In what may be becoming an regular trek up to Alaska to see The Boy again this summer (we haven’t summoned the fortitude to venture up in the winter yet), we decided to take in some of the state’s boundless beauty with a visit to North America’s highest peak, Denali, and the National Park that surrounds it.
Seeing it from afar last year when we climbed Flat Top Mountain only whet our appetites, we felt that if we were to do the massive mountain justice we should get an up close and personal introduction.
From Anchorage, our homebase, we headed toward Wasilla (a different path from our previous travels down the fabulous Seward Highway and our visit to the extremely remote Native Villages in the tundra).
Setting out in the evening, after The Boy and his lovely girlfriend finished work, we stop for an overnight in the town of Talkeetna. This quirky-quaint little outpost is used as a base camp for climbers, since it is the nearest civilization to the southern route up Denali’s summit.
Several air taxi services shuttle mountaineers to base camps, and take sightseers on flybys or glacier landings, in fact the tiny town has two airports.
Since we’d learned our limitations whilst climbing Flat Top, we weren’t interested in getting into further trouble climbing the ginormous peak. Enjoying the the frontier atmosphere of the village was more our speed.
Talkeetna’s downtown area is so darn quaint, and authentic, that it is classified as a National Historic Site.
Though it was getting a little late, we wandered Main Street and stopped into a couple of the local watering holes.
Summer solstice in full swing—and being so close to the Arctic Circle—meant that it was not going to get dark that night.
Just to be certain, we waited for twelve o’clock and a dose of midnight sun. If there ever was a time that we wished for blackout curtains, this was it.
The next morning, which looked pretty much the same as the night that preceded it, we set out for Nagley’s General Store to pay a call on Mayor Stubbs.
We were hoping to be able to give him a little scratch behind the ears, oh, wait, perhaps we should explain that Stubbs is a cat.
Full discloser: he is also only the honorary mayor.
The town has no real mayor, so there is no truth to the legend that Stubbs won a write-in campaign, but he has been holding forth with huge approval ratings since 1997.
That’s almost twenty years!
He started out as barely more than a kitten but, obviously, he’s getting a little long in the tooth, and wasn’t feeling up to greeting his citizens (or his legions of fans) that day.
Luckily, Nagley’s is a landmark in its own right; over one hundred years ago this was one of the original buildings in Talkeetna and more than a store, it served as the Post Office and District Territorial Headquarters too.
Feeling sad that we missed the mayor, we soothed ourselves with some of Talkeetna’s famous spinach bread (cheesy, garlicky, gooey goodness) and took a walk down to the Susitna River to hopefully get a peek at the mighty mountain that was shrouded in clouds the day before.
Unfortunately, Denali is so large that it creates its own weather, so it is hidden from view at least two thirds of the time.
This morning fell into that majority.
We did end up with a fantastic view of Mount Foraker, the third highest peak in North America, but looking out across the rushing water only the bottom half of big Denali was visible to the right of Foraker.
Loading up the car and hoping for a break in the clouds, we drove north to Denali National Park.
Along the way we played peek-a-boo, catching passing glimpses, but never a clear view of the entire mountain.
We were more than happy to take in the “regular-sized” humongous mountains on the endless range. Each one more stunning than the next.
As we traveled on, it was surprising to find that we had passed the summit completely and ended up on Denali’s north side where the entrance awaited us.
We settled into our cabin in Denali Village and drifted off to sleep with dreams of a clear day ahead.
Up for a bright-and-early morning, our first stop was a quick trip to the visitor center.
It was there that we learned how to handle grizzlies.
Memorizing what goes against everything our fight-or-flight human tendencies warned us, we vowed to give it a shot were we so (un)lucky to find ourselves near a grizzly bear.
There is only one road through the park, so for safety and traffic control it is restricted to park vehicles only.
That means the only way to get into the interior of the park is to take a bus.
Our driver, a vivacious woman who couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds dripping wet, drove on paths so narrow that much of the time we could only see a sheer drop while we peered aghast from our windows.
We went deep into countryside that normally could never be seen without days of hiking under heavy backpacks.
As we went along our driver regaled the history of the park, which in turn explained why we were not going to see the summit, even if the clouds broke.
The concept of the park came from conservationist Charles Alexander Sheldon, who pushed for National Park protection of the region from 1906, until 1917 when Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating Mount McKinley National Park.
Sheldon’s idea was never focused on the big mountain, which he called Denali even back then, but on preserving the incredible wildlife and beauty of the entire area.
In fact, the summit of the peak wasn’t even within the original park boundaries.
The rest of the mountain wasn’t officially protected until President Jimmy Carter named it Denali National Monument in 1978.
Two years later the Monument was added into the Park, and the Alaska State Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of the mountain to Denali.
The name had been a source of controversy from the beginning, and even with that change the federal government continued to consider the official name Mount McKinley.
The situation of different state and federal names lasted until 2015, when President Barack Obama directed Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to rename the mountain Denali, which means “the high one” in the native Koyukon language.
Now that we had the notion of seeing that one particular mountain out of our heads, we were freed up to stop looking, and enjoy all of the other amazing mountains that were surrounding us.
We could also beginning to focus on spotting some of the vast array of wildlife that calls the park home.
Our first encounter didn’t take much effort to spot, as a herd of Dall sheep ran right across the road.
Coming to quick, sharp stop, freaking out our driver because in her twenty years here she had never seen them so up close.
They are normally quite shy and stay high up on the hillsides.
Not much farther along we got a good sense of what she meant, and just how good at spotting animals she was, when she pointed out several caribou up in a snowfield high on a ridge.
Without her guidance we never would have seen them, or known that they were rolling in the snow to get rid of pesky insects.
As we climbed up the aptly named Polychrome Pass, the colors of the rocks exploded into a rainbow of earth toned hues.
This is due to the localized volcanic events, in contrast to the vast majority of the mountains which rise from tectonic activity as the Pacific Plate slowly crashes into the North American plate.
It’s actually a part of the same fault system that created the San Andreas Fault thousands of miles to the south.
While riding through this spectacular scenery was incredible, we really wanted to get out in it, so we asked to get off at the next stop.
The buses make numerous stops along the road just for this purpose, as hikers and campers make their way in and out of the wilderness.
We weren’t going to get too crazy, just wanted to take in the wide open expanse of the Toklat River Valley and maybe explore over a ridge or two. So we grabbed our hiking gear, and after strongly warning us to beware of bears, the driver pulled away in a cloud of dust.
For the next couple of hours we bashed through the brush and squished our way through the spongy tundra.
Good thing we didn’t plan on going very far because it is pretty tough terrain.
Bet we didn’t cover more than a couple of miles the whole time.
Not that we could notice from the amount of daylight, but it was starting to get a little late so we hightailed it back to the road to flag down one of the last few buses headed out of the park.
We certainly didn’t have any desire to make a survivalist camp for the night… even if it wouldn’t get dark.
Just after getting back on the bus our driver slowed to a stop to give us a good long look at a grizzly feeding just a few feet from the road.
Two things came to mind.
First, how lucky were we to get this amazing chance to see this deadly combination of teeth and claws in his native habitat?
Second, O. M. Geeeee—how close was this guy when we were out rambling around?
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
YOUR TURN: Are you as happy as we are that we didn’t get eaten by a bear? Isn’t Denali stunning?
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