Denali National Park, established in 1917, protects a part of the Alaska range and surrounding wilderness around Mt McKinley. With an area close to 10,000 square miles, it rivals in size some US states or European countries.
To further enhance your wilderness experience, access to campgrounds and the park road itself is restricted. It is possible to drive about the first 20 miles of the park road that follows the northern slopes of the Alaska range, but father on access is only on park buses. This is a major inconvenience if you arrive in high season without prior arrangements as seats are limited and reservations are required. The same is true for campsites within the park and some of them are booked months in advance. You may still obtain backcountry permits given out on first-come-first-served basis by zones. Check the Denali section of the National Park Service web site for most up-to-date information.
Having made reservations for two nights at the Wonder Lake campground two moths earlier, we packed four days worth of food and jumped on a camper bus, which proved to have at least one distinct advantage over regular shuttle buses - unlike them, it was not packed with people, but occupied by a few backcountry travelers and few people with reservations for campsites. The buses pull over when wildlife is spotted near the road, large portions of which are above timberline offering, weather permitting, great views of the range. It is 84 miles along the park road to Wonder Lake Campground and the half empty bus made for a good observation platform for photographing brown (grizzly) bears, caribou, Dahl sheep, wolves, foxes, beavers, moose, and what have you. And upon returning home with shots from one's point-and-shoot camera, everyone will enjoy a game of "find a fill-in-an-animal in the photograph".
Many animal viewings and six hours later, we arrived at the campground, soon to be assaulted by mosquitoes. If there is a prime gathering spot for mosquitoes in Alaska, this campground has got to be it. But one is rewarded by great views of Denali (Mt McKinley), 20320ft. As the mountain rises from almost zero elevation to 20,000 feet, it is a very impressive sight indeed. The summit was first reached in 1913 after several unsuccessful attempts, most notable of which was one by the so-called Sourdough expedition of four Fairbanks miners who carried an 18 foot spruce pole to the North Summit only to realize there that it was lower than the South Summit. They climbed and descended the last 11,000 feet in 18 hours.
Another gimmick associated with having a backcountry or camping permit is access to buses in the park on availability basis. This makes it possible to make trips along the park road to interesting locations. Eielson visitor center has good views of the Alaska range and hikes from there give more opportunities to view wildlife. And even if the weather and the wildlife do not cooperate, one at least has time to ponder over what the term last frontier really means.
|Mt. Pendleton||Grizzly bear||Polychrome Overlook||Caribou||Denali and the park road||Brown bear female and cubs|
|Wispy rain near the Alaska range||Mt McKinley summit||Radka||Mt. Brooks and Mt. Silverthrone||Mt. McKinley||Alpenglow|
|Midnight Denali||Sunrise Denali||Morning Denali||Caribou||Park road||Caribou|
|Snowy landscape||Staring contest||Eielson visitor center from above||Moose and Alaska range|