MAP/microtubule-affinity regulating kinases (MARK1-4) are members of the AMPK family of Ser/Thr-specific kinases, which phosphorylate substrates at consensus LXRXXSXXXL motifs. Within microtubule-associated proteins, MARKs also mediate phosphorylation of variant KXGS or ζXKXGSXXNΨ motifs, interfering with the ability of tau and MAP2/4 to bind to microtubules. Here we show that, although MARKs and the closely related salt-inducible kinases (SIKs) phosphorylate substrates with consensus AMPK motifs comparably, MARKs are more potent in recognizing variant ζXKXGSXXNΨ motifs on cellular tau. In studies to identify regions of MARKs that confer catalytic activity towards variant sites, we found that the C-terminal kinase associated-1 (KA1) domain in MARK1-3 mediates binding to microtubule-associated proteins CLASP1/2; but this interaction is dispensable for ζXKXGSXXNΨ phosphorylation. Mutational analysis of MARK2 revealed that the N-terminal kinase domain of MARK2 is sufficient for phosphorylation of both consensus and variant ζXKXGSXXNΨ sites. Within this domain, the KLDpT activation loop motif promotes MARK2 activity both intracellularly and in vitro, but has no effect on SIK2 activity. As KLDpT is conserved in all vertebrates MARKs, we conclude that this sequence is crucial for MARK-dependent regulation of cellular polarity.