August 7, 2015

A Magical Flight through Lake Clark National Park

What thoughts come to mind when you hear that conditions during our flight to Lake Clark National Park included constant rain, fog and low-lying clouds, thus preventing us from reaching our intended destination?  A huge disappointment?  A waste of money?  Perhaps.  Magical might be the last word you would think of, but that’s exactly how I would describe our experience.  But first, let me back up and provide a little context.

One of my long-standing goals has been to visit every national park in the country, and as many of the other units of the National Park Service as well.  Alaska is home to eight national parks, as well as eight other units.  However, the majority are extremely difficult to visit.  Many are not on any road system and are located in some of the most remote areas of the state.  Even chartering a small plane can pose problems since weather is a huge factor in reaching the parks. 

We've Already Visited (top to bottom) Glacier National Park,
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park

We've Also Visited (top to bottom)
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
and Sitka National Historical Park

Lake Clark is one of these remote parks, but it’s just over an hour by air from Homer, making a day trip doable.  It’s relatively easy to find a small plane that will take you there, that is, if you are willing to fork over the big bucks.  It’s certainly not cheap to fly to Lake Clark.  But, it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since learning more about it last summer.

Lake Clark was designated as a national park in 1980 to preserve the great geologic diversity created by the forces of fire and ice.  Most of the park is a vast wilderness area, and the rugged Chigmit Mountains dominate the landscape.  Here is where the Alaska and Aleutian Ranges meet.  Volcanos and glaciers are still at work today, and the landscape is constantly evolving.  Lake Clark, for which the park is named, is more than 40 miles long and contains one of the largest sockeye salmon fishing grounds in the world.  The lake is a centerpiece of the park.

A Trip to Lake Clark Is Doable

Lake Clark National Park also has a cultural component.  The Dena’ina people have lived here for at least 900 years.  In addition, individuals seeking an independent and wilderness lifestyle built homes here in the recent past.  Richard Proenneke was one of these men.  Dick, as he was known, came to Twin Lakes in 1967 and began constructing a cabin by hand.  This would be his home for the next 30 years.  The Proenneke cabin is the best example of the many log cabins built in the Alaska wilderness over the last century.  His cabin is now a national historic site and is a symbol of the national wilderness movement.  Proenneke would go on to become an influential voice in the push to preserve Alaska’s wilderness areas, and his name is well known in environmental circles. You can take a virtual tour of the cabin here.

a log cabin with sod roof
Dick Proenneke Cabin (NPS Photo/Kevyn Jalone)

I first learned about Dick Proenneke from my friend who just passed away.  Her aunt had spent many summers at Dick’s cabin (he stayed at his friend Spike’s cabin a short distance away), and had shared stories with my friend about this wild and beautiful place.  Then, early this year I happened to see a film that documented how Dick built his cabin, as well as how he survived the Alaskan winters.  I was hooked, and I knew that if I ever made it to Alaska I wanted to visit the cabin and Twin Lakes.

On Sunday July 26, Tim and I boarded Adventure Airways’ four-seat floatplane for a day trip to Lake Clark National Park.  It was a relatively clear day in Homer with just a few clouds, and our pilot Trent had heard that conditions were pretty good where we were headed.  As we flew across Cook Inlet, we were greeted by clouds obscuring most of Mount Iliamna and Mount Redoubt, the two volcanoes that frame the eastern side of the park.

Trent Is Preparing for Us to Board His Floatplane in Homer

Heavy Clouds Greeted Us After Crossing Cook Inlet

A Pilot Needs All Types of Navigational Aids in Weather Like This

On clear days pilots fly high over the majestic peaks of the Alaska Range on the way to Twin Lakes.  This day, however, was turning out to anything but clear.  It started to rain, and low clouds obscured much of the view.  Have you ever tried to take photographs through a windshield dotted with raindrops?  I quickly found out that there are no windshield wipers on a bush plane.  I was starting to get discouraged and feared that the flightseeing portion of the trip would be washed out.

Trent quickly determined that he would have to fly low through Lake Clark Pass, the alternate route into the park.  Before we knew it, we were treated to amazing views of steep mountainsides, expansive glaciers and ribbon-like waterfalls as we flew through the pass and over Tlikakila River.  We could see why the Tlikakila has been designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.  The scenery was mesmerizing.  The rain, clouds and fog seemed to add to the atmosphere, not detract from it.  Although there were features that remained hidden behind the clouds, it didn’t seem to matter.  Tim and I were both enthralled with the view.  Had the weather not been iffy, we would have flown high and missed our up close and personal experience with the park.

