By Suzanne Ferrara
It’s a magnificent sight that will all but bring you to your knees: Presenting the wild grandeur of Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve.
Towering at 21,310 feet, the iconic Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America, and it’s just one of many crown jewels encompassing this 6,000,000-acre wilderness mecca. The sheer size and vastness of Denali seems unfathomable, and its pure authenticity, to the naked eye, could not be duplicated by even the genius of Michelangelo. (Fact: Denali is the third most prominent and secluded peak on earth)!
The park and preserve is planted in the heart of the massive Alaska Range, and at every turn there’s an awestriking scene that could only be created by Mother Nature. The topography is dotted with reflection ponds, and sitting in the heart of it all is the wondrous glacier-made Wonder Lake. On clear days– and especially in the mornings– the reflection of Denali on the lake’s surface is so flawless that it’s hard to differentiate between water and mountain, thus making this another magical spectacle. (Fact: Denali, with its stupendous geological mountain mass, creates its own weather and ecosystems).
This consummate Alaskan wilderness is also home to its prized ‘Big Five’ animals—(which are bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep and wolves)– but the sightings of prized creatures doesn’t end there. There’s a plethora of other roaming wildlife and 160 bird species, many of which are one-of-a-kind, mesmerizing arctic fowl. Want to see a grizzly bear? They can be seen in close proximity near berry patches and salmon spawning areas. You can also witness these captivating creates on the open tundra and along gravel bars of streams and rivers. (Fact: Wildlife experts say there are approximately 350 grizzly bears and most of those are on the north side of Denali’s Alaskan Range).
Denali National Park is also a prime destination to witness the mysterious and breathtaking Aurora Borealis. The show begins when the long summer days of the far-northern latitudes end. If you want to avoid the harsh winter, the best time to see this surreal spectacle is during the fall and as early as late August. (Tip: The prime time to view this manifestation during the spring and fall is between the hours of 12:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. and in the winter from 11:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.). In addition, during the short Alaskan nights one can witness a star-studded sky unlike any other because it is void of light pollution.
It’s easy to explore Denali National Park because there’s only one park road that traverses 92-miles through all this glory. Personal vehicles can drive up to mile marker-15, but from there visitors hop on one of three guided tour buses that take them all the way to the center of the park. The bus driver-guides are experienced and share enthralling natural history stories. (Fact: Humans inhabited the Denali region for more than 11,000 years. The Mount Denali is an Athabascan term meaning “The Great one.” The Athasbascan Native people inhabited the area for 1,500 years and are the original inhabitants of the interior of Alaska).
It’s highly recommended that if you want to see more of the parks dynamic wildlife take the eight or twelve hour long bus voyages. These bus tours are your best bet for prime wildlife viewing as they meander deep into the restricted-access Denali Park Road. This mostly graveled path traverses through the stunning boreal forests and sub-arctic tundra and roves through the rolling mountainsides and sheer cliffs. There are also free bus rides, but they do not permitted past the public road at mile marker-15. (Tip: Great Alaska Adventures, a private outfit, has a three-day itinerary which includes a ride back to Anchorage on the historic Alaska Railroad).
Want to get your heart pumping? Hop on a mountain bike, go snowshoeing, and if you like extreme adventurer, climb Denali. Another thrilling option is to take part in Alaska’s state sport and mush throughout this wonderland. The Denali Dog Sled Expeditions is permitted to run guided mushing trips in the park and preserve. You can also opt to hike the main trails and the backcountry with a highly-skilled park ranger.
Whatever you do, do not miss visiting the canine ranger kennels where you’ll find gorgeous huskies anxiously waiting their turn to mush. These four-legged beauties have historically worked with rangers from the park’s inception. (Tip: Be sure to catch the sled dog demonstrations held from mid-May to mid-September). Also at the Denali Visitor Center are intriguing exhibits and a captivating 20-minute film, “Heartbeats of Denali”, which is a great introduction to the park.
After a day of viewing one of the most wondrous places in the world, you will be hungry, and a must-stop eatery is Marino Grill, located inside the park near the visitor center. Among the most popular menu items are the Fish and Chips and the Beef Stew, although many come here just to try one of several refreshing locally-brewed beers. Another great choice is Moose-Aka’s which serves mouthwatering eastern European dishes. Need more options? The Black Bear serves great espresso, pastries and Paninis inside a small, quaint log cabin.
There are a handful of great accommodation options in Denali including several camping and RV sites with magnificent views. The McKinley Creekside Cabins and the Tonglen Lake Lodge are great places to make your home base.
An exceptional choice is deep in the park is the Denali Backcountry Lodge which boasts a gorgeous spa and wellness center. You will long for nothing at this award-winning, adventure lodge which includes all-inclusive private cabins.
You need at least three days and two nights to experience this ‘heaven on earth’; however, choosing more than three days is wise due to the unpredictable weather. This entrancing wilderness is so immense and awe-striking that several visits to Denali are recommended in one’s lifetime. Once you’ve been spell bounded by this marvel of the world, you will long to return again and again.