As a visitor of Alaska, a visit to the National Park “Denali” is a must. With a surface area of 6 million acres (93×87 miles) this park is a nature paradise which surrounds the highest mountain of North America: the Mount McKinley. This 6200 m high giant dominates the Alaska Range.
Flanked by the Mount Forakker (5300 m) and the Mount Hunter (4400 m) this section is the solid foundation for the many large glaciers that stride to reach the plateaus from the mountain range. Many rivers originate on the flanks of this massif and flow along the northern side via the plateaus to the lower situated Yukon Flats. From there, via the Yukon, they eventually end up in the Bering Sea.
The south side of the massif sends water masses in the direction of the Gulf of Alaska. The Denali Park gives one an all round feeling of something incredibly beautiful. The only road that passes through the park, the Park Road, lies on the north side of the Alaska Range.
The knowledge that there are so many species of animals to be found there distracts from the beauty of all of natures surroundings, searching for bears, wolves, moose, lynxes and caribou seems then to be of more importance. Searching for the animals is not always what one expects. Before you enter the Park in a touring coach or shuttle bus you usually hear from the previous visitors to the Park the most unusual stories. Bears that cross over right in front of the bus; young bears that are climbing in trees; wolves chasing a caribou. We have visited the Park on quite a number of occasions with the bus without experiencing any of these unusual encounters.
The landscapes make up for a lot that you miss, the fact that you can enjoy the view for hours at a time. You start your journey in a forest region where the bus station is situated, as well as the Riley Creek Campground. Not too far from there, just pass the railway line, is the completely renovated Visitors Centre, where one is confronted with an elaborate display of information on the fauna and flora inside the Park. A few of the trails actually start from the centre and go through hilly territory evolving quite quickly into untouched forest regions. The incidences of light are extremely variable. The young foliage that overgrows the almost petrified trees and tree trunks sometimes makes the forest feel very eerie.
From there on, there is a light climb before you reach the first plateau, where the Savage River Campground is situated. The forests have made way for willow shrubbery and characteristic spruce trees. The mountain ranges elevate majestically on the horizon. When the weather is good, you can see the Mount McKinley from a few parking places along the road. The large mountain towers above the other mountain ranges.
Afterwards, you descend to the Savage River where you can go for lovely walks along and through the river; both a real trail down the river, or up the river. It is very advisable to take waders with you, enabling you to walk further afield, and be on your guard. In this area you can come across the bears, the moose, the caribou, the Dall sheep and even the wolf. We have even seen a wolverine.
You can travel with your own car (after paying an entrance fee) right up to the Savage River (15 miles). The public thoroughfare ends there and then you can only proceed in busses. Campers are allowed on the Teklanika Campground for a minimum of 3 nights. Reservations must be made beforehand.
A gravelly road runs directly from the Savage River up over the pass by Mount Margaret to the following river: the Sanctuary River. The ever gleaming Sanctuary River is situated in a valley surrounded by forests, willows, and spruce and low lying tundra bushes. The presence of unspoiled nature is everywhere. If you walk along the banks of the river in a southerly direction you are met with idyllic streams, sheltered niches for the caribou and moose and on both sides of the river there are high earth walls; most probably debris left over from old glaciers.
Have a look on the top of these earth walls and you will discover that this is the wolves’ domain. You can find their tracks in the brushwood in the form of small pathways and their droppings can be seen in several places. The bears also come regularly to this area. You can sit quite comfortably on the top of the earth wall and enjoy the beautiful view over the valley, where the river runs through it. If you have enough time you will certainly see the caribou and/or moose trekking by. We had our first bear encounter by the Sanctuary River, the memory of which stayed with us for days afterwards.
Once again the road goes over a pass where, during nice weather, the unique panoramic views let you have a glimpse every now and then of the great mountain. You must be aware that you will not see the Mount McKinley at all. The mountain is privy to its own weather conditions, and that means that there is usually quite a lot of cloud formation that settles round the mountain. The caribou is often present in this area and often treks in groups of ten through the tundra regions.
