Fifty years ago, officials established Alaska's first state park on a rugged stretch of land along Kachemak Bay.
Now, as the 49th State celebrates five decades of the Alaska State Parks system, visitors can explore a network of 159 state parks that showcase awe-inspiring landscapes, diverse wildlife and engaging recreational opportunities.
Photo contests and virtual events have replaced most of this year's in-person celebrations, and a planned anniversary concert at Arctic Valley Ski Area has been postponed until 2021. Still, park trails, campgrounds, public-use cabins and other facilities remain open despite the pandemic.
The state's vast public lands offer a refreshing alternative to the screen-filled buzz of daily life.
"Having trails that are accessible to people of most abilities is crucial for Alaskans," said Alaska State Parks spokeswoman Wendy Sailors. "I think that's why a lot of people live here. Even if hiking isn't your thing, getting outside and enjoying a park -- whether you're fishing, or you're on a boat, or you're exploring a river -- is part of the Alaska way of living."
When Covid-19 began disrupting travel earlier this year, state parks officials teamed up with regional colleagues and Bureau of Land Management representatives to create guidelines for visitors. In addition to following 6-foot social distancing recommendations and respecting individuals who wear face masks, travelers are asked to be extra vigilant about fire prevention.
Hikers can also avoid problems and preserve limited emergency response resources by packing plenty of water, snacks and supplies before embarking on adventures. Campers can help short-staffed park crews by cleaning cabins and campsites before and after a stay, as well.
The Alaska State Parks website includes the latest Covid-related guidelines and facility updates. Sailors and her team are sharing additional travel information and invitations to anniversary events on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
"We saw a huge increase in social media traffic between April and June, when we nearly doubled our average number of new followers," Sailors said. "We get lots of people looking for directions and asking how they can access Alaska's parks."
The Alaska State Parks system's official anniversary is Oct. 1. Four individual state parks also mark 50th anniversaries this year.
Kachemak Bay State Park
Kachemak Bay State Park earned its title as Alaska's first state park on May 9, 1970, when state officials designated 105,387 acres southeast of Homer as parkland. It's since been expanded to include approximately 400,000 acres of woodlands, mountains, glaciers and ocean accessible only by boat or plane.
The region's early residents, believed to be descendants of Chugach Eskimos, fished those rich bay waters. Denaina Athabascans lived here when Europeans later arrived in the area.
Today, salmon run in Kachemak Bay State Park waterways throughout the late spring and summer. Habitats also support bears, moose, mountain goats and coyotes, along with sea otters, seals, whales and other marine species. As many as 20,000 seabirds build nests along tiny Gull Island, on the south side of Kachemak Bay.
Chugach State Park
Chugach State Park encompasses nearly 500,000 acres of mountains, glaciers, rivers, wetlands and wildlife habitats on the outskirts of Anchorage. Hikers can access trailheads just 15 miles from the city center, making the park a popular stop for day-trippers and travelers with limited time in town.
Chugach was designated a state park on Aug. 6, 1970. Photo Credit: Suzie Mauro
First-time visitors might start at the Glen Alps Trailhead, snapping panoramic photos along the Blueberry Loop or planning a longer trek toward Flattop Mountain. Elsewhere in the park, peaks top 8,000 feet, and nine ecosystems support moose, brown and black bears, Dall sheep, mountain goats, wolves, lynx and other animals.
The Alaska Range, the Chugach and Wrangell mountains, Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm border this vast playground. In addition to exploring nearly 300 miles of trails, visitors can bike, fish, camp, ride horses, pick berries, pan for gold, view glaciers and go river rafting. Local residents led the campaign to protect this vast wilderness, which was designated a state park on Aug. 6, 1970.
Denali State Park
Located between the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range and sharing a boundary with Denali National Park and Preserve, Denali State Park covers an area nearly half the size of Rhode Island. Offering views of the neighboring national park, the 325,240-acre gem is bisected by the George Parks Highway that connects Anchorage and Fairbanks. Scenery ranges from forested river valleys to alpine ridges with sharp spires and rock walls.
Cabins and campgrounds dot Denali State Park, including options tucked along Byers Lake. Set almost 150 miles north of Anchorage, the destination is a popular spot for fishing, boating and hiking. More than 130 bird species pass through the park during migration and breeding seasons, while ravens, boreal chickadees, gray jays and willow ptarmigans, Alaska's state bird, nest here year-round. The Susitna and Chulitna rivers on the east side of the park carry all five species of Pacific salmon; bears, moose, marmots and porcupines roam the wilderness, as well.
Originally established on Sept. 21, 1970, Denali State Park was expanded to its present footprint in 1976.
Chilkat State Park
The northern segment of Chilkat State Park opened in 1970 as the Battery Point State Recreation Area. When additional acres were added to the park in 1975, officials dubbed the wider destination Chilkat State Park. A governor's proclamation issued on June 22, 1976, celebrated the expanded park and its new name.
Covering 9,837 acres south of Haines, Chilkat State Park is framed by a scenic backdrop of Rainbow and Davidson glaciers. Individuals come here to fish for king salmon early each June; in addition to boat launches, the park contains a forested, 35-site campground. Spotting scopes inside the log cabin information center give visitors a clearer look at whales and porpoises on the Chilkat Inlet, plus bears, mountain goats and other animals on shore.
Three trails offer options for exploring deeper in the park. The Seduction Point Trail traces a 7-mile route from the campground, passing through wooded areas and beachfront, while the Battery Point Trail starts in the trees and ends on the beach 2 miles later. The more challenging Mount Riley Trail climbs to higher elevations with panoramic views.