Escape to nature:

3 state parks offer easy access and lots of family fun

Story by Juliana Summers

For family fun this summer, head out into nature and explore our state’s abounding natural beauty. There are more than 159 park units in the 49th state, encompassing around three million acres of land and water. With this much space, you’ll find activities for the whole family – from camping to paddling – in each corner of the map!

Here, we trek into just three regional parks to discover some of the big opportunities for family-friendly fun. Go ahead, get out and explore together!

Chugach State Park

For info, visit dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/chugach or call 907-345-5014

The Chugach State Park is rightfully deemed “Alaska’s most accessible natural area.” Its vast landscape and close proximity to the Anchorage make it the perfect choice for families to escape from the city into nature. Boasting top hiking trails, activities like rafting, fishing and biking, or simply exploring the over 9,000 square miles of space (with 16 trailheads and 110 trails), the Chugach is a must-visit for families from near and far.

A few local favorites include exploring Thunderbird Falls, kayaking or walking around Eklutna Lake, hiking to the scenic summit of Flattop Mountain, and cycling along the Turnagain Arm’s expansive bike path. There’s an activity for everyone in the Chugach, so this season, pack up the family and get outside!

For the kids, consider a trip to the Eagle River Nature Center, where weekly workshops and events all about the outdoors are put on to educate both children and adults. Sign up to learn the basics of compass and map use, or dive into an afternoon of exploring the macroinvertebrates that live in nearby creeks. The center offers programs for all ages, ranging from free to small fees for particular workshops.

Plan to adventure into the park for multiple days? Seek out the perfect spot to pitch your tent (or pull up the RV) at one of the three campgrounds in Chugach State Park: Two are north of Anchorage – one at Eklutna Lake and one on Eagle River – and one is south of Anchorage at Bird Creek. From these base camps, families can enjoy a range of fun and memorable experiences, from biking, hiking and fishing to whitewater rafting, wildlife viewing and spectacular sunsets.

Bird Creek Campground at Mile 101 Seward Hwy., for example, features 24 campsites with picnic tables, fire pits, water and latrines. Campfires are allowed, so stock up on your favorite s’mores makings before arrival. Firewood is often available near the campground host's site for a small fee. Your four-legged friends are also welcome at this family-friendly campground. $20/night, first-come first-served only.

Bring your bicycles and tricycles to ride along the paved 13-mile bike route from Bird Creek to Girdwood. At a fairly flat elevation, this easy route is accessible even with the kids in tow for a fun day trip. The path features numerous rest stops with benches, interpretive signs, and telescopes along the way. Catch glimpses of beluga whales and soak up the gorgeous views of Turnagain Arm.

For fishing, Bird Creek hosts pink salmon in June and July, and silver salmon in August. In Eagle River, a new fishery for king salmon has opened. Many other nearby lakes and streams are stocked with rainbow trout.

Above, clockwise, from top: Fishing at Bird Creek (Alaska.org); Biking to Girdwood; Hatcher Pass
Denali State Park

For info, visit dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/denali1 or call 907-745-3975

Spanning 324,240 acres, Denali State Park is the fourth largest state park in Alaska and is located entirely in the Mat-Su Borough. The state park shares its western border with the much larger (and well-known) Denali National Park and Preserve.

You don’t have to travel into the national park to take full advantage of exciting outdoor activities. Denali State Park boasts hiking trails, several campgrounds, fishing, rafting, ample opportunities for wildlife viewing and even some of the very best viewpoints of Denali (showing both north and south summits). Much of the park is undeveloped wilderness, so be sure to pay close attention to trail routes and roadside facilities when exploring the vast acreage.

Make a multi-day trip of it and camp at the Byers Lake campground, where canoeing and kayak rentals are also available on-location for family fun on the lake. This quiet campground is set on the shores of the lake and at the foot of Kesugi Ridge, where you can spend hours simply exploring the easy (but primitive) lakeside trail. There are also 4 public use cabins available for rental just 12 miles north of the campsites, which are located Milepost 147.

More campsites can be found at the newly developed K’esugi Ken Campground, located at Mile 135.4 on the Parks Highway, the Denali Viewpoint North Campground (Mile 163), or the Denali Viewpoint South RV Park (Mile 134.8). Nightly fees vary, $15-$35 per night.

Seeking an extra dose of adventure with the family? Test out the waters! A rafting tour with Talkeetna River Guides in the Chulitna River is a fun excursion idea ($139 adult, $119 children ages 8-10), or in the snowy season, opt for a wintertime outing with unbeatable snow shoeing and cross-country skiing.

Also, don’t forget to spend at least a short time exploring the neighboring Denali National Park! Kid-friendly hiking opportunities abound in the nearby national park, including the Mountain Vista Day Use Area, Savage River Loop Trail and Horseshoe Lake Trail, among many others!

Above from left: View of Denali; floating with Denali Raft Adventures; arctic ground squirrel sighting
Kachemak Bay State Park

For info, visit: dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/kbay/kbayl or call 907-262-5581

What makes Kachemak Bay so different from the other state parks? It’s only accessible by boat or airplane! Although you can’t drive directly to Alaska’s first state park, you can catch an air charter, water taxi or boat rental from Homer for a real Alaska family adventure. Water taxi services can be found online at dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/kbay/kbaytaxi.

Kachemak Bay State Park is also Alaska's only wilderness park, featuring around 400,000 acres of mountains, forests, glaciers and ocean. It is a critical habitat area, supporting many species of marine life. Expect to see various creatures during your visit, including sea otters, seals, porpoise and whales. Of course, the land mammals and birds also provide great wildlife viewing opportunities for you and the kids! Moose, black bears, mountain goats, puffins and bald eagles all inhabit
the bay.

Don’t forget to get out and explore the 25+ miles of trails - the park's landscape and scenery is a perfect backdrop for getting active outside. But be prepared: Due to the area’s unpredictable weather patterns, be sure to pack extra clothing layers and rain gear in case the day turns cool, wet and windy.

Try your hand at fishing, boating, camping, paddling and hiking – whether it be along the scenic shoreline, into the forests or surrounding mountains. While camping is permitted in most areas, there are also developed sites with fire pits, picnic tables and more. Prefer to stay indoors? Public Use Cabins are available for nightly rental. These rustic cabins are located in the Halibut Cove Lagoon, Moose Valley, Leisure Lake and Tutka Bay areas.

Don’t miss these “hot spots” during your Kachemak Bay getaway: Grewingk Glacier, Poot Peak, China Poot Bay, Humpy Creek, Halibut Cove Lagoon, Tutka Bay and Sadie Cove are among the many frequented favorites. The Grewingk Glacier Lake Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park, as well as one of the most kid-friendly. At just 3.2 miles roundtrip, expect to see enormous cottonwood and Sitka spruce trees, small hawks and bald eagles, and, of course, unbeatable lake and glacier views! In “Alaska’s playground,” you’re bound to find a backcountry activity to delight each and every family member.

Above from left: Kids play on the shores of Kachemak Bay (Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO); puffin sighting; a Public Use Cabin at Halibut Cove

For additional info on the parks, including trail maps and public use cabins, visit: dnr.alaska.gov/parks.