When Seward, Alaska-based photographer Ron Niebrugge needs something great to photograph, he doesn’t have to look far. In fact, he admits, there are times he doesn’t even completely step outside. “I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, but I’ve seen whales, moose and bears from my office, and I’ve taken a lot of pictures of things like cruise ships, Mount Alice and alpenglow,” says Niebrugge. “I literally just open the front door to shoot, and if it’s blowing and windy, I leave the tripod partly in the house to hide from the wind.”
When he does venture past the threshold, Niebrugge still doesn’t have far to roam—some of Alaska’s greatest photo locales are nearly as close as a jaunt to the grocery store. “We’re down on the coast, south of Anchorage, and it’s classic Alaska,” he says. “I’m a 12-minute drive from a glacier.” “We’re down on the coast, south of Anchorage, and it’s classic Alaska,” he says. “I’m a 12-minute drive from a glacier.”
And the photographer is only a six-hour drive from Denali and equally close to many of the state’s other spectacular national parks and forests.
Living in the land of eternal summer sunshine, he says, only enhances the proximity. “I may work in the office all day and then hop in the car at 10 o’clock at night; in 10 minutes, I can be in some pretty amazing scenery. It never really gets dark here because the sun isn’t that far below the horizon—it just skims along and comes right back up. In a place like Denali, if you have clear weather, you can shoot all night.”
Born in California, Niebrugge moved to Alaska in the 1970s when he was 12 years old and, except for a college break, has lived there ever since. Today, Niebrugge runs a successful stock and assignment photo business, Niebrugge Images, which he began with his wife Janine in 2000 after both left successful business careers. The two spend most of the year in Alaska, but head to the Lower 48 where they live and run their business from a trailer for a few months each winter.
“As long as we have WiFi and a good cellular signal, we can run our business from almost anywhere,” he says.
From his home in Seward, Niebrugge describes a dream “loop” for photographers starting and ending in Anchorage. The tour touches on five of what he considers Alaska’s best treasures, some already legendary and some barely known to outsiders. Niebrugge’s whole tour—Anchorage to Denali to Wrangell-St. Elias to the Chugach and to Kenai Fjords and Lake Clark—can be done (albeit quickly) in two weeks.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park & Preserve
Easily the best known of Alaska’s parks, Denali National Park & Preserve is about a six-hour drive north of Anchorage. “The great thing about Denali is that you have both great wildlife and incredible scenery,” says Niebrugge. “Chances are good that you’ll see numerous grizzly bears, and there’s always a chance to spot rare animals like wolves and lynx.”
And few sights, he adds, are more amazing than seeing the park’s crown jewel: Mount McKinley on a clear day.
One of the problems with exploring such a popular park, Niebrugge points out, is that access is almost entirely restricted to the park service shuttle—that means an 86-mile school bus ride into and out of the park each day. “Most people who go to Denali stay in a hotel at the front of the park,” he says. “That first part is a zoo, and then you have a long day on the bus, and you don’t have time to get off and look around because you have such a long drive in and out. It can be a miserable experience.”
But for those camping or traveling by RV (which Niebrugge highly recommends), there’s a little-known park service campground called Teklanika, or “Tek”, that can get you twice as far into the park in your own vehicle. “Tek is 30 miles into the park so you’re able to drive the first 30 miles into the park,” he says. “Staying at Tek saves you 60 miles of bus riding each day, and that’s over two hours of sitting time in the bus.”
Denali National Park
Another advantage is the insider’s perspective. “It puts you in a more remote portion of the park where there’s some very cool stuff,” he says. “I’ve seen wolves walk through that campground, I’ve seen bears in the riverbed right outside the campground, and I’ve seen moose and caribou very nearby.”
Regardless of where you stay, bus strategy is key to a successful Denali visit. “Look for buses that aren’t full because it’s easier to photograph from them,” Niebrugge says. Equally important: Get off the bus and explore. “Use the bus to your advantage—get on and off whenever you want. You can wave them down and get back on at anytime.”
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
Backtracking toward Anchorage and then heading south on Alaska Route 3 (the Parks Highway) and east on Alaska Route 1 (the Glenn Highway) will reward you with one of the most spectacular sites in Alaska: the 13-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. “For sheer grandeur of scale and utter remoteness, it has no rival,” says Niebrugge.
It is, in fact, the largest national park in the United States (larger than six Yellowstone National Parks put together) and is home to 18,000-foot Mount Elias, the second highest peak in Alaska.
While he grew up near the mountains in the town of Copper Center and drove past them every day on his way to school, Niebrugge is still awed by their size. “It’s an amazing park with numerous peaks over 15,000 feet,” he says. “The vertical relief that you get is incredible, more than in a lot of the more famous of the world’s big mountain ranges.”
