Throughout history, attitudes toward wilderness have not always been favorable. Regarded as places of darkness, mystery, wild beasts, and confusion, the beauty of nature was seen only in what was useful. It wasn’t until much more recently that these places were widely considered beautiful and necessary for simply being what they are.
Now, many people including us seek to visit these wild places, to appreciate them, and to catch a glimpse what an untamed world might look like. Denali is one of these places and is frequently thought of as the Jewel of Alaska National Parks.
Our Denali adventure started out near Paxson AK, where we turned on to the old Denali Highway. This road was the original access to Denali National Park until the new Parks Highway was opened up in 1971.
This historic road is paved for the first few miles but turns to dirt after that and is closed to through traffic in the winter. We drove this road – partly to re-enact the original route as many other travelers do, and partly to experience the fabled views of the Alaska Range as we approached the famous park.
The road was grated gravel, with some paved sections at the beginning and end. Honestly, the paved sections were the worse, as frost heaves made them treacherous to cross going more than 20mph.
The gravel road was for the most part very easy, and while most guide books recommend 4x4 capability, we saw a few sedans and even a little Smart Car making the journey.
Shortly after turning on to the road we found a two track down to Sevenmile Lake and set up camp for a few days. We had the place to ourselves and we couldn’t be happier with the stunning views of the Alaska Mountain Range, beautiful lake and minimal bugs allowing us to sit outside without protection
Continuing on down this road there are not many services or amenities save for a few cabins and remote tour guides. But we enjoyed stopping for a hike here and there, touring down random two-tracks, and enjoying the unique geology of the drive.
Most of the land is BLM land and public so there are plenty of free spots to take campers, motorcycles and off-road vehicles. With the road in good shape there was quite a bit of traffic doing the same thing we were.
The road runs along the south end of the Alaska Mountain Range, through Crazy Notch, and along eskers – long, winding ridges of stratified sand and gravel leftover from glacial streams running beneath the ice.
If the weather is fair, this landscape provides amazing views for almost the entire drive. Passing over a few major drainages from the mountains and by majestic lakes, this road gives you access to some amazing Alaskan wilderness.
While we found road conditions on the Denali Highway in okay shape, we had heard that due to the low traffic, maintenance is minimal and the road can get gnarly. Most rental companies will not allow you to take rented cars and RVs on this road.
At the west end of the road we exited on to the Parks Highway near Cantwell, where a short drive to the north took us to the entrance of Denali National Park & Preserve.
Denali National Park & Preserve
Denali National Park & Preserve is a tract of 6 million acres – larger than the state of New Hampshire – that at the center is home to North America’s largest peak, Denali.
Denali, meaning “the Great One,” was the name by which the native Athabaskan people called the mountain. Formerly known as Mount McKinley, the mountain was renamed in 2015 after over 100 years of naming controversy.
“There are two kinds of wilderness inside the National Park system. The original two million acres of Denali are designated wilderness. Designated wilderness has the highest level of protection offered by the Federal Government. Nearly all of the other four million acres added by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) are eligible wilderness.
According to National Park Service Wilderness Management Policies, eligible wilderness is managed as designated until it is either officially designated, or removed from consideration, both of which require an Act of Congress. Thus almost 6 million acres of Denali National Park and Preserve are protected as wilderness. “Source: National Park Service – Denali
The park has only one road, and buses are used to transport people into and out of the park beyond Mile 15. They have several bus options, from narrated tour buses to transit shuttles. To go beyond Mile 15 at Savage River you need to buy a bus pass, but there is one exception: Teklanika Campground.
Camping in Denali
While there are multiple campgrounds at Denali, we chose to stay at Teklanika, or Tek Campground. Teklanika Campground, located at Mile 29, requires a minimum of a 3-night stay and your vehicle must stay in your campsite for the duration and can only leave when you are ready to travel back to the park entrance. The reason we chose Tek is because Tek campers can buy what is called the Tek Pass.
The Tek Pass should be purchased for each member of your party. This pass allows to get on and off the park shuttle buses throughout your stay at Tek Campground on a space-available basis for the price of just one trip. The catch is you cannot drive anywhere, or ride the bus back further than Savage River, or you forfeit your passes. Find out more about the Tek Pass here (scroll to bottom).
We stayed at Teklanika Campground in the park for an amazing 5 nights and loved every minute!
We reserved our time way in advance (back in January, although that was probably not entirely necessary) and bought our Tek Passes for our stay.
We used the dump station and checked in at the Riley Creek Campground near the entrance before driving in to our campground. The ranger station at Savage River checked our passes before allowing us to proceed.
Riding the Bus
The bus system turned out to be a great way to see the park. The bus drivers themselves added to the experience. One driver we happened to have multiple times during our stay was Dale. On Discovery Hike days he was known as Disco Dale.
The drivers and the other passengers all helped keep eyes out for wildlife, and otherwise we were able to simply enjoy the ride without worrying about the occasional 1000-ft cliff, other traffic, or finding a parking spot.
Alaska national parks are rugged and remote and Denali is known for its mountains and its wildlife. It is a vast, untouched wilderness that is home to grizzly bears, moose, caribou, lynx, Dall sheep, wolves, and more.
By riding the bus, you can meander along 92 miles of this amazing landscape and see much of the sights and wildlife right from your bus seat.
