Splendor in Alaska / Denali NP

From the open platform of the dome car, I can see ridges, glaciers and neighboring peaks, but the tallest mountain in North America is playing coy. “Is that Denali?” a little girl asks her father, pointing to a white pyramid floating on a blanket of clouds. Denali is another name for Mount McKinley, the centerpiece of Alaska’s Denali National Park and, 20,320 feet, North America’s highest peak.

We are en route to the Park via Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star train to Fairbanks. We pulled out of Anchorage at 8:15 am and were immediately in a land of birch forests, teal-blue lakes and steep mountains. The Gold-Star service offers a restaurant and dome cars with great views, but I preferred the covered train-top platform’s open-air perspective over the majestic landscape and tumbling rivers. The train gets to Denali at 4 pm, and to Fairbanks at 8 pm, a 12 hour journey.

Just south of Talkeetna, Denali comes into view though it is still more than 60 miles away. Talkeetna serves as launch point for climbers preparing ascents of the continent’s most dangerous peak. (With more than 100 deaths, it ranks on one list as the world’s 10th most dangerous climb, just behind Everest.) When the weather clears, ski-rigged bush planes scurry to get climbers to and from glaciers where their ascents begin and end before fickle weather closes in again. For more earth-bound travelers, Talkeetna is a popular, comfortable and funky vacation base for fishing, mountain biking, rafting and flying over Denali.

 



Four hours past Talkeetna, we reach the entrance of the six million-acre park. Yes, I want to see the 20,320-foot peak from as close as possible, but the bigger challenge, it seems, is seeing it at all. Because Mount McKinley soars a dizzying 18,000 feet above its base—in comparison, Mount Everest rises only 12,000 feet from base to peak—it creates its own weather. A park ranger that soft talks me about the landscapes and occasional fauna visible along the park’s single road. They’re reward enough, he says. Not for me. I love to stare at mountains, not just know they are there.

Private vehicles can’t go beyond 15 miles into the park, whereas the bus I boarded goes all the way—66 miles—to Eielson Visitor Center, the end of the line at the heart of the park. It’s an eight-hour round trip that includes stops to take in the McKinley massif, stretch our legs and breathe the mountain air. The drivers are experienced at spotting park wildlife: Arctic ground squirrels, marmots, beavers, snowshoe hares, bald eagles, Dall sheep, caribou, moose and the occasional grizzly. When you see one, they’re not much more than a brown dot on the hillside, the driver says.

Our bus meanders through stunning mountains, still partly snow-covered in June, past braided streams of glacial runoff and over expanses of treeless tundra. But it is the vastness of the surroundings that staggers the viewer.

At the Eielson Center, we are as close to Denali’s twin peaks as we can get without hiking cross-country or flying onto one of its many glaciers. I check out the indoor exhibits, then hike high up a hillside with a stunning view of Mount McKinley, which deigns to show itself for a quick 10 minutes. I sit in a field of delicate wildflowers: pink alpine azaleas, shooting stars, dwarf willows and bluebells. It’s hard to leave, so I stay until the last bus leaves.