Mt. McKinley / Denali as seen near Wonder Lake (photographed by Wendy Turner)
A piece of prehistory and history
Tall, ice-free mountains towered over a grasslands home to herds of mammoths and sabre-tooths. Armies of humans were moving in from the north via the Bering land bridge. After them came ice to the mountains and the grasslands would die giving birth to the tundra and taiga. The mammoths and sabre-tooths would go extinct and descendants of the the migrants from the east would continue to live in the unforgiving land. A tall mountain dominated the landscape and true to the nature of men it was given a name. Today, the descendants of the ancient migrants, the Athabaskans, call it 'Denali' meaning 'high one' and it is the oldest formal name on record. That was when the earth was flat and throughout prehistory and much of history it remained that way.
When the earth became spherical and European explorations headed westward there would be more action in the area. Large tracts of land were claimed, sold and bought by the powers from the east. A gold rush in the late nineteenth century brought in hardy prospectors to this remote area. It brought in development to the rugged tundra and boreal forests - roads were cut, trails were made, buildings and mines mushroomed. The miners even named that tall mountain in the area after an Ohio senator who was running for president. The senator would go on to be president and would never set foot in the territory of Alaska but mankind officially calls this mountain by his name today - Mt. McKinley. With the naming came popularity and suddenly the 18,000 foot Mt. Saint Elias wasn't the tallest mountain in North America. The debate and war on the name of the mountain has raged on since then - Denali or Mt. McKinley. In early twentieth century the national park idea was gaining momentum and the area around the country's tallest mountain was set aside to be protected as a national park. The park would be named after the mountain it was protecting.
The train journey
The Alaska Railroad has daily train service in summer from Anchorage and Fairbanks. The railroad service provides two classes of service - Goldstar and Adventure. You get the same train and track and wilderness and streams and gulches along the way but on a Goldstar car you sit high up inside a car with domed glass roof. The journey from Anchorage to Denali rail depot takes a good eight hours or so and goes through pretty endless spruce forests and beautiful country side. You will also get nonstop commentary about Alaska and landmarks along the train route - some very interesting, like how fireweed predicts the coming of fall, and some absolute moose-gas, like showing us where Sarah Palin lives! Interesting or not, the same commentary on the return journey probably means that you should use the service only once? Optional commentary on head phones would probably be better? Anyway, the train ride is just awesome and we know for a fact that the Alaska railroad employees are just an awesome bunch. Our train was delayed on the way back from Denali and an old couple seated in front of us were getting worried about missing their flight. They actually helped the couple when we reached the Anchorage area by making a special stop for them and having a Alaska Railroad vehicle taking them to the airport so that they can catch their flight! Now, that is something amazing. Well done ARR!
Denali national park is mesmerizingly beautiful. Glaciers and glacially carved valleys, mountains, tundra and taiga and the beautiful wildlife all add up to make this place a fascinating place to visit. And with nothing else but pointless wilderness for hundreds of miles around the national park is pretty much the only destination. Of course, you could be going to Healy to work the mines but that's a different story which I don't know. The national park has only one road going east to west with the west end at the old mining town of Kantishna being the end of the road. That's a total of only ninety some miles in a six million acre park!! There aren't many trails and visitors are welcome to go anywhere - a hikers and backpackers haven. Golden eagles, moose, caribou, grizzly bears, black bears, Dall sheep and wolves all roam the valleys and the wide open tundra presents glorious opportunity to see wildlife. And many come to see the tallest peak in the continent too. The park road is only paved for the first fifteen or so miles and from then on it becomes a gravel road and becomes even narrower away from the park entrance. The only way to travel beyond the first fifteen miles is by bus service or air taxi or man-power (walk or bike).
Now, Denali sounds rugged and awesome but you'll be in for a shock if you arrive there thinking that way. First up, you show up the the rail depot and they will tag your checked bag to the hotel you're going to be staying at. And when you arrive at Denali there will be a welcoming party all set to take you and dump you at a hotel in the park entrance. Of course, you could be going to the backcountry which could be just like any other park but that may happen another time.
Adolph Murie was a naturalist who studied wolves and grizzlies in the park for twenty-five summer between 1922 and 1972. When the old trail to Kantishna was proposed to be made into a road for visitors to enjoy the park, he strongly opposed it. He wanted the wilderness to be as rugged as it was when the ancient Athabaskans lived there. He lost the battle a park road was created because, after all, cars was the way Americans moved in the twentieth century. At some point in the park's history personal vehicles were banned from using the road. According to the NPS website - "Anticipation of major increases in traffic resulting from the now-direct route to the park prompted park officials to implement a mass transit system beyond mile 15 on the Denali Park Road." The website has all sorts of tables and such on which bus to take and what to do and how to see park.
