Denali – The High One

Denali – meaning “The High One” in Koyukon Athabascan – is known by many as Mount McKinley. 

The day we toured Denali National Park the namesake mountain was shrouded in clouds, a situation so commonplace we weren’t disappointed at not being able to see more than its base sloping up into the shrouding mist. In fact, a small industry exists to fly people up through the clouds for a bird’s eye view of North America’s highest summit. But with prices for those flights running hundreds of dollars per passenger, we figured we’d take our chances and wait for happenstance to put us on a plane flying near the elusive peak.

This past Friday, a flight from Point Hope to Anchorage via Kotzebue finally gave us the view we’d been hoping for. Denali’s rugged shoulders seemed to float on a sea of thick clouds. Barbra and I looked out our window awestruck as we contemplated the tectonic forces capable of thrusting this much solid granite nearly four miles above sea level.

In 2010, our trip to Denali National Park took place on a foggy day in mid-summer. The hills and valleys were verdant, wildflowers were in bloom and animals seemed to be everywhere. Ptarmigan burst from roadside cover, golden eagles soared overhead, moose browsed the willows along creeks, and Dall sheep – some with thick, heavy, fully-curled racks – dotted the slopes like tufts of white cotton. We saw three different sets of female grizzlies and their cubs, and after having heard wolves on different occasions while camping in Yellowstone and Yukon Territory, we finally saw a pack of wolves, males, females and cubs, resting and playing on a grassy hill. That alone made the trip to Denali worth it for us.

Although there is a very brief window in which a limited number of lottery winners (literally) are permitted to drive their own vehicles deep into the park, the more typical approach is to sign up for one of the bus tours. These shuttle tours are no frills, economical, and worth every penny. While we camped on the park’s outskirts (our campground neighbor showed us a photo of a lynx he’d seen the previous day), camping – both tent and RV – is available in the park as well. A 91 mile road – almost all of it unpaved – cuts through the heart of the park, but only the first 15 miles are open to the public. That’s where the bus tours come in. Backpacking permits are available as well.

We took the bus all the way to the end of the road at Wonder Lake, hoping against hope for a photo of The High One reflected in the lake’s glassy waters. No mountain, but lots of wild blueberries!