Our Visit to Lake Clark National Park:
What’s there to see?
Sure, there is a large glacier fed, turquoise lake that is 40 miles long and 2 or 3 miles wide but what else? I didn’t know what to expect, but I was blown away with the natural beauty, the possible adventures, and the great people at Port Alsworth. There is so much to do we only scratched the surface during our short trip.
Besides the beautiful scenery, there is boating, fishing, hiking, camping, wildlife viewing and flight seeing, all far away from the crowds. Because it’s hard (and expensive) to get to, only 14,479 people visited Lake Clark National Park in 2018, less than the number of visitors to Great Smoky National Park in a half day. It is the second least visited of the national parks, yet the 7th largest.
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve sits between Anchorage to the north east, and Katmai National Park to the south west. Port Alsworth is in the preserve and the main town in the park with excellent lodging and more importantly, two airstrips. There are no roads that lead to Lake Clark.
Getting there is part of the adventure
We started our journey to Lake Clark early in the morning, getting to Lake Clark Air’s terminal at Merrill Field in Anchorage at 7 am. Check-in involved weighing ourselves and the luggage. There was a check-in time but not a departure time because we basically leave when everyone got there.
A professor from Kansas State was doing a research trip, who has been to more than a hundred national park system units. There was another person who’s been to nearly all the national parks. A lady with a friendly dog came in who seemed to be a frequent traveler with Lake Clark Air and gave instructions to the clerk on when and which kennel to bring the dog to board. It was a interesting mix of about 10 of us. We then got into a twin engine prop plane and took off from Merrill field, near the center of town and headed for Lake Clark.
Heading directly into the mountain side
Next came the totally unexpected! We flew south over Cook’s Inlet and then banked to the right heading for a spectacular mountain range, but only at half the altitude of the mountain in front of us. It seemed like we were heading straight for the side of the mountain. Thoughts of the plane crashing into a mountain came into mind but the pilot seemed relaxed and calm. I peeked at his instruments – yes, you can do that when in a very small plane – and there was a topographical map with the planned route and the topographical map showed a valley between the tall peaks. I felt relieved.
Soon, we were in absolutely spectacular scenery, flying between the cliffs of the valley, banking slowly to follow Lake Clark Pass. A few tributaries flowed into the valley, some with the iconic blue ice and the moraine of the glacier.
Slow motion video game
Flying through the Lake Clark pass is just like a slow motion video game. It’s like the Soaring ride at Disney World but for real. No amount of surround video and motion simulator can replace the real thing. It felt like I could stretch my arm out and touch the side of the mountain.
The tight valley opened up and the brown water of Little Lake Clark came into view. All of the sudden, as if someone drew a straight line across the lake, the color turns from brown to a beautiful turquoise color. This was where the lake got deep and the heavy particles of the glacier runoff sank but the fine particles still suspended in the water, creating this beautiful color.
We flew down the lake with majestic mountains on both sides. Soon, Port Althworth came into view on the left side. The pilot did the classic down wind, base, and final approach. We landed on a packed gravel runway and came to a stop. It was the first time I landed on an unpaved airstrip. It was surprisingly smooth although dusty.
The flight through Lake Clark pass at 1500 feet, inside the valley, was a great pleasant surprise. The 50 minute flight felt like 10 minutes. The scenery is so beautiful. A wonderful start to our day.
The Farm Lodge
We were greeted by The Farm Lodge where we were staying for one night. I was expecting very “rustic” cabin but was blown away with how beautiful the grounds and the cabins were. The pride of ownership and the care shows through. The cabins, right on a protected bay of the lake, looked new and very well kept. It’s right next to the beach area where the float planes come and go. There were flowers, benches, beautiful landscaping and a vegetable garden. A beautiful, idyllic setting!
The grounds were so beautiful I would have been content to just stay on the porch, watch the scenery, activities, and read a good book, but there was so much more to do!
The first thing is to find out where we can get the all important national park stamp. The visitor center is half way up the other runway (yes, there are two runways that parallel each other, don’t ask me why). That would have to wait until tomorrow since we have a “lake cruise” booked.
