Denali National Park: Journeying North


Denali National Park and Preserve protects over six million acres (including over two million acres of federally designated wilderness) of boreal forest, tundra, and mountains in central Alaska. It also protects North America’s highest peak, an array of glaciers and braided streams cascading from the mountains, and an intact ecosystem enlivened by Alaska’s iconic large mammals.

The Park was established in 1917 as Mount McKinley National Park, largely to protect the astonishing herds of game, those large mammals, from over-hunting. Closest to the heart of hunter, amateur naturalist, and conservationist Charles Sheldon, who was instrumental in pushing for the Park, was the Dall Sheep, the only white wild sheep. Sheldon, a monied Easterner, was a member of Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell’s Boone and Crockett Club and secured the club’s support in helping guide the bill creating the Park through Congress in the eleven years it would take to win its passage.

Mount McKinley National Park was greatly expanded, and its name changed to Denali National Park (although the mountain’s name did not then change), in 1980 with the passage of the monumental Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which enacted the ultimate distribution of federal public lands in the state. With the passage of ANILCA and its signing into law by President Jimmy Carter in the waning days of his presidency, the Park was expanded from its original two million to its current over six million acres. Some 1.3 million of those acres are Denali National Preserve, where hunting is allowed. Most of the original Park became federal wilderness.

On Saturday morning, August 22, Sean and I awoke in the Best Western Golden Lion Hotel in Anchorage. We had been there for just one night after arriving via train from Seward late the night before. That afternoon, we’d drive to Denali National Park for five nights of camping.

While Sean reorganized our gear for outdoor adventures, I hopped in a cab and headed out to the airport to pick up the Jeep Patriot we’d have for the coming week. Back at the hotel, we packed up the jeep and checked out. It was time for errands before beginning the drive north.

First up: breakfast and food supplies. Happily both of these necessities were satisfied at Natural Pantry, sort of Anchorage’s homegrown answer to Whole Foods, with tons of organic and natural food, and a cafe. They also had kefir, which Sean had recently developed an obsession with. After loading up with protein bars, snacks, cleansing wipes, and all what all for camping, we headed over to the Anchorage REI.

At REI, we picked up the gear that we couldn’t legally fly with or that made no sense to carry: camp stove fuel, bear spray, dehydrated backpacking meals, and fire starters. While we were there, Sean picked up a backpacking camp chair.

Around 12:30, we were ready for the four and a half hour drive north to Denali.


We followed the Glenn Highway out of downtown, through the suburbs of Anchorage, and around the northeastern tip of Cook Inlet. (From the very start, with the Chugach Mountains rising from within Anchorage proper all the way north, there would not be a boring or ugly stretch of landscape.) Then we began our journey on the George Parks Highway, through notorious Anchorage suburb Wasilla (perhaps, actually, the only ugly stretch), and then north across theĀ Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Alaska’s agricultural heartland.


Image: Sean M. Santos

As we headed north, we passed a portion of highway where the spruce forests on either side had been consumed by wildfires, although in this section the recovery of the understory was already well underway. 2015 was the second worst (after 2004) wildfire season in Alaska’s history with over five million acres burned.


Image: Sean M. Santos

After the sobering, scorched section of forest, we had a thrilling sight: our first glimpses of The Mountain in the distance. In the image below, the peak of Denali (then in its final official weeks of being Mount McKinley) is visible above the clouds in the distance. The smooth cloud “peak” second from the right in the image below is Denali.


Image: Sean M. Santos

Denali would play hide and seek with us throughout the drive, visible or blocked from view by clouds or terrain at various times. Much farther north, in Denali State Park, we’d get some dramatic glimpses of it surrounded by swirling clouds, but we did not stop to capture images.


We did stop, though, for lunch in the small town of Talkeetna, population 876. Talkeetna is a tourist stop in the summers, complete with busses full of cruisers stopping on their way to/from Denali National Park. It is also in late winter the primary gateway to climbing The Mountain for expeditions from around the world.


We stopped for lunch at Mountain High Pizza Pie and built a yummy pie with reindeer sausage.


It was sunny and in the 70s, and we sat outside on picnic tables in the restaurant’s yard.



Image: Sean M. Santos

From an adjacent table (below), a family of locals chatted with an Italian photographer. It was not quite obvious whether the woman in the cowboy hat was hitting on the photographer. But there was a certain vibe in the banter between the two women.

We were amused.



North of Talkeetna, the landscape grew wilder (and the skies somewhat cloudier). We entered the rolling, forested landscape of Denali State Park.


Image: Sean M. Santos

We emerged from the state park and continued toward the Alaska Range, crossing a dramatic expanse of tundra changing into autumn colors. Then we entered the Alaska Range as the highway followed the passage carved by the Nenana River. It rained off and on, and we stopped in traffic because the highway was under construction.


Image: Sean M. Santos

With the stop for lunch and the traffic delays outside the park, we reached Denali National Park around 6:30pm.


Image: Sean M. Santos


Our first stop in the Park was Riley Creek Mercantile, part of the complex of visitor service and interpretive centers nestled along the first three miles of the park road within the taiga (boreal forest). The complex included the post office, the railroad depot, the Wilderness Access Center, Riley Creek Campground and Mercantile, the Visitor Center, grill, and bookstore, the Murie Science and Learning Center, the sled dog kennels, park staff lodging, and park headquarters. At the mercantile, we checked in and received our campground passes and bus tickets. We also bought firewood and some hot dogs to have for dinner.


Riley Creek Mercantile

Then it was off to Savage River Campground.


After we emerged from the more heavily forested areas near the entrance, we stopped in the wet evening to take in our first look at the expanse of Denali’s wilderness spread out before us (below and the image at the top of the post).


We continued on to Savage River Campground at mile thirteen, one of two campgrounds fully accessible by private automobile. Savage River is small, only thirty sites, compared to a couple hundred at Riley Creek near the visitor center. We selected a site, and stood for a few moments under the back door of the jeep. It had been raining steadily, if not heavily, since we’d entered the Alaska Range. Sean raised the possibility of simply sleeping in the jeep, since we had an early morning bus to catch to Wonder Lake.


Looking back, it would have been the best choice. But the rain let up, and we decided to settle in to a proper camp with campfire, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and some wine. The rain returned off and on, but overall it was not an unpleasant first night of camping in Alaska.

5 thoughts on “Denali National Park: Journeying North

    1. Brandon Hayes

      We should totally check out that version of Mountain High Pizza when we hit Crater Lake. And then do a comparison. And yeah, the Denali portion of our trip was really fun (I’ve been looking forward to finally writing about it.

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