I had heard a lot about Denali National Park in Alaska, but none of that prepared me for the sheer magnitude and majesty of this place. Denali is six million acres of protected wilderness in the midst of some of the most breath-taking geology in all of North America. Almost everything about it is at least a little fantastical.
For starters, I’m just a couple hundred miles south of the arctic circle. Sunset tonight is at 11:51pm, which is followed by several hours of twilight, and then sunrise again at 3:51am. The sun rises in the north (NNE, actually) in an almost horizontal motion, slowing creeping above the horizon. After five hours or so, the sun is halfway up in the eastern sky. By midday (five hours after that) it’s swung around nearly overhead and slightly to the south. For the next 10 hours it treks westward and then northward, finally setting again in the NNW, not too far from where it rose.
Even though tomorrow is the first day of June, in some ways it still feels like winter here. The Denali lowlands got 9 inches of slow last week. While daytime highs have been climbing into the 70s, I see ice and snow all around me, sometimes several feet deep.
Just getting here was an adventure. Denali is 250 miles north of Anchorage, most of it on a two-lane road, the George Parks Highway. I was swerving around moose in the middle of the road less than 10 minutes from the Anchorage airport, and things only got wilder from there. On my journey north, I could see that spring is indeed late this year. Many of the rivers were still in various stages of breakup, as the long winter’s ice cracked and buckled under the warming sun and the surrounding rush of meltwater.
I stood on the bridge over this river, and watched icebergs of various sizes and shapes float by, as thunderous cracks upstream heralded the arrival of new chunks of loose ice barreling downstream.
I stayed in the tiny town of Healy, about a dozen miles north of Denali’s main entrance road.
Aside from this sign, there are a few hotels, two restaurants, and one gas station in Healy.
There are a couple of different ways to experience Denali National Park.
There is a visitor’s center and some trails right at the entrance, and you can drive in the first 15 miles on the park road in your own car. But if you want to go beyond the Savage River at milepost 15, you need to take an official park shuttle or bus. The narrow and sometimes treacherous road that snakes west for 92 miles just isn’t built to handle the 400,000 people who visit Denali annually. I bought a ticket to Toklat at MP 53; the road beyond that was still closed due to snow. At 7am, I boarded the bus for the seven-hour round trip.
While Denali does have some interesting birds, the highlight here is mammals. And what a highlight they are! In two days, I got great looks at Dall’s sheep, moose, caribou, collared pika, hoary marmots, snowshoe hare, arctic ground squirrels, a gray wolf, and a lynx.
Arctic Ground Squirrel
Snowshoe Hare – still turning from his winter whites to his summer browns
Dall’s sheep, with babies
WHY did my camera freak out and refuse to focus right when mama moose and her two cute mooselings appeared right next to the road?? I guess I’ll never know.
While Denali is the best place in North America to see large mammals, I saw a few birds too – including possibly my new favorite bird, the Willow Ptarmigan.
They are just so comical and charismatic, perched in the top of spruce trees and muttering their cackling chicken-language under their breath. I found them utterly charming.
Even aside from the animals, there was so much to look at in Denali. The landscape itself was breath taking.
I even got to see Denali itself (or Mt. McKinley, as the U.S. Congress still insists on it being called). This 20,320 foot peak is the tallest in North America. During the spring and summer months it’s often wrapped in clouds (it creates it own weather), but for a few hours yesterday you could see its glaciated summits.
And this was from some 80 miles away! Later it rained, and I got to see my first Denali rainbow.
With near 24-hour daylight, it’s tempting to stay up all night walking the trails, reading my book, or planning the rest of my Alaska trip – but I think I will force myself to go to bed now. It’s been 3 days since I’ve seen darkness (the blinds in my room don’t close all the way), but my body still needs sleep. I think. Right?