Denali National Park
approximately 1439 words
North to Alaska
By Roger Toll
From the open platform of the dome car, we could see ridges, glaciers, neighboring peaks, but the tallest mountain in North America was playing hide and seek. “Is that Denali?” a child asked her father, pointing to a white pyramid floating on a blanket of cloud.
We were on Alaska Railroad’s popular Anchorage-to-Fairbanks run. The train had pulled out at 8:30 a.m. sharp, and soon was passing by birch forests, sapphire-blue lakes and mountain peaks rising high above us. The railroad’s immaculate GoldStar Service restaurant and dome cars offered a tasty breakfast and incredible views, but best was the covered, train-top platform that provided an open-air perspective over the majestic landscape and tumbling rivers, including two moose and a black bear.
Just south of Talkeetna, a charming Alaska town that looks like a set for Northern Exposure, the mountain came into view, though it was still more than 60 miles away. Talkeetna serves as a jump-off for climbers preparing ascents of North America’s most challenging peak; when the weather clears, the ski-rigged bush planes fly them to glaciers that fall down the mountain, from which they begin their ascents. For more earth-bound travelers, Talkeetna serves as base camp for freshwater fishing and flight-seeing tours over Denali. Most passengers, however, continue on another four hours to the entrance of Denali National Park, a 240-mile trip from Anchorage.
The six-million acre park and its 20,237-foot peak is one of Alaska’s top tourist attractions. The challenge is not only to see it from as close as possible, but to see it at all. Because it soars an unimaginable 18,000 feet into the sky from its base—in comparison, Everest rises only 12,000 vertical feet from base to peak—it creates its own weather. Nevertheless, the dramatic scenery and occasional fauna along the park’s single road are reward enough even if the peak is shrouded, which is frequent during summer.
Private vehicles are allowed to go on the road up to mile 15, while buses area allowed to continue further into the park. (Reservations are advised due to summer crowds.) After coming so far to visit the park, it is worth investing the time to go all the way to the Eielson Visitors Center at the heart of the park, a stunning eight-hour round trip, including stops at the best viewpoints to take in the McKinley massif, stretch legs and breath the mountain air. With the help of drivers experienced at spotting park wildlife, it is common to see arctic ground squirrels, marmots, beavers, snowshoe hares, bald eagles, dall sheep, caribou, moose and an occasional grizzly.
The bus meanders through stunning mountains, still partly snow-covered in June, past braided streams of glacial run-off and over expanses of treeless tundra. But it is the enormity of the surroundings that staggers the viewer. At one stop, a river appeared less than a mile away until the Lilliputian dimensions of three hikers striding beside it revealed that it must have been three times that distance.
Once at the destination, visitors are in the shadow of Denali’s twin peaks, about as close as you can get without hiking cross-country or flying onto one of its many glaciers. The Eielson Visitors Center offers special exhibits and interpretive programs, indoor and outdoor viewing, and comfortable eating areas. In keeping with the National Park Service sustainability initiative, the new building incorporates recycled materials, renewable energy sources and water conservation systems.
We hike high up a hillside above the visitors center and, with a stunning view of Mount McKinley across a vast expanse of tundra, sit in a field of delicate wildflowers: mountain avens, windflowers, pink alpine azaleas, shooting stars, dwarf willows and bluebells. Nearby mountains, their canyons and washes still lined with snow, appear like pintos, their lower slopes a dusty green under dirty slopes of scree. It is so peaceful and majestic that we’re tempted to remain until the last bus leaves to return to the Wilderness Access Center.
On the way back, the driver spots a grizzly bear high on a hillside. It is little more than a brown spot, which we take on faith to be a bear, but it is a small sampling of the ursine abundance we discover two days later at Lake Clark National Park, which we reach after returning to Anchorage and a three-hour drive south to Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula. A half-hour flight across Cook Inlet takes us past the snow-laden cone of Mt. Redoubt, a 10,197-foot volcano that rises spectacularly from the sea, to Silver Salmon Creek Lodge.
