The USA's northernmost state is positively heaving with spectacular wilderness areas, but you'll need to embrace a spirit of adventure to visit some of them.

National parks are living postcards from adventurers who had the foresight to preserve natural wonders for those who followed.

The 59 US parks are stark and arid, elevated and lush, watery and forbidding. They're wild. And perhaps most importantly, they're common ground.

The vast acreage managed by the National Park Service, which celebrates its centenary today, may be the only place where chasms unite people. Park Service lands are as diverse as the visitors they serve and the flora, fauna, ground and water they protect.

National parks are an American superlative — beautiful to the extreme.

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In this, the first of a series, we profile the national parks of Alaska:

Denali National Park

"In the stillness of Denali, two sounds dominate the landscape: the river (and its tributaries) and the wind."
- Justin Ralls, composer and conductor

This subarctic wilderness is home to North America's tallest mountain (Denali, formerly McKinley), as well as glaciers, wildflowers, caribou, moose and Dall sheep. The park's 148-kilometre road takes visitors into a place where the summer solstice brings 20 hours of daylight and the winter solstice yields less than five. Park rangers say weather is fickle; average summer temperatures can range from zero to 24 degrees.

Despite the inherent extremes of its remote location, this park is home to 166 species of birds and hundreds of mosses. In addition to viewing the rugged landscape and large mammals, activities include various bus tours and ranger walks. (Cars are limited to the first 24 kilometres of paved road.) Popular walks include hiking to the kennels, where sled-dog demonstrations are staged. Scenes of the Sean Penn-directed Into the Wild were filmed here.

Driving through Denali National Park. Photo / 123RF
Driving through Denali National Park. Photo / 123RF
Size:

6,075,029 acres (park and preserve)

Founded: As Mount McKinley Park, 1917; renamed Denali Park and Preserve (and roughly tripled in size), 1980

Annual attendance: 560,757

Gates of the Arctic National Park

"It seemed as if time had dropped away a million years and we were back in a primordial world."
- Robert Marshall, forester and wilderness activist, who coined the park's name

The Gates of the Arctic seen from above. Photo / Wikimedia Commons
The Gates of the Arctic seen from above. Photo / Wikimedia Commons

Visitors walk or fly into this northernmost park, which is as much sanctuary as it is holiday area. It offers no established trails or visitor facilities; solitude is listed as one of its many assets. The Park Service describes it as a "gaunt beauty" and "a place of profound quiet."

Self-sufficient outdoor enthusiasts who venture into this remote land 386km north of Fairbanks are treated to Brooks Range peaks, six wild rivers and tundra (vast, flat and treeless land with permanently frozen subsoil). Visitors are encouraged to leave the territory as untouched as they found it. This is a place buffered from change. An indigenous community, Anaktuvuk Pass, lies within park boundaries, and traditional human subsistence uses of the land are allowed.

Also at home here are grizzly and black bears, moose, Dall sheep, wolverines, musk oxen and red foxes. The western Arctic caribou herd uses ancient migration routes through this area's mountains. Humans who venture here are somewhat less mobile, with backpackers often achieving only 9.5km a day.

Size: 8,472,506 acres (park and preserve)

Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980

Attendance: 10,745 (2015; least-visited park)

Glacier Bay National Park

"It gives you the feeling that you are a part of this magical world."
- Bertha Franulovich, Glacier Bay cultural heritage guide, at Alaskanativevoices.com

Visitors cruise through Glacier Bay. Photo / 123RF
Visitors cruise through Glacier Bay. Photo / 123RF

No roads lead to Glacier Bay. And the closest town, Gustavus, has no stoplight or fast food. However, camping and accommodations at the Glacier Bay Lodge, as well as bed-and-breakfasts, are available in and near the park. Many tourists simply take in the view from the deck of a cruise ship.

The true luxury here, fans might say, is the chance to hear or see glaciers as they crash, along with humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, bald eagles and harbor porpoise.

Although remote by lower-48 standards — access is via sea or air — the maritime climate here is somewhat more temperate than in other northern parks. Summer highs average from 10 to 15 degrees. That said, rangers suggest being prepared for changes in weather. (Think gloves and fleece.)

As one Park Service ranger put it: "XtraTuf boots are considered Southeast Alaskan sneakers."

Newcomers here may gain an expanded vocabulary. "Calving" is the term for great blocks of ice breaking loose from glaciers and crashing into the water. Also, the end of a glacier is a "snout".

Size: 3,281,789 acres (park and preserve)

Founded: National monument, 1925; national park, 1980

Attendance: 551,353 (2015)

Katmai National Park

"The whole valley as far as the eye could reach was full of hundreds, no thousands — literally, tens of thousands — of smokes curling up from its fissured floor."
- Robert F. Griggs, botanist and explorer, in his 1922 book 'The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes'

Grizzly bears fish for salmon at Katmai National Park. Photo / 123RF
Grizzly bears fish for salmon at Katmai National Park. Photo / 123RF

This site of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century (1912) has 14-plus volcanoes. In the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes (the eruption site), volcanic ash is eroding into an "intricately carved badlands," the Park Service says.

Visitors arrive via boat or float plane to observe the impressive population of brown bears. (The park is home to about 2200 of them. They can grow to weigh more than 450 kilograms.)

There are other natural assets in this park, which filmmaker John Grabowska described as a "cloud-cloaked landscape." Katmai (pronounced "cat-my") supports moose, caribou, wolves, lynxes, wolverines, river otters, minks, martens, porcupines, snowshoe hares and beavers, as well as sea lions, sea otters and whales.