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The main visitor center is south of the town of Glennallen and can be reached by a half-day drive on paved roads from Denali (or Anchorage if you want to skip Denali)—but that only gets you to the perimeter. To explore deeper into the park, Niebrugge suggests taking a “flight-seeing” tour. While hiking and backpacking are permitted, it’s both rugged and dangerous. “It’s very remote, and little things like crossing rivers and creeks can be very dangerous because of the cold, swift water,” he cautions. “In addition, there’s the bear danger. It’s not a very easily accessible area. A flying tour will get you a taste of how amazing the park is without a lot of risk.”
Chugach National Forest
Rather than driving straight back to Anchorage from Wrangell-St. Elias, Niebrugge suggests heading south away from the park on Alaska Route 4 to the town of Valdez and from there exploring the 5.5-million-acre Chugach National Forest that surrounds Prince William Sound. From Valdez, you take a ferry to the town of Whittier on the Kenai Peninsula.
“When you leave Whittier, you pass through a long tunnel into the Portage area surrounded by beautiful mountains and glaciers,” say Niebrugge. “As you drive south through the Chugach on the Seward Highway, the scenery is breathtaking, and there’s an abundance of moose and other wildlife, especially late in the evening.”
Chugach National Forest
The Chugach National Forest Visitor Center is worth a stop, as well as hiking the Byron Glacier Trail (www.my-photo-blog.com/byron-glacier-trail). Again, one of the best ways to explore the area is by RV. Says Niebrugge, “There really isn’t much in the way of motels. I would just drive along until you see something neat. You can literally just pull over and sleep; nobody really minds.”
From here, you can either head back to Anchorage or continue down to Seward.
Kenai Fjords National Park
From the Chugach, the Seward Highway heading south will put you near the entrance to yet another Alaskan wonder: Kenai Fjords National Park, for some of the best glacier watching in Alaska. The park is just a 14-mile drive west of Seward, or about three hours south of Anchorage, if you prefer to start there.
“If you’ve never seen an ice field or a tidewater glacier before, it’s a pretty amazing thing to see,” says Niebrugge. “The best way to see the park is to take a day cruise from Seward. For $150, you can take a daylong cruise and see remarkable scenery and wildlife. They offer a less expensive half-day tour, but you won’t see whales nearly as often, you won’t get to the tidewater glaciers, and you won’t get to the puffins and the bird rookery.”
Most of the boats are able to get amazingly close to wildlife. “I’ve had orcas swim right up to the boat and seem to make eye contact,” he says. “Typically, you’ll see humpbacks, orcas, sea lions, sea otters and puffins.”
Perhaps the most amazing experience is getting close enough to a tidewater glacier to witness calving, the splitting off of the leading edge of the glacier.
Lake Clark National Park
“The sound of a glacier calving is almost more awesome than seeing it,” Niebrugge shares. “It’s hard to fathom that those walls are around 300 feet high because you have no sense of scale. You think you’re right next to them, and then the captain will tell you that you’re still a quarter-mile away.”
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve
If you have a few free days at the end of your trip and are tired of driving, or if part of the reason you came to Alaska is to get up close and personal with grizzly bears, Niebrugge suggests one more stop: Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. It’s a fly-in-only destination and about an hour flight from Anchorage.
Indeed, the unique allure of this park is the proximity—and tolerance—of the wildlife. “This is a place where you can fly in and get amazingly close to puffins and bears,” says Niebrugge. “They’re habituated to humans, and being there is just a wonderful experience.”
They’re so relaxed around humans, in fact, that he says fishermen working the same rivers as the bears have to be warned to cut their catch free if the bears show an interest in stealing their trophy.
“If you’re trying to land a salmon and a bear shows up, you have to cut it loose,” says Niebrugge. “It doesn’t take them long to learn that would be an easier way to catch fish—just lay there and wait for the fisherman to get one and then take it from him.”
Each summer Niebrugge teaches workshops while based at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, which is his lodge of choice. He suggests visiting for at least a few days, but says wildlife photographers could easily keep busy for a week.
“If you only do three days, you may leave wanting more,” he explains. “Having more time gives you freedom if there are any weather problems, or just to get different types of weather shots.”
In terms of lenses for photographing bears, Niebrugge says that while he frequently uses a 600mm lens (and sometimes a 1.4x extender) on a full-frame body, you could probably do well with a 300mm lens and the cropping factor of an APS-C-sized sensor.
You can see more of Ron Niebrugge’s photography at his website, www.wildnatureimages.com. Jeff Wignall is a photographer and writer. You can see more of his work and buy his books at www.jeffwignall.com.