Now, the buses you can take come in different colors - green, tan, red-and-white, gray and such - each with a special meaning with its own price tag. Some of the green ones are free and all the free green ones ply on routes that are easily accessible either by man-power or personal vehicles! You'll need to buy or reserve a ticket on the green and tan ones or can hitch a 'complimentary' ride if you choose to stay in $500 a night per person boarding in the Kantishna area.
The bus service is apparently a great one for the park for several reasons - it apparently keeps the traffic down, highly trained drivers with complex passing rules keep the roads safe, habitat around the roads is 'useful' to animals since we don't get mad tourists running after cuddly grizzlies or cute moose and animals actually use the roadside because they are not disturbed. Besides, you can get off at any point you want when traveling on a green bus and hitch a ride on any other green bus. Ah, all in the spirit of 'for the benefit and the enjoyment of the people' then?
Let's think about this. Now, imagine if you went on a bus ride with Capt. Hadley of the "You eat when we say you eat. You shit when we say you shit. You piss when we say you piss." fame! That sums it up. Welcome to Denali. This is one national park I wish I had never visited.
All bus service in the park is run by a single privately-owned company. Isn't monopoly frowned upon and even illegal in these parts? The buses are noisy, dirty and have ridiculously bad seats and it seems as if they were bought off of a junkyard from the 1980s or something. As soon as wildlife has been spotted the bus goes into earthquake mode with people shifting and sliding to see the animals. There are fifty-hundred people interpreting the scene with the driver sometimes adding hackneyed commentary. The time 'allotted' to watch wildlife is decided by the driver's schedule and the general patience of the others in the packed bus. I've been to zoos that have better wildlife viewing experience than that!
In all other national parks I've been to, the fondest memories I've had of the place are early in the morning and late in the evenings. The crowds who throng to see famous vistas just to 'tick' off their lists would still be sleeping or drinking or doing whatever but leaving the wilderness as wilderness. Now that's not an easy thing to do and like I've seen in every other place such times are preferred by wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and such who appreciate the place being wild and quiet. You actually enjoy being around such people! With twenty-four hours of sunshine such times would be hard to find in a place like Denali but I can only imagine how a 4 a.m. quiet drive into the park would be like.
I've heard from rangers in other national parks that allow personal cars that most people stick to the roads and just a few ever go beyond half a mile of the main road. If that were true then the conservation argument to ban personal vehicles on the park roads is just incomprehensible. 91 miles in a 10,000 square mile park is what could potentially be affected. I just think Denali is going a little overboard in its conservation effort for how else can conservation work if there's no one to love a place. I can't imagine how anyone could love Denali after being forced to go in those awful buses and forced to listen to bad interpretation!
Permafrost soil in much of the park means a fragile habitat and a lot of people on it could destroy it forever. Permafrost soil also makes building and maintaining roads and maybe the bus service is helping after all. However, it is amazing and almost heart-breaking to see 'Area closed for hiking' signs all around popular rest stops. Perhaps the park management is determined to not have people off the buses? How then are visitors supposed to enjoy the national park? Well, there are air taxi rides to the top of McKinley or Glacier landings, there's rafting outside the park, there are wilderness tours and natural history tours. Rides, tickets, special permits, noise, crowds, time lines and all. Now if they could only put out the animals along the roadside on time we would have America's first national amusement park because it would be no different from Disneyland or Universal studios except for the fact that the 'attractions' would be 'all-natural'
I think Denali fails as a national park for me. They'd rather close the 91 miles of road and keep it like some of the other large Alaskan national parks. It is more commercialized than Yellowstone or Grand Canyon or Yosemite and has none of the ruggedness and awesomeness those parks offer. And it's not because the ruggedness and awesomeness is not there, it is just because it feels like being a prisoner in the park.
I'm never going back.
A male Dall Sheep
An adult male grizzly
We noticed this interesting "chase" near the polychrome pass. The larger bear tracked down the smaller one and followed it for miles. Male-female or Male-male aggression we don't know but it was interesting until the bus driver said there was no more time to keep watching them.
The older grizzly in pursuit of the younger one completely missed the fox standing in the bushes!
An Arctic Ground Squirrel
The wolf family + the grizzly family. Near Highway pass along the Denali road there's a wolf den and wolves are apparently seen regularly there. We first noticed a grizzly sow with two cubs and then Wendy spotted a wolf. Soon, there were more wolves on the scene and the pups emerged - SEVEN of them!!!! The wolves led the pups towards the grizzlies and in true characteristic grizzly behavior the three bears stood up staring the wolves and their pups!!! It was just an amazing scene to watch but it was so far away that they were just specks to the naked eye!
Wolf at a rest stop! (Photograph by Wendy)
Wolf crossing the Tolkat river!
The wolves are pretty!
The last two photographs were made along a trail when it was just pouring and I think it was a much better experience photographing them than any of the other awesome creatures we saw in the bus ride!