Native Athabascans called it the “High One.” And at 20,230 feet, Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park and Preserve is a high one. In fact, it's the highest mountain in North America.
Everything about Denali is huge, wild and empty. The park spreads out over more than 6 million acres, a huge expanse when you compare it to the slightly more than 500,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, my "home" national park.
With only one road, the landscape of Denali is real wilderness cut by just 50 miles of maintained trails, mostly around the visitor center. In the Smokies, you have more than 800 miles of trail to choose from.
I have come to Denali to see it and hike it, but mostly just experience it. My husband and I postponed going to Denali for years because we didn’t know how to hike in the park with few maintained trails. More than 80 percent of visitors experience the park from a bus, but we didn’t want to go all the way to Alaska from North Carolina only to see the park from the road. However, we weren’t comfortable being dropped off on the side of the road with our backpacking gear and hiking on our own without established trails or bear cables.
Then we found Camp Denali, one of several lodgings within a private inholding in the middle of the park. Camp Denali has basic cabins without water or electricity, serves beautiful meals, and, most important for us, offers several guided hikes of various level each day. No phones, TV, Wi-Fi, radio or newspaper. Camp Denali guests are active, outdoor people willing to share showers, use outhouses, and hike in the rain.
Around the park entrance, the boreal forest -- a coniferous forest, similar to a temperate rain forest -- is filled with black spruce, horsehair ferns, and mushrooms. Juncos, ravens and robins seem to flit about without fear. The Denali Visitor Center points out that "You could walk across Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia and still be in the same boreal forest."
But higher up in altitude, it's in the tundra, the open spaces, grasses, and low vegetation that you really feel the freedom of the wilderness.
We were picked up at the train depot in front of the visitor center and started an eight-hour bus journey on the 92-mile Denali Park Road. Brian, our driver and one of the guides at Camp Denali, helped us spot animals on the way. The bus trip is one of the best places to see wildlife, since you sit high up. Many sets of eyes with binoculars also help.
Because of all the animal sightings, Denali has been called a Subarctic Serengeti. Never have I seen so many animals with so little effort. Dall sheep perched on craggy rocks, in the tundra far above us. Golden-furred grizzlies -- brown bears -- dug through the grasses. The vegetation looked like poor pickings in the low bushes and grasses, but the bear mom and her two cubs seemed to find plenty to eat: berries, mushrooms, and occasional ground squirrels.
Brown bear cubs stay with their mother for two to three years. Once they move out on their own, the mom is free to mate again. In contrast, black bears mate every year. Black bears in the park are harder to spot since they stay in the boreal forest and hide in thick vegetation.
This bus ride was like a safari; could we see the big five? That's grizzly, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolf. We were lucky enough to see them all and a coyote as well. The wolf is the most elusive and the least seen. With a small camera and no zoom lens, I didn't even attempt to photograph the wildlife; I just admired them through binoculars.
But the Denali wilderness is more than big mammals; in July wildflowers are at their peak. Some were familiar, such as tall fireweed, harebells, and grass-of-parnassus, others strange and new. My favorite was an elegant paintbrush. How's that for a name? Denali has no snakes and no one seems to miss them.
On the tundra on Camp Ridge, close to the end of the road, it might seem like there's nothing up here but grasses and low bushes. But golden eagles swoop down and willow ptarmigan, the Alaska state bird, are flushed out of the vegetation. The spongy tundra is full of life such as lichen, alders, wildflowers including tiny dogwood.
In North Carolina, dogwood is a tree but in the tundra, dogwood plants are a groundcover flocked with small, four-petaled white flowers. We picked blueberries and cloudberries, yellow-orange berries that make very expensive Scandinavian jam. How can such cold weather produce so many colorful flowers and berries?
