A Guide to Skiing in National Parks: Pt. Three - Alaska
Dreaming of skiing huge lines in the scenic landscapes of Alaska? Read through this guide about skiing in Alaskas national parks by Ski Expert Hunter R.!
National parks are home to some of the nation's most incredible landscapes. And while visiting these areas seems like more of a summertime activity to most, many national parks are accessible for winter visitors too. Winter activities in national parks range from cross country skiing to ice skating to dog sledding, and, if you pick the right park, downhill skiing!
It’s almost always the case that if you want to ski within the boundaries of a national park, you are going to have to do it by means of backcountry ski touring instead of looking for resorts. This is especially true in the remote parks of Alaska. Though there are a few heli-skiing operations in the parks, most of Alaska's dramatic ski terrain is only accessible by backcountry skiing.
And difficult backcountry skiing at that! Given the remoteness of these areas and the short winter days, access to nearly all of the skiable terrain requires guides, transport by ski plane, and winter camping. Even the guided trips in Alaska are only open to those with expert skiing ability, backcountry experience, and (almost always) mountaineering experience. With the variability in weather, there are also often days spent sitting in bad weather in your tent waiting to ski or hike up a mountain during a good weather window.
It also requires a lot of planning to ski these areas. You’ll need to train and hire guides six or more months in advance, which is not the case when skiing in most national parks. Even with all the obstacles of skiing in Alaska, the long winter here should offer plenty of time to ski for those that are committed enough!
If you are looking for a national park to ski in but this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, check out these parks in the Mountain West or these on the West Coast which are also really beautiful and quite a bit easier to coordinate!
Out of Alaska's eight national parks, seven of them have skiable terrain—let’s take a look at them!
Denali National Park & Preserve
Denali National Park is the most popular of Alaska’s national parks for skiers. Located about 4 hours from Alaska's most populated city, Anchorage, this area gets a lot of snow and has a lot of low-angled, non-glaciated terrain making it safer than other areas.
Many people travel here to climb and ski Mount Denali, namesake of the park and North America’s highest peak. This trip is at least 21 days if the weather is perfect. It’s been described as more mentally and physically taxing than climbing Mount Everest due to its lack of amenities and severe weather issues, and the fact that the basecamp is only reachable by plane.
For the most popular route, in particular, West Buttress, the basecamp lies at 7,000 feet in elevation, and there are four camps that you’ll come across along the way up to the summit which lies at 20,000 feet in elevation. While it’s not required to hire a guide for this, even the most experienced skiers tend to hire a guide for added support and safety.
There are a few other skiing options in this park, including the south side of the park which is also only accessible by plane. Skiing over here is almost always guided and is usually about a 7 day trip with snow camping the whole time. The whole park is quite remote and vast but there’s plenty to explore for those who are both willing to brave the wilderness and have the skills to do so.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Directly south of Denali National Park you’ll come across Kenai Fjords National Park. Though much more well known for its incredible Fjords than its skiing, Kenai offers another option for those looking to ski in an Alaskan national park.
The east side of this park is bordered by the skiable Seward Mountain Range. There are a few operators that offer heli-skiing and the incredible fjords of the park can be seen from the areas you ski. Though the terrain here is mostly dramatic steep ski lines for experts, there are a few options for those who are advanced, though not expert skiers. This is the least technical of the national park ski options of Alaska and where you’ll find more options for day skiing trips.
The main visitor center for this park also lies on the east side of the park in the small boat harbor town of Seward. Though Seward is small, there are a few lodging options here so you can at least kick back somewhere like Sea Treasures Inn with a warm cup of tea after a day of incredible Alaskan skiing—which is much a fancier experience than you'll find at the other parks around here.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
Traveling northeast from Kenai across the Gulf of Alaska and the Chugach Range (incredible backcountry skiing), you will next come to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. At 13.2 million acres it is the largest national park in the country and is larger than Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and the country of Switzerland combined.
With that size, you’ve got to figure that somewhere in there you’d be able to find some awesome backcountry skiing, and you'd be right. With three entire mountain ranges within this park, the possibilities are endless for those who don't mind the remote wilderness and having minimal human contact.
All of the skiing here is only accessible by ski plane and requires mountaineering skills. The mountaineering requirement is due to the glaciated terrain of this area. Glaciated terrain is difficult to travel in because glaciers have narrow canyon-like features, called crevasses. Though they are covered by snow in the winter, if you take an unlucky step, the snow could collapse into the crevasse and send you falling. Travel across these areas requires all parties to be roped together and have rescue skills so that in the case of this happening, it's more possible to rescue the fallen skier.
This is one of the reasons Denali is much more popular than Wrangell-St. Elias for big ski expeditions, because it does not pose this risk. For those with the skills, there are a few options of guided trips mostly ranging from 8 days to 14 days. There are several peaks you can climb here including Mount Sanford, the second-highest peak in the park (7,600 ft), and Mount St. Elias, one of the 50 classic ski descents of North America.
There’s also a lot of possibility for build-your-own-adventure-type skiing for those with the skills to manage these conditions. Check out this self-guided trek over 100 miles in search of a 9,000-foot ski descent. Due to the proximity to the Gulf of Alaska, there are a lot of huge weather systems moving through this area that bring high winds and winter rains. The best time to go weather-wise is in April.
