Aurora above Teklanika River in autumn, Denali National Park and Preserve, interior Alaska; Alaska, United States of America
Ray Bulson/age fotostock
There are no guarantees the Northern Lights will start dancing on the night you look skyward, but it’s so worth taking the chance. One of the great rewards for hanging out in Alaska once the dark and cold settle over the state, the Northern Lights (or if you want to be scientific about it, aurora borealis) serve up a light show that is equal parts science, magic, and art. Your best bet for catching the light show is to head away from city lights. That’s one of many reasons it’s worth making the trip to Denali National Park, open year-round. When the park’s summer crowds disappear, visitors feel as though the massive national park is an intimate personal space.
A Day in Denali
Unless you backpack in, the only way to venture past Mile 14 on the 92-mile Park Road is by converted school bus. (The NPS is a beautiful example of democracy in action—my Tundra Wilderness bus was packed with visitors carrying the latest camera equipment and all-weather gear alongside young families and retirees, among them an older gentleman wearing a sport coat!) The drivers do double-duty as naturalists and pull over for wildlife viewing. Along the way, the narrow unpaved road winds through varied ecosystems and past glorious landscapes. While Denali, the 20,237-foot monolith, is covered in clouds about two-thirds of the time, we were able to see it and it was a remarkably powerful sight. But the mountain was only one of the thrilling things along that road. We saw Dall sheep, mincing high on a hillside, and caribou trotting along a braided river. We drove through 200-year-old stands of black cedar trees stunted at sapling height by permafrost, and through cloud shadows sweeping across mountains and glacial valleys at a clip. I’ve never before taken a bus trip that I would describe as amazing or thrilling but honestly, if I’d had another eight hours, I would have taken it again the next day.
Ann Shields traveled to Alaska and the Yukon with Holland America Line as part of AFAR’s partnership with the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), whose members provide travelers with unparalleled access, insider knowledge, and peace-of-mind to destinations across the globe. For more on Ann’s journey, visit the USTOA blog.
Off the bus and into the food chain
Took the Toklat park shuttle to mile 37.5, Tattler Creek, in Denali National Park. The shuttles are great, they stop for wildlife viewing and the drivers are very knowledgeable. Most people just ride the shuttle in and out (the Park doesn’t allow private vehicles in the park), but we hopped off the bus and hiked for two hours. To get back to civilization (and back out of the food chain), just wave down the next eastbound shuttle. We we’re lucky enough to see Denali, who is normally hidden in clouds, two grizzlies, several bands of Dall’s sheep, willow ptarmigans, Anerican Tree swallows, and yellow warblers.
Airplane on Ski's lands on glacier
Landing in an airplane on a glacier is for sure in my top 10 experiences so far in the world. There are several companies that offer flight tours and glacier landings on Mt. McKinley out of Talkeetna Alaska. The landing by a small airplane on skis is a sensation that is incomparable to any other kind of landing such as water, beach, or dirt runway. The sensation is a gentle quiet gliding on top of the soft snow of spring or summer.If your lucky, as you’re gliding along the pilot will cut the engine for a calming quiet. On Ruth glacier there is a hut for nightly rental, or you can bring your own tent. Rock and ice climbing are very popular here in the Sheldon Amphitheater. The granite peaks in the background of the photo are the Moose’s Tooth peaks. p.s. Mt. McKinley and Denali are used interchangeable. There is a legislative move to officially name the mountain Denali. The Native American name “Denali” means the Great One.
Denali National Park Natural History Tour
This guided tour, which lasts between four and five hours, begins with a video at the Wilderness Access Center before a hop-on, hop-off bus tour takes you sightseeing along the park road. The route zigzags past scenic views and lots of opportunities to spot wildlife, like moose and Dall sheep. Stops along the way include visiting the historic Savage Cabin, built in the 1920s by the Alaska Road Commission as a shelter for patrols. Here a park employee, dressed like a pioneer, gives an overview of what life was like back in the day. There’s also a stop at Primrose Ridge, an area of dry alpine tundra and rolling hills popular with hikers. This part of the tour includes a presentation about Denali Athabascans by a Native Alaskan. Although the bus and its stops are wheelchair accessible, the tour does entail some walking.
Climbing North America's Highest Mountain: Denali
Formerly known as Mt McKinley, Alaska’s Denali is North America’s highest mountain, standing tall at 20,320 feet. The mountain was first summited in 1913, and since then has garnered a reputation as one of the most difficult of the seven highest peaks to conquer. This is because Denali’s location, near both the Arctic Circle and the Pacific Ocean, creates some of the world’s most vicious weather and the sheer amount of height that must be climbed. Denali rises 17,000 feet up from the plain below, while Everest, although much taller, only has 13,000 feet of vertical elevation gain making the actual climb up Denali longer. The mountain sits inside Denali National Park, and climbing permits are organized by the National Park Service.
Denali National Park
Though the outing takes some advanced prep and plenty of gear (rain gear is a must), biking the road that runs into Denali National Park (or, even, just a short section) provides plenty of up-close-and-personal time in the park. (Yes, that includes close encounters with bears. Bring bear spray. And keep a watch out. Really.) The best time to pedal on in: the weekend before the tour and shuttle buses start running. With no bus traffic on the road, the road turns into a big party for bikers. Bring camping gear and hang with everybody else in one of the park campgrounds. Essential gear for the experience: enough food and drinks to share with new friends. Pro tip: get there on the early side of the weekend (Thursday, if possible). Biking the road has turned into a much-loved event for AK cyclists.
Mount McKinley on a perfect day!
of our trip to Alaska, this is probably the highlight, a chance of very few, apparently 15% of the people who head out to see this majestic mountain get a chance to see it as we have. being there and seeing this beautiful mountain in all of its splendor reminds us of the greatness of the natural world.