Denali and Alaska Range Photo.

July, 2009

— Denali National Park

Denali National Park is named for the mountain at its center (see photo #1, at left). Known officially as Mt. McKinley, most of the people we met called it Denali, or, simply, "The Mountain". Usually obscured by clouds, Denali was visible for almost all of our visit. At over 20,000 feet high, it is the tallest mountain in North America. Rising from a base that is only 2,000 feet high, Denali exposes more of itself than any other mountain in the world. It is a truly impressive sight.

The National Park is famously large, larger than the State of Massachusetts. There is exactly one road in the Park, gravel, and 91 miles long. The Kantishna Road House lies at the end of the road. This is where we stayed for 3 days, enjoying a variety of hikes and magnificent views of the Mountain. And, although we tended to focus our attention on the grand views and the wildlife, the smaller, more intimate landscapes were also beautiful.

Finally, no description of Denali National Park would be complete without at least mentioning the mosquitos. Enough said.

— The Animals

Denali is home to a variety of large animals, including the moose (see photo #2). During our 91-mile bus rides into and out of the Park, we had many opportunities to see animals along the way. We saw 5 wolves, 3 foxes, beaver, moose, caribou, 2 grizzly bears and their cubs, and innumerable squirrels and hares. Most were off in the distance, and not suitable for good pictures. A few of them were closer to the road, and Jim got some useable photos. Here are some of the animals we saw in Denali:

moose   |   moose   |   caribou   |   fox   |   beaver   |   swan   |   squirrel   |   wolf

Most of these animals tended to ignore the many tourist buses. Some of the predators even use the roads for easy travel from one place to another. The buses stop for wildlife viewing, so it can take a long time to complete the 91 mile trip.

— Flightseeing

We had no idea what to expect when we first heard about flightseeing in Alaska. Even the specific descriptions of flightseeing at Denali did not prepare us for the actual experience. We expected to see the Mountain from a distance, rising out of the landscape. However, because of the cloud cover on the day we flew, we saw mountains peeking through clouds (photo #3) as we flew among the peaks of the Alaska Range. It was an amazing experience that we will remember forever.

We flew in a small, single-engine plane that carried just 5 passengers. On the way to the Mountain, we flew over complex formations of rock and soil that are reacting chemically to produce a variety of colors, and braided rivers formed by the outflow of water and sediments from many melting glaciers. The pilot kept busy communicating with other small planes in the area to avoid collisions and to learn about the holes in the clouds that allowed us to fly among the mountains safely.

We followed glaciers up the side of the Mountain, sometimes making u-turns between the cliffs as we climbed through the clouds. At one point we were flying straight at the Mountain, with the cockpit window filled with the rocks and ice of the mountainside.

We were about to collide with the mountain, surely the pilot would turn away, but he didn't. What was he thinking? Why didn't he turn? We were about to crash !!

We were, of course, still miles away from the Mountain. With no past experience, we had no frame of reference to judge the distance. Our pilot told us that it had taken him years to learn to judge the size of things on the mountain. We saw climbers ascending the slopes, tiny little black dots, barely visible against the snow. We flew among the mountain peaks and then down through another hole in the clouds and back to Kantishna. The whole flight lasted about an hour. It was the experience of a lifetime.

Here are some more photos from our flight:

hidden mountain   |   Denali   |   glaciers

— Talkeetna

After leaving Denali National Park, we rode the Alaska Railroad to the small town of Talkeetna. Along the way, we saw many views of the southern side of Denali (photo #4). Here is another view of Denali, this time behind a lovely pond-filled meadow. Although we only saw the mountain from time to time, the views along the railroad were beautiful for the entire trip.

We spent the night in Talkeetna, and the following morning we took a float trip down one of the three rivers that meet at Talkeetna. We rode in a rubber rafts, quietly watching the passing landscape. Our quiet rafts did not seem threatening to the wildlife along the banks of the river, but passing powerboats caused most animals to fly away.

— return to the 2009 Journal Archive.