The 323 mile George Parks Highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks opened the interior of Alaska to ordinary drivers like me, but by mile 236 Ruth and I had reached Denali National Park. If we had chosen to take the train, the Alaska Railroad Company depot was less than 100 yards from the 6-year-old Denali Visitors Center 1.5 miles up the Park Road. In 2011, the Center opened May 15 and closed September 20. According to the National Park Service website, its 2012 opening will be dictated by the weather with road plowing usually occurring sometime in March. Bus service should begin in May although the entire road is not fully accessible until early June. The NPS warns, “The summer is when most services and activities are possible.”
Denali National Park, six million acres and larger than Massachusetts, is Alaska’s second most visited attraction for two reasons—the wildlife and the mountain. At 20,320 feet, Denali is North America’s tallest peak.
Since 1972 almost no one gets into the Park unless they’re on a bus. And that’s a very good idea. The 92 mile long Denali Park Road is only opened to private vehicles for the first 15 miles. It took 15 years, until 1937, to complete this road, which ends at Kantishna. Beyond mile 15, the road is gravel and only courtesy, tour, and shuttle busses are allowed. We took a cheaper, more flexible park shuttle. They usually operate until mid-September.
When you haven’t been to Denali before, at first you bristle at the restriction on your freedom but soon you applaud the wisdom because human impact remains negligible. I was glad that I didn’t have to drive for two reasons. I probably wouldn’t have survived those curves and plummets, and I’d have seen little because I could not have taken my eyes from the road. That herd of lazily grazing caribou crossing it most likely wouldn’t have been there for me to gape at since wild animals avoid busy roads with loud, camera-toting tourists. Our bus driver encouraged us to shout, “Stop!” whenever we spotted wildlife. And did we! Moose, Snowshoe hares, red foxes, ptarmigan (Alaska’s State Bird) and other avian species, Arctic ground squirrels, and bears–four of them. We regretted not seeing lynxes, the rarely seen native cat, Dall sheep, and wolves, which are frequently around.
The eight-hour ride up to the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 was, in retrospect, an incredible bargain. Check nps.gov/dena.planyourvisit/bus-fees.htm for 2012 prices. Along the road we also saw white and black spruce, which look like bottle brushes, riots of fireweed, enormous braided rivers, drunken forests (ask the bus driver), tundra vistas, and so many majestic mountains that seeing Denali itself faded in importance. Our driver had seen it only five times in July and once, so far, in August. I’ve still only glimpsed it from a plane.
It is, of course, possible to explore much more of Denali National Park than we did. An eleven-hour bus trip to Wonder Lake, for example, was an option. We passed bikers with unlimited access. Our bus picked up hikers who can get on and off the shuttles at will depending on available seats. Other busses heading for private lodges shared the road.
Visitors have many camping and lodging choices near the Park and end-of-the- road Denali Backcountry Lodge at $400+ per night, peak season. We had been advised to book early and did, but we talked to many who hadn’t and still managed to find a place to lay their heads. Personally, I wouldn’t take the chance.
It’s an expensive, rustic destination. After paying way too much for a couple of dreadful sourdough pancakes, I went to the restaurant’s men’s room and found some funny graffiti. My favorite read, “At these prices I’d feel better if you held a gun on me.”
But high prices really didn’t matter. This place of superlatives is a genuine bargain if you measure what you spend against what you see.