A July 2000 trip
to Denali by Jack Ventura
Quote: Denali, the “High One”, North America’s highest peak, formerly known as Mount McKinley. On an exceptionally clear day, Denali visibly beckons from Anchorage. By plane or by rail are good ways to go, but my friends and I went by highway.
The long drive from Anchorage, scenic and serene, portended this special climactic sight. But my personal highlights were quite unexpected, like viewing the original work, displayed at the National Park Hotel, of a famed wildlife photographer who was killed by Alaska’s bears. My favorite wildlife sighting was a red fox, patiently sitting with tail upright, inexpertly stalking a pair of ptarmigans sipping from a brook.
The one highlight I missed and would wish for you, should you visit Denali, is the eerie light show of an aurora borealis.
The most important tip is: high-powered binoculars. Tundra is described as ‘arctic desert’. Unlike the image of a million-head herd of caribou that is sometimes conveyed by popular media (and hardsell tour agents), wildlife within Denali National Park is scarce and invisible to the unobservant. Small animals and birds are fairly common. But sightings of the big mammals--namely, moose, caribou, grizzlies, and Dall’s sheep--are no guarantee. On our trip into the Park, we fortunately scored the quadfecta, but my own 8x was inadequate to discriminate the sheep high up the mountain ridges. Without binoculars, the Park might seem to some people a lifeless and very long bus ride. Disappointment might be further acute if, as is often the case on a summer’s day, Denali is not visible through the clouds. Ours was a glorious day, but I might also recommend being prepared for rain.
Alaska Pass, (8 days unlimited travel on bus, ferry, and train)Alaska Railroad, (one-way to Denali, seated within a glass dome)Gray Line Buses, (one-way on narrated motorcoach)Park Connection, (one-way aboard mini-coach shuttle van)
Once at Denali, shuttle buses, either courtesy of hotels or tour operators, will pretty much take care of your transportation needs. It’s hard to beat the cost and freedom of having your own wheels, but private vehicles have limited access into Denali National Park. To be specific, only a half dozen permits are granted each season for private vehicles to pass beyond 15 miles. And most of these are acquired by professional photographers who have waited several years for the opportunity. For someone like me who likes driving and getting lost in a car, it’s a disheartening policy. But, I understand that vehicular restriction is the growing trend at all of America’s National Parks; and, in good conscience, I support that.
Immediately inside, two narrow hallways extended out to either side in a wing of rooms, and directly in front was a large relief map of Denali National Park under a glass-topped display case, perhaps 1 inch to 3 miles in scale. The grand room, serving as the hotel lobby, looked more like central station for backpackers; it was fun and inviting.
I explored the hotel after checking in. It had a funky do-it-yourself spirit. An enclosed walkway connected to a detached two-story building of additional rooms that looked out of character, like 40’s era bunk barracks. Also attached to the hotel was a railcar, converted into an unattended lounge bar, that was a popular guest hangout for muffins, coffee and paperback novels. An outdoor walkway led to an auditorium that I later learned seats 300 and offers an interpretive presentation by Park Rangers twice daily at 1:30pm and 8:00pm. The complex of buildings that was the National Park Hotel appeared to have been built by enterprising public servants and creative tax funds.
The hotel’s eateries also had that add-on upgrade quality to them. The restaurant was very classy, opening only for dinner and serving only four entrees on a daily chalkboard menu. It was French in character, upscale American in taste. The pecan-crusted halibut I ate there was excellent. Next to the restaurant, probably sharing the kitchen, was a small, but surprisingly good, snack bar cafeteria. It opened very early and closed early too.
All of the rooms at the National Park Hotel have two double beds. Triple and quadruple occupants are accepted, but roll-away cots are prohibited by fired code and wouldn’t fit in the rooms anyway. They’re very small, but they do have bathrooms. No TV or telephone though. Wake-up call is supplied by an alarming knock on the door.