Lake Cruise Surprise
We booked a “cruise” of Lake Clark as our first activity. When booking, I asked about what happens on the cruise and if I can take photos or fish, Glenn Alsworth said they tailor the activity to the interest of the group. I was thinking 30 or 40 people on this “cruise”. What I didn’t expect was we were in a group of 2 — just Loretta and I! Another pleasant surprise. We had a private tour and yes, we could do pretty much what we wanted.
Brandon, our guide, took us to a small 15 foot boat. I was a little apprehensive about such a small boat on a big lake where the waves can get choppy but that was a needless worry on the beautiful, hot but calm day. We set out with fishing poles, waders, and the camera bag towards the Little Lake Clark end of the lake. The lake was placid with 2 inch waves… yes, we are talking inches here, not feet. The boat glided smoothly up the lake as Brandon pointed out the waterfalls and the peaks along the lake.
Wildlife and fishing
We spotted a bald eagle perched on top of a dead tree up on the rock. Brandon stopped the boat and I quickly put on the telephoto lens and started to snap away. Brandon got as close as he could and I was hoping for the eagle to take off so I can capture her in flight but she was as calm as a statue, just scanning her surroundings. She looked regal, like a queen on a throne.
Time for fishing! We reached an area where a stream of crystal clear mountain water poured into the lake, creating an area of clear water amid the turquoise lake. Brandon pull the boat onto shore, anchored it, and got the spinner bait on the fishing rods. I’ve never gone fishing with a guide before. In fact, this is probably the fifth time I’ve gone fishing in my life. It sure was nice to have Brandon do all the work. He gave me the rod, told me how and where to cast the line, and I did as I was told. Within 30 seconds, on my second cast, I caught a beautiful Arctic Grayling, about a foot long. I was so excited to catch one so quickly!
Loretta was incredulous that a fake bait can catch a fish, and to do it in such a short time. This day kept getting better! I then tried my hand at fly fishing and that went well also. The trick is to cast in the right place and let the current take the fly downstream. In all, I caught 4 Arctic Graylings in about 30 minutes. I didn’t know I would like fishing so much!
Lunch with a view
We then pulled to the next “beach” area. Brandon set up a couple of chairs with a magnificent view down the lake, in the shade. We had our packed lunch, relaxed and just took in the scenery. This is what relaxing on the lake in Alaska is all about. A few flies buzzed about that was a bit annoying but Brandon said it wasn’t nearly as bad as last year, when the wetter spring produced a ton more flies and mosquitoes. We had bug spray on, and even came prepared with head nets but did not have to use it.
After a relaxing lunch in heavenly surroundings, we headed further upstream as Brandon carefully navigated the very shallow waters. Lake Clark became Little Lake Clark where the shallow water and the muddy runoff from the streams made the water brown. There was a very clear demarcation point when the water depth changed and the water went from turquoise to brown. We have now gone from the Lake Clark National Preserve to Lake Clark National Park. It’s now official! We can check Lake Clark off of our list.
Mirror, mirror on the lake
The water was so calm, it was like a mirror reflecting the mountain range. The sky was hazy because of the wild fires in the area and the lack of wind, but the reflection of the mountains around Little Lake Clark was stupendous. It’s so rare to have such a calm day on a big lake like Lake Clark.
Too many fish to count
We stopped at another fishing spot where a stream flowed into the lake. This time, we could see the Arctic Graylings in the water. Brandon tried the fly but initially, the fish didn’t bite. The fly just went right over their heads. Then Brandon tied a sinking fly and I got lots of bites and a bunch of catches. The fish here were smaller than the other stream, but each of them had slightly different colors on her scale as it reflected the sun. I caught a dozen fish in a fairly short period of time. When you lose count on how many fish you caught, it is a good fishing day!
We’ve been on the lake for 5 hours now and we did not see another boat or person! We had the place all to ourselves!
Brandon pointed out the home of ex-governor of Alaska, Jay Hammond, who lived on Lake Clark even while he was governor. This was well before Lake Clark became a national park in 1980. The state ran a land line to the house so he can be reached and a short runway so he can come and go as needed.
