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Published: August 17th 2018
Denali -- The Great One
I'm including lots of photos, but it's impossible to really show you how beautiful the area is.
After fishing our fingers off, we headed north again through Anchorage and up the Parks Highway toward Denali National Park and the mountain that was called “Mount McKinley” for over a hundred years. In 2015, the US government changed the formal name back to the original name, Denali, meaning “the great one”. And it is great – the summit of Denali is not only the highest point in North America, over 20,000 feet, but the mountain itself is taller than Mt. Everest, which sits on a base of other mountains.
We stopped overnight in the town of Talkeetna, a kitschy little place overrun by tourists. Cruise ship passengers arrive by the busload to ride the Alaska Railroad and try to catch a glimpse of Denali. It’s a tourist train in the summer, but throughout the year, it’s also the only transportation link for many people who live in tiny towns and homes in the “bush”. Residents can flag down the train anywhere with a white cloth. We had booked a “flightseeing” tour of Denali with Talkeetna Air Taxi, and once again scored the only good flying day in weeks. (A few days before, four Polish tourists and pilot were killed
when their plane apparently flew straight into a mountain.)
The flight was magical. Our pilot flew around the three main peaks of the area, turning the plane (again a de Haviland Otter built in 1954) so that we could all see all sides of the great mountain and nearby peaks. He narrated the flight, telling us the history of the area and the climbers and climbing routes used to scale the summits. We then flew along Ruth Glacier and landed in an amphitheater-like area right on the glacier, where we climbed out an walked around on the snow. It was pretty wild to watch the other planes land and take off, as they landed going uphill and took off going down a hill like a ski run to gain speed. The whole plane would disappear over the edge and reappear far away as it climbed. We learned that the Ruth Glacier travels through an area called the Great Gorge with 5,000 foot walls. Since the glacier is about 3800 feet thick going through the gorge, the total depth is over 8,500 feet, making it the deepest gorge in the world. Tom and I both agreed that the flight was
the best one-day experience of our lives.
The next day, we drove to the National Park and camped for five nights in the Teklanika campground, 30 miles inside the park. The park manages the crowds well. The Teklanika campground has 53 sites, and campers must stay at least 3 nights. You’re allowed to drive into and out of the campground, but not allowed to drive anywhere in the park. No trailers are allowed in the Tek campground, and there are two other campgrounds only for tents. The only way to see the park is to take a bus ride – or ride your own bicycle or hike.
We took the long bus ride to the Eilson Visitor Center, and again realized our previous good fortune in seeing wild animals and Denali. The weather was cold and cloudy most of the time we were in the park, and we could see caribou, mountain goats, and bears only as dots through the bus windows. Back at the campgrounds, we huddled in the camper and sat under the awning to avoid the rain. Maggie has enjoyed the strange smells at these campgrounds, but is perfectly happy taking short bathroom break walks
Looks like a highway, but it's all ice.
and sleeping under the table on these rainy days.
I’ve added some photos of Denali, but mostly to show how useless it is to try to capture the size, majesty and absolute desolation of this place. If you ever get to Alaska, you MUST go to Denali National Park. Even if you only ride the bus, this park is a microcosm of the state. Distances are deceiving – as you drive along the park road, the nearest mountains are about 10 miles away. The “meadows” between the road and the mountains are really springy tundra covered with thigh-high bushes and populated by wolves, caribou, and bears. That’s the way this whole state is – we humans are dwarfed by the size of the landscape.
We learned from our experiences this summer – it’s been an unusually cold and rainy season – and have made a change to our itinerary. We’d planned to leave Maggie and the Cruiser in Whitehorse, Yukon, and rent a 4WD car to tent camp up the five hundred mile long Dempster Highway across the Arctic Circle to the Arctic Ocean. They’ve already had snow in Denali National Park (in early August!) and the temps
are lower than usual. We’re also considering the fact that we must drive home through British Columbia, which is having a worse than usual wildfire season this year. Before we entered Denali, there were almost 500 wildfires, many along the route we need to take. (By the way, there is only one north-south road through northern BC, a province that’s larger than most US states.) Things aren’t getting better, and if we want to get to Washington and Oregon we need to drive down the Cassiar Highway, which has already been closed in several places by the fires. If the Cassiar looks too bad, we’ll return along the Alaska Highway, but it’s also been threatened by fires and does not lead toward the west coast. Right now, our revised plan gets us home the first week of October, but we have no idea what the future holds.
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