As the rooms are purely ‘functional’, a place to crash, the summer rate, in my opinion, is too high. But well worth every dollar. There are six or seven terrific hiking trails, all originating from the hotel. The Horseshoe Lake Trail is a short and scenic workout. I also enjoyed the easy Taiga Trail for its sensation that you might suddenly come snout-to-snout with a moose. Two of my friends raved over the challenging Mount Healy Overlook Trail.
I’m saddened that this old style park lodge will no longer accommodate visitors.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 26, 2002
Denali National Park Hotel
We parked our van next to about a dozen buses. Some of my friends walked across the highway to find souvenirs and a place to eat. The rest of us went inside the Princess Lodge to find food.
The Summit Dining Room was a large and efficient space. It reminded me somewhat of a Las Vegas dinner theater. Tables were spread across three tiered, semi-circular stages meant to give every diner a view out of the restaurant’s expansive panoramic window.
Curiously, it was practically empty of diners. I suspect though that, true to the norm aboard a cruise ship, the restaurant would, at the appointed hour, be full with several hundred people. We were escorted to a table right up against the window. Crisp white linens, polished silverware and crystal clean stemware made it clear that we were in a fine dining establishment. I felt underdressed.
The view is wonderful. A grassy walkway disappears into a gorge cut by the Nenana River.
The food was equally excellent. Pasta, in my experience at the majority of restaurants I’ve been to, is rarely a bad bet, and just as rarely a first rate plate. I ordered an angel hair prima vera, hoping for better than average. It was competently prepared, angel hair being especially vulnerable to being overcooked. The vegetable mix was crisp, but not undercooked. I also stole nibbles of various seafood off the plates of my friends, who were all pleased with their orders.
The coffee that topped my meal was satisfyingly rich.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 26, 2002
Summit Dining Room
Denali Princess Lodge
We would soon board Denali Park’s Visitor Transportation System--a fleet of aged, green buses--with tickets picked up the day prior at the Visitor Center. Except for several commercial tours, it is the only means to see the National Park’s interior. Our departure was 6:00am, earlier than some of us like to start our vacations. The prepaid fare to go as far as Eielson Visitor Center was minimal. Frankly, none of us were looking forward to an 8-hour bus ride. It was tempting to desert our friends, commandeer the minivan, drive to Fairbanks 120 miles further north, party hearty, and ask upon our return, "Did anyone get mowed by a moose while we were gone?"
The hotel’s cafeteria was open for paper bag lunches. We arrived at the Visitor Center just in time to greet a Ranger opening the building. Inside, the whiteboard on one wall used to schedule buses and campsites was almost entirely covered in hand-lettered X’s. Our advance reservations were prudent.
The bus driver was a lanky man with a wiry red beard. From Ireland, he chanced to visit Denali and decided to stay a while. This was his fifth year as a docent. I’ve forgotten his name, but he was terrific; even along hair-raising stretches of the road, I always felt we were in good hands. Speaking of hands, it was interesting that busdrivers conspiratorily use them to signal each other about what animals had been seen up ahead.
We were instructed that, should any of us spot an animal, we were to shout, "Stop! Stop! Stop the bus!" The first several miles, through dense taiga and meadows warming to the morning sun, was uneventful. As we rounded a bend, up ahead was a car, a bridge, and a checkpoint booth. I looked up the surrounding hillside and was the first to scream, "Stop!" My volume and urgency startled me. My friend Kaz, who was sitting next to me and sleeping, woke in a rush of adrenaline and glared at me as I explained, "It’s a fox. Look, there’s a photographer trying to get close to it." We had arrived at the Savage River. This is as far as private vehicles are allowed on Park Road.
Others got into the spirit of breaking the scrolling panorama of Denali National Park with a rousing alarm. Most of the animals were distant, but on one occasion, the bus had to stop and yield to a Grizzly Bear crossing the road. It got up on its haunches and scratched its back on a signpost!
We were blessed with clear weather. Around noon, we topped a hill and saw: Denali. A few miles further, Eielson Visitor Center provided the perfect venue for a celebratory sack lunch, before re-boarding for the ride back.
