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Thread: The Panorama of Denali

  1. #1

    Default The Panorama of Denali

    June 6, 2004

    The Panorama of Denali


    NOTHING could have prepared me for the riveting view 10,000 feet over Denali National Park and Preserve, the vast wilderness in Alaska. We had taken off just 20 minutes before, passengers in a 10-seat single-engine turboprop, ascending over flat green and brown earth punctuated by water pooling on the tundra. But the green turned white as we neared the snowy Alaska range, and the terrain gained texture and clarity, as if we were peering through a microscope of increasing power.

    We passed over Ruth Glacier, a narrow, winding river of ice carved with deeply grooved channels. Then came the ridged Tokositna and Kahiltna Glaciers, each flowing stolidly on its own path. Dodging clouds, we approached the twin peaks of Mount McKinley, the tallest point in North America at 20,320 feet.

    Great swaths of Alaska are unreachable by car. You cannot drive directly between Juneau and Anchorage, for example. For most Alaskans, the solution is to travel by small plane. And so it seemed like a great idea to fly over the southern tier of Denali, likewise inaccessible by car, to get a close-up view of its icy panorama.

    At a mind-boggling 6.075 million acres, Denali is by far bigger than any national park in the other 49 states. It's bigger than Massachusetts.

    But in Alaska, the sense of scale changes: Denali is only the third largest national park in the state, after Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic. Short of a weeklong camping trip, a mountain-climbing expedition or a lucky glimpse through a windshield and past the clouds, a small plane is the only way to see the mountains up close.

    My wife, Deborah, two sons, Jack, 12, and Peter, 11, and I flew to Anchorage last August as guests of our friends Gordon Wright, conductor emeritus of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra, and Edith Rohde, a writer. From our home base, Gordon's cabin in the Chugach foothills just east of Anchorage, we planned to drive up together to the entrance of Denali, just north of Cantwell, 237 miles.

    We would stop over at Talkeetna, a sleepy town once so wary of human traffic that it successfully lobbied the state to bypass it when building the highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Reachable now by a 13-mile spur road, Talkeetna has since accepted the inevitable necessity of catering to tourists and is a center for Denali flight-seeing, as they call it.

    Though we had reservations on a 4:30 p.m. flight, our takeoff was in doubt until the last minute. Weather in Alaska is often unpredictable, and heavy clouds obscuring the mountains would have made the flight pointless. What's more, after looping around Mount McKinley, our flight plan included a landing on a glacier, and heavy fog the last few days had left our pilot, Doug Hayden, uncertain about whether that would be possible.

    By late afternoon, though, the weather turned bright and brisk, with just enough fluffy clouds to add texture to the sky. Mr. Hayden decided not only that the flight was on, but that he was game for the glacier landing. So we fitted ourselves with galoshes, supplied by the tour company, and boarded the plane.

    As we circled the peaks, Mr. Hayden found clear paths through the clouds, dipping and turning one way and then the other so that people on both sides of the plane would have equal views. As we looped around McKinley, we had to look up from the plane to see the peak.

    Mr. Hayden's plan was to land on a glacier at the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, a bowl-shaped field south of McKinley's peak named after a pilot who had pioneered landing on glaciers. From above, the snow looked soft and swirly, but the plane, outfitted with skis, took the landing smoothly, almost.

    "There'll be a bump here," Mr. Hayden predicted. BAM! "And another." BOOM.

    And then we glided to a stop.

    After a warning to remain on the areas packed down by previous landings, we stepped out onto the impossibly clean snow. We all picked up handfuls and put them to our mouths, where it melted, pure and clear. We walked, pranced, and took pictures, quietly inhaling the majesty and sublime silence of the surrounding peaks.

    After 20 minutes we took off. Leaving the icebound landscape, we flew in low to Talkeetna, counting moose before softly touching down. Our legs still tingling, we got back on the road, heading north through the lingering twilight for a couple of hours to our lodging near the park entrance.

