Take in the wonders of Denali

Denali

Alaska is such a vast and varied place that any trip there can only superficially touch the few sites that a traveler might choose to visit. It is hard to imagine that even a lifelong Alaska resident can truly “know” such an immense and wild place.
A visit to Denali National Park is very different from the usual national park experience. We expect to drive freely through a park stopping occasionally at viewpoints and other attractions as we please.
Not at Denali. Denali National Park was developed in a way that would minimize the impact of tourists on the park’s wild interior. The only commercial development—lodging, gas, food and tours—is on the Anchorage-Fairbanks highway at the very edge of the park’s 6 million acres. While there is a 92-mile dirt road into the park’s interior, virtually all visitors travel the road in park buses that make occasional stops along the way. Some buses are special tours; others are regularly scheduled shuttles that drop off and pick up hikers venturing farther into the park on foot. This shuttle bus system is a bit inconvenient for those of us used to touring at our whim, but Denali National Park remains beautifully pristine—just what we expect of Alaska.
If you have ever seen a picture of Denali, it is likely that the mountain was perfectly reflected in a beautiful foreground lake obscured only by a lazily munching moose. That is Wonder Lake. And while the entire park is stunning, it is here, near the end of the 92-mile road, that the park flexes its scenic muscles. The problem that visitors face is deciding the best way to see this portion of the park. It is a herculean sightseeing marathon to make the round-trip bus ride in a single day.
Fortunately, there are a few exceptions to Denali’s shuttle bus/no interior development scenario. Kantishna Roadhouse is a private guest house that dates back to the 1905 gold rush in the nearby Kantishna Hills a short distance from the end of the 92-mile park road. The roadhouse and three other lodges are property in-holders that predated the park and have been permitted to continue lodging operations in the area. Renée and I decided to stay a few nights at the end of the road so that we would have the luxury of time to linger in the heart of the park.
Fresh off the bus from Anchorage, we hopped on the Kantishna bus for the six-hour drive to the roadhouse. A short distance from park headquarters the thinning taiga forest of spruces and balsam poplars began to give way to an endless reach of tundra. August is fall in Alaska and the blueberry, dwarf birch and bearberry cast a red glow over the immense treeless expanse. We crossed a series of rivers sliding off of the north side of the Alaska Range, each braided into a series of strands that crisscrossed the glacial detritus deposited in the stream bed.
When it comes to wildlife, Denali delivers. On our ride into Kantishna, we saw several caribou and seven grizzly bears, one that marched indifferently down the road and right past our bus. A grizzly mom and two cubs browsed for berries on a hill above us. Bears, caribou and Dall sheep were easy to spot in the wide open and treeless tundra landscape.
The wildlife and the landscape in Denali are staggering, but the star of the show is the mountain. Would we be able to see it? Clouds almost constantly hide Denali from view. They say only one third of Denali visitors actually get to see some portion of the mountain itself. We were among the very fortunate.
On our first morning at Kantishna, I signed up for a guided hike on the McKinley Bar Trail. On the van ride to the trailhead we passed amazing views of the full height of Denali in the morning light. I couldn’t stand it. I hopped out of the van so I could explore on my own. All morning into the early afternoon, I ambled through the red tundra awed by the view of Denali so close, yet 20 miles away. I photographed the mountain at Reflection Pond, nibbled fresh blueberries and discovered a handful of beautiful glacial tarns just over the rise. No bus, no guide, no schedule. For all the great sights I saw in Alaska, this unfettered time alone stands out.
Any trip to Alaska must include a visit to Denali National Park. When you go, understand access to the interior is different than at other national parks. Be sure to explore the various ways to see it so that you enjoy the park the way you would like. 

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