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Denali & the Alaska Range
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Denali & the Alaska Range

Introduction

George Parks Highway (AK3) -- Wasilla to Fairbanks

Talkeetna

Denali State Park

Denali National Park and Preserve

McKinley Park (the town)

Healy

Denali Highway (AK8)

National Wild and Scenic Rivers: Delta and Gulkana

Central Richardson Highway (AK4) -- Glenallen to Delta Junction


Denali National Park and Preserve

Location/Size: Central Alaska in the heart of the Alaska Range. Park and preserve, 6 million acres; wilderness, 1.9 million acres.

Main Activities: Mountaineering, hiking, wildlife viewing, rafting, wilderness exploration, flightseeing, backcountry lodging, photography.

Gateway Towns/Getting There: Denali Park/vehicle access via George Parks Highway (AK 3), scheduled rail service, and regular small-plane air service from Anchorage and Fairbanks. Park access: vehicle access via Denali Park Road (first 15 miles without permit); shuttle and tour-bus access via Denali Park Road from Denali Park or visitor center; charter or air-taxi access to several points; foot access from air drops, Park Road, George Parks Highway, Healy, Cantwell, and Petersville Road.

Facilities, Camping, Lodging: Main visitor center, park hotel, headquarters, sled-dog kennel, Eielson visitor center, rest areas, viewpoints, short trail system, airstrips, rail station, stores and gas, post office, administration and maintenance, remote research and ranger stations. Roadside campgrounds with reservable sites, walk-in campground, concessionaire hotel, private lodgings in Kantishna, private rental cabin in Don Sheldon Amphitheater.

Headquarters and Information: Headquarters, P.O. Box 9, Mile 3 Denali Park Road, Denali Park, AK, 99755, 683-2294, www.nps.gov/dena; Visitor Center, Mile 1 Denali Park Road, 683-2290. Reservations, (800) 622-7275; park weather, (800) 472-0391.

The crown jewel of Alaskan parks is Denali. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come every year to observe wildlife and get close to "the great one." Prospector William Dickey named the peak Mount McKinley in honor of presidential nominee William McKinley, whose subsequent assassination gave the name staying power. The original park was created in 1917, the boundaries of which now demark the designated wilderness area within the larger park and preserve. The first park superintendent was Henry Karstens—an early Alaska pioneer and member of the first party to climb the true summit (south peak). About 3,000 climbers have since reached the summit. In 1980 the park was expanded through ANILCA and officially renamed.

The potential for experience here is huge: Perhaps you’ll ride your bike over a rise on the park road and suddenly see an 800-pound grizzly dismembering a moose calf as the distraught mother moans from a hillock nearby. Perhaps you’ll climb through the drizzle to a ridgecrest, only to have the wind kick up, the clouds shred, a rainbow break over the tundra, and Denali suddenly appear from the swirling wrack like a god from the mists, knocking you to your seat and filling your eyes with tears.

Or maybe you’ll ride for seven tedious hours on a bus with complaining tourists and a disinterested driver, seeing one bear a mile away through a tiny window blocked by clacking cameras and peering heads, with never a glimpse of the mountain. The potential for wonder is matched easily by the real chance of a bust. Nowhere in the state can you find a greater concentration of disappointed travelers than at Denali Park during a week of rain. Don’t get caught in the trap of dependency and expectation!

It pays to treat the park as a mystery. If you are blessed by a view of the mountain in full sunshine regalia, that’s wonderful. If you spot a trio of Dall sheep rams munching the grass as you round a rocky point, great. If a pack of wolves crosses the road as you watch from an overlook, outstanding. But if not, be ready to invent your own wonders from all of the amazing wildlands and wildlife that don’t show up in tour-brochure photos. Get off the bus and into the hills. Let your independent spirit stand tall in the face of a tourist-shuffling routine that can smother and deflate.