Again you descend towards a river, the Teklanika River. A wide river delta with sloping mountain inclines in the background. You can see three sides of this mountain extremely well. This river also lies in a very broad bed of gravel that is sometimes a few hundred meters wide. Animals frequently use these beds so as to be able to move from one place to another with ease. Both the moose and the caribou do this frequently. There are a lot less mosquito’s and gadflies along the river which allows the deer species to rest without being constantly bothered by these irritating insects.
The wolves know this and when it is not too busy in the park you can sometimes see them in hunting formation trekking through the delta in search of prey. In the evenings you can hear them wailing. This really makes our skin crawl.
The Teklanika Campground is situated in this delta, and with a permit you can drive there with your own transportation. Camping there in a tent or camper is really worth it. You camp directly up against the river delta. If you manage to get a good spot with a view you could possibly see the delta from out of your camper, or tent. That’s how we enjoyed ourselves once during breakfast in the Delta when a bear sauntered by some 20 meters from our camper.
The shuttle busses stop at this Campground and bring you further through the entire park. You can make use of these busses on a daily basis.
The small game: The Snow Shoe Hare, the ground squirrel, the ptarmigan and the partridges are present everywhere, so you will not be bored.
The lynx hunts any where the show shoe hare is. Sometimes you see them passing by in a flash. They are mostly so quick that it is nearly impossible to photograph them.
A walk through the delta from the Teklanika River is a must. The river meanders through the delta and if you want to walk further you will have to be prepared to wade through the water. The bears are often seen in the delta looking for willow roots. Be on your guard and aware that you may come across these powerful specimens. Make sure that you have, via the Denali instruction film, been brought up to date on bear encounters and how you have to handle yourself during such an encounter.
The Teklanika River delta is just passed the Teklanika rest area, an area that is not open to the public.
The Igloo wolf packs live in the delta and one does not want to disrupt their surroundings. Nevertheless, its still very exciting taking a walk in an area where bears, wolves and lynxes could cross your path without any warning at all.
From Teklanika one drives through a spruce forest to Igloo Creek. The moose forest. You won’t come across many animals in this dense forest. Once you have passed Igloo Creek the road goes up again through a ravine like valley to Sable Pass. On the left the impressive Cathedral Mountain. This massive cathedral-like-mountain towers above the valley. The many colours which this mountain emits make viewing even more impressive. Sheep graze in large flocks on the flanks of this mountain and on the mountain flanks on the other side.
They graze high up on the mountain so as to avoid attacking wolves. Quite often they are so far away that it is difficult to see them or to photograph them.
The pass which you are driving through is used by game so that they can pass through this Cathedral Mountain chain. It is quite possible that you will come across them. Last year, we found a lot of wolves’ tracks halfway up the northern side of the mountain slope and we discovered a wolf’s look-out post across the valley and the mountain slope. There are a large number of dale sheep whereby the wolves’ chances of catching prey are good.
Once in the Sable Pass you arrive in an area that is closed to the public. The bear population is the reason for this closure. The signpost announcing this has been half eaten away by the bears, that’s what all the bus chauffeurs tell us anyway ……..
From the Sable Pass you descend to the Toklat River. Again a river in a wide gravelly delta; placed there at one time during the ice age. Every Spring, when the thaw really sets in, a deluge of melted water flows off this mountain. The water level in the channel is then extremely high whereby a new load of stones will be turned out. The Polychrome Mountains loom on the south side. These mountains have all sorts of surrealistic colours. You get the feeling that some of these colours give off light; even if the sun is not shining. Yellow, red, violet, icy white, pastel, green, black and brown, in other words a living image that could have been painted by Salvador Dali.
The road ascends along steep slopes and it is small. There are no crash barriers. If you suffer from vertigo don’t sit on the ravine side, because there is a shear drop of 150 meters. If two busses have to pass one another, just close your eyes. You can become nauseous just like that. There are many shades of colouring along the mountain slopes where the road takes you.
Sometimes you can see the Dall sheep at a close distance from the rocks. Bears, or caribous frequently wander through the river bed. There is a rest area on the top of the Polychrome Pass. There you have the opportunity for a sanitary stop and you have 15 minutes in which you can admire the unique landscape. You’re positioned high up above the delta looking in the direction of the Polychrome glacier and Polychrome Mountains. Practically everyone takes photos or makes films here. This is probably the most fixtured spot in the whole park. Deep in the valley the deltas from the different rivers that flow from the McKinley glaciers merge together. The deltas, rivers and the unique mountain colours tone an unforgettable panoramic display. The riverbed is once again the territory of the caribou. If you have enough time wait for the next bus. Keep your eye on the river and you will see them.