    We were up early the next morning and arrived at the Denali park headquarters around 9 a.m. Unless you have a camping permit, private vehicles are not permitted past Mile 15, which is a good thing. The narrow road, often dirt or gravel, twists and turns without guardrails as it ascends through earth-toned hills. The sheer drops require total concentration on the road, and that's the last place you want to look, especially with a couple of excited boys in the back.

    The park's solution is to offer shuttle buses to various destinations in the park. The round trips can last anywhere from 6 to 11 hours, and they allow passengers to focus on the wildlife.

    The Denali tundra is home to many large mammals, including moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, wolves, fox and lynx, along with myriad smaller mammals and birds. They've co-existed for generations with the buses, the park rangers like to say, and so many don't regard their approach as cause to run.

    Our bus, to Eielson Visitor Center and back, a 10-hour round trip, covering about 130 miles, left promptly at 9:30. The driver asked us to call out if we saw any animals, but cautioned us that the day before, he had seen only two caribou on an entire trip.

    This didn't so much diminish expectations as heighten desperation among the passengers who, bearing cameras and binoculars, craved any kind of sighting. And so, when a passenger spotted a distant speck on a ledge near the Savage River, about 20 minutes into our journey, and identified it as a caribou, everyone else, led by Jack and Peter, pressed onto that side of the bus for a glimpse.

    Shortly after, somebody else spotted a bear - well, actually a tan-and-silver blob far off in the distance. It was, in fact, a bear, not a garbage-pawing, beggarly bear, but a grizzly, in the wild. Our appetites were whetted.

    As we rounded a bend, our driver pointed to a cloud-obscured Mount McKinley far in the distance. I concentrated instead on the vista nearer to us, gorgeous multihued foothills rightly called the Polychrome Mountains.

    We ascended on the dusty road through Sable Pass, known for its grizzlies, and past the East Fork of the Toklat River, where we were told a wolf pack lives. We passed spindly spruce and occasional wildflowers, but saw no animals. But as we pulled up at a rest area at Polychrome Pass, a ranger greeted us with word that a grizzly sow and cub had been spotted nearby.

    We all hustled up to a ridge. From there, we glimpsed the bears, bounding and galumphing down a hill to a pond. The sow was light-colored, almost blond, characteristic of the bears in Denali, the ranger said. The cub was browner.

    Somehow, the two bears became separated, and a group of tourists wandering off another bus were caught in between. With horrific visions of a mauling, we were transfixed, waiting for the mother to notice its missing cub and charge. Luckily, the cub realized it was missing and swung harmlessly around the group to rejoin its unobservant mother.

    Fortified by the drama, we stopped for a picnic lunch at Eielson, where Jack and Peter took full advantage to pose for pictures wearing caribou antlers. I assumed the ride back would be slow and sleepy, and it was, with only a few ravens in the air and the white dots of Dall sheep feeding on alpine pastures high up in the ridges.

    Then suddenly, on the road in front of us stood a big stray sheep, white as a unicorn, with two arcing horns and contrasting black eyes and lips. The sheep looked at us before turning into the deep bushes and prancing off. "That's a new one on me," our driver said.

    It was just the beginning of the excitement. Soon, another grizzly sow and cub were spotted, trotting along, close enough to see their rounded ears and the brownish humps on their backs. Unexpectedly, the mother took off in a gallop downhill, then skidded to a halt and started to dig furiously.

    Rapt, we watched as she flushed a ground squirrel and grabbed it in her paws. Quickly, she gulped it down, ignoring the entreaties of her cub. She headed off, the cub trailing behind like a disgruntled child.

    Finally, the cub caught up and the sow cuffed it, right and left, smack on the snout. It's hard to tell whether this was play or punishment for straying.

    From there back to the headquarters, two hours away, it was a procession of wildlife. Powerful caribou bulls, bending their heavy antlers to the grass to feed before trotting off. Then, more magnificent bulls, even closer, and finally, a huge moose cow, leaping out onto the road, and then darting into the bush.

