A journey to this majestic national park includes side trips that are quintessentially Alaskan
Denali. For those familiar with the great Alaskan mountain, the tallest peak in North America, Denali (aka Mount McKinley) brings up images of a massive, snowy peak towering over the landscape like a giant warlord. Denali, which means “great one” or “high one” in Native Alaskan Athabaskan, rises 20,320 feet and is the largest mountain entirely above sea level in the world. Yet, this is also a ghost mountain, often shrouded in clouds. In fact, only about 1 in 3 of the 400,000 people who visit annually have the privilege of seeing Denali’s magnificence. On a recent motorhome trip to interior Alaska, we were determined to explore the many dimensions of Denali.
North From Anchorage
We begin our Denali adventure in Anchorage, Alaska. We opt for a rental from Alaska Motorhome Rentals instead of driving our coach from Oregon. It’s a good decision. The Class C is fully outfitted and ready when we arrive in Anchorage.
A spectacular way to experience the great mountain is a glacier flight and we’d booked a flight through Rust’s Flying Service in Anchorage. Alas, misty weather and low clouds prevent us from taking off. My friend, Dee Bouchon, who works for one of the native corporations in Alaska, had advised, “Decide what you want to see in Alaska – the mountain, bears, whales – before you go. Plan to do it first. If the weather gets in the way, you still have a chance to do it later.”
We call K2 Aviation, a sister company of Rust’s, cross our fingers, and head north on Highway 1, a 65-mph divided highway. Aspens, electric green as they leaf out, border the road and, to the north, we see the craggy Talkeetna Mountains. We pass over Knik River, so broad it looks like a lake; then the Matanuska River; and into the broad plain of Matanuska Valley, Alaska’s breadbasket.
We join Highway 3, the George Parks Highway (“the Parks”). The stretch between Wasilla, the town politico Sarah Palin made famous, and Willow, is a wasteland of traffic, minimalls, and fast-food chains and we’re grateful when we leave it behind and rejoin the aspens and spruce.
The terrain of interior Alaska is different from the coast. The air feels dryer and warmer and, at 69 degrees, it’s perfect driving weather. We spot a sign along the highway for Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennels tour and turn onto Big Lake Road to check it out. Dog sledding is popular in Alaska and many mushers, like four-time Iditarod champion Buser, make extra money by giving visitors an up-close-and-personal look at the sport.
When we pull into the ample parking area, we’re greeted by a cacophony of barking as well as DeeDee Jonrowe, one of Buser’s neighbors and the foremost female dog musher in the world. While some kennels give visitors rides, Buser’s offers an in-depth tour, a 20-minute video, information about the care of these marathon athletes, and a fast and furious demonstration of dogs pulling a wheeled cart. It’s all entertaining and enlightening and, as we snuggle furry puppies, we’re sorry the 90-minute tour is over.
Back on Parks Highway, we’re making good time until, at milepost 83, we’re slowed by road construction (a summer constant in Alaska). We follow a pilot car for several miles and pass over the Kashwitna River, the source of the washout.
We turn off at Talkeetna Spur Road to Kahiltna Birchworks, a family-owned company specializing in birch syrup products. Like maple trees, birch trees can be tapped for their sweet water that’s condensed into birch syrup. The syrup is less sweet than maple syrup and delicious on pancakes or as a baste for salmon. We buy a few bottles of this northern treat and some birch-cream caramels and birch-almond brittle for snacking.
Nine miles farther, we get our first glimpse of Denali, her massive hulk peeking from behind the clouds. She’s stunning and, with her two sisters, Mount Foraker (17,402 feet) and Mount Hunter (14,573 feet), these giants make the rest of the massive Alaska Range look small. The mountain continues to play hide and seek with the forest. However, just past Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge at milepost 29, we pull in at a wide turnout for a sweeping view of the mountain and join others snapping photos.
We head to Talkeetna Lodge, a native-owned property and one of the nicest in the area. The lodge takes advantage of its mountain views with floor-to-ceiling windows in Foraker Restaurant and a large outdoor deck with a graphic map that sorts out the many peaks. We meet our friend, Dee, and enjoy a delicious dinner of Copper River salmon and risotto, and for dessert, Baked Alaska with house-made huckleberry ice cream. Over coffee we watch the colossal mountain’s face change with the light.
We tuck the rig into Talkeetna Camper Park, a full-service RV park centrally located to town. The park offers level, gravel-topped sites, a scattering of trees, 30/50-amp service and water and electric or full hookups. Then we explore the quaint village of Talkeetna, including Nagley’s General Store and Grizzly Gold’s panning tent.
We’re up early the next morning because the sky is clear and K2 Aviation is flying to Denali. We board a 10-passenger de Havilland Otter for the two-hour Denali Grand Tour with a glacier landing. As we fly low over Highway 3 and Matanuska Valley with its silty glacial rivers braided with gravel and sandbars, our pilot tells us the vast Alaskan and Aleutian mountain ranges, including Denali, were formed when Pacific and North American tectonic plates deep in the earth collided, pushing up the land.
