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  • Writer's pictureSandy Snyder

Denali National Park

After fishing our fingers off, we headed north again through Anchorage and up the Parks Highway toward Denali National Park and the mountain that used to be called “Mount McKinley” for over a hundred years. In 2015, the US government changed the formal name back to the original name, Denali, meaning “the great one”. And it is great – the summit of Denali is not only the highest point in North America, over 20,000 feet, but the mountain itself is taller than Mt. Everest, since Everest sits on a base of other mountains.

Ruth Glacier We stopped overnight in the town of Talkeetna, a kitschy little place overrun by tourists. Cruise ship passengers arrive by the busload to ride the Alaska Railroad and try to catch a glimpse of Denali. It’s a tourist train in the summer, but throughout the year, it’s also the only transportation link for many people who live in tiny towns and homes in the “bush”. Residents can flag down the train anywhere with a white cloth. We had booked a “flightseeing” tour of Denali with Talkeetna Air Taxi, and once again scored the only good flying day in weeks. (A few days before, four Polish tourists and pilot were killed when their plane apparently flew through clouds straight into a mountain.)

The flight was magical. Our pilot flew around the three main peaks of the area, turning the plane (again a de Haviland Otter built in 1954) so that we could all see all sides of the great mountain and nearby peaks. He narrated the flight, telling us the history of the area and the climbers and climbing routes used to scale the summits. We then flew along Ruth Glacier and landed in an amphitheater-like area right on the glacier, where we climbed out an walked around on the snow.

It was pretty wild to watch the other planes land and take off, as they landed going uphill and took off going down a hill like a ski run to gain speed. The whole plane would disappear over the edge and reappear far away as it climbed.

We learned that the Ruth Glacier travels through an area called the Great Gorge with 5,000 foot walls. Since the glacier is about 3800 feet thick going through the gorge, the total depth is over 8,500 feet, making it the deepest gorge in the world. Tom and I agreed that the flight was the best one-day experience of our lives.

The next day, we drove to the National Park and camped for five nights in the Teklanika campground, 30 miles inside the park. The park manages crowds well, restricting both driving and camping. The only way to see the park is to take a bus ride – or ride your own bicycle or hike. We took the long bus ride to the Eilson Visitor Center, and again realized our previous good fortune in seeing wild animals and Denali in 2007. The weather was cold and cloudy most of the time we were in the park, and we could see caribou, mountain goats, and bears only as dots through the bus windows. Back at the campground, we huddled in the camper and sat under the awning to avoid the rain. Maggie has enjoyed the strange smells at these campgrounds, but is perfectly happy taking short bathroom break walks and sleeping under the table on these rainy days.

I’ve added some more photos of Denali, mostly to show how useless it is to try to capture the size, majesty and absolute desolation of this place. Distances are deceiving – as you drive along the park road, the nearest mountains are about 10 miles away. The “meadows” between the road and the mountains are really springy tundra covered with thigh-high bushes and populated by wolves, caribou, and bears. That’s the way this whole state is – we humans are dwarfed by the size of the landscape.

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