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Welcome to the Alaskan Wilderness

Denali National Park in Alaska boasts of North America’s tallest peak, abundant wildlife and some amazing opportunities for adventure seekers.


With six million acres of wilderness to explore, Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska offers everything from group hikes to off-trail solo treks to quiet corners for personal reflection. It’s hard to forget about its central attraction too:  Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, standing at 20,320 feet.

A 144-kilometer-long road runs through the park, which lies about 386 kilometers north of the city of Anchorage. The Park Road runs parallel to the Alaska Range of mountains, cutting through low valleys and high mountain passes, giving visitors a chance to spot some of the park’s abundant wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, caribou and hawks. 

Private cars can traverse the Park Road to Mile 15, if weather permits. To go beyond, visitors must choose from a selection of buses. Tour buses offer guides that narrate the journey for riders. Shuttle buses also run. While these stop for animals and scenery, they don’t include guides, and they let travelers get on and off as they wish. 

“You can take the bus into the park along a dirt and gravel part of the road. Because private cars aren’t allowed, wildlife comes close to the road, and you often get close-up views of bears, moose and other animals,” says John Schochet, a Seattle-based attorney who visited the park as part of a larger trip to Alaska in June 2012. 

If the normally overcast skies allow, the bus tours also give travelers glimpses of Mount McKinley—originally called Denali by the native Koyukon Athabascans, meaning “The Great One.” But, as Schochet found, clearer views of the mountain come from above, through flightseeing tours on helicopters or small fixed-wing aircraft. 

“I enjoyed the flightseeing trip the most because I saw the mountain from the airplane, but it was too cloudy to see the mountain from the bus,” he says. Flight tours run from the park’s surrounding towns as well as from Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Schochet’s experience exemplifies the flexibility needed to enjoy the trip to Denali. No matter the time of year, the weather is unpredictable. Winter temperatures can range from 4.4 degrees Celsius to  -40 degrees Celsius. Even in June, Schochet spent six hours waiting in the adjacent town of Talkeetna for his flight tour to take off. 

Not that the wait at all detracted from his Denali experience. “Talkeetna is a fun destination on its own,” Schochet says. “It’s a historic town with plenty of attractions. There’s a roadhouse with famous sourdough pancakes, a brewery, a river and a general store.”

Mid-May through mid-September, the southern Alaskan summer months, is the most popular time to visit the park. Day hike options and ranger-led activities, including nature explorations, seminars and evening programs, abound during this time. Backpackers can also obtain permits for the camp’s six different campgrounds during the summer from the Backcountry Information Center. The process takes about an hour and includes a safety information session. 

If a summer visit isn’t possible, fall and spring can also be good times, though there’s always the possibility that bad weather will limit road and trail accessibility, and many structured park-sponsored activities no longer run. The park is open throughout the winter, too, with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing open on dog sled trails, the Park Road and in the backcountry, depending on weather conditions. A limited number of snowshoes are available to rent for free at the Winter Visitor Center. The park does not rent ski equipment.

No matter what time of year you visit, however, be sure to check out the park’s historic sled dog kennels. Huskies have lived in these kennels and helped the park function since the 1920’s, and they continue to provide transportation for the rangers during the winter. In the summer, rangers give daily sled demonstrations, during which they hitch five dogs to a sled and take them for a short run on a gravel track. 

To fully experience Denali, Mount McKinley, Talkeetna and the surrounding area, Schochet recommends setting aside a few days and keeping in mind that the mountain may be elusive, despite its grandeur.

“The weather varies a lot, so you might only get to see the mountain once the whole time you’re there,” he says. “But the bus trip is fun with or without a mountain view, because you still get to see animals and the close-up scenery.”

 

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.