DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, ALASKA – How can something so immense just disappear?
That’s the question that kept somersaulting in my mind while visiting this pristine 6 million-acre national park – eight times the size of Yosemite – almost all of it undisturbed.
Either on foot or from the seat of a shuttle bus, we had spotted grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, marmots and a porcupine, and even got buzzed by a golden eagle. But during all that time, the High One remained hidden from view.
The High One is, as the Indians call it, Mount McKinley. Or, as preferred by most Alaskans, Denali. (The debate over the name is ongoing.) The highest point in North America, it rises 20,320 feet above the Alaska Range and completely dominates the surrounding landscape.
At least it did in so many photographs I had seen in interpretive displays and gift shops. But in real life, nothing. The mountain’s sheer size creates its own weather systems, resulting in thick layers of clouds that cover its summit most of the summer.
Several times during the 240-mile drive from Anchorage, I craned my neck toward Mount McKinley while passing all the signed viewpoints – and saw nothing but clouds and mist. It happened again at the Eielson Visitor Center, which on clear days boasts amazing views of the mountain. Just not that day. And when I asked a ponytailed ranger when he was going to turn on the giant fan that blew away all the clouds, he didn’t even chuckle.
Don’t feel too badly, the shuttle bus driver said. She had spent three months in the park before finally seeing the mountain.
Enjoying the scenery
With on-and-off rain forecast the entire week, it seemed like our best chance to see Mount McKinley would be to get above the clouds. More on that later. For now, we just enjoyed the scenery.
And what scenery. The park’s vastness and feeling of emptiness impressed me most of all. Except for one 92-mile mostly dirt road that winds through the landscape across mountain passes and broad, braided rivers, everything else is pristine wilderness.
During peak season, May-September, visitors are allowed to drive only the first 15 miles. So to see the vast interior, most have to take a long bus ride, the primary means of transportation in the park.
Initially, the idea of spending eight hours (or longer) on a refurbished school bus just to go on a hike didn’t sit too well. (We Californians do love our cars.) But in retrospect, it’s a small inconvenience in the larger aim of preservation.
Before visiting Denali, I expected to see snow-capped peaks adored with glaciers. But the diverse color palette took me by surprise. Be it the never-ending green of impossibly vast tundra fields, the yellows, browns and reds of Polychrome Pass or the blues and purples of thousands of tiny wildflowers, my pupils were getting a serious workout.
Following our visit to the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles inside the park, where I bonked myself in the head with a caribou rack while posing for silly photos, we asked the bus driver to let us off in the Stony Dome area.
All the guidebooks said this was a good place for day hiking, and we immediately found out why. The tundra here is free of brush, which makes cross-country travel a snap.
This was my first hike on alpine tundra, and what a neat experience. The ground underfoot felt so soft and springy, it was like walking across a pillow-top mattress. Except most mattresses aren’t dotted with wildflowers.
Clouds suddenly part
After prancing across the tundra, we followed a stream drainage that quickly led us out of sight of the road. Suddenly, the wilderness felt even more remote. Because this is prime grizzly country, carrying a cannister of bear-deterrent pepper spray is recommended. We did so and were almost disappointed not to encounter one.
During our four-hour hike near Stony Dome, we came across a few vistas where Mount McKinley would be visible on a clear day. We kept hoping and wishing for the clouds to part, but they never did.
I had just about given up hope until a waitress at a local brewery put us in contact with a bush pilot, who agreed to fly us back to Anchorage. (We had initially planned on taking the train, a 7½-hour trip.)
But when the morning of our departure arrived, the cloud coverage seemed extra dense. Still, the pilot thought there might be a chance.
Taking off from Healy River Airport, we gained altitude for about 15 minutes and saw vast mountains on both sides of the PA-32 Piper Cherokee Six. But stubborn Mount McKinley remained hidden. And then it happened. Reaching an altitude of just over 11,000 feet, the clouds suddenly parted and there stood the Great One, its white mass outlined against an impossibly blue sky.
Turns out it was there all along.