As we buzz a black-sand beach before swinging back around to land on it—the flight had been timed to coincide with low tide—I spot three grizzlies grazing on meadows no more than two football fields away. In fact, they are brown bears, the term for a coastal versus inland grizzly. Brown bears tend to be fatter and healthier-looking due to their rich protein diet of salmon once the fish start running upstream in August.
In June, however, the bears are more interested in the succulent grasses of the long meadow between the sea and the lodge, their first food after coming out of hibernation and before berries mature in July. A guide lead guests—on foot—onto the meadow, stopping 100 feet from the lazily grazing bears, who in several cases grazed their way directly towards us for a closer look, stopping only when they were about 35 feet away.
“Over the years that people have been coming here, the bears have recognized that this other animal form poses no danger to them, so they just go their own way,” said David Coray, who bought the lodge in 1983. Once, Coray’s only guests came for the fishing—they still share the creek with the brown bears, each species fishing in its own way—but now at least half of the visitors come only to see and photograph the bears.
Seward, a fishing town on the eastern shore of the Kenai Peninsula, has become popular with travelers as a jump-off point for boat trips into Kenai Fjords National Park. Deep, dramatic inlets of the sea lead to glaciers that fall from the vast Harding Icefield, their tongues calving small icebergs into the sea. A motorboat ferrying campers and kayakers to rock beaches along these various inlets dropped us several miles from Holgate Glacier near a small National Park ranger station.
It was a beautiful day, sunny with little wind, and we paddled several miles along the shore until we got to within 500 yards of the glacier’s front wall, where we cautiously made our way through large chunks of broken-off ice floating in the seawater. A sightseeing boat from Seward provided scale to the enormous 400-foot high face of the glacier, which rumbled and moaned in its slow progression to the sea. As we watched from our kayaks for an hour, several large sections of the face calved off into the sea with an explosive percussion, sending large waves towards us that quickly dissipated in the deep fjord.
“I never get tired of the dynamic, ever changing landscape here in Alaska,” said Jim Pfeiffenberger, an Education Coordinator for Kenai Fjords National Park’s Science and Learning Center, who was paddling beside me. “It is all so alive, dynamic, majestic, unpredictable and wild.”
The Web sites for the National Parks of Alaska are excellent sources for all the information you need to plan your visit and recreation, and to learn about lodging.
Denali National Park: www.nps.gov/dena/
Lake Clark National Park: www.nps.gov/lacl
Kenai Fjords National Park: www.nps.gov/kefj/
Silver Salmon Creek Lodge: David Coray, proprietor; www.silversalmoncreek.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
. Call 888-872-5666 for reservations; or in Alaska from May to September: 907-252-5504. Besides brown bear viewing and silver salmon fishing (in August), activities include sea kayaking, halibut fishing, wildlife photography, clam digging and fossil exploring.
Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking Company: John Page, proprietor; www.sunnycove.com; email@example.com. Call 800-770-9119 for reservations; or in Alaska 907-224-4426.
Sunny Cove offers both novice and experienced paddlers an Alaskan sea kayaking adventure, including in Kenai Fjords National Park.
Alaska Railroad: www.akrr.com
The one passenger railway line in Alaska runs from Seward to Fairbanks, a 470-mile trip. The most popular part of this is the 280-mile, eight-hour Anchorage to Denali National Park run, though people with enough time and a love of trains would benefit from taking the entire trip, which offers express check-in, spotless cars, comfortable seats, good food in a handsome dining car, with linen and silver. Best of all is the dome car with an outdoor platform for better viewing. GoldStar Service costs $85 more per four hours than the coach class.
For Alaska Visitor Information contact: 800 862-5275 or visit our website http://www.travelalaska.com
State of Alaska Tourism
Media Line: (800) 327-9372