Glacier Bay National Park
Not too far south from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and only about 50 miles from Alaska's capital of Juneau, you'll find Glacier Bay National Park. Accessible by boat or plane, this park has some incredible skiing for those looking for a backcountry adventure.
Guided services are quite restricted here, and while it is possible to hire a guide, there aren’t as many options—plus it’ll take more planning. So most treks through this area will have to be a bit more self-sufficient.
This park also has stricter rules regarding when and where you are allowed to ski, and around obtaining backcountry camping permits. That being said, if you want to put the work in and feel comfortable backcountry skiing in glacial terrain on your own, this is a great park to visit for skiing. Though you still probably won't run into many people, the ski trails here are a bit more popular than other areas, so even traveling in a non-guided group you’ll be able to safely explore some sweet terrain.
Two of the most popular areas are Riggs Glacier and Morse Glacier. They both require you to snow camp and get dropped off by plane, but once you’re there, you’ll likely see at least a few other groups along your several-day trek.
Kobuk Valley National Park
On the northwestern part of the state, you’ll find the fifth skiable national park of Alaska. Kobuk Valley National Park is 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle and about 250 miles from the tip of Russia as the crow flies. Not accessible by road, this park has a wide array of scenery to offer visitors willing to make the trip.
There's a large area of active sand dunes, a winding river, and an expansive boreal forest. It’s also in the migration path of half a million caribou, home to rare fish, and millions of birds. Given the remoteness, it should come as no surprise that to go to this park at any time, but especially in the winter months, will be a self-sufficient mission that requires survival skills.
The winter temperatures average about 5-degrees Fahrenheit with highs of 37 and lows of -45. The ‘towns’ around are all smaller villages and in the winter, the residents get around via snowmobiles and skis. The skiing you’ll find in this park is not the kind of big mountain lines you'll find in other Alaskan parks, but more of a flat trek for those who want to explore the area.
The snowmobile trails make for a series of interconnected trails in the area that are accessible to those on skis. With enough planning, you can trek across some of this park on skis. Due to the low temperatures and wind, it's nearly impossible to camp so you’ll need to carefully plan places to sleep each night in one of the villages, which can pose some difficulties but is possible (read more about that here). The park’s headquarters, located in the bush village of Kotzebue, is open year-round and if you are planning a trip like this, calling the rangers is a great place to start for information!
Gates of the Arctic National Park
East of Kobuck you’ll find Gates of the Arctic National Park. This park is even more remote than Kobuck, with only six miles of hiking trails, no road going through it, and the ranger station is located 400 miles from the actual park.
The east side of the park contains part of the Brooks Mountain Range, Alaska's largest mountain range spanning all the way to Canada. The Brooks Range gets snow about 8-9 months out of the year and while it's possible to ski here starting in November, there's no lack of snow in the summer months either. And due to its below zero degree winters, summer is actually a more popular time to hit these slopes.
Antiguan Pass in the northeastern most tip of the park is the only pass in this range with a road crossing it, and that road is the only one that touches the park. Though the road is called a highway, it's an old oil transportation road and mostly gravel. But even with the rough conditions of the road, there are a few skiers who brave the three-hour drive from the closest city of Coldfoot to get in some skiing near the Antiguan Pass.
There are no guided services here and no heli-skiing. It’s not my first choice of places to ski in the Alaskan national parks because the lodging and information are pretty limited, and it’s more remote than any of the other options, but wow, is it beautiful!
Lake Clark National Park
Just west of Anchorage, Alaska's seventh skiable national park has a few more (comparatively) mellow options. Here you can take an intro to ski mountaineering clinic or go on a 10 day trip in the Neacola Mountain Range where you learn the skills associated with ski mountaineering.
The trip is led by an American Mountain Guide Association certified guide—giving you a very hands-on environment as you camp along the snowfields of the park. This mountain range is very remote with most of the peaks being unnamed, unclimbed, and unskied. The last few days of the course are mostly backcountry skiing in the incredible area with your newly learned skills.
It's a great option for those who would feel more comfortable with more experience before they take on any more challenging, technical routes, but still want the experience of skiing in Alaska's remote parks. The 10-day course also includes gear rentals so if cost is prohibitive to you for any of these missions, this is a more budget-friendly option even if you might have some mountaineering experience.
Attempting to ski in Alaska’s national parks is a dramatic difference from skiing in other national parks. In most parks across the country, you’ll have to worry about avalanches, weather changes, and maybe an unplowed road—but in Alaska, you’ll have to worry about these as well, in addition to the dangers associated with glacial travel, the remoteness of the skiable areas, and sub-zero temperatures.
If that doesn’t scare you off, and you’re looking for an expedition-like adventure to access some of the most incredible ski slopes in the world, add these destinations to your itinerary! It will be a trip you won’t soon forget and some of the best turns of your life!
Gearing up for a big winter trip to Alaska or elsewhere? Need some new ski gear or advice on what to pack? We’ve got you covered! Reach out to a Curated ski expert and we can give you a personalized list of gear that would be perfect for you!