We Saw Glaciers
And More Glaciers

As We Flew Over the Tlikakila River

Unfortunately, such conditions do not lend themselves to good photographs.  The weather conditions, plus the smudged windows, were less than ideal, and I was hesitant to post the few photographs that were somewhat decent.  But I decided to go ahead and include them.  They’re not great, but they will help me remember a special day.  I’m just not sure you will get a good picture of what we saw.

We Looked through the Raindrops at the Tlikakila River

As we approached the pass that would lead to Twin Lakes, all we could see was a wall of clouds.  Trent nosed his way in a bit, looking for an opening, but one was not to be found.  We were not surprised when he informed us that we would not be going to the Proenneke cabin today.  Yes, this was a disappointment, but we regrouped and decided that we would fly to the National Park visitor center in Port Alsworth instead.  We were happy just to be in the park, plus we would get to fly over Lake Clark itself.

Our First View of Lake Clark Was through the Mist

But Lake Clark Was Beautiful to Look at in any Weather

The visitor center is small, but we enjoyed chatting with Ranger Lucas and watching the film.  We didn’t stay long and soon re-boarded our plane for the return flight.  Trent had hoped to take a different route back to Homer, but the weather dictated that we return through Lake Clark Pass.  Tim and I didn’t mind.  The views always seem different when going in the opposite direction. 

We Really Made it to Lake Clark National Park

We Were Greeted by the Welcoming Committee at Port Alsworth

We then Made Our Way to the Visitor Center

But Soon We Were Ready for the Return Flight

The sky appeared to be a tiny bit clearer on the return flight, and I gave Tim the co-pilot’s seat so I could take photographs from both sides of the plane.  We seemed to be just as enamored of our close-up view of the mountainsides on the return as we were coming in.  Glaciers and more glaciers seemed to pop up every few minutes. 

We Saw Interesting Patterns in the River

And Ribbons of Water Cascading Down the Mountains

We Followed the Tlikakali River Once Again
And Saw Streams of Water Flowing from Glaciers

There Were Lots of Glaciers to Admire

We Could Follow the Path of Many of Them

We Flew Very Close to Some of Them

And to Others

We Marveled at Such a Wild and Wonderful Wilderness

And the Deep Green of the Mountainsides

We Followed a Twisting Path

And Emerged from Lake Clark Pass to a Braided River

We returned safely to Homer and couldn’t stop talking about our amazing experience.  Words like beautiful, awesome, breathtaking, jaw dropping and incredible don’t seem sufficient to describe our day.  The country we flew over was so wild and rugged.  It was a true wilderness, and we feel very fortunate to have seen it.  While I’m sad that we could not see Twin Lakes and the cabin, I am grateful for what we did get to see.  Maybe I can start saving for another flight to Lake Clark in case we return to Alaska.


  1. Wow! Sorry the weather wasn't great, but as you said, it led to super close ups of this beautiful area. I loved seeing the blue glacier ice up close:) The rivers are crazy and all over the place. Thanks for the arial tour!

    1. You are welcome! This day was a big WOW for sure. Flying so close to the glaciers and seeing them from the air was a special treat. The rivers are definitely wild up here.

  2. In spite of the weather and even with the spotty windshield, your pictures are great. This is the one side trip I regret not making. Thanks for the information about Proenneke - an interesting man I need to learn more about.

    1. Thank you so much. I am very glad we were able to make this trip happen. Dick Proenneke was such an interesting man. There are several films and books about his life.

  3. Ah yes; Alaska's infamously fickle weather dictates where flightseeing trips can and cannot go. When we did our trip in 2001 out of Anchorage, we were hoping to head north ... hah! Ended up heading towards Seward and loved every minute of it. Sometimes you just click the shutter for memory shots ... those images will jog your memory in later year and that's all we sometimes need to remember a special moment in time.

    1. Fickle weather is most certainly a fact of life up here. It's so important to build in a few extra days to allow for delays. And, at some point, there were certainly be delays or cancellations. You just have to be ready to go with the flow, so to speak.


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