The visitor center, Denali Park Hotel, Alaska Railroa Station, Riley Creek and Morino Campgrounds, park airstrip, gas station, store, restaurants, bar, and post office are all within walking distance of each other between Mile 0.2 and Mile 1.6 of Park Road—just in from Mile 237.3 of the Parks Highway. Park headquarters and the dog kennel are further up at Mile 3.5.

Free shuttle buses run very frequently between the national park center and the hotels in the tourist enclaves of McKinley Park and McKinley Village.

Rules, Regulations, and Reality

Denali is a park where the details of bureaucracy matter. Look among the following selections for issues that apply to you.

Backcountry Camping Permits—The area on either side of Denali Park Road is parceled out into "units" of 100 square miles or so, each of which can only be used by one or two small parties of backcountry campers on a given night. Permits are issued on a first come, first served basis, no more than one day in advance of your intended starting day (for example, Monday morning for a Tuesday first camping night).

You may find your hoped-for unit taken when your tur comes—even if you are the first in line. Your chosen unit may have been booked by someone who filed an itinerary a week earlier and will be hitting that unit on the sixth day of their trip—the same day you wanted it. Some units are closed due to wildlife activity. It pays to be very flexible about where you will camp and what route you’ll take. As you might expect, certain units are more popular than others—the very ones you might want the most will generally be the hardest to get.

Permits are free for the asking and are obtained at the visitor center. Rangers will provide a bear-proof food container that should be used as instructed. You should easily get a $16 seat on a camper bus for the ride to your drop-off spot (see below). Those intending extended backcountry treks, mountain approaches, and range crossings where the availability of certain units is essential should consult the chief ranger at 683-2294.

Camper or Backpacker Buses—Some of the shuttle buses serving the park road are designated for those spending a night or more in a campground or the backcountry. Camper bus rides currently cost $16—about half the price of shuttle buses. The difference between the two is that the camper buses don’t stop for viewing along the way, instead they take campers directly to their chosen drop-offs—though most camper-bus drivers won’t pass up a good bear sighting. When you come out of the wilds, you can return to civilization on any shuttle.

Camper bus tickets are obtained when you get your backcountry permit or campground reservation, but no more than one day in advance.

Campground Reservations—Every campsite open to vehicles is available by reservation and all typically sell out for most of the season. Reservations are not accepted within five days of intended campsite use. All remaining and non-vehicle campsites must be booked at the visitor center, no more than two days in advance. Call (800) 622-7275 or 272-7275 to reserve.

Mountaineering Permits—About 1,200 people try for the summit of Denali or take other major routes in the massif every year. Denali routes require registration and the purchase of a $150 permit. You must complete the process at least 60 days prior to your climb and file an itinerary with the ranger. If you are climbing with a guide, make sure they are taking care of this on your behalf. Contact the Talkeetna Mountaineering Center at 733-2231.

Photography Permits—Professional photographers are issued a limited number of permits allowing them to drive their vehicles the full length of the Park Road. Unambiguous credentials are required. Contact the chief ranger at 683-2294.

Road Lottery—Each fall, at the end of the tourist season but before Park Road closes, a few hundred lucky drivers get a permit to drive beyond the 15-mile limit and as far as they care to into the park. Permits are issued via lottery, the deadline for which is usually in August. Call the rangers at 683-2294 for details if you want to give it a shot.

Shuttle Buses—Since almost all private vehicles are forbidden past Mile 15 of the 91-mile Park Road, most visitors take a shuttle bus or tour into the park.

Denali buses are a grade above school buses and can be uncomfortable for anyone who is too tall or suffers from being cramped. They travel slowly, stopping for wildlife viewing—and with 30 or 40 pairs of high-riding eyes scanning the landscape, your chances of seeing moose and caribou are excellent. Bears are commonly seen, but one bus may see 20, the next two. Not rarely, the count is zero. Dall sheep are typically spotted at great distance. Wolves are a rare prize. You are not allowed to get off the bus to view wildlife when it is spotted near the road, but can get off at all other points and catch another bus going in either direction. Smart visitors get off and enjoy a day hike somewhere along the way. Make sure you know when the last inbound bus will pass your chosen pick-up point. Put goodies and fluids in your daypack since there are no refreshment options on the way.

