A spectacular wilderness setting and home to the highest peak in the United States
After a few days in Anchorage and Seward headed north into the Alaskan interior, through the mighty Alaskan range. It is this range that separates the wet but relatively mild south from the drier but colder north. This range is home to the mighty Mount McKinley, which is known to native Athabaskan’s as Denali meaning the “The Great One” and is the highest mountain peak in North America, at a height of approximately 20,320 feet (6,194 m). Mount McKinley has a larger bulk and rise than Mount Everest. Even though the summit of Everest is about 9,000 feet (2,700 m) higher as measured from sea level, its base sits on the Tibetan Plateau at about 17,000 feet (5,200 m), giving it a real vertical rise of a little more than 12,000 feet (3,700 m). The base of Mount McKinley is roughly a 2,000-foot plateau, giving it an actual rise of 18,000 feet (5,500 m).
The vagaries of the Alaskan weather means that Mount McKinley is often not visible due to cloud cover and as we left Anchorage the rain and low clouds look set in for the day. Perhaps we were not destined to see this icon of Alaska. Fortunately the drive up to Denali National Park (where Mount McKinley is the center piece) is quite long so we pray for a break in the weather. As we grew closer to the park we see a lot of cars pulled in on the side of the road, so being curious folks we pulled over too. Much to our delight on the side of the road was a black bear quite happily munching on some plants. We cautiously got out to take some photos. These animals can be aggressive but there were a large number of us and they are not known to attack groups and would be more likely to run off. So we snapped a few shots and moved on. As luck would have the cloud cover started to break-up and 20 minutes later the skies were relatively clear and we came across an ideal vantage point to see Mount McKinley. We were so pleased that in the distance but prominent among all its neighbors stood the snow capped peak of McKinley. We were so lucky – so much so that we stood for quite some time soaking it all in. We still had some distance to go so it was not long before we back on the road.
For two nights we are based in the Denali Lodge cabins. We had expected these to be quaint log cabins but they turned out to be more like the potting shed that gentlemen of a certain age use to escape the prying eyes and sharp tongues of their spouses. Anyway, we didn’t plan to spend much time in at the cabin so it didn’t bother us too much.
The day was still warm and sunny. The long summer days gave us plenty of time to pack a lot in, so we headed off to the National Park to check out what programs were being run the next day. Once this was completed we decided to drive 11 miles into the park – essentially as far as private vehicles are allowed to go. You can venture much deeper into the park but you have to take a tour bus, so we decided to settle for a hike. Us parents wanted a gentle saunter down along the river – but Jack and Emily had other ideas and wanted to scale a hill. For once the children had their way. As we climbed higher we soon realized that it was much steeper than we had anticipated and very rugged terrain. Karen decided that she wanted to stop so myself, Jack and Emily continued on alone. Not much further on my lack of fitness gave out so I stopped and let children press on thinking it was not much further to the top. When I lost sight of them and they didn’t return 10 minutes later I started to get worried. I began climbing the hill again but I couldn’t find them. Unbeknownst to me they had come down a different route and I then set off down yet another route. It was about 45 minutes later when we all managed to hook up again – with everyone angry with each other (this is how the concern was expressed). I had been worried about Jack and Emily, Karen about me etc etc. Having said all that it was a wonderful walk and the views across the tundra to the distant mountains was spectacular. We all slept well that night.
On our second day in Denali we were delighted with our choice to do the walk the previous day as it turned out to be a grotty day – wet and cold. So, we decided to head for the Murie Science and Learning Center, named after Adolph Murie naturalist, author, and wildlife biologist who pioneered field research on wolves, bears, and other mammals and birds in Artic and sub-Arctic Alaska. This Center is a collaboration between the National Park Service and other institutions, carrying on many areas of research into the geography, wildlife biology and the ecology of Denali and the wider reaches of the Alaskan wilderness. We spent about half an hour studying the wonderful exhibits on show before heading off to hear what turned out to be a fantastic talk by one of the researchers from the Center on the glaciers in Denali National Park.
After this illuminating presentation we headed back to the Park’s main Visitor Center so Jack and Emily could extend their collection of Junior Ranger badges. This also gave us an opportunity to explore the exhibits. The weather was if anything getting worst outside, but being hardy souls we braved the conditions to join one of the Park Rangers on a short trail around the Visitor Center. We love these Ranger programs, and best of all today we were the only four people on the walk – our own personal Ranger. As always it was great to learn about the history and ecology of the area. We also discovered our Ranger was only here for the summer months in winter he led dog mushing tours into Denali park – often camping out there in temperatures around minus 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Our last planned activity for the day was to visit the sled dog kennels in the Park. Denali is the only National Park to have its own dog teams, which are used in the winter months to manage the park. The Park is open all year round and even in the frigid winters people want to enter the park to explore the wilderness. The kennels provided much better conditions for the dogs than we saw at the Seavey kennels in Seward. The dogs were extremely sociable and loved the attention and to be petted. Of course we were only too happy to do this. As well as the chance to walk around the kennels one of the Rangers gave a presentation on the history of the Denali dog sled teams and the roles they continue to play in managing the park to this date. As no motorized vehicles are allowed into the wilderness areas this is the only means of transport through the long winter months.