Lake Clark National Park: Too Big or Too Little?

7/8/19  Wilderhouse B&B, Port Alsworth, Alaska

Lake Clark is not a small park.  In area, it is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.  Having lived in Connecticut, I can attest that while small, it is large enough to get lost in and I can’t say I explored even a small fraction of the state.

Lake Clark on the way back to Anchorage

However, I can’t say I explored very much of Lake Clark either and I’m struggling to understand why.  As a ‘park collector’, it is part of my obsession to go to every park, monument, and seashore on my bucket list, spend time trying to understand the park and what makes it special, and stamp my passport book.  But for me, that means  something more than just enter the visitor center, look around for five minutes, and collect my stamp.  We always try to stay several days at a place to absorb the character of the park.  With some parks, even a few days is barely enough to scratch the surface.  Yellowstone, for example, is a place with enough going on that you could easily spend a month there and still not fully get to all parts of the park.

Lake Clark is protected as a full scale National Park.  But with that name, I have come to expect a bigger set of things to do than we found here.  Part of that may come from the peculiar insularity of this town, Port Alsworth, which I wrote about, earlier, as being particularly unwelcoming.  People don’t encourage visitors to go about doing things and, for some reason, no-one is snapping to the business opportunity of supplying a canoe or rowboat experience on this big beautiful lake at the center of the park.  As far as the townspeople go, they don’t seem to want you here unless you are prepared to spend thousands of dollars on a fishing expedition.

View from the Airplane on the way back to Anchorage

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve does promote its wilderness character.  I don’t have the statistics but I’m willing to bet that a significant portion of the visitors to this park come to go fishing with one of the many lodges dotting the lake and the surrounding countryside.  Another set of visitors will embrace the opportunities for wilderness hiking and camping, donning a backpack and trouncing through some of the millions of acres the park has that are inaccessible, except via a floatplane of some kind on one of the waterways.

Glacier in Lake Clark (from the plane)

But there isn’t much here for people with more limited means – whether the limits come from a lack of money for an expensive flightsee, or a lack of enough  outdoor skills to manage a week long wilderness camping trip.  We could have broken the bank, I suppose, for a flightsee out to the coastal parts of the park to see the grizzly bears, but we both felt that we had captured our bear quota at Brooks!  (The park ranger here at Lake Clark did a pretty poor job of hiding his feelings that the Brooks experience is contrived and artificial and that only here at Lake Clark would you see bears in their ‘natural’ setting.  Maybe he’s right, but still, if you see Brooks first, you probably aren’t interested in spending a couple thousand dollars to see them again.)

On the Hike.

There is one, small section of the park that is ‘developed’ and that is the network of four trails, right here around Port Alsworth.  They are called the Tanalian Trails and they are certainly doable from the visitor center.  They are carved out of the forest surrounding the town and are mostly moderate in difficulty.  One trail marked ‘dficult’ goes up to the top of Tanalian Mountain with what look like excellent views of the town, Lake Clark, and the surrounding mountains.  We hiked another one out to the Tanalian Falls and then looped back on a second one that skirted the Beaver Pond.  Counting the walk to the trailhead, we hiked a total of more than seven miles.  

Beautiful Tanalian Falls

It was a terrific hike in a new ecological zone (I’ll write about that later) so the mix of trees and shrubs was different from our previous experiences on either the tundra or the rain forest.  The trail goes up and down some moderately difficult hills and from the top of one of them, there are some good views of parts of Lake Clark.  Being in the woods, we also took advantage of the shade to avoid some of the heat wave that is hitting Alaska this summer (or is this climate change?).

The Upper Falls

The Tanalian waterfall is among the best that we have seen and made the hike all worthwhile.  There is a massive amount of water flowing through that fall right now which makes it even more impressive.  There are two places, with paths, to view the falls, the upper and lower, and both of them were in shaded spots offering long moments of reflection – there is nothing so exhilarating as cascading water.  When in Port Alsworth, definitely hike to the Falls.

A Whole Lot of Water

Lake Clark is touted as a ‘wilderness park’.  And that is a perfect description.  But I guess I find fault with calling it a National Park instead of a National Wilderness Area, or some other official label.  It landed on my bucket list because of its name and I expect a ‘Park’ to have certain characteristics that I can appreciate.  Aside from one terrific hike, there is nothing else for me to enjoy here.  It is a beautiful area – I just wish I could have seen more of it.  Not all ‘Parks’ are created equal…

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