Denali National Park Visitor Transportation System
The drive to Healy, crossing and hugging the Nenana River, is gorgeous. Healy’s a small town, but it’s also a popular budget alternative to the hotels closer to Denali Park’s entrance. Passing a few homesteads along Otto Lake Road leading away from town, there was a sloping tract of land ahead with an idle tractor. We saw flagsticks. This looked nothing like a golf course.
We guessed that the small hut overlooking this converted farmfield was the ‘clubhouse’. Without the three motor-carts and the dozen or more hand carts, we would have had our doubts. Inside was a surprisingly cozy restaurant with a two-stool bar, and our doubts redoubled. But the man behind a countertop was clearly expecting us. Our tee time was 11:00pm, Joey’s idea of the novelty of playing golf at midnight.
The clubs we rented for $10 looked like alien artifacts from the lunar surface that had been bombarded by micrometeors. By exaggerated explanation, the golf course is more rock than grass. If you are very fond of the grooves and loft of your personal clubs, I recommend you leave them behind.
The first hole sent us all into spastic laughter that set the tone for our 9 holes of twilight-at-midnight golf. I have a terminal hook, and lost my first drive in a tall stand of tundra marsh. The green was, from a golfball’s perspective, off-road terrain. Careening and airborne off divots purportedly made by moose hooves, my 8-foot putt stumbled into the hole. Joey, the best golfer in our foursome, took three tries to sink a 2-foot par putt.
On the second green, I couldn’t help the joke. I reached down with my tee to fix a divot. That absurdity sent everyone into another fit of laughter. For the rest of the course, Joey couldn’t stop spontaneously giggling on every putt.
Most of the par-33, 2950-yard course was a borderless back-n-forth play on the same fairway, a disappointment at even the best resort links. The exception was the 7th hole, a scenic tee into a blind, sandy ravine with a green that has a tree growing on it. Huh?! Yep, imagine that. It was as fun and challenging as trying to hit the book return slot at the entrance of my alma mater's library with a frisbee.
The "clubhouse", by the way, serves hearty sandwiches and refreshing bottles of pop and beer. Joey bought us a round.
Member Rating 1 out of 5 on October 26, 2002
Black Diamond Golf
P.O. Box 11
Denali Park Resorts is a division of ARAMARK, the company contracted by the U.S. National Park Service to handle reservation operations for many of the national parks and preserves in western United States, including the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Denali. To one degree or another, anyone visiting Denali must deal with this company.
Denali Park Resorts241 W. Ship Creek Ave.Anchorage, AK 99501Open 7am to 5pm
For accommodations & tours,Toll free: 800-276-7234Tel: 907-276-7234Fax: 907-258-3668
For Park reservations,Toll free: 800-622-7275Tel: 907-272-7275Fax: 907-264-4648
Their website is: www.denaliparkresorts.com.
In addition to the Denali National Park Hotel within the park, they handle reservations for McKinley Village Resort and McKinley Chalet Resort. "Alaska Raft Adventures" and "Cabin Nite Dinner Theater" are among the most popular tour activities at Denali. In addition to handling those tours, Denali Park Resorts also schedules the highly regarded "Tundra Wildlife Tour" and "Denali Natural History Tour" bus excursions.
For accommodations, they will require a prepayment equivalent to one night, plus 7% Denali Borough Bed Tax. Cancellation policy is 7 days for a full refund. I strongly advise securing them as early as possible. (The Denali Princess Lodge informed me in January, 'no vacancies' for my dates. January!) I was elated with our reservations at the Denali National Park Hotel, even if I wasn't as happy paying for them 7 months in advance.
Denali Park Resorts also handles all reservations for activities taking place within the Park. In fact, they can even accept the $5 National Park Service Entrance Fee in advance. This admission charge for adults over age 17 is good for 7 days. The fee is, alternatively, $10 per family. Discounts apply to seniors over age 62 and persons with disabilities. Camping reservations, good for 14 days, are very competitive. RV's mostly settle on one of the 102 spaces at Riley Creek at the entrance to the Park. Backpackers more prefer setting up at one of the 60 plots at nearby Morino. There are several other sites; the choice will be one based on need for: RV access, pit vs. flush toilet, and tap water.