    We got off the bus, exhilarated. As we left the park, we saw another car pulled off to the side of the road. Their wildlife antenna in full quiver, Jack and Peter insisted we stop to investigate.

    We found a bull moose feeding in a little marsh, snout and antlers dripping as it regarded us in its slow, imperious, moose-ish way. It's safe to say that in few places other than Alaska will you find yourself face to face with a moose and feel as if you're looking in a mirror.

    Visitor Information

    Getting Around

    Like all of Alaska's major roads, the George A. Parks Highway, or Highway 3, connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks, is marked every mile, in its case indicating distance from Anchorage. The Milepost, an annual guide that offers a mile-by-mile log of almost every major route in Alaska, lists scenic spots, turnoffs, hotels and restaurants, and addresses and phone numbers. The 2004 edition cost $25.95 plus $4 shipping from (800) 726-4707 or; it is also in many major bookstores.

    Reputable flight-seeing operations are scattered from Anchorage to Fairbanks, with perhaps the biggest concentration in the town of Talkeetna, about 115 miles north of Anchorage.

    K2 Aviation, Post Office Box 545-B, Talkeetna, Alaska 99676, (800) 764-2291,, offers several tours of the Alaska Range and Mount McKinley, from about 60 minutes to 2 hours, on one- or two-engine aircraft for 4 to 10 passengers. Prices range from $140 to $260 a person, plus $60 a person for a glacier landing. As with all Denali arrangements, it's wise to reserve as far in advance as possible. The 50 percent deposit is fully refundable if a flight is canceled because of weather.

    In the park, the Denali shuttle bus runs along the mostly gravel 91-mile park road, from the park headquarters to the Kantishna District, past several campgrounds, rest areas and a visitor center. At almost any point, you can get off to explore the wilderness on foot, then get on another passing bus to continue the trip.

    Depending on the weather, the buses generally run from mid- or late-May to mid-September. Round-trip fares range from $18 to $34.50 a person. Reservations are recommended, from (800) 622-7275 or at Information: Denali National Park Visitor Center, Post Office Box 9, Denali National Park, Alaska 99755, (907) 683-2294, or

    Where to Stay

    Lodging from the most frugal hostels to luxury resorts can be found anywhere from Cantwell, several miles south of the Denali entrance, to Healy, several miles to the north. There are several small wilderness lodges in the Kantishna district, private land within the confines of Denali, which can cost upward of $300 a person a night, with all meals.

    We stayed in Denali Cabins, at Mile 229 of the Parks Highway, (888) 560-2489, This clutch of 45 pleasant cedar log cabins with private baths and TV's, plus two outdoor hot tubs is eight miles south of the park entrance. Doubles are $159 and suites for up to six are $199.

    Where to Eat

    McKinley Creekside Cafe, at Mile 224, (907) 683-2277, is a relaxed, moderately priced place, with big, tasty breakfasts, good sandwiches and burgers, enormous desserts and a good selection of beers. The Creekside Cafe also packs breakfast or lunch ($5 to $13) for the shuttle bus ride. Dinner is no more than $60 for two.

    ERIC ASIMOV is chief wine critic of The New York Times.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


  2. #2


    Mount McKinley has the largest vertical relief from the surrounding hills of any mountain on earth, which must make it as visually impressive as higher summits (in a less extreme environment). Aesthetically, I find the double peak slightly disconcerting; in some views it seems divided, interrupted or even flattened - if not simply awkward. It adds to the sheer mass but Denali certainly lacks Mount Fuji's grace.

  3. #3


    Mount Fuji is probably the most perfectly shaped volcanic cone (I can't think of a better one). Some of the Cascade Mountain volcanoes look similar, but only from certain angles. The topography is more complex (Shasta has 4 vents) and glacial erosion collapses the slopes.

    Denali reminds me of the Grand Tetons, except for the scale. It seems ridiculous saying that about Wyoming.

  4. #4
    Forum Veteran krulltime's Avatar
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    Sep 2003
    Manhattan - UWS

    Default Re: The Panorama of Denali

    Now that is breath-taking.

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