Waders and the power of the current
We then stopped at a river with crystal clear water. We put on the waders and walked in the river to a gorgeous spot with varying colors of water. The current looked tranquil but it’s swifter than it looked. I had to use some effort to fight the current to walk upstream and had to be careful to not let the current trip me up. Brandon took his kids here often to enjoy the great surroundings.
Next on the list is trolling for lake trout near Port Alsworth. We let the lines out and motored up the coast, waving to people on their deck. Then one of the lines became active… fish on hook! It fought like crazy and we thought we had a big one! It turned out to be a small trout. Somehow, the hook caught the side of the fish, not the mouth!
One pleasant surprise after another
After about 7 hours on the lake, we headed back to Port Alsworth. We got to our cabin and looked inside for the first time. Another pleasant surprise! This was a two story cabin. The front room with a big picture window overlooked the bay, and a back, windowless bedroom for a good night’s sleep during the Alaskan summer when daylight stretches well into the wee hours of the morning. There was a loft upstairs that was really cozy, a great place to nestle up and take in a good book. Of course, the porch is another great spot to enjoy the outdoors and read a book. A small kitchenette and the washer/dryer completes the cabin. The wood paneled and ceiling walls were beautifully stained and varnished
Dinner is served
After relaxing a bit and a nice shower, we headed up to the lodge for dinner. Dinner was at a set time when people gather and swap stories. At our dinner table, the four couples were all very experienced national park travelers and we compared notes, swapped tips, and just enjoyed the conversation. Two of the four couples have been to Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley National Parks, very rare. All of us have been to at least 35 parks. This is where kindred spirits gather over a delicious fresh salmon meal.
A girl and her dog
What can be more idyllic than how the day has gone so far? How about a girl playing with her dog on the bay? We sat on a bench by the bay, with two float planes on the beach. The daughter of The Farm’s owner was throwing a stick for their Labrador Retriever, a pup about 8 months old and very energetic. She kept retrieving a stick thrown in between the planes. Soon, the younger daughter joined the party, swimming out to the stick with the dog, having a great time playing. The mother chatted with us. This is what family and summer fun is all about. The whole place had a summer camp feel to it. It reminded me of the summer I worked as a camp counselor in New Hampshire, except much better cabin and better food.
Even though I was very tired by 10:30, the light was just perfect with the majestic mountain reflecting off of the mirror like bay. Time for some photography! I set up my new toys, the Osmo Pocket and the Sony Camera. The Pocket took time lapse as the clouds rolled by. The Sony on the tripod to slow down the shutter and tried out different speeds to capture the dreamy, smooth water shots. Loads of fun!
What an excellent day! One pleasant surprise after another!
Time for a hike
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we set out in the hot sun, heading for the visitor center and the hike to Tenalean Falls. The walk passed a Christian camp run by Samaritan’s Purse. What a beautiful area to have a camp! The walk half way up the second runway was hot and dusty, but we eventually reached the visitor center, took care of our park business and watched the video of the history of Port Alsworth and the lake.
We headed for Tenalean Falls, 2.3 miles away. The trail ascended steeply for a short while before finding a ridge and became flat. There was a clear sign marking the boundary between the park and the preserve. We stepped into the official national park boundary, solidifying our claim to having been to the park. As we turned a corner, the sound of waterfall became unmistakable. At the lower falls, there was a nice bench under the shade. The temperature was a bit warm, but under the shade, it was perfect. We took out our packed lunch provided by The Farm and had lunch with the roaring sound of the falls in front of us. We felt the power of the water.
Upper falls and Konstrashibuna Lake
The lower falls was powerful but the upper falls had a feel of calm before the storm. The water moved swiftly over the falls, looking calm on the surface but felt like there was impending doom as the water seems to be sucked right out.
We went another 0.7 miles to Konstrashibuna Lake, a beautiful lake with turquoise water and a magnificent mountain backdrop. The only people we saw on the trail was a family we met at breakfast and they were having lunch and a swim at the lake. The lake was simply gorgeous.
