Back to Nature in Denali National Park

Gorp.com

Larger than the state of Massachusetts and crowned by 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak, Alaska's Denali National Park exemplifies the state's oft-heralded enormity. Over 6 million acres of alpine and dry tundra, rivers, glaciers, lakes, and endless backcountry offer downright obscene opportunities to hike, fish, mountain bike, and raft, while a diverse animal population assures a safari-like experience minus the exorbitant costs of an African expedition.
Denali's untapped and diverse ecosystem has everything to do with the park's allure. Despite easy access from both Fairbanks and Anchorage, its wilderness remains as pure as it was when only Inuit and animals occupied the tundra, largely because only one road penetrates the parkland—a road that is closed to private cars. Bus trips can be arranged for up-close exposure to all of Denali, but two-wheel enthusiasts should tackle the road via mountain bike, which will free you from the doldrums of a set itinerary. Hikers, meanwhile, can embrace the notion of carte blanche: simply grab a backcountry permit, pick a direction, and head off across the trail-less terrain—34 official campsites across the tundra make for good places to bed down under the midnight sun. If you favor trailheads, the 2.5-mile Mount Healy Overlook Trail near the park's entrance provides grand views of the surrounding land and the massive peaks of the Alaskan Range.
The best way to witness Denali's true heartland, however, is to get well away from the park's bottlenecked entrance and spend a few days at one of its four wilderness lodges. Three of the lodges—North Face Lodge, Denali Backcountry Lodge, and Kantishna Roadhouse—are located in the Kantishna District, while the fourth, Denali Wilderness Lodge, is located in the remote Wood River Valley and is accessible only by bush plane. Hand-hewn log cabins, sweeping views of Denali, saunas surrounded by evergreens, and soft leather sofas in front of stone fireplaces are the rule here. Each lodge has its specialty: The North Face Lodge, near Moose Creek, has some of the best fishing, while Denali Wilderness Lodge is the place to go for horseback riding. Denali Backcountry Lodge, located at the end of the park road, utilizes vehicles permitted for wildlife observation, while Kantishna has a hotel feel (read: less expensive) with daily activities that include hikes, wagon rides, gold panning, and horseback riding.

Published: 9 Jul 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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