Alaska's Denali National Park is a pristine wilderness, and in an attempt to keep it that way, the Parks Service permits no public access by automobile -- there's only one gravel road through the center of the park, which you can travel on a shuttle bus that links rest stops and campgrounds and lodges and scenic overlooks. Disembarking at various points, parkgoers can then hike into the tundra as far as they wish, though most folks seem content just to ride the bus and look out the window at those incredible Arctic views. But there's another way to get even deeper into this stunning wilderness -- by racing over the snowy backcountry on a dog sled, just as the park rangers do.
Two outfits have been approved to run wintertime dog-sledding packages into Denali, using their own rustic lodges as home base (guests sleep in private log cabins near the lodges). Both of these lodges are just outside the park, but so close that they feature views of majestic Mount McKinley, America's biggest mountain. Denali West Lodge, set on the shore of Lake Minchumina, is the smaller of the two operations (only eight guests at a time), and so remote that you'll need to fly in on a little private plane. It offers everything from day trips from the lodge to 9-day mushing expeditions. You can drive via Alaska Hwy. 3 to EarthSong Lodge, which runs day trips and 3- to 10-day dog-sledding camp-outs (using tents or outlying cabins), although itineraries can be tailored to guests' interests. Each guest 12 and over drives his or her own sled, with teams of four to six huskies. (Younger children may simply ride along on the sled.) EarthSong even offers an option for summer visitors to get a taste of the dog-sledding experience by driving a husky team with a wheeled cart.
It may sound as if you'd need special skills, but the proprietors of both lodges are longtime mushers experienced in training first-timers. You just need to be strong enough to hold on tight as the dogs surge forward, whipping you over the snowy track. Perhaps 4 or 5 hours of the day is spent mushing, covering on average 30 miles of terrain, across the snowy tundra, around lakes, through taiga forests and glacial river valleys. You're practically guaranteed sightings of moose, caribou, Dall sheep, foxes, lynx, wolverines, and beavers; your chances of running across other human beings, however, are practically nil. Nighttime camp-outs may be lit by the Northern Lights and serenaded by nearby wolves, howling in sync with the huskies. Now that's getting away from it all.
Nearest Airport: Fairbanks International, 125 miles. Ted Stevens Anchorage International, 236 miles.
Where to Stay: $$$ Denali West Lodge (tel. 907/674-3112; www.denaliwestlodge.com). $$$ EarthSong Lodge (tel. 907/683-2863; www.earthsonglodge.com).
Best Time: November to March.