Tired and almost out of water, it was time for us to get back to The Farm for our trip back to Anchorage. We were there for two days but I wish we planned a longer stay. There was so much more to explore in this park that is the size of Connecticut. We did not go to Richard Proenneke’s cabin on Twin Lakes. Richard lived in solitude in the area for 30 years and filmed a documentary.
So much more that we didn’t see
There is coastal brown bear and bird viewing at Chinitna Bay and Silver Salmon Creek, fishing and bear viewing at Crescent Lake, lake trout fishing on Lake Clark, flight seeing, float trips down the rivers and Richard Proenneke’s cabin. All of these places are accessible by small plane. They are expensive to get to, usually with a guide in very small groups but that is the charm of the whole place. No crowds, just beautiful country with far more bears than people.
Time to say goodbye
It was time to head back to Anchorage. This time, we flew high above the mountains with fantastic views of the snow and glacier covered, sharp and jagged mountain peaks. There were the occasional craters, evidence of the active volcanic “ring of fire”. The man who came to Port Alsworth on the same flight was with us on the return. He pointed out Mount Redoubt on the right side of the plane with a bare spot near the top surrounded by snow and a whisk of smoke bellowing from the top.
As we got closer to Anchorage, there was a massive mountain to the left of the plane and a much shorter range in front. Thought not sure, I believe the huge mountain was Mount Denali. I saw the peak of the elusive Denali last year but I cheated this time, looking at it from the air. The peak was surrounded by cloud below it so on this hot summer day, you can’t see it from the ground. I’ve always been told that Mount Denali is so big that I’ll know it when I see it. I believe I’ve seen it, for sure this time, even though it was 100 miles from the plane. A bit hazy but still visible.
We will be back
We’ve just scratched the surface during our two day visit to Lake Clark. We needed to visit to check it off the list but what we saw was far more than what we expected. There is so much more to see and do, we will be back!
Thought for Lake Clark National Park:
Take a chance and go deep into nature to appreciate the unspoiled scenery even if it doesn’t have a marque feature, just like what we found at Lake Clark where it’s much more than what initially meets the eye.
Impressions of Lake Clark National Park:
Lake Clark National Park doesn’t have a “marque” feature that draws the attention of visitors, and it’s hard to get to. If you can get here, you will be rewarded with gorgeous scenery and lots of activities without the crowd. For people like us who do not camp, the accommodations at The Farm Lodge is excellent, like a semi-luxury retreat. Port Alsworth is an excellent launch point for flight trips to see coastal brown bears, fishing trips for trout and salmon, flight seeing of Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park, day trip to Brooks Falls (although I recommend that you stay there overnight), and the historic cabin. None of this is inexpensive but the little taste we had tells us it would be loads of fun and we will, for sure, come back.
Lake Clark National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
|Element||Rating (out of 5 Stars)|
Guide to Lake Clark National Park:
Top Attractions at Lake Clark National Park that we’ve explored:
- Lake Clark
- Tenalean Falls
- Konstrashibuna Lake
One Day Visit Plan:
- If you only have one day, fly in from Anchorage and take a lake cruise / tour. Fish along the way and take pictures
- With two days, stay overnight at the Farm Lodge. Take lake cruise / tour on day one and do the Tenalean Falls hike on the second day.
- With more time, take flight trips to the coast to watch the brown bears dig up clams
Practical Info for Visiting Lake Clark National Park:
- Lake Clark Air is the main transportation to the park
- The Fame lodge is a great place to stay if you are not camping
- Plan for the right season if you want to see bears. Contact the Farm Lodge for details
- Lake Clark can get choppy at times so be prepared for it
- Fishing is generally catch and release. A fishing license if required and can be obtained at Port Alsworth
Lake Clark National Park Facts:
- Size: 4,030,080 acres, ranked 7th
- Visitors: 14,479 in 2018, ranked 60th. Record was 22,755 visitors in 2017
- Peak Month in 2018: 4,459 visitors in August
- Low Month in 2018: 0 visitors in January
- Entrance Fee: None.
Date Visited: July 7, 2019