Reservations for shuttle bus transportation takes a special explanation; it is a very complicated process. 65% of the seats are available in advance. The remaining seats can only be reserved 2 days in advance. It's an extreme arrangement where one-half of Denali's access capacity is consumed with reservations literally many months in advance, while the other available half is issued on virtually a first-come-first-serve basis. Let me give you my experience as an explanation.
In mid-April, I submitted an application by fax for a shuttle bus trip into the Park. (It took some time and emails to get all my friends to agree to it.) I had to specify the date and destination, as well as our 1st, 2nd and 3rd choices for departure times. Our first preference for a 6:30am departure was already full; I accepted the 6:00am departure. Now remember, my preferred departure, is actually only 65% full. If I wanted to chance it, I could have gone straight to the Visitor Center immediately upon our arrival to see whether the remaining 35% of the seats aboard the 6:30 departure had yet been filled by those who have had only 2 days to claim them. Well, even three and a half months in advance, it seemed better to prepay for guaranteed seats on our 2nd choice.
The departure schedule was as follows:
Toklat River (53 miles): 6:30, 9:30, 12:00, 3:00, 6:00
Eielson Visitor Center (66 miles): 5:30, 6:00, 6:30, 7:30, and every half hour thereafter, 11:30, 12:30, 2:00
Wonder Lake (85 miles): 5:15, 6:15, 7:15, 9:15, 10:15, 11:15
Kantishna (89 miles): 8:15
Total roundtrip time is 6 hours, 8, 11, and 12 hours, respectively. Cost is $12.50, $21.00, $27.00, and $31.00, respectively.
There is a $6 penalty for changing or canceling a shuttle bus ticket or campsite permit. Notification is required at least 2 hours prior to departure in the case of shuttle buses and 6pm on the day of arrival for campsites. Any change will trigger this penalty. The policy for refunds is impossible. First, tickets are not mailed to you. They must be picked up at the Visitor Center in Denali. Second, the only way to obtain a full refund for a cancellation is to mail the physical ticket to Denali Park Resorts within 30 days of the event date. Impossible. If you cancel, how are you able to acquire the ticket that you're required to return by mail? Oh well, at least they're inexpensive.
There are other complicated, strict, and inexplicable policies, not least of which is the payment process. Also, you cannot mix communication channels; e.g. if you fax a reservation, Denali Park Resorts is unable to reference your reservation through a subsequent telephone call or mail correspondence.
The whole system is insane, I know. A partial answer why, might be that Denali Park Resorts is simply operating according to federally legislated NPS regulations; it just takes a lot of rules to cover every American citizen, every foreign visitor, and every situation. I also had a chance to chat with a Park Ranger at the Visitor Center about its complexity. There is some rationale to it. The National Park Service has decided to restrict people and traffic as much as possible, while giving the entire public reasonably absolute access. That impossible contradiction is the mission. Nationwide. The Grand Canyon had a rocky start implementing its shuttle bus program two years ago. Yellowstone is trying to ban snowmobiles. It's a zero-sum scenario not easy to apply. The reason for this policy is simply that many National Parks have exceeded their capacities for the presence of people and vehicles, endangering the very environment that makes them worthy of preserving.
There are many people who come to Denali without any plans at all. That adventurous spirit is essential to Denali and America's National Parks. They shouldn't be shut out; they have the right, a reasonable chance, to experience Denali in this spontaneous way. If all the campsites and bus seats were allocated by advance reservations, thousands of visitors would be left out in the cold when they arrive.
It helps to know all this, how the reservation system works, but it's also enough to know that everyone is welcome to Denali National Park and Preserve and will have a memorable experience.
To be sure, there are certain points along the highway that are worth taking special note. But by and large, the road is analogue, one long stretch of continuous beauty. There are no on-and-off mileposts which can define or capture Alaska’s hinterland. And, especially for a group like me and my friends sharing a rental van, the whole point of driving the George Parks Highway is to pull over wherever you feel like.
