Deep into Denali

A mother grizzly and her two cubs on the breathtaking Denali tundra.
  • A mother grizzly and her two cubs on the breathtaking Denali tundra.

With six million acres of wilderness, Denali National Park in Alaska is one of the largest national parks in the country. If you enjoy seeing wildlife in their native habitat, your time here can be especially exciting and rewarding.

I saw several grizzlies with cubs, Dall sheep, moose, caribou, golden eagles, and a red fox along the side of the road chewing a mouse. Even if the wildlife sightings are low on your particular visit, it will be difficult not to be entranced by the desolate and powerful sweep of the landscape – particularly if you’re blessed with a clear day.

“We’re having some good luck today,” the bus driver announced as the sky brightened with the rising sun. “One of the best days of the summer.”

Even the clouds that frequently hover about Mount McKinley, the highest peak in the country, were beginning to dissipate.

Terrain in Denali varies between taiga, consisting of coniferous forests, and tundra. When you gaze out at the rolling, golden tundra, its fierce, desolate beauty argues for silence. It’s when the shuttle buses are left behind, and you are alone with your backpack, that a true appreciation for the Alaskan wilderness enters your heart.

To get to Denali from Anchorage, you can either rent a car for a 5-6 hour drive or take the highly recommended train trip. Cars are not allowed past the first fifteen miles of the lone road into the park. You can, however, reserve a spot on the shuttle buses that take visitors up to 86 miles into the interior. If possible, call or email months in advance to reserve a seat on the earliest possible bus.

A bus ride deep into the park is a day-long affair: 8 hours round-trip to the Eielson Center and 11 hours to Wonder Lake. On a sunny, clear day, like I was fortunate to enjoy, it’s worthwhile to go out to Wonder Lake. If your trip was reserved to Eielson, you can still generally upgrade to WL for another sixteen dollars. Pack your lunch, as no food is available along the way (unless you pick some berries).

It’s also helpful to bring a pair of binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens, but these aren’t necessary for a transcendent experience. Enjoy the bus ride and let the magic of Denali wash over you. When you tire of the bus or are itching to get off and hike into the wilderness, disembark. There will be another bus to come along and pick you up.

The view from the Eielson Visitor’s Center is, in my opinion, the most impressive on the trip (though others may argue for Polychrome Pass). There’s a stunning view of the alpine tundra far into the horizon. It is particularly colorful in August, the month I happened to be there.

Eielson is a good spot to take a break from the bus and enjoy a hike; it’s the only stop with trails. The visitor’s center here is ecologically sound, solar-powered, and appears to be carved out of the side of the mountain.

While waiting for the bus at the Wilderness Access Center, I watched a video about wilderness survival tips made for those planning to camp in Denali. The most salient tip was how to handle an encounter with a bear. This educational approach seems to have proven successful, as despite the prevalence of bears in the park, there's been only one fatal attack* by a bear on a human in Denali.

The following morning, I started out at the visitor’s center. Rangers are available to answer questions about hiking trails and available activities and presentations. You also have the option of taking a ranger-led hike. The rangers here are quite helpful and knowledgeable, but I believe the true allure of coming here is in getting off on your own and hiking the trails. This was my choice.

I walked the Taiga Trail through groves of spruce and aspen and felt a cool breeze brush against me. There was a silence followed by the rustling of the wind against the leaves and branches. Tears welled up in my eyes. I grew up in a forest, and coming here was like coming home. I thought about the innate urge toward escaping into the wilderness experienced by the ill-fated Chris McCandless, subject of the book (and Sean Penn–directed movie) Into the Wild. I could empathize with McCandless’s desire and detected my own urge to rush off the trail into the forest. I walked and paused, taking my time to savor the surroundings. I wanted the hike to go on and on.

Eventually, I approached the visitor’s center and passed a guy talking loudly on his cell phone. The allure of the hike hit the pause button. But it had not ended. I just transitioned to a different trail and reentered the realm of Denali’s sylvan magic.

*August 24, 2012, just a week after the author returned from Denali, the national park witnessed its first bear attack fatality, when 49-year-old Richard White of San Diego was killed photographing a grizzly near the Tolkat River. A surrounding 200 square miles of the park remain closed as of the date of this story's publication.

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