Denali National Park

At 20,320 feet, Denali is a seriously high mountain, the tallest in North America.  Even more striking, perhaps, is that Denali is not all that far from the ocean and its surrounding plain is only a few thousand feet above sea level.  As a result, the mountain’s vertical rise of about 17,000 feet is the highest in the world, even more than that of Mt. Everest, which towers about 13,000 feet above the surrounding Himalayas. Of course, that’s the north face, but the southern exposure is pretty impressive too, especially from the proximity of basecamp.

The “Glitter Gulch” of hotels and restaurants clustered around the entrance to Denali National Park will make you think of anything but wilderness, but things change quickly inside the park itself.  A single 90-mile road leads into the interior of the park, and private vehicles are not permitted farther than the Savage River, about 15 miles from the entrance.  Beyond that, all visitor traffic is by bus, which concentrates the human presence into fewer vehicles and reduces its impact on wildlife along the path of the road.

I have taken the park buses for day tours with various friends and family members, but I firmly believe that the best way to experience the park is to stay for several days and nights well inside its perimeter.  The buses cater to hikers and campers, dropping them off and picking them up all along the route.  There is no great expense involved in this taking mode of transportation and accessing self-guided camping in some of the wildest land in America.  Camping permits are required, however, in order to control the number of people in the various sections of backcountry within the park.

At somewhat greater cost, but well worth the price if you can swing it, is the opportunity to stay in a rustic, but comfortable, log cabin at Camp Denali.  This is a special place that sprang from the imagination of Ginny Wood, her husband, and their friend Celia Hunter, shortly after World War II.  Long before anyone had ever heard of ecotourism, they pretty much invented the concept and put it into practice at Camp Denali.  When the national park was expanded in 1980, Camp Denali was encompassed by it and operates within the park boundaries today under special permit.  To visit the lodge's website, click here.

Camp Denali is often billed as a hiking lodge, but it is really more of a nature lodge.  Each day, guests are offered the opportunity to join small groups led by naturalist guides on trips of various difficulty levels, ranging from local jaunts to challenging day-long hikes in high terrain. 

Whichever hike you choose, you will see wild and majestic landscapes, with Denali itself towering above you, and you will have a real possibility of seeing caribou, moose, beavers, bears, wolves, raptors and other wildlife.  Or, you can choose to take your own hike, ride bicycles along the park road, fish for arctic grayling in the pools below camp, read a book from their library or just take a nap – it’s entirely up to each individual.  Discussion programs on wildlife and conservation topics offered in the evening are similarly optional.

One day, my friend Jerry and I were with a group of other hikers a few miles away from Camp Denali when a sow grizzly and her two cubs crossed closely in front of us on the open tundra, treating our presence with what seemed like complete indifference.  “Cue the bear,” Jerry remarked, with his gently ironic reminder that Alaska is not a zoo and its animals are wild.  They do not materialize on schedule and their behavior can be unpredictable.  Which, of course, is precisely what makes animal encounters in the wild so thrilling and meaningful.

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