There are several topnotch websites on general Alaskan tourism, and I recommend starting at travelalaska.com for additional information on the route from Anchorage to Denali. None, however, will quite prepare you. It’s an easy drive, a moderately long one at 240 miles that will pass as one timeless inhale/exhale for the vistas, and the scale, of America’s "Last Frontier".
WasillaWasilla, 42 miles from Anchorage, has the last supermarket you’ll see for the next couple of days. Stock the cooler. Buy some snacks. Fill your cup with coffee. Etc.
WillowWillow, 27 miles from Wasilla, has the last gas station. Fill your tank with gas, no matter the gauge’s reading.
State Wayside Rest StopIf you need clean restrooms, sheltered ramadas, or large granite boulders that serve as tables, milepost 186 is the best place to stop. The tour buses originating from Anchorage go 10 miles further to a turnoff at the Broad Pass Summit for their mid-trip break. As for us, at Wasilla’s supermarket, everyone handed Tammy and Joey a 10-bill and asked them to surprise the rest of us with a full course picnic lunch. This was the perfect waypoint to enjoy our craft-your-own deli sandwich & scoop-your-favorite potato side roadside feast. The views from the rest stop gave us a good look at terrain changing into lush alpine tundra.
TalkeetnaI was a fan of a TV series from the late 80’s called ‘Northern Exposure’. Because of it, I have this romantic notion of the prototype small, isolated, eccentric and friendly frontier Alaskan town. A decision, on the fly so to speak, as we drove back to Anchorage on the Parks Highway, took us to Talkeetna and preserved this precious image I have.
We’d taken a leisurely morning’s leave of Denali, and were making good time. By the time we neared Talkeetna Junction at milepost 99, it was close to noon. We were getting hungry, and I think, itchy in each other’s close company on a road already traveled. We hadn’t planned it, but I took the junction. Fourteen miles along Talkeetna Spur Road, a country drive interspersed with houses and small patches of farmland, we rounded the wide arc of a meadow to see several modern structures, including a fire station garage. Slowing down along smaller and older buildings, the road abruptly ended in a 90 degree left turn onto packed dirt, apparently Main Street of the small town of Talkeetna. I saw several cars and railroad tracks to my right, so I turned that way instead and parked the minivan.
We did a sound check of our FRS two-way radios and dispersed, happy to be out of the van.
Main Street, all three blocks of it, was an interesting mix of craft stores, eateries, and a few souvenir shops. Nothing caught my fancy eye, as I hopped in and out of them. My nose though caught the unmistakable smell of a crab-boil from a restaurant with a narrow entrance.
Past the town’s corner petrol pump, the road took another sharp left. But, there was a footpath ahead through dense bush. The track opened up to reveal the magnificent sight of the convergence of the Talkeetna River and Susitna River. Walking a well worn path along the banks, I came to a cluster of buildings in the manner of alpine chalets. I went in and spoke with a woman at the desk of the Talkeetna Motel Restaurant & Lounge who confirmed my suspicions: it’s a good spot for river run salmon. But, she explained, most people charter boats.
Talkeetna is better known for mountaineering. Almost all attempts for the summit of Mount McKinley start here with registration at the National Park Service office across the street from the Talkteetna Motel. I don’t know how that works, but my bet is that the airstrip that runs through the middle of town has something to do with it, perhaps taking climbers aboard planes and helicopters to the mountain’s staging camps.
The airstrip notwithstanding, Talkeetna is a tiny town. There’s Main Street, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Street. And then, there’s B, C and D Street. Presumably, non-existent A Street is the footpath along the river. Seemingly every other house had a shingle or sign declaring itself to be a bed & breakfast inn.
One of my friends was calling in a hearty Boston-style clam chowder on the walkie-talkie at a place on Main Street. I can’t recall the name of the restaurant, but I did note its cute exterior, a converted country home painted yellow with white trim and an inviting screen door. And clam chowder sounded like good refueling grub for the final stretch of the highway back to Anchorage.