Even though the world as a whole is getting smaller and smaller, Alaska still manages to cast an image of being that rugged land far, far away to the north. And yet, quite a few folks are managing to head to Alaska to visit the national parks there.
The national park system as a whole enjoyed an increase in visitation last year, with more than 275 million visitors, and Alaska's national parks played a role in that boost, as they saw nearly a 7 percent increase in visitation.
According to the National Park Service's Alaska Region Office, during 2007 more than 2.6 million folks headed north to Alaska's national parks, up from 2.47 million in 2006. The most popular destination? That was Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, which attracted 975,043 visitors. Denali National Park and Preserve counted 458,308 visitors, while Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve had 438,211.
"The visitation to Alaska parks reflects the steady increase we have seen in the visitor industry in Alaska," says Alaska Regional Director Marcia Blaszak. "We know that visitors come in large part to see mountains, glaciers, wildlife and history. Alaska's national parks showcase those very things."
OK, but who are those visitors?
John Quinley, the region's assistant director in charge of communications, tells me the typical national park visitor is similar to the typical Alaskan tourist. In other words, the average visitor is 51 years old, enjoys a relatively high household income of more than $80,000, and is more than likely to come from the western United States, as 39 percent of Alaska's visitors come from that region.
Another 19 percent comes from southern states and 13 percent from the Northeast and Midwest, while Canadians comprise 6 percent of the visitors. International visitors represent 9 percent of the total.
Not terribly surprising is the fact that, according to a 2006 survey by the Alaska Travel Industry Association, 94 percent of the state's visitors had been to a national park before they headed north. Eighty-nine percent had some measure of college experience, and 65 percent were empty-nesters.
"A lot of our visitors have a cruise ship ride somewhere in their Alaska itinerary," Ranger Quinley tells me. "Clearly most of the Glacier Bay, Sitka, and Klondike Gold Rush visitation is from cruise passengers (some folks going to all three parks)."
And while visits to remote parks, such as Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, aren't many, those who do head to such parks typically "stay a long time and invest a significant amount of money in the local economy (with air taxis, lodges or guides)," says the ranger.
"They are doing week-long hikes, fishing trips, sport hunting, etc. Some of the high visitation parks see visitors for a relatively short time (many cruise ships are in Glacier Bay for less than 12 hours)," says Ranger Quinley.
For those folks heading to Alaska this summer, awaiting them will be the new Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 of the Denali Park Road. The original visitor center, built in 1960, was demolished in 2005. The new center is larger and more environmentally friendly (it relies on solar and hydro power for much of its electricity) than its predecessor.