Possibly 65 percent of shuttle bus seats are available for advance reservations at (800) 622-7275. Most sell out. Advance reservations are no longer taken within five days of intended use. Remaining seats are made available two days ahead of time (for example, Monday morning for a Wednesday shuttle ride), by phone and at the visitor center. Use the phone since getting to and from the visitor center and waiting in line there can take up a fair chunk of time.

Buses travel one of four varying distances up the park road and tickets are priced accordingly:

Destination Adult fare

Toklat/Polychrome $12.50

Eielson $21

Wonder Lake $27

Kantishna $31

Tour Buses—These operate much like the shuttle buses with some key differences. Tour buses are more expensive, they depart from the hotels and not the visitor center, and they are narrated by a guide. You can choose from their Natural History Tour (half day, about $35) or Wildlife Tour (all day, about $65, includes box lunch), though both cover the same topics and look for wildlife. You cannot get off the buses at all except at designated rest areas. There’s no day-hike option with these. Note that the Natural History Tour goes only a little farther up the road than private vehicles are permitted to go, making bear sightings unlikely. The Wildlife Tour goes only to Toklat River, 53 miles into the park, and does not reach Wonder Lake.

Aramark (Denali Park Resorts) runs the tours. Call (800) 276-7234 or 276-7234 for advance reservations. On the day of the tour, remaining tickets are available by calling the Denali Park Hotel at 683-2215. Be aware that many of the shuttle- and camper-bus drivers are quite informative and answer questions—narrative is not necessarily exclusive to tour buses. Let’s face it, the tours are intended for those whose days of active exploration are behind them (or never arrived).

The Denali Park Road

Whether by bus, bike, foot, or private vehicle, most visitors to Denali explore the park via Park Road. The 91-mile route follows a series of outwash lowlands, river valleys, and ridge flanks, paralleling the northern slopes of the Alaska Range south of a mixed set of hills, ridges, and low peaks. Campgrounds, rest areas, and designated viewpoints bead the park road from the park headquarters to road’s end at Kantishna. Your park map will provide some details on mileage and highlights. The Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 offers water, restrooms, film, maps, information, and a good mountain viewpoint.

Wildlife of all sorts is commonly seen on the route, while mountain viewpoints are found in several spots. If touring by bus, the driver will have the latest information on wildlife activity while the collective eyes of the passengers guarantee good spotting. If driving or cycling, talk to rangers before hitting the road. Watch for the stopped buses and photographer caravans that indicate the presence of wildlife. Stop frequently and scan the land with binoculars. Look for grizzlies everywhere, but particularly around Sable Mountain, Sable Pass, and the Toklat River.

Endless day-hike possibilities exist along river bars, across open tundra, and up ridges—though areas are sometimes posted as closed due to wildlife-related considerations. While the only official trails are found near the park entrance, a few routes are commonly used and feature clear, beaten paths (Primrose Ridge is a nice route close to parking at Mile 15). The best access to good ridge walks is near Savage River, Polychrome Pass, and Toklat River, though nowhere are hills and low ridges far from the road.

The closest approach to the mountain is near the end of the road, above McKinley Bar and at the classically photogenic Wonder Lake. If the mountain is "out," you can enjoy some time in a living postcard, the lake at your feet and the great one in the background.

Kantishna

At the very end of the park road is the old mining district of Kantishna. Several fine backcountry lodges are located on private land inclusions within the park boundary. Each offers accommodations to travelers desiring close access to Wonder Lake and Denali views, as well as opportunities for comfortable solitude. All are very expensive, though prices include round-trip ground transport (with sightseeing) to the town of McKinley Park, the Denali airstrip, or Alaska Railroad station. Meals are included, as is use of recreational equipment and optional guided activities.

