Denali State Park’s Kesugi Ridge with the Alaska Range in the distance. Photo by Bill Sherwonit.
More than once, while perched on a high mountain ridge above Anchorage and surrounded by a wilderness landscape of peaks and valleys that extend to the horizon and beyond, friends and I have agreed: if this were anywhere else in the United States, we’d be standing in a national park.
But here along the edges of Alaska’s largest city, we’re blessed to be part of a half-million-acre wildland that’s among the grandest pieces of an unparalleled state park system that this year marks its 50th anniversary. And what a system it is: established in 1970, Alaska’s Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation now encompasses more than 3.3 million acres, spread across nearly 160 units from the state’s Panhandle to its Southwest and Interior regions. Those units include recreation areas, historic sites, trails, and more; but its gems are five wilderness-rich parks and a single preserve.
Among those half-dozen “crown jewels” is Anchorage’s “accessible wilderness,” 495,000-acre Chugach State Park, officially established on Aug. 6, 1970. That same year, a remarkable coalition of citizen activists and state legislators teamed up to create two other state parks, Denali and Kachemak Bay. Combined, the three parklands protect more than one million acres.
Culminating this rare and glorious preservationist spasm, state government established a Division of Parks to manage the new wealth of parklands, the heart of what former state parks director Neil Johannsen has called a “system of dreams—the dreams of citizen activists.”
Looking back at those heady days, activists involved in the parks’ creation agree it was a remarkable achievement—and yes, a dream come true. Often called the “mother of Chugach State Park” (though she prefers calling herself the park’s “handmaiden”), Sharon Cissna has commented, “…the right people and the right idea came together at exactly the right time…I think it was meant to happen.”
Years later, Cissna was elected to the state House. In like manner, several other parks advocates went on to hold influential state positions, for instance Warren Matthews, who served on the Alaska Supreme Court from 1977 through 2009, including two stints as chief justice. “It was a different world,” he recalls. “In the early seventies we were on the verge of major oil development on the North Slope, and people across the political spectrum agreed we needed some balance: we needed to set some lands aside, protect them. It was truly a bipartisan effort.”
Republican leaders Lowell Thomas Jr., Jay Hammond (later to become governor), and Clem Tillion were among the loudest voices to establish the new parklands, joining Democrats like Chancy Croft and Nick Begich.
Within the boundaries of Alaska’s trio of original state parks and others to follow—including 1.6-million-acre Wood-Tikchik, the nation’s largest state park and perhaps its wildest—are some of Alaska’s grandest and most pristine wilderness landscapes and ecosystems. In fact three of the parks—Denali, Kachemak Bay, and Wood-Tikchik—protect lands and waters once proposed for national park status but were preempted by Alaska through the statehood act.
These parks are places of glaciers and unscaled mountains, of centuries-old coastal rain forest and high-alpine tundra, of salmon-rich streams, vast lakes and remote islands, of grizzlies and wolves, eagles and swans and whales.
A few hours’ drive north of Anchorage is one of the original state parks, sometimes called “Little Denali” in deference to its larger and more famous neighbor, Denali National Park. Though often overlooked by people driving north to “Big” Denali, the state park has what may be the best views anywhere of “Denali’s Family”—the High One, 20,310-foot Denali; along with two other Alaska Range giants, 17,400-foot Mount Foraker, also known by the Native names, Sultana (“The Woman”) and Menlale (“Denali’s Wife”), and 14,570-foot Mount Hunter, or Begguya, “Denali’s Child.”
And then there’s the immense and remote lake-and-river system protected by Wood-Tikchik State Park; and the pristine coastal wilderness of Shuyak Island State Park; and another original, Kachemak Bay State Park, plus the later add-on, Kachemak Bay State Wilderness Park.
Though not classified as a park, one of the system’s most amazing places is intended to protect wildlife. Established in 1982, the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve is home to the world’s largest gathering of bald eagles, which may number into the thousands.
While the system’s other jewels are best known for their wilderness values, some also feature first-rate opportunities to observe wildlife. One marvelous example: Chugach State Park presents one of the most accessible places in the world to observe Dall sheep; a prime gathering spot is Windy Corner, located along the Seward Highway, a half-hour’s drive from downtown Anchorage. Another popular viewing area is the South Fork of Campbell Creek, where dozens of moose (and photographers) congregate each autumn, only a short walk from the Glen Alps trailhead, a major entry point into Chugach.
In protecting some of Alaska’s most spectacular wildlands, while offering opportunities that range from roadside camping to world-class wildlife viewing and backcountry wilderness adventures, this 50-year-old “system of dreams” has proven itself to be one of the state’s most visionary ideas, started by a grassroots movement unlike any other in Alaska’s history, and that’s something worth celebrating.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a long-time advocate for Alaska’s state parks and the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska, including Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler’s Guide to Alaska’s State Parks and Chugach State Park: Alaska’s Backyard Wilderness, with photographer Carl Battreall.