Here, 460 kilometres from Anchorage, the Brooks Lodge offers food, lodging and ranger programs. Other lodgings also are available. Popular park activities include bus tours, fishing, hiking and backcountry adventures.

Size: 4,093,067 acres (park and preserve)

Founded: National monument, 1918; national park, 1980

Attendance: 37,818 (2015)

Kenai Fjords National Park

"It is spectacular."
- President Barack Obama

Barack Obama has praised the beauty of Kenai Fjords. Photo / 123RF
Barack Obama has praised the beauty of Kenai Fjords. Photo / 123RF

The smallest national park in Alaska, it has the largest ice field that is contained totally within the United States. Slightly more than half the land here is covered in ice that is thousands of metres thick.

In this frozen territory with more than 30 glaciers, mountain peaks that pierce the ice are called nunataks. Mountaineering visitors seek out that rugged vista by crossing the ice field. (April is considered the best time for that effort; expertise is a necessity because, as the Park Service advises on its website, there is "the possibility of being pinned down by winds and whiteout for days at a time".)

Also thrilling, but less gruelling, are sightseeing-boat excursions that depart from Resurrection Bay. They offer views of wildlife and glaciers. Look for pillow-shaped basalt, spires, cliffs and coves in the various surfaces.

Sightseeing from a kayak also is popular. (A guide is strongly recommended.)

Kenai Fjords is reachable via rail, plane, cruise ship and car. The Seward Highway, which is a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road, makes driving there half the pleasure.

Size: 669,650 acres

Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980

Attendance: 296,697 (2015)

Kobuk Valley National Park

"Where Alaska meets Lawrence of Arabia."
- Anchorage Museum, in its promotion of the exhibition 'Arctic Desert: Kobuk Valley National Park'

The Great Kobuk Sand dunes. Photo / Wikimedia Commons
The Great Kobuk Sand dunes. Photo / Wikimedia Commons

National parks have the ability to shatter our assumptions. Here, 56 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun does not set from early June to early July, sand dunes reach as high as 30 metres and summer temperatures can reach 38 degrees.

The dunes (Great Kobuk, Little Kobuk and Hunt River) are Ice Age relics that wouldn't, as the Park Service says on its website, "look out of place in the Sahara".

The views provide a glimpse into the planet's past via the ecosystem of Beringia, the 1609-km-wide expanse of grassland that once connected Asia and North America during the last Ice Age. Here, 15,000 years ago, woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats roamed the valley.

Enjoying Kobuk Valley's vistas doesn't come easily. There are no roads or visitor facilities here. Plan to fly with a commercial airline from Anchorage or Fairbanks. Authorised air taxis fly into the park, offering the less-arduous option of "flightseeing".

Summer visitors to the valley, named for the Inupiat Eskimos' word for "big river," may bring their own packable boats and have pilots drop them off for a float through the park.

Size: 1,750,716 acres

Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980

Attendance: 16,875 (2015)

Lake Clark National Park

"Silence closed in around me and it was a good feeling."
- Richard L. Proenneke, naturalist, in 'One Man's Wilderness'

Lake Clark contains two active volcanoes. Photo / 123RF
Lake Clark contains two active volcanoes. Photo / 123RF

Majestic volcanoes and a humble, hand-hewn cabin are among the features that draw visitors to this wilderness park.

Its two active volcanoes are registered as National Natural Landmarks. And the cabin? That was built and occupied by naturalist Richard L. Proenneke, who first came to the upper of the Twin Lakes here in 1962 to visit friends. Six years later, on his own building site, he harvested spruce trees and began construction of the cabin where he lived for 30 years. He became known for his advocacy and journals (available in book form).

The cabin is in a roadless wilderness reachable by backpacking from other areas of the park or via small planes that land on the upper lake. The flight from Anchorage is less than an hour; flying time from Port Alsworth is about 30 minutes.

This park has been continuously inhabited since early prehistoric times and remains sparsely populated. Activities for visitors include hiking, bear watching, kayaking, fishing, rafting and winter biking on fat-tired cycles.

Size: 4,030,130 acres (park and preserve)

Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980

Attendance: 17,818 (2015)

Wrangell-St Elias National Park

"A little-known Alaska full of names that ring with romance . . . The Mile High Cliffs. Disenchantment Bay."
- John Grabowska, filmmaker, in 'Crown of the Continent'

Hiking through the rugged Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Photo / 123RF
Hiking through the rugged Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Photo / 123RF

The wild character of this vast region is due, in part, to its sheer size. This, the country's largest contiguous wilderness, is the size of Yellowstone and Yosemite combined with an entire country - Switzerland. It has a glacier that is larger than Rhode Island. It's also vertically impressive. It claims nine of the 16 highest mountains in the United States and Mount Saint Elias is the country's second-highest peak.

Within its boundaries are the ghost town of Kennecott, a remnant of copper-mining days; and the town of Yakutat, which is a traditional fishing village of the indigenous Tlingit people. It is reachable by boat or plane.

Two roads travel into the park, and they are not regularly maintained during winter months. Drivers should be aware that fuel options are limited. Because the words "rugged" and "remote" define this park, visiting motorists are advised to check road conditions on the Alaska state website.

Size: 13,175,791 acres (park and preserve)

Founded: National monument, 1978; national park, 1980

Attendance: 80,366 (2015)

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