If you want to really experience Denali, we encourage you to get off the bus. This park encourages you to hike and explore off-trail, and there are few developed hiking trails that penetrate the wilderness.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of hiking without a specific goal, or direction. At first it was intimidating, but after doing a guided, ranger-led Discovery Hike we found that we really enjoyed the freedom you can find here.
Denali Discovery Hikes
We signed up for our Discovery Hikes at the visitor centers, and they let you chose hikes based on availability, time, location and difficulty level. We were told by one of the rangers that the hikes are rarely the same, as the rangers choose new places to hike each time to prevent the formation of trails on the delicate terrain.
They recommend appropriate gear for the hike, including waterproof hiking boots for fording streams and walking on moist tundra, rain gear (jacket and pants), hiking poles, water (1L per person), and snacks, among others.
We ended up doing two Discovery Hikes, one near Eielson Visitor Center, and one on Cathedral Mountain. The first took us up over a glacier shelf for some amazing views of the valley and, if the clouds had cooperated, Denali.
Eielson Visitor Center is a great place to stop, hike down to the river on a developed trail, and browse the educational exhibits.
Our second Discovery Hike followed a stream that came down out of Cathedral Mountain. On this hike we saw lots of Dall Sheep.
When we reached the top of the mountain, we broke away from the group to spend more time on our perch, watching the light change over the Teklanika River and some young caribou grazing in the meadow below. This was my favorite part of our Denali experience!
If you want to learn about how to experience Denali Away From The Crowds, check out this awesome Alaska.org article.
Denali – The Mountain
If Denali is the jewel of Alaskas national parks then its central jewel is Denali the mountain. One of the most iconic parts of our trip was seeing the mountain, which is only visible about 30 percent of the time. While parts are often visible, it is more rare to see the whole thing, and we were so happy that we were lucky enough to see it!
At a staggering 20,308 feet, it is not only the tallest mountain in North America, but also Denali is the third most prominent and third most isolated peak on Earth, after Mount Everest and Aconcagua in Argentina.
It is regularly climbed today, and while we were there 379 climbers were on the mountain attempting the summit. Denali has two summits: the South Summit and the North Summit. The South is the one that’s higher and usually climbed, while the North has an elevation of 19,470 ft. Five glaciers flow off the sides of the mountain.
Because there is so little human interaction its almost hard not to come across the animals that call this park home. The Alaska “Big 5” are here – bears, moose, caribous, wolves, and Dall sheep.
While you can see many of these animals in most Alaska national parks, here in Denali it is very easy. The bus provided a safe place to view the many grizzly bears we saw.
Many people might think that the park was formed to protect the mountain, but it was in fact the Dall Sheep that was being hunted to extinction that encouraged big game hunter and conversationalist Charles Sheldon to petition for the protection of this land.
The park was formed in 1917 and has protected this beautiful white sheep and surrounding ecosystem ever since.
During the early days of the park dogsleds were the primary means of transportation. They were used to gain access and run off poachers. This means of transportation is still the primary overland means of park access in the winter, as the dogs run a lot better at -40 degrees than a motorized vehicle.
Denali is the only national park with an active dogsled team that gives daily demonstrations, and even lets you pet some of the pups. It was amazing to watch them pull at their harness and jump in the air ready to go!
The park breeds, raises and trains their own pups. We learned that the Alaskan Husky is not recognized by the AKC because sled dog owners don’t care how they look, but rather breed for characteristics – big paw pads that minimize snow getting between them, tails long and bushy enough to cover their noses, and the natural drive to pull a sled.
A new litter is born, a set of trainees are put into service, and several dogs retire every year. Retired sled dogs are put up for adoption via their website to an active home. When we asked about them, we were told that most of the dogs love the family life!
Wilderness & Its Importance
Weather in Denali National Park is constantly changing; we had warm sunny days and some of the heaviest rain of our trip. Surprisingly we had some powerful thunderstorms roll through as well, and even had a bolt of lightning strike very near our bus once.
We were told by the rangers that these new storms are evident of the warming climate and lightning in the park is only a very recent occurrence. This warmer weather is changing many other aspects of the park, melting the permafrost, bringing in new species and killing off others. For instance, the pine beetle has migrated further north as the temperatures have warmed, leaving it’s brown and deadly mark on once-thriving forests.
While Alaska’s National Parks are protected from human development, outside forces like weather will still have an impact.
In the vast wild expanse of Denali, we contemplated how wonderful it was that this place was protected, yet lamented at how hard it was for this park to be created and how hard it is for other places like it to be protected. Before it’s designation as a National Park, even Denali was mined, hunted, and exploited of its resources. And while minimal, the marks of humans inhabiting, studying, and visiting the park bring civilization into this pristine area.
It seems that nowadays wilderness needs to be officially protected in order to be preserved, with boundaries to designated areas to be untrammeled. But even boundaries cannot keep out the macro environmental changes we are seeing occur across the globe.
Our world is changing, and wild places like this are often taken for granted. Saving them them is important not only for our mental and spiritual enjoyment, rejuvenation, and inspiration, but also to provide clean water, clean air, and nourishment to humans and all of this planet’s inhabitants.
If you’re interested in exploring the concepts of wilderness, we recommend reading Wilderness and the American Mind by Robert Frazier Nash.
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