Rugged Romance. Endless wilderness. Those phrases float into my consciousness when I think of our trip to Denali National Park. I’m not sure why. Mountains and rivers and finding wild animals in their natural habitat tend to lure me into some alternate universe of existence. And Alaska, the largest and newest state in the U.S., is remote and mostly untouched. Alaska’s population is less than 750,000!
Denali National Park was established in 1917 to protect a population of Dall Sheep. Initially, it was comprised of about 2 million acres, but was expanded to over 6 million acres during President Carter’s administration and is now considered the third largest in the U.S. The two largest national parks (Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic) are also in Alaska. In fact, I think Alaska has at least 7 of the top 10 national parks, in terms of size.
Denali NP has one main road that is 92 miles long. At the end of the road is Kantishna, the only place in the park that is still considered private property. It used to be an old gold mining camp but now has a lodge and a small airstrip. Since the 1960s, there has been an active landslide (called the Pretty Rocks landslide) along this main road near mile marker (MM) 45.4 and, in 2021 it finally displaced the road, blocking access to anything beyond. Construction and repair are estimated to be complete by 2026.
There are six campgrounds in Denali NP, but only three are suitable for RVs. One of the six, Wonder Lake, is closed for now because of its location at MM 85.9, beyond the landslide. We stayed at Riley Creek Campground at the front the park. It was large with roomy sites and had good cell service.
The park has a main Visitor Center that shows a couple of different films about the park. It includes a museum, and park rangers are available to answer questions and help people with backcountry hiking. (The park also has another Visitor Center at MM 66, currently inaccessible.) Near the entrance, there is a bus depot, a mercantile, a bus stop, a train depot, a couple of gift shops, a café, an air strip, a science and learning center, and sled dog kennels.
The park has an active shuttle system, of which we took advantage. Personal vehicles are not allowed beyond MM 15 unless they have a reservation at one of the campgrounds beyond there. The shuttle buses operate from the front of the park to MM 43 — the road is closed here because of the Pretty Rocks landslide and construction.
Denali (previously known as Mt. McKinley), meaning “the Tall One,” is the highest mountain peak in North America at 20,310 feet. It is the center of the mountain range in Denali NP and only about 30% of the people who visit the area actually see its peak because clouds just LOVE to hug the top of it. In fact, those who do see the peak see it at viewpoints outside of the park boundaries. It is probably best viewable inside the park at Kantishna (MM 92), but that is not accessible at this time.
We were two of the fortunate ones to see its peak and are now part of the 30% club!
We didn’t have nearly enough time at Denali NP with just four days there. It was a busy place! Not only were there plenty of RVers and tent campers, there were bus loads and train loads of people coming into the park from cruises and other forms of travel.
When we first arrived, we rode our bikes on a multi-use path to the Visitor Center to get a feel for the place. We watched the movies, grabbed a map, checked out the gift shop, and learned about the shuttle system. In the evening, we walked to the amphitheater in our campground for a nature presentation with a ranger, which was very interesting as she talked about the women “behind” the men who did some of the early scientific research in the park.
On day 2, we rode our bikes to the bus stop near the Visitor Center and took the shuttle to the dog sledding demo. Dog sledding is a part of the history and fabric of Alaska. In Denali NP, it is a necessity in the winter months. The dogs are called “freight dogs” as they are larger and stronger than the Alaskan Huskies that are racing dogs we saw earlier in Fairbanks. The freight dogs transport supplies and materials throughout the park during the winter months. On a ranger-led nature walk, we learned that all the materials for a swinging foot bridge we crossed were brought to that area by the sled dog team!
In the afternoon, we took a shuttle from our campground to Savage River at MM 15 to hike the Savage River Loop Trail. A cool, breezy, partly sunny day. It was beautiful.
On day 3, we signed up for the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which is a bus tour of the park back to MM 43, stopping for any spotted wildlife. The road turns to hardpacked dirt/gravel at MM 15, making the experience feel more rugged and remote. However, there are A LOT of hardpacked dirt/gravel roads in Alaska, and we have been on many of them. Typically, the Tundra Wilderness Tour would go back to MM 82, but because of the Pretty Rocks landslide, it is currently limited to MM 43. The tour guide was kind and engaging and stopped for moose and caribou. We did not see any bears or Dall Sheep. Another cool, breezy, partly cloudy day, but we loved going deeper into the park.
In the evening, we went to another ranger program in our campground.
On our last full day at the park, we participated in a ranger-led nature hike in another section of the park not far from the Visitor Center. He showed us where the original entrance to the park was and led us back to a couple of bridges over Riley Creek, one being the swinging foot bridge I mentioned earlier. After lunch, we took a shuttle back to Savage River. The plan was to enjoy the scenery while drinking hot chocolate, but we soon talked ourselves into hiking a portion of the Savage Alpine Trail. Of course, the worst part of the Savage Alpine Trail was the end of it near Savage River where we were. It was a dicey, narrow, extremely steep section of trail, and I’m not sure why we even tried to attempt it. We weren’t prepared to do a four-mile hike (the length of this trail), and we soon learned that the section we climbed up and then back down was the worst part of the trail. When we go back, we will do the entire trail, but we will ONLY go up this section ONCE, not up then back down!
When we left Denali NP, we drove down to Byers Lake Campground. Although full of potholes (all of the Alaska state-run campgrounds we went into had hundreds of horrible potholes), it was a good location to try to see Denali’s peak from a couple of viewpoints. And it was only an hour from Talkeetna, from where we did a flightseeing/glacier landing excursion into Denali NP.
We lucked out! We woke up to a gloriously clear day with blue sky and very few clouds. I knew that our chances of seeing Denali’s peak were HIGH! Sure enough, as we drove to Talkeetna, we stopped at two different viewpoints and saw the peak. There was a small bank of clouds hovering in front of the mountain, but the peak was visible! And our flightseeing tour was breathtaking. We could not have picked a better day.
I could not tire of seeing a snow-covered mountain range from above. Pristine, untouched snow. Crystal-clear blue pools of snow melt. Craggy, rocky mountain sides. Glaciers carving the landscape. It was a feast for the eyes and the soul.
We landed on Ruth Glacier and stepped out onto the soft snow, our feet sinking down and slipping around. Peaceful. Bright. Crisp. I don’t want to be a mountain climber, but I can understand the appeal of being in an area not many people traverse.
What we saw from the ground versus what we saw from the air … we truly got an understanding of how massive this park is and how inaccessible it is to the non-mountain-climbing, non-backcountry hiking, non-glacier-landing, non-dog-sledding person.
We want to come back to the park and get back to MM 92. We want to explore other hiking trails. We want to feast our eyes on the snow-capped mountain range and maybe traipse across virgin snow in snowshoes.
We have fallen in love with Denali’s untouched beauty and the rugged romance of it all.
Enjoy the pictorial video (above)!
For previous installments of our Alaska Roadtrip: