I hope all of you someday visit Denali National Park. Simply put, it is as wonderful of a national park as I could think of in the world. If you do, there really is only one thing worth doing when you are there, and that is simply put “Go All The Way In.”
Denali National Park is known for it’s namesake, Denali (aka Mt. McKinley), the largest mountain in North America and the largest mountain base above sea level to tip in the world. But if you read my blog last week (The High One) you’d know that. While the mountain is big, the park is frickin’ huge. Not only that, it’s virtually untouched by man. In it’s six million acres of land, there is only a single road that cuts through it. Sure, there is a fair bit of backpackers, bush planes, and other means to get around in the park; but the only way a normal tourist can go anywhere is on this road — and only by a park bus. There are different tours on the road, but when my family talked about doing the park there was only one way we wanted to do it, All the Way.
What does that mean? It means we went on an 11-hour bus tour (the bus being no better than a green painted school bus) along a mostly dry gravel road winding along mountain valleys until we reached the “end of the road” in once was a small mining town of Katishna, 92.5 miles from the start. This tour included a “Katishna Experience” including a look at what life was like 50 years ago during those mining days, when the dozen people out here survived by hunting and gathering what they needed between trips of a 100+ miles just to find a road. The area out there at the end included some private resorts, complete with airstrips for tourists (and surprisingly, really good cell phone coverage). As nice as it was out there, this is a trip that’s about the journey, not the destination.
The road out to the end includes killer views. From the first 5 minutes, we started seeing glimpses of Denali, as it’s snow covered peaks contrasted with the green hills surrounding it in our view. As we got deeper, we saw we were getting lucky. Only 1 in 3 tourists in the park sees any of the mountain, since it gets a fair deal of cloud coverage year round – and only 1 in 10 sees the entire thing. Our guide said we were in the “1 in 6” range, meaning when we were far away we could see the peak, but when we got close enough to see it all there was a fair bit of clouds on it. But out there near Wonder Lake (mile 85) you get hit with the full profile of Denali in all it’s splendor.
But its not just Denali that you see. Around Highway Pass (Mile 58) you see Poly-chrome, a series of glacial cuts that left the landscape showing nearly all the colors of the rainbow in the rocks, grasses, and peaks all spread out over hundreds of thousands of acres of a river valley. Or the glaciers coming down the mountains from the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66.
Then there is the wildlife all along the trial. While our guide said we had a quite thin day, the bunny count ticked over moose around Mile 20, a grizzly mommy and 2 cubs near Mile 30, and so many Caribou including one that blocked traffic from Mile 69 to Mile 67.
This is one of those places that is just plain hard to put into words. Through the whole of the park, there is so much change, so much beauty, and so much surreal surroundings that the only way to approach it is to take it in at its full value. Not just a part, not just segments, but All The Way In.