or the Kobuk River. There are no roads or facilities inside the park. As Kobuk Valley is only 32 miles west of Gates of the Arctic National Park, some tour operators offer combined river/hiking trips with time in both locations.
7. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (Alaska)
No roads, no trails, no facilities, no other souls. Gates of the Arctic National Park is one of the last untamed places on Earth. The least-visited national park in the entire system, Gates of the Arctic sees only 10,000 visitors a year. Established in 1980, the northernmost national park in the United States sits entirely above the Arctic Circle and spans the Brooks Range, America’s most northerly mountain chain and the terminus of the Rockies. Conservationist Robert Marshall christened the area the “Gates of the Arctic” in 1929, when he first glimpsed Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags mountain bounding the North Fork of the Koyukuk River. Today, the Gates are one of the few named landmarks in this epic 8.5 million–acre wilderness, along with six National Wild and Scenic rivers: North Fork Koyukuk, Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak and Tinayguk.
Private float trips ply these waters, and beyond their shores, guided backpacking tours take trekkers deep into the backcountry, immersing the truly adventurous in the scenic Arrigetch Peaks (“fingers of the hand extended,” in native Eskimo). Seasonal wonders also grace this region: 30 days of endless sun in the summer; 490,000 caribou — Alaska’s largest herd — migrating across the autumn-hued tundra; the northern lights dancing across the winter skies.
Photographers have a field day with the unspoiled natural beauty. The luckiest capture some of the preserve’s four-legged residents (brown and black bears, wolves, Dall sheep, moose, musk ox, wolverines, arctic foxes) on film. The photos — and the memories they represent — become precious keepsakes from a bold and extraordinary venture into the wild.
Visiting Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
From Fairbanks, several small carriers fly into the gateway community of Bettles, where the national park operates a visitor center. Lodges such as Bettles Lodge offer accommodations as well as complete trip packages. Booking with a lodge or outfitter is a must. Alaska Alpine Adventures leads both rafting and backpacking itineraries. Iniakuk Lake Wilderness Lodge offers two rustic cabins within park boundaries.
8. Katmai National Park and Preserve (Alaska)
In 1912, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century rocked a far-flung corner of southern Alaska. Nearly two feet of ash descended on Kodiak, 100 miles away, but not a soul was lost. Explorer Robert Griggs returned to the site four years later. Seeing thousands of vents steaming from the valley floor, he christened it the “Valley of 10,000 Smokes” — and championed the 1918 campaign to protect Katmai as a national monument.
Today, Novarupta Volcano is dormant, and the Valley of 10,000 Smokes is forever preserved within the borders of Katmai National Park, established in 1980. The volcano isn’t the only draw within the park — over time, the region’s brown bears have moved into the spotlight. Numbering over 2,000, they make up the world’s largest population of the species. Spectators at Brooks Falls can witness up to 60 bears at a time, feasting on the annual deluge of salmon just 30 yards away.
Most of the park’s 37,000 annual visitors come for this spectacle, but an entire world of discovery, from lowland tundra to immense lakes, awaits in this remote playground. It’s a poignant reminder that in this untamed patch of the world, Mother Nature rules.
Visiting Katmai National Park and Preserve
The heart of the park, Brooks Camp, is accessible via floatplane from Anchorage, Dillingham, Homer, King Salmon, and Kodiak. The NPS staffs a visitor center, ranger station, and ranger-led programs here from June 1 to September 18. All arriving visitors must attend a bear-safety presentation. There is limited camping at Brooks Camp. Concessionaire Katmailand also operates three lodges. Pack for wind, rain, and chilly temps.
9. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve (Alaska)
Wrangell-St Elias is a land of superlatives. America’s largest national park. The biggest designated wilderness area in the US. Home to the nation’s largest glacial system, North America’s most expansive subpolar ice field, and the tallest coastal mountains on Earth.
What does all this mean for its visitors, who number just 80,000 a year? That this remarkable 13 million–acre treasure is still waiting to be discovered. Travelers arrive via one of two primitive roads: Nebesna and McCarthy. The first stop is McCarthy-Kennecott, a historic mining town that boomed briefly when two prospectors discovered copper in the area in 1900. Walking tours explore the ghost town and abandoned mine. Several trails lend easy access to two of the park’s 150-plus glaciers, Kennicott and Root.
To truly gain perspective on the vastness of the preserve — which could fit almost six Yellowstones within its borders — a flight-seeing tour is essential. Passengers stare open-mouthed at the convergence of four mighty mountain ranges: the Wrangells, the St. Elias, the Alaskam, and the Chugach. Vistas of countless glaciers, braided rivers, and spongy tundra also stretch endlessly. The park is covered with snow year-round.
Wrangell-St. Elias’ ranges hold nine of the 16 highest peaks in the United States — no wonder the park is nicknamed the “mountain kingdom of North America.” Curious adventurers would do well to visit this immense high country now, while it’s still a hidden gem.
Visiting Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
Get info and plan backcountry forays at the Kennecott Visitor Center, set in a historic red schoolhouse. Cabins, B&Bs, campsites, and small lodges are available in and around McCarthy-Kennecott, as well as outfitters for fishing, river rafting, mountaineering, glacier trekking, and aerial tours.
10. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho)
Yellowstone’s crowning features — rainbow-colored hot springs, thundering waterfalls, ancient herds of roaming bison, powerful geysers spewing hundreds of feet into the air — sound like something out of a novel. In fact, when Yellowstone’s earliest explorers recounted what they had witnessed, news magazines dismissed the reports as fiction.
Today, however, more than 4 million annual visitors can attest to the marvelous reality of these geologic wonders. Yellowstone endures as the largest and most diverse virgin landscape in the contiguous US. Covering 2 million acres of northwest Wyoming as well as small portions of Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the world’s first national park — a “pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Its borders contain more than 10,000 geysers, mud pots, steam vents, and hot springs.
Of the park’s 300-plus geysers, its most iconic — Old Faithful — erupts every 60 to 110 minutes and reaches an average height of 130 feet. Sightseers flock to view it in the Upper Geyser Basin, but other areas of the park are equally spectacular. Yellowstone protects the greatest concentration of geothermal features on the globe.
It takes at least several days to absorb it all — the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 20 miles long and 1,200 feet deep in places; Lower Falls, twice the height of Niagara Falls; Mammoth Hot Springs’ travertine terraces, sculpted by chalky white mineral deposits. The list goes on.
As America’s oldest park, Yellowstone has faced challenges, from tourists feeding bears to ranchers poisoning wolves. Such practices have since been eliminated. At present, Yellowstone holds its full original menagerie of large mammals. Lucky tourists can spy them still, including the oldest and largest bison herd in the country — though today’s visitors know to keep their distance, as Yellowstone’s most amazing attractions wield tremendous power.
Visiting Yellowstone National Park
During the summer, nine lodging options operate within park boundaries and 10 information centers serve visitors. To see the park by car, drive around the Grand Loop, a 140-mile figure eight that passes almost all the most famous sites. On foot, choose from more than 1,000 hiking trails. Or ply the water of Yellowstone Lake, the largest alpine lake in North America; guided scenic cruises depart from the Bay Bridge Marina.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Complete Guide to the National Parks.
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