Denali National Park: Into the Wild

With an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, Denali offers enough space to cover the distance as far as the eye can see in all directions. Denali is the king of all the National Parks. We were slated to spend three days in the park - a tight schedule considering the sheer geographic area. 

Denali National Park and Preserve is located about four hours north of Anchorage. Having been warned about wildfires along the Parks Highway, we made sure to leave early on Monday morning to make it to Denali at a decent hour. Luckily, there wasn’t much traffic, nor wildfires on the way up, and we even got a glimpse of Mt. McKinley from a viewpoint just south of the park. We were hoping that we’d get a much closer view of the mountain from inside the park, but later we’d be grateful for having at least seen it on the way in.

Larisa and I were supposed to have a Husky Homestead tour at noon, but due to very confusing directions (or lack thereof), we missed our pickup time, and instead went to the Denali Park Kennels. This turned out to be an amazing experience since not only is it a free attraction for park visitors, but there are real working dogs that the National Park Service uses to reach remote areas of the park in the winter time. 

I was amazed at how excited the dogs were when their demo sled was pulled out - these are truly dedicated animals who love to work. 

After visiting the huskies, we went to pick up our campground reservation and Tek passes that would allow us to travel back and forth through the park using the bus system. Driving within Denali is not allowed past Savage River, however those like us, staying at Teklanika Campground, can drive to Teklanika and park there. The bus system in Denali seems confusing at first, but is pretty easy to understand once you’re inside the park. 

With the evening of the first day left free, we opted for a short hike. Mt. Healy Overlook trail is a mere couple miles one way, and it’s one of the few marked trails in Denali. Most of the park is designated wilderness with no marked trails. We hiked up to the overlook, and while Mt. Healy itself was another few miles to the north, the overlook was enough scenery for the first day in the park. We took it easy, took some photos, and headed back down. 

Upon our evening arrival at Teklanika we found a campsite and set up camp. Most people in our group were pretty tired, and half of us went to bed shortly after setting up the tents. Personally, I didn’t feel it. With the sky as bright at midnight as on an overcast day, I wasn’t feeling tired at all. It’s fascinating how simple environmental factors like light affect how people feel. 

I stayed up, made food, started a fire, and made some delicious roasted marshmallows. It was wonderful. 

The following morning I woke up early to seek out an alternative campsite, since our late arrival left us stranded with a road-side, corner slot with little scenery or privacy. Early birds get rewarded. I snatched up one of the best riverside campsites in the entire campground and we moved our gear there before heading out for the day. 

Day two in Denali was our bus tour to Kantishna. Denali is a true wilderness park, with few trails and roadside attractions, you'd think that hiking would be the primary reason why people visit. Ironically, it is possible to spend an entire day on a remodeled school bus, slowly rolling along the one-way gravel road through the park. It's not as dreadful as it sounds, because the scenery and wildlife sightings make up for having to put up with those rigid seats. 

Over the course of roughly 50 miles, the road through Denali took us through a vast collection of stunning landscapes with very descriptive, vivid names - Cathedral Mountain, Polychrome Outlook, Wonder Lake.

July is a pretty rainy time of the year around the Alaska Range, and while wildflowers do thrive off the road, most visitors don't get to see the best of them. What they do get to see, is wildlife. As the bus traverses the park, the driver, and visitors alike keep an eye out for bears, caribou, moose, eagles, and other small animals that might be visible from the bus. When something is seen, the bus driver stops the bus, and the sound of DSLR camera shutters fills the bus as everyone is trying to get the best shot they can. 

Most of the scenery was obstructed by heavy wildfire smoke and rain, so we didn't get to see the classic views of Mt. McKinley, but we saw plenty of scenery and went on a couple of short hikes. Without any marked trails and few obstacles, Denali is hiker's paradise. One of our short hikes, was at Stony Creek, a small glacial runoff creek that is unmarked on most maps. We asked the bus driver to stop, and got out under a light drizzle - the expression of everyone on the bus was the much-anticipated, "what the heck are these people doing?". As we traversed the open tundra, we lost sight of the road, and were truly, in the wilderness. Mosses and small brush covered vast spaces and finally we came across a little wildflower heaven. There's something so magical about being so far away from civilization, watching pristine water trickle down the rocky mountainside and the fragile, beautiful flowers thriving in this vast nothingness. 

My overall impression of Denali was that of grandeur. It's a vast place, with vast opportunities for getting out there and "going deep". If there is anything I'd do differently next time visiting Denali, is the length -- I'd go for a week, and do some long distance trekking across the tundra. And I'd probably come in late August or early September - according to the locals, it's the most scenic time to see the park.