Denali National Park, encompassing six million acres of rugged subarctic terrain, is one of North America’s great wildernesses. Looming over it is Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America and part of 160 miles of the Alaskan Range that strides through the center of the park. Beneath this snow-swathed skyline unfurls a landscape of glaciers, tundra, green plains and spruce forest, inhabited by a wide variety of animal species, including 37 mammals and 130 birds.
In some ways, this astonishing landscape is surprisingly accessible. Tour buses carry visitors on a road that cuts across it from north to south, while a train also travels right through the heart of the park. Bordering it are a handful of small towns which have developed miniature tourism infrastructures, resulting in an unexpectedly large choice of lodging and eating options. But while a civilized experience of the park is possible, to truly immerse yourself requires a little more hardiness. The most straight-forward way to do so is with one of the many guide companies, which cover everything from mountaineering to hunting, fishing, biking and hiking. Alternatively, if you are fully confident in your navigational abilities, you can trek out into the solitude of the park’s remoter reaches, leaving the scattered hiking trails and guide huts far behind.
Denali is about a 4-hour drive north of Anchorage and a 2.5-hour drive south of Fairbanks. It’s accessible by car from the George Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3), and the closest major airports are Anchorage Ted Stevens International Airport, which is a 4-hour drive away, and Fairbanks International Airport, a 2-hour drive away.
Denali’s immense wilderness ascends through three distinct terrains: taiga forest spreads across the lowest elevations, rising to high alpine tundra and snow-cloaked mountain crags, culminating in Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak. A single road bisects the park, although only buses may traverse it, while the breathtaking backcountry itself has no extensive hiking trails, and must be navigated with a compass and topographic map. Heading out into this untamed expanse, into a solitude broken only by the wildlife and the tactile presence of the earth itself, is one of North America’s most powerful wilderness experiences.
The Denali Star cuts through the east of Denali National Park, and is a simple, low-impact way to journey deep into the park’s remoter regions. It runs along tracks which pass through swaths of spruce forest, along the banks of fast-rushing rivers, beneath the shadows of vast peaks and in the presence of distant glaciers. In the wilderness around it, passengers can glimpse beavers, foraging brown and black bears, glinting salmon shoals and herds of caribou. Return tickets can be bought to and from Anchorage, Fairbanks and a number of small towns in between.
Sled dogs have played a central role in Denali’s story since its creation in 1917. Its first ranger established husky kennels, aware that the most efficient way to travel through the ice-bound wilderness in winter was behind a team of dogs. Since then, several generations of huskies have worked hard to patrol the park, combat poaching and deliver supplies. With motorized transport banned in much of the park, they continue to play a vital role through 21st Century winters. In the summer, visitors can meet the huskies at the Denali Kennels, where a ranger will lead an interpretive programme explaining and demonstrating the vital role the huskies play in the management of the park.
Located on the roadside in Denali National Park, this spacious, wood-beam structured restaurant serves a frequently changing selection of sustainable, locally sourced dishes. Produce from Alaska’s coastline, farms and rivers compose an extensive menu of meat, fish and vegetarian options, rounded off by an equally capacious menu of homemade desserts. The fresh fish and seafood, including wild Alaskan halibut and Alaskan king crab cakes, are particularly recommended.
The Princess Wilderness Lodge, despite its somewhat absurd name, manages to retain some of the atmosphere of the wild while offering such comfortable luxuries as outdoor hot tubs. Large, well-appointed rooms are contained in separate wooden bungalows, each named after one of the creatures roaming Denali itself. The Lodge is situated on the Nenana River Canyon, only a mile from the entrance to the Park, and regular shuttle buses run to the park’s visitor center.