Before Denali There Was McKinley
Mt. McKinley National Park was created in 1917 in part to protect Dall sheep. The sheep made for good eating for the miners during the gold rush. Charles Sheldon, a gentleman climber from the Northeast as they were known, traveled to Denali between 1906-1908 with guide Harry Kartens. Sheldon, who was well-connected, became a big proponent of protecting the area. Karstens was also the guide for the first successful climb of Mt. McKinley in 1913; later he became the first superintendent of the park.
The original Mt. McKinley Park was only two million acres. But in 1980, just as President Jimmy Carter was leaving office, he created 10 national park units in Alaska via the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
For Denali, that act changed the name of the park from McKinley to Denali and expanded the park to its present 6 million acres. The original park became a wilderness area. Another section allows subsistence hunting and fishing for anyone living in a rural community. The "Preserve" section of the park also allows sports hunting.
ANILCA protected these lands, but didn't lock them up. Still, this was not a popular decision at the time. When President Carter came back to Alaska this year for the 30-year celebration of ANILCA, he commented that he was happy that “people were now waving to him with all five fingers.”
Most visitors see the park riding a bus on the 92-mile road. When the road was completed in 1972, the park made the decision to not allow private cars beyond the 15-mile mark. It's a good thing, too, since the road is narrow and unpaved after that.
They say that you can see Mt. McKinley (the mountain retains the name of the former president) only about 20 percent of the time. We were in Denali long enough to see the mountain peek coyly through the clouds and then reshoulder its shroud. It was in and out of clouds until it made its cameo appearance in late morning. We all stopped in our tracks to take a picture, then the mountain retreated behind a wall of clouds.
My highlight was the image of our school bus in the wilderness. In one spot, we parked our bus on the side of the road and climbed up a random hill on the tundra. We passed kettle ponds, small glacier ponds that attract trumpeter swans, gulls, northern shovelers, and sandpipers.
From the angle of the hill, I couldn't see the road, just the school bus. The scene was straight out of Into the Wild by John Krakauer, the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man who supposedly left a good future to live in the Alaska wilderness completely unprepared. He moved into a school bus in the interior Alaska and died from hunger. McCandless was dropped off on the Stampede Glacier Road, just outside the park and many people still go out to see the bus.
The area around Camp Denali was in the middle of Kantishna, a gold mining camp. Until the park was expanded, Kantishna was outside the park. Two other lodges that were operating in 1980 along with Camp Denali - the Kantishna Road House and Denali Backcountry Lodge -- were allowed to remain in business.
We went to the end of the Denali Park Road to see Fannie Quigley's cabin, one of the women who cooked for miners during the gold rush. Kantishna, the mining town created in 1907, had more than 6,000 residents, but now it’s just a destination to see the cabin and a turn-around point. After Quigley retired, she moved into her "retirement home," which is now being preserved by the Park Service with her original furniture and personal effects.
At least one other cabin has been restored. But mostly, Denali National Park is a huge, intact ecosystem that attracts and retains large animals that visitors come to see. Last year, 358,040 visitors came to the park.
In the tundra, you can find the forget-me-not, a small delicate blue flower which is the Alaska state flower. No chance of forgetting this national park.
Where to stay
Outside the park in the community of Denali Park, where there are many motels and bed and breakfasts.
In one of the park inholdings – Camp Denali and North Face Lodge, Kantishna Road House and Denali Backcountry Lodge
Park campgrounds. There are seven campgrounds in the park and several private campgrounds outside the park.
If you go:
Tan buses are tour buses where the tour bus driver narrates along the way. They go to several points along the Denali Park Road. Green buses are considered shuttle buses to get you to your destination, are cheaper but narration is up to the driver – don’t count on it.
To hike or backpack off trail, visit the backcountry office in the rear of the Wilderness Center. Park rangers will explain your options based on your experience and show you maps. It’s a good way to dayhike on your own, as well, even though you don’t need a permit for dayhiking.
Denali Walks by Kris Capps describes mostly short walks on maintained trails.
National Geographic maps
Into the Wild, the book by John Krakauer, and the movie Sean Penn directed.
Alaska Geographic operates four bookstores in the park.