Known for its overwhelming natural beauty and breathtaking ice formations, Alaska is home to a multitude of geological wonders. In all, the 49th and largest state in the country boasts 100,000 glaciers, as well as scores of active volcanoes and 17 of the 20 highest mountains in the country. Yet with so many fascinating options for visitors to explore, a select few are among the must-see attractions in the state also known as The Last Frontier. Here is a look a five of the top geological wonders in Alaska.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali Park, AK 99755
Restored back to its Native Koyukon Athabaskan name last August, Denali is the tallest mountain in North America. Located in south central Alaska within the sprawling Denali National Park, the majestic mountain made primarily of granite rises 20,310 feet above sea level and reportedly still grows about one millimeter each year. Although the summit can be seen from downtown Anchorage on a clear day, it’s often difficult to see the entire mountain within the national park because it’s obscured by clouds. Among the best places to view this geological wonder estimated to be 56 million years old include Point Woronzof in Anchorage, Denali and Alaska Range Overlook in Fairbanks and McKinley View Pullout in Talkeetna. Despite drawing just over a half million visitors annually, Denali National Park is by far the state’s most popular attraction and offers a wealth of outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and mountain climbing.
Gustavus, AK 99826
Situated along the Alaskan panhandle west of Juneau, Glacier Bay is often described as a “living laboratory” for the ebb and flow of its glaciers. Spread across 3.3 million acres, this magnificent national park is larger than Connecticut and offers striking vistas of snowcapped mountains and enormous tidewater glaciers which flow into the Gulf of Alaska, in addition to a diverse collection of animal and plant life. Known as the site for one of the largest glacial retreats ever documented, the park features seven tidewater glaciers that break off (calve) into small icebergs, which allows visitors to witness one of the world’s most stunning acts of nature. Glacier Bay is typically accessed via cruise ships or tour boats.
Kenai Fjords National Park
Seward, AK 99664
Although Kenai Fjords may be the smallest national park in Alaska, it’s also one of the state’s leading sightseeing attractions. Designated as a national park in 1980, the 670,000-acre park near Seward is one of the vestiges of the Pleistocene Epoch, at the time of the most recent Ice Age, when glaciers covered vast amounts of the planet. The park’s main features are the Harding Ice Field, among the largest ice fields in North America, and its several outflowing tidewater glaciers. The beautiful national park is also home to an enormous number of mammal species, including moose, black and brown bears and mountain goats, as well as river otters, orcas, humpback whales and bird species like bald eagles, peregrine falcons and so much more. The majority of visitors travel to Kenai Fjords via commercial tour boats operating out of the gateway community of Seward, along Resurrection Bay and 127 miles south of Anchorage. One last notable attraction is Exit Glacier, the only section in the park accessible by car, a few miles northwest of Seward.
Tongass National Forest
Glacier Spur Road
Juneau, AK 99801
Extending nearly 14 miles in length and covering 36.8 square miles, Mendenhall is one of the best known amongst the estimated 100,000 glaciers in Alaska. Located 12 miles north of Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is a designated unit of the Tongass National Forest and hosts the most popular visitor center within the 17 million-acre national forest, which covers a significant portion of southeastern Alaska. The Glacier Visitor Center and its surrounding area is a convenient spot for glacier calving, which is often accompanied by a thunderous boom as massive blocks of ice crash into the eponymous lake created more than 500 years ago. Mendenhall Glacier is believed to be a remnant of the Little Ice Age 3,000 years ago and has been in glacial retreat since the 1700s.
Tongrass National Forest
Juneau, AK 99801
Located 50 miles south of Juneau, Tracy Arm is a narrow fjord extending for more than 30 miles, with a fifth of it covered in ice. Best viewed from a cruise ship or charter boat, Tracy Arm offers breathtaking views of soaring glaciers and a thriving marine life such as harbor seals, humpback and killer whales amid its pristine emerald-blue waters. Although this geological wonder is not nearly as popular as Kenai Fjords National Park to the north near Seward, Tracy Arm is widely considered far more visually striking and easily one of the most amazing places on Earth. One of the two sheer-walled fjords carved and shaped by glacial activity, Tracy Arm is just a segment of the 653,179-acre Tracy Arms-Terror Wilderness and Tongass National Forest, the national forest in the country. Most tours to Tracy Arm can be purchased in the state capital city of Juneau.
Related: Planning Your Alaska Vacation
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com