My friend Christy and I took a long weekend at the end of June to visit Denali National Park. Denali National Park opened in 1917 as Mt. McKinley Park. It encompasses both the north and south side of the Alaska Range and is just slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts. In 1980, the park added 4 million acres and was renamed Denali National Park.
From Seward, it’s just over 6 hours by car, and from Anchorage, about 4 hours. The drive to Denali is just breathtaking with many glaciers, valleys and mountains, so there were many stops along the way.
- Talkeetna General Store
Talkeetna General Store
Talkeetna is a cute little side drive with small shops selling handcrafts and souvenirs, and Sparky’s Drive-In has great burgers. The Talkeetna Lodge has spectacular views of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range. The weather was slightly rainy with lots of sunshine, perfect for rainbows. We arrived at our campsite outside Denali at 11 p.m. Christy set up the tent because I was clueless. Just to let you know, the sun goes behind the mountains, but it never really gets dark.
The next day, we took a bus ride into Denali National Park. We had a choice between a 4 hour or 8 hour bus ride, the latter of which gives you an opportunity to see Mt. McKinley. Though Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in Alaska, it’s usually obscured by clouds. Mt. McKinley stands 20, 320 ft., about 4 miles high, and 3 miles of Mt. McKinley rise above the rest of the Alaskan Range. Seeing it on a clear day is a grand and rare sight.
We opted for the 8 hour bus tour with many stops to stretch and it was amazing. Most of the park we saw was treeless tundra but there were a few cliffs and grassy areas. Observing wildlife was my main reason for going to Denali, and I wasn’t disappointed. We saw Dall sheep, caribou, many bears, beavers, a mother fox with her babies playing outside the den, a falcon’s nest with babies, and a mother bear with her 2 cubs about 2 years of age, but the best thing we saw happened early on in our day. A bear walked right up to the side of the road where our bus was parked and started eating. He was there for more than 20 minutes and only 20 feet away!
- Wonder Lake
The turn around point was at Wonder Lake, a beautiful blue oasis surrounded by trees in this usually sparse landscape. Behind, Mt. McKinley loomed in the distant clouds. Another treat for the day was that the clouds over Mt. McKinley parted ever so slightly so we could see the top. It was at least twice as tall as the mountains beside it. The bus driver said that only about 20% of visitors ever get to see the top. What a fantastic day!
On the way back from seeing Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake, the weather turned dark. The weather is unpredictable across the tundra. Where we were it was gray and raining, and further ahead of us, it had hailed. The bus had to stop for more than 20 minutes because bulldozers had to clear a surprise rockslide. You’ll never get a chance to see all of Denali, but the longer you can spend there, the better chance you will see amazing landscapes and wildlife.