Insider's Guide to Lake Clark National Park & Preserve

Redoubt Volcano at Crescent Lake.
Redoubt Volcano at Crescent Lake. NPS / Kevin Jalone
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Thrill to the sound of bear cubs growling over a salmon meal from mamma as gulls circle for scraps. Stand in awe of the two active volcanoes looming over the park, Lliamna and Redoubt. Snap the shutter in rapid succession while flying over the majestic terrain on the flight inland. It might take a little pinch to the arm to be sure it’s truly Lake Clark National Park and not just a dream.

LCNP and Preserve is 4,045,000 acres of roadless and almost trail-less wilderness on the Peninsula in southwest Alaska and is one of the nation's most remote and least-visited units. A one to two-hour flight from Anchorage, Kenai, or Homer will provide access to most points within Lake Clark and there is boat access via Cook Inlet as well.

Among the reasons congress set aside Lake Clark as a national park and preserve in 1980 was to protect habitat for wilderness-dependent populations of fish and wildlife. Major birds of prey as well as mammals in the park include bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and wolves. Marine mammals include sea lions, beluga whales, harbor seals, and porpoises. And of course, the stars of the park, both black and brown bears.

Classic Adventures

A grizzly bear wanders the shoreline of Crescent Lake.
A grizzly bear wanders the shoreline of Crescent Lake.

Since there are no trails in the backcountry, it’s a bounty of choosing-your-own adventure of hiking, fishing and paddling. This is rugged territory and a keen sense of direction and solid navigational skills are essential. There are fickle rivers to ford, bogs to avoid, and foul weather to sit out (possible even for just a day trip!). Terrain and density of vegetation usually dictate the difficulty of the hiking. Paddling and rafting are best on the smaller lakes, but are available throughout the park. As the vegetation and water levels are unpredictable from year to year, it’s best to ask advice for all potential routes from a local guide or the national park office on arrival.

Lake Clark National Park is one of the premier places in Alaska for bear watching and to observe them in the wild, mostly undisturbed. The only way to experience this is to get flown in either for a guided day trip or by spending several days camping or backpacking in the area. If lucky, it’s possible to see dozens of bears at a time, either fishing for salmon or digging for clams at low tide along the shore, depending on the season. Chinitna Bay is one of the most popular spots for bear viewing, and several companies fly out of either Homer or Anchorage—choose one that is willing to visit several locations for bear spotting. Katmai is often good choice for an even more remote bear watching experience.

Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, Lake Clark itself is 42 miles of backcountry fun with opportunities for paddling, fishing, hiking, and even fat-bike riding in the winter. Many lodges and commercial operators provide boat charters or rentals for visitors who want to explore Lake Clark or the rugged coastal areas of the park on Cook Inlet. There are ample opportunities for backcountry camping (no permit needed) and there are several privately owned guest houses where accommodation can be booked at Lake Clark, as well as at various other locations in the park. An online search is the best bet to find something suitable.

Often considered the soul of LCNP, the astoundingly beautiful Twin Lakes are a top destination for hiking, camping and paddling. The sister lakes are roughly 12 miles in total length with the Upper Twin being seven miles. Here is the site of the park’s most famous historical inhabitant, Richard ‘Dick’ Proenneke, and the homestead cabin that he built by hand and lived in for 30 years. Guided tours are available that give insight into his solitary life in the park.

Hiking opportunities around the Twin Lakes area are plentiful. The south side of Upper Twin is a great day hike and gives tremendous views of the glacial valley to the East. Low Pass is also great day hike with tons of blueberries on the lower slopes in late August. Emmerson falls is an easy day trip that can be reached by walking up Emmerson creek.

Anglers prefer Crescent Lake where the astounding variety of game fish keep casters busy all season. Sockeye salmon arrive in July, and the Coho arrive mid-August through early September. Dolly Varden and lake trout as well as small numbers of Chinook provide additional excitement for avid anglers. All State of Alaska fishing regulations must be obeyed.

Secrets of the Park

Autumn colors at Chinita Bay.
Autumn colors at Chinita Bay.

Very popular among the locals and little known to outsiders are Kijik River & Lake which are supreme for fishing, camping, and hiking. The sapphire lake sits just one mile north of Lake Clark. What makes this area so special is the small, crystal-clear stream that connects the silty Kijik River to the lake. Loaded with fish, mainly Arctic grayling, and from late July on, Sockeye Salmon, fly fishing is as easy as picking out the one you want and casting in its direction.

A special area dubbed the “Aquarium” is a magical place of deep, clear pools and salmon that school by the thousands before their final, shockingly noisy, sprint across a narrow gravel bar and into Kijik Lake. For a truly unique experience, you can even book a tour to snorkel along with the fish as they make the pilgrimage.

Immerse Yourself

Hone your image-making skills by joining a once-in-a-lifetime grizzly bear photography workshop. Spend several days immersing yourself in the rhythms of the remote, untouched wilderness photographing one of nature's most iconic creatures. There are many local photographers and companies who offer courses for all levels from beginner to professional and everyone in between.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

Enjoying a nice walk on the beach.
Enjoying a nice walk on the beach.
  • You do not need to pay fees, make reservations, or obtain permits from the National Park Service for any recreational activities in Lake Clark which is open 365 days a year. However, all parties venturing into the backcountry are encouraged to complete this voluntary backcountry registration form, which can assist rangers with search and rescue operations if needed.

  • The park offers bear-resistant containers for temporary use by visitors free of charge. You can pick one up at the park visitor center in Port Alsworth. Various outfitters also have them available for rent in Anchorage for those not traveling through Port Alsworth.

  • Get pumped for the trip with the live bear cam from the nearby (by Alaska standards) Katmai National Park.

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