In the Land of the Midnight Sun, the jaw-dropping mountains of Denali National Park and Preserve showcase Alaska’s wildlife. South of Denali and accessible by train or motorcoach, the delightful throw-back town of Talkeetna has long been the staging area for Mount McKinley climbers. It’s also the hub for McKinley flightseeing, one of Alaska’s highest-rated visitor experiences.
On the Kenai Peninsula and a mere one hour from Anchorage, Hotel Alyeska’s Seven Glaciers restaurant transfixes diners with its 180-degree view. Seven glaciers can be seen from the mountaintop perch. And the Kenai’s picturesque town of Homer remains the hub for bear-viewing flights to Katmai National Park and Preserve. Spectacular grizzly bear viewing is a bucket list must for groups that want to experience outdoor Alaska.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Often referred to as the “crown jewel of Alaska,” Denali National Park and Preserve protects a vast and beautiful land. Cars are permitted only into the first 15 miles of the park’s 6 million acres. Most accommodations lie near the park entrance. However, to experience the wilderness, four backcountry lodges welcome groups and fill up months in advance.
Denali’s mountain ranges frame shimmering rivers. Vistas are otherworldly. Within this subarctic ecosystem, permafrost ground underlies a thin layer of topsoil that supports life. Warm seasons, prized by man and animal, allow the park’s 39 mammal species and 167 bird species to raise young and prepare for harsh winter months.
Worth every moment, my day on the Tundra Wilderness Tour unveiled Denali. Female grizzlies grazed with their cubs, statuesque Dall sheep perched on craggy ledges, and herds of caribou foraged in the valleys while golden eagles soared overhead. We saw a silver coyote as it feasted on its kill. And we watched territorial grizzly bears as they chased each other. No two days or excursions are alike.
“The park road has expansive views, which makes for easy bear spotting,” said Anya Schwartz, Camp Denali naturalist guide. “Healthy bears gorge on berries in August and weigh up to 600 pounds before going into hibernation.”
Forested trails near the park entrance welcome cyclists and hikers. Popular hiking spots, such as the Savage River Trail or Triple Lakes, reveal the intense quiet. We struck out on our own by hopping on the free shuttle bus system. Groups can also opt for a certified guide.
Talkeetna remains the starting point for Mount McKinley climbing expeditions. Thanks to today’s fly-in access, visitors don’t have to be mountaineers to see and experience the highest peak on the North American continent. The town itself gives off a distinct Alaskan vibe. Cafes and shops line Talkeetna’s Main Street. With its decidedly laid-back atmosphere, it ranks as one of my favorite Alaskan towns.
Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, just a few minutes from town by shuttle, makes an ideal overnight spot for groups visiting Talkeetna. The expansive lodge patio frames a spectacular panorama of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range. Dining al fresco ends a satisfying day of flightseeing, fishing or zip lining.
Most Alaskans refer to the state’s tallest mountain as Denali — the High One. The first ascent of Mount McKinley was 100 years ago. You’ll hear many different languages in the cafes during the climbing season of May to July when over 1,000 climbers attempt the summit. Even for the most experienced, expeditions average 17 days, and the success rate hovers around 50 percent. The mountain even has its own weather system, and the summit isn’t always visible.
A flightseeing trip to Mount McKinley remains a bucket list must. Flights allow the general public to experience Alaska’s behemoth. Aboard K2 Aviation’s flight, our group got close to the mountain’s crevasses, numerous peaks and glacial pools of Windex-blue melt.
“We’ve done a glacier landing with up to 55 people, if weather and snow conditions are right,” said K2 Aviation owner Suzanne Rust. “We’ve also arranged demonstrations in our hangar, where climbers stage their gear and talk about Alaska aviation.”
The Talkeetna Ranger Station is the beginning point and preparation center for all mountaineering expeditions. It features a small display and video program for those who want to understand the climb. Talkeetna Historical Society Museum displays artifacts about the first ascents in its four restored buildings. There’s also a terrific 12-by-12-foot relief model of McKinley that shows the various climbing routes.