The next descent to the Toklat River is close by. Again, a wide gravelly delta that meanders from left to right. In the delta you will find a surplus of low lying growth. The roots of which the bear family are very prone to. You will come across them quite frequently. Many people go for walks through this unique delta. For experienced hikers, this area is certainly a must.
From Toklat River the road ascends again in the direction of the Highway pass and the Stoney Dome.
The Highway Pass is the highest in the Parkroad. In the meantime, you are 58 miles further on this road when you pass the approx. 1200 meter limit.
You find yourself in the tundra region. The spruce have practically disappeared. After a long winter you can still see the remains of the snow, and in bad weather conditions it even snows in the summer.
Halfway during the journey to the pass there is the chance that you could come across the Toklat wolf pack.
Sometimes in the middle of the road, but mostly in the valley of the river by the gravel beds. Lazing full out in the sun. The young are allowed to romp around to their hearts content. The landscape in this area is quite dull compared to that of the polychrome. If you are on the look-out you can follow the road for miles. It emits a grand, never ending, quiet and majestic view of the Denali landscape.
There has been a foxes den by the Stoney Dome for quite a number of years. They can be seen there quite regularly. As soon as the cubs are there it is very easy to study these frolicking foxes for a while. They are not afraid. If you sit still and watch them from a distance they will just get on with their own lives.
Passed the highest passes you descend slowly to the completely renewed Eielson Visitors Centre. A visitor’s centre which has been partly hidden in the ground. An extensive display of the whole McKinley massif can be seen there. Pelts and skeletons of all sorts of animals can be found there and there are enough rangers walking around to answer all your questions.
This new centre can be found 66 miles from the entrance of the park. The range of mountains is gradually disappearing. Once again you arrive in a plateau that slowly descends. In favourable weather conditions you can see once again the McKinley mountain in its full glory from this centre. You can follow a trail right up to the McKinley River. A beautiful walk through the tundra.
Quite often you come across Eagles. Apparently, the bears also find that the visitors centre is a nice meeting place. As soon as a bear is in the area the park rangers become very nervous and they tend to treat everyone as small children that have to be locked up in the bus or in the centre.
The descent from the centre to Wonder Lake (85 miles) is mostly a long boring journey. There are not many animals to be seen along the way, and the view in the delta is limited. The mountain landscape has disappeared and the vegetation is monotonous. You make the journey to Wonder Lake so that the weather on that day will be clear with no wind at all giving you the possibility of being able to take the world renowned reflection photo of the big mountain in the mirror image of the lake.
This can only be done from the north side of the lake, thus on the Kantishna side.
Wonder Lake itself is not really a fantastic spot. A walk along the banks of the lake on the south side does not really give any impressive images. The mosquito’s are in full force though and before you know it you’ve been pricked all over the place. A mosquito net is certainly advisable.
Finally, you can take the bus up to Kantishna, a mine workers enclave in the Denali Park. You can try gold panning, if you like, see sledge dog demonstrations, eat there and when the weather is good take photos of the Wonder Lake. Kantishna is 89 miles from the entrance.
A daily return bus journey to Kantishna takes about 14 hours. It is an exhausting journey and a lot of the passengers take naps on the return journey.
If the weather is bad your better off to end the journey at the new Eielson visitors centre. You have then already journeyed through the nicest part of the Denali Park.
The best possible way of being able to really take in the Denali Park is to camp for a number of days in this wilderness. That can be done on the Campgrounds (that feels safer), but also in the “back country”.
For both options you need a permit, reservations beforehand have to be applied for. To be able to camp in the “back country” you will have to look at an introductory film so as to be absolutely sure that it is safe for you to camp and stay in the wilderness.
Finally: it goes without saying that it is a beautiful environment, and especially the possibility of being able to personally get close to all the game, including the bears is unbelievable.
Rika and Harry Houthuijsen