Lake Clark is one of the National Park System's true gems--a large sliver of all of the best parts of Alaska rolled into one easy-to-get-to place. It is almost as if Mother Nature created it with explorers in mind, offering diverse environments for mountaineers, backpackers, paddlers, big-game fisherman, hikers, and photographers to play in. The lake that bares the park's namesake is Lake Clark--a 40-mile, vividly turquoise-colored body of water that is fed by glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, and streams; and that is surrounded by volcanoes, mountains, tundra, freshwater lakes, forest, meadows, marshes, bogs, and sandy coastline... as I said, it is the best of wild Alaska rolled into one fine park.
Like most of Alaska's national parks, it is one of the least visited of all 59--many have never even heard of it--a major draw for Alaska's adventure circuit and residents alike who go there for its remoteness and untrammeled beauty. Entrance to the park and travel within it is possible only by plane, boat, or on foot. Flights are made easier with daily routes from Anchorage located just 100 miles away, but because this area is so rugged many don't even know where to start planning an adventure to Lake Clark. To help with that, we are breaking down ways to discover it that together fulfill a cultural, wilderness, and wildlife experience--on the lake, in the mountains, and by the sea.
Exploring Port Alsworth and Lake Clark
About 40 minutes by float- or bush-plane from Anchorage resides the small lakeside community of Port Alsworth on the southwestern edge of the park. In Port Alsworth, a little bit of everything can be found. There are several lodges, the most popular being the Farm Lodge that is owned and operated by the Alsworth family who are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation ascendants of the community's founder: Babe Alsworth, a missionary and bush pilot who laid down roots in 1950. If you are looking for wholesome lakeside family fun, this is your jam. Nearby are 10 waterfront lodges overlooking a protected bay where kayaks float, motorboats scoot off for fishing adventures, and seaplanes come and go ferrying passengers in and out of relaxed stays and backcountry adventures.
The first stop for most in Port Alsworth is at the Lake Clark National Park Visitor Center where backcountry permits and information is issued to incoming travelers. Nearby are several awesome day hikes--two of the most popular being the short and easy hike to Tanalian Falls; and a more difficult trek to the top of the Tanalian Mountain that towers over the bay where you can take in amazing panoramic views of Lake Clark and the surrounding mountains.
The Port Alsworth setting is immeasurably peaceful, but as it is the main thoroughfare to the national park, it is not without its fair share of people. Greater solitude can be found in the backcountry Lake Clark wilderness, and Port Alsworth is the perfect jumping off point to get you there--it is from where we departed on our quest to reach Turquoise Lake where we backpacked and kayaked for two days in total solitude. Read on!
Backcountry camping at Turquoise Lake
The National Park Service states that Lake Clark was established to protect a region of dynamic geologic and ecological processes that create scenic mountain landscapes, unaltered watersheds... and habitats for wilderness dependent populations of fish and wildlife, vital to 10,000 years of human history. This effort in all of its wildness was perfectly evident at Turquoise Lake, just a hop and a skip from park headquarters in Port Alsworth. Located between Telaquana Lake and Twin Lakes in the heart of Lake Clark, visitors can have a relatively easy and awesome foray into backcountry camping in Alaska. After being dropped off by float plane, we set up our tent, bear-proofed our food, folded our new Oru origami kayaks, and paddled off to a braided river formed at the base of 8,000-foot high glacial mountain on the other side of the lake, stopping along the way to explore the tundra landscape on foot. With only ourselves and the Lake Clark wilderness to contend with, we were free to explore the pristine lake at our own pace free of distraction and anything that wasn't our own making. It was awesome!
Bear viewing adventure on the coast: Silver Salmon Creek Lodge
With such a diverse landscape that exists in Lake Clark, it is unsurprising that the area is rich with wildlife...and one of the best places to put yourself smack in the middle of it is at the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge on the western shores of the Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska. Many regard Katmai as the ultimate bear-viewing destination in the 49th state; after our time at Silver Salmon, we can put Lake Clark into that same category without one bit of hesitation.
The experience would better be described as "bear interaction," than it would "bear viewing" as we were walking aside coastal brown bears the entirety of our stay. Joined by naturalists who have studied the bears that inhabit the area season after season, we were granted an unusual glimpse into the behavioral nuances and growth patters of sows, cubs, and full-grown males that call the Cook Inlet home. Between what we learned from naturalist expertise and the wonder of bear behavior occurring all around us 24/7, our jaws were on the ground the entire time.
Since 1983, hosts David and Joanne Coray have led American and international guests onto the shorelines of Lake Clark, sharing their wild home with each of us in a tailored way. The lodge is equipped to welcome even the most hard-core wildlife photographers, backcountry hikers, and world-class sport fisherman... or, anyone who simply wants to get close to Alaskan brown bears in their natural habitat.
We have to give our warmest thanks to the incredible naturalists, guides, chefs, other staff, and of course, to David and Joanne for running such an impeccable show and sharing it with us during our time in Lake Clark at the end of our Alaskan voyage. This experience will forever stand out as one of the ultimate wildlife adventures either of us have ever had. Thank you!