We climb to 11,000 feet and into the heart of the Alaska Range – over Tokositna Glacier’s black ribbons of rock, up to Wickersham Wall’s 14,000 feet of rock and ice, next to Mount Foraker and past 45-mile-long Kahiltna Glacier, the longest in the Alaska Range. It’s the 100th anniversary of the first climb of Denali and friends and family are re-enacting the trek. As we fly over the colorful tents of the climbers’ base camp, I look down and wonder if this is the centennial climbing party.
It is absolutely breathtaking – hundreds of square miles of snow, ice and granite rising to impossible heights. To the west, wrinkled mountains, brown and barren, stretch to the ocean for more than 600 miles. It’s landscape on such an immense scale it’s beyond comprehension.
We circle and suddenly drop down, the little plane skiing on the face of Pika Glacier. Captain Stan brings the Otter to a neat stop and we pile onto the ice. We’re in a bowl surrounded by jagged peaks and walls of ice under a bluer-than-blue sky. And it is quiet. The deep, soul-touching silence has us all staring wide-eyed. High up, a small avalanche of snow cascades off the rock face, showering ice and snow and breaking the hushed spell. We laugh self-consciously and take pictures of one another.
Back in the plane, we effortlessly lift off and enjoy more of the same – massive rivers of ice and rock, pools and crevasses of aqua-blue ice, peaks that touch the sky, and, of course, Denali, the great one, lording above the rest.
Before we leave Talkeetna, we stop at Flying Squirrel Bakery Cafe for a few cookies and at Crowley’s (credit card only) for gas. On the Parks Highway, it’s three hours (150 miles) to Denali National Park & Preserve. The speed limit is 65 mph, but frost heaves – great waves and breaks in the pavement – prevent us from speeding.
We see the great mountain from the highway – and the clouds gathering at its base. We begin climbing, passing stands of skinny spruce, half-frozen lakes and streams still laced with snow. Then it’s over the east fork of the Chitina River; a little farther on, the middle fork. We’ve climbed to 2,500 feet and the land stretches out into a broad plain surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges. At milepost 201, we’ve reached the summit and its amazing top-of-the-world feeling.
A few miles farther is Denali National Park & Preserve, 6 million acres of wildness bisected by a single gravel road. Three park campgrounds accommodate RVs (max 40 feet in length): Riley Creek (147 sites) near the entrance of the park; Savage River (33 sites) at mile 13; and Teklanika (Tek) River (53 sites) at mile 29. None of them have hookups, but Riley, where we’re staying, offers flush toilets, potable water, and close proximity to the mercantile center with showers and laundry and a park bus stop.
Denali is a wilderness park with few vehicles allowed. Private tour buses and park tour buses visit the park on various schedules. In the morning, we hop a shuttle bus (it’s a good idea to reserve your space). These are converted school buses and our driver, Ken Harlan, a retiree from Kentucky, provides an informative and colorful narration.
The day is cool and gray and the great Denali and the entire Alaska Range is swallowed up in clouds. We’ve opted for the eight-hour round trip to Eielson Visitor Center at milepost 66 on the Park Road.
As we motor along, driver Ken tells us we’re passing through taiga – areas with slim trees – and tundra – vast open plains of dwarf shrubs, sedges and grasses, mosses and lichens. Here, winter temperatures range from minus 30 to minus 70 degrees and winds routinely howl at 100 mph. We pass gray rivers, braided with gravel bars and, 45 minutes into our tour, spot our first bears, a big grizzly mother and her cub. The bus stops and we crowd the windows for photos.
As we bump along, the road narrows. Occasionally, we come upon another bus from the opposite direction and we hold our collective breath as the vehicles pass within inches of one another. It makes me glad we chose Riley Creek Campground rather than one deeper in the park.
Purple and yellow wildflowers climb the slopes, including yellow cinquefoils, the tundra rose. We spot a herd of caribou running through the tundra’s greens, rusts and golds. At another point, a huge female moose rumbles down the hill and onto the road, passing right by our bus.
Eielson Visitor Center is our turnaround and we gratefully pile out and explore the center’s fascinating exhibits of the park’s Alpine tundra, wildlife and geology. While we’re there, a park ranger awards a boy his Junior Ranger badge and everyone applauds.
By the time we return to Riley Creek Campground, we’ve seen five bears, one moose, a marmot, countless caribou and untold mosquitoes. But Denali remains a ghost.
A few days later, when we board our flight home, we’re certain we’ve seen all the faces of Denali. The pilot announces, “Folks, it’s a beautiful day and the airspace is clear, so we’re going to go around Denali a few times.” And here we are, in a Boeing 737, cruising around the Great One. We’re flying above the big mountain, cruising over its ice-white snow, ice sheds, glaciers and its 20,000-plus-foot summit. It’s absolutely spectacular. Now, we really have seen the many dimensions of Denali.
For More Information
Alaska Motorhome Rentals
800-323-5757 | www.bestofalaskatravel.com
Denali National Park & Preserve
907-683-9532 | www.nps.gov/dena
Talkeetna Camper Park
907-733-2693 | www.talkeetnacamper.com