Denali National Park turns 90 in 2007, but doesn't look a day older than, say, 65 million years, when this part of the Alaska Range was formed. This magnificent sub Arctic area is slightly larger than the state of New Hampshire at over 6 million acres. (You may think that's big, but there are four other national parks or preserves in Alaska that are bigger.) Denali, which means "The High One," is the Athabascan name for Mount McKinley and until 1980 the park was called McKinley National Park. McKinley's South Peak is the highest point in North America at 20,320 feet, and since 1913 thousands of climbers have reached the summit, including 582 people in 2006 alone (about 50% of those who tried). The youngest climber to accomplish the task was 11, the oldest 74.
The park is so vast you may not see Mt. McKinley until you get outside it, some of the best views being from the train to and from Anchorage. Because of the ban against private vehicles, demand for the park shuttle buses and tours is heavy, so try to reserve either tours or bus in advance (and hotels, of course). For shuttle bus and campsite reservations, phone 800/622-7275 or 907/272-7275.
There's a Natural History Tour ($52.05) sponsored by Denali Park Resorts (managed by Aramark) that departs daily from area hotels and takes about four to five hours, visiting the Savage Cabin, the taiga forest, the tundra and unusual geological formations, with a light snack and beverage. The Tundra Wilderness Tour ($84.75) takes six to eight hours, with box lunch and coffee provided. Also, you need to make reservations at the six campgrounds within the park if you plan on roughing it outdoors.
You may wish to contact the Alaska Natural History Institutes (tel. 888/688-1269 or 907/683-1269; www.alaskanha.org), which conduct courses throughout the summer in the park, under the name of the Murie Science and Learning Center, in partnership with the National Park Service. Otherwise, you can go rafting for about $72 per person (tel. 888/683-2234; www.denaliraft.com) or engage in any number of additional outdoor activities.
Private vehicles are verboten on park roads for most of the year. You can drive in for about 30 miles to the Teklanika Rest Stop, weather and road conditions permitting, but from there, you have to take the park's shuttle, a tour bus, or go on bicycle or foot.
The road is now open to private vehicles on only four days each fall, with a maximum, they say, of 400 vehicles a day. To be among those 400, you have to enter a lottery at a $10 cost and mail in your application between July 1 and July 31. When you win one of the 1,600 permits, you pay another $25 to drive into the park in mid-September, plus a $20 park entrance fee (unless you have a federal pass). For complete and strict rules on how to enter, fill out the Road Lottery application (opens PDF file).
Perhaps most fun are the ranger-led walks and hikes, taking from 30 minutes to five hours, which you sign up for at the Denali Visitors Center. If your walk or hike starts on the east side of the park, add two to five hours for the roundtrip bus ride to get there, and on the west side, add five to eight hours for the bus. In addition, you can fish and no license is needed if you fish in the Denali Wilderness itself (about one-third of the park, but you need a state license elsewhere) or climb the High One itself (permit required). No motorized craft is allowed within the park (hooray!). There are restrictions on hunting, so inquire. Temperature ranges from 35 to 75 degrees in summer and weather can be unpredictable.
Getting to Denali isn't easy. I recommend one of two trains: (1) the regular route on the state-owned Alaska Railroad (tel. 800/544-0552 or 907/265-2494; www.alaskarailroad.com), which provides the engines and some passenger cars, a few with partial domes; or (2) the McKinley Explorer, with deluxe two-level dome cars owned by Gray Line (tel. 800/544-2206; www.graylinealaska.com), attached to the regular Alaska Railway train. On the Explorer, you have an assigned upper-level seat for the trip, plus access to the dining car, souvenir shop, and small outdoor space for photography.
Getting around in Denali is by shuttle buses (VTS), green buses running on roundtrip routes that take from six to 12 hours roundtrip, or on tour buses. Unless the tour provides it, you have to bring your own food and drink, as well as mosquito repellant and insect-repellant clothing.
There are no snakes in Denali, but about 39 species of mammals (think moose, caribou, Dall sheep and wolf) and 168 recorded of birds. Black bears (mostly in the forest areas) and grizzly bears (mostly on the tundra) abound, and can be deadly. The defensive mechanisms are many, but boil down to this: if a grizzly touches you, curl up in a ball and play dead; if it's a black bear, fight back.
A Ranger Favorite
Kris Fister, Public Affairs Officer at the park, says her favorite thing to do is taking a shuttle bus out into the park to one of the areas she enjoys hiking in. "I get off the bus and walk away from the road to look at flowers, birds and scenery. If I'm lucky, I'll maybe see some wildlife (besides birds) and not have to use my raingear that I always bring with me."
New in 2007
To study the impacts of road traffic, all road permit holders are being asked not to travel between the Savage River check station and Wonder Lake on Sunday nights throughout the summer. Collared wildlife will be studied to see how traffic affects their behavior.
You may as well bed down on The Strip, across the Nenana River from the Park itself. Best in town is the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge (tel. 800/PRINCESS; www.princesslodges.com). Rooms from $179 and up in high season, from $99 up in value season. At the new King Salmon restaurant in the Wilderness Lodge, entrees run from around $15.95 up to $34.95. Their "Today's Catch" entrees go for about $25.
Denali Park Resorts is celebrating the 90th anniversary of the park with some cute promotions, including $90 rooms for nine nights, these special rates being 60% off the regular prices. You can choose any of nine dates for a price of $90 per night at the McKinley Village or the Grande Denali Lodge: June 7, 14 and 22; July 5, 12 and 19; August 2, 9 and 16. The company also operates the McKinley Chalet Resort and the Denali Bluffs Hotel in the area. More information available from Denali Park Resorts (tel. 800/276-7234; www.denaliparkresorts.com).
In 2006, there were 415,935 visitors to the Denali National Park & Reserve (its official name). If they were all there at once, each one of them would have nearly 15 acres to himself or herself.
There's a 7-Day Pass for individuals costing $10, or $20 per vehicle, and an annual pass for $40. Children 16 and under get in free. Your America the Beautiful Interagency Pass costs $80 per year, seniors $10, Access (disabled) free.
My favorites include the following:
- Denali National Park: www.nps.gov/dena.
- U.S. National Parks Net, a commercial group: www.denali.national-park.com. Lodging, hiking, maps, camping and other details.
- Denali Parks Resorts (owned by the Aramark concession company): www.denaliparkresorts.com.
- Anchorage Daily News: www.alaska.com. Good insider's information source.
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