Camp Denali, P.O. Box 67, Denali National Park, AK 99755, 683-2290. Three-night minimum, $975 per person (three nights). The nicest of the bunch though more rustic than partner North Face. Cabins on hill have best Denali views. Evening programs. BL

Denali Backcountry Lodge, P.O. Box 189, Denali Park, AK 99755, (800) 841-0692, 683-2594, winter 783-1342. $300 double, two-night minimum stay. Located in the valley along Moose Creek; hiking paths; nice cabins, though bunched together. BL

North Face Lodge, P.O. Box 67, Denali National Park, AK 99755, 683-2290. $325 per night with a two-might mimimun. Rustic plush, Denali views (lower than Camp Denali), partnered with Camp Denali, evening programs. BL

Kantishna Roadhouse, P.O. Box 81670, Fairbanks, AK 99708, (800) 942-7420, 479-2436. $280 per night, two-night minimum stay. On Moose Creek, features preserved original roadhouse, nice cabins, very nice lodge. BL

Ruth Glacier

Planet Earth offers plenty of wonders to those who seek them, but a special few top the list as utterly extraordinary.

So it is with a trip by plane from Talkeetna, up the 25-mile length of Ruth Glacier, through the stunning Great Gorge with sheer walls rising 5,000 feet to ragged summits, and into the Don Sheldon Amphitheater—a 25-square-mile icefield fed by a half dozen glaciers. Conditions permitting, pilots will land in the amphitheater and let you step out and explore this utterly extraordinary place.

Better yet, stay in this wilderness of ice for a few days, as a camper or mountaineer, or in the reservable Don Sheldon Mountain House that’s perched on a narrow ridge between glaciers. When the plane departs, this land of ice comes alive. Avalanches, small and large, tumble from the peaks. The sense of the gradual movement of the great glaciers is palpable, though impossible to observe. A hike onto the ice gives you a sense of scale, as well as access to the edge of crevasses that could easily swallow you.

Most of all, when the frequent fog and clouds clear for a time, the southern flank of Denali presides over all and you’re closer than most people ever get.

The tiny, one-room Mountain House is reservable by calling Roberta Sheldon at Alaska Retreat (733-2414), but is often booked solid a year in advance. You must carry almost all supplies with you. Remember that there is always the risk that weather will keep the planes from flying and you’ll lose your slot. On the other hand, you may get an extra day because your pick-up flight can’t reach the landing zone. Spending a couple of days in the Don Sheldon Mountain House is my top choice in Alaska.

Other Access

Besides the park road and the usual remote air drop-off possibilities, a couple of access options are worth noting. At Mile 251.1 of the Parks Highway, Stampede Road heads west through a thumb of non-park land, becoming decreasingly drivable until most vehicles must park about 8 miles in. The road/trail can be followed another 40 miles or so, as far as the Toklat River and beyond to the Stampede Landing Strip. Hiking is possible to the ridges north of Park Road, as well as through the valleys of the Savage, Teklanika, and Toklat Rivers. Few come this way.

Several points of access are possible along the Parks Highway, from Cantwell or Broad Pass into the valleys that drain the Alaska Range. A couple of old mining trails suggest the beginnings of possible routes, but all options involve raw exploration with no established trails or facilities. Similar rough routes can be devised via the Dutch Hills at the end of Petersville Road, including access to 45-mile-long Kahlitna Glacier and others that spill from the southern flank of the Denali massif. Respect all posted mining claims.

Where to Stay and Eat in Denali

Denali Park Hotel (one of Aramark’s three Denali Park Resorts hotels), Mile 1.5 Park Road, (800) 276-7234, 683-9214. Not a classic, Yellowstone-style park lodge. Okay rooms, snack bar, Spike Bar.

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