I once read that the cost to visit all 8 national parks in Alaska would amount to $10,000. Now that we’ve been to 5 of those parks over SEVERAL years—3 of which are fly/boat-in only—we can see how the dollars add up.
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in south-central Alaska was this year’s splurge that we booked as soon as we knew the dates we’d be in Alaska for work (halfway there, so why not??).
Being Lake Clark NP is the 7th largest national park with 4 million acres though, the possibilities for where to explore are not centralized to one location. However, most people fly into the remote town (or village? population 200) of Ports Alsworth as the jumping off point.
We hemmed and hawed about what we should do in Lake Clark, but ultimately we opted for a mixed bag. We rented the Priest Rock Public Use Cabin situated on Lake Clark as our home base for 3 nights, and hired Tulchina Adventures to bring us and a tandem kayak via boat from Port Alsworth to the cabin.
So let’s start from the beginning, because there is much to report!
It’s not hard to talk about Alaska in superlatives, but the flight into Port Alsworth alone definitely blew my mind. Dominated by 2 active volcanoes (Redoubt & Iliamna) and blanketed by more than 900 square miles of glaciers, Lake Clark NP is a land of stunning beauty. I just don’t know if I will ever tire of Alaska’s amazing landscape filled with massive snow-capped mountains, precarious glaciers and mesmerizing braided rivers flowing into alpine lakes.
We purposely planned a few hours in Port Alsworth because that’s where the National Park Service Visitor Center is, as well as a hike to Tanalian Falls and Kontrashibuna Lake. The 6-mile out-and-back hike to both is worth it.
Later in the afternoon, Beth from Tulchina whipped us 30 minutes across Lake Clark over to Priest Rock Cabin.
The cabin is beautifully situated on the north shore of Lake Clark, with actual views from the cabin to the lake.
Lake Clark had very few euro-American settlers post WWII, but one of them was Al Woodward (as well as former Alaskan governor Jay Hammond, now deceased). Woodward was a pilot who flew government people to remote sites and staked a 5-acre claim before Lake Clark was a National Park. His built his first cabin in 1952, but it was flooded by the lake. He and his wife Marian built the second cabin 6 feet higher and further upstream in 1978.
Al Woodward spent nearly 50 summers up at this cabin until the early 2000s, then sold it to the conservation fund in 2006, with the intention of it being donated to the NPS. The cabin is very well equipped (no electricity or water of course). There are 5 beds with vinyl inflatable mattresses, a few skillets/pots, wash basins for doing dishes and even toilet paper & hand sanitizer in the outhouse (wouldn’t count on that all the time though). The cabin just opened as a public use cabin in July 2017, so we are truly privileged to score a few nights.
On the shore, there’s a hard-to-miss 35-ft tall monolith, which has sacred significance for the Dena’ina people, but also resembles the hat of a Russian orthodox priest, hence the name of the cabin, “Priest Rock.”
As we were settling in and unpacking that first evening, I looked out one of the cabin’s many picture windows to see a black bear facing me. For whatever reason, I was speechless and just gasped loudly. My gasp scared the bear and he/she scurried away quickly! Neither Justin or I could grab the camera in time to snap a photo! During the rest of the trip, we saw tons of bear poop, but no more bear.
The next morning (admittedly late morning), we geared up to take the kayak out for a spin to explore the lake. The NPS is turning another cabin on Lake Clark into a public use cabin, and built a trail up the ridge right near that cabin, so it seemed like a nice full day of kayaking & hiking.
It took us 1.5 hours to kayak about 5.5 miles down the lake to the other cabin. The lake was pretty calm, although we had to paddle the whole time, so it was definitely work. We were forewarned that the winds tend to pick up in the late afternoon, so we tried to be mindful of our timing for the return trip (spoiler alert: we failed).
We ate lunch at the cabin, then did the newly built 3.25-mile hike on the Portage Creek Trail from the historic Joe Thompson Cabin.
When we returned to get back in our kayaks, the winds were present. We reviewed safety procedures (i.e., what to do if we capsize) and then started paddling with herculean effort. The waves were washing over our boat and skirts. I tried to hush my worries about not only how many several hours of extreme effort it would take us to get back to the cabin, but also about flipping in the kayak. And then I realized that Justin was equally as worried. We were in over our heads (quite literally). He yelled over the wind that we should pull up on shore to where we had seen some houses (literally the only houses we saw for miles). The last thing you want to do is disturb private property in the NP, but we swallowed our pride and decided it wouldn’t hurt to just ask for advice. Our other bleak option was to paddle back to the other cabin (not ours) and wait out the winds (at least we “Planned Ahead and Prepare” with provisions to stay overnight in case of emergency).
When you interact with people in Alaska, it renews your belief that people in our world are still good and helpful. Despite us disturbing their privacy and solitude, a man said he could take us and our kayak on his motor boat back to our cabin. Crisis averted and lesson learned to get up earlier to beat the winds on Lake Clark! Not gonna tell you who gave us our ride, just gonna suggest everyone buy this book & support the person who saved us from a whole lot of struggle.
After our epic scare on the lake, we decided the next day to just stick to a smaller kayaking radius and explore the shorelines. We still paddled about 5 miles, and wouldn’t you know it, the lake was like glass all day! It was super peaceful, and we also enjoyed several minutes of watching a family of eagles on the shoreline.
We definitely just vegged and relaxed the rest of the trip in this sanctuary away from worldly distractions. The week before had been so hectic with back-to-back events finishing our work in Alaska, plus Justin had criss-crossed the country for his Grandma’s memorial service, while I soloed on a big booth event. We were dog-tired and watching the kaleidoscope of colors in the sky and ever-changing lake was entertaining enough.
Oh! I almost forgot. We also celebrated my birthday on the island. I’m not big on birthday celebrations, but Justin still surprised me and made a big deal of it, of course.
Overall, Lake Clark offered a stunning landscape and peaceful getaway, although I think last year’s trip to Katmai National Park in Alaska with the grizzly bears tops it.
We are driving through Canada this week for the rest of our Leave No Trace/Subaru contract in the lower 48 (mainly California, but 1 event in Washington on the way). Sad to leave Alaska, but we will be back!!
Steve is like a big brother to me. I’ve known him since the day I came into the world. I’m not surprised at all that he helped you out. He and Anne a great people. Love them.