Denali's Trailless Wilderness

Wild Denali

Denali summers are known for their long hours of daylight — more than 20 1/2 hours in mid June, when the skies never completely darken. They are also better known for overcast and drizzle than for sunshine, but Dan and I are blessed with three straight blue-sky days — perfect for tundra walks and ridgetop rambles.

One such ramble leads us to an unnamed 5,200-foot point where the wind is a constant presence, sometimes in gusts to 20 or 25 mph. The moving air is cool but the sun, thankfully, is warm, and we find a spot that's comfortable enough, when wrapped in several layers of clothing, to laze away much of an afternoon. This point is the highest piece of ground for miles around, except for nearby 5,923-foot Sable Mountain. Consequently it provides a nearly complete 360-degree panorama that takes in much of Denali National Park and Preserve (plus some peaks beyond), and we revel in the immensity of our wild surroundings. Dan, a 20-something red-haired and bearded geologist from Seattle, says it best:"At times like this, the English language fails."

A short distance to the northeast are craggy Igloo and Cathedral Mountains, two prominent Outer Range peaks whose bare slopes are brightly painted red, orange, yellow, and brown by iron-stained volcanics. Intermixed with the rocks are patches of deep-green tundra, now dotted white by a band of Dall sheep: Two dozen ewes and lambs and adolescents nimbly graze and scamper across Igloo's southern flanks. Beyond Igloo and Cathedral is the braided and glacially fed Teklanika River as it flows north out of the Alaska Range. And beyond Teklanika is Primrose Ridge, another Outer Range landmark that's popular with sheep and day hikers. The only evidence of a human touch upon this landscape is the park road; sections of it can be seen as a thin, beige line that winds past mountains and crosses streams.

Stretching from northeast to southwest is a wall of jagged, big-walled, knife-edged mountains, the large majority of them still unnamed. Several peaks feed glaciers, also mostly unnamed, and many are streaked or covered by snow, though most will turn brown and then green as June passes into July. A heavy blanket of cottony clouds hangs low over that sweep of Alaska Range peaks while higher in the sky, wispy cirrus float in a mostly blue sky.

Along the western horizon, piled high like scooped vanilla ice cream in a cone, cumulus clouds drop sheets of rain on the darkened Wyoming Hills, which also belong to the Outer Range. And to the north, gently rounded hills are dissected by hundreds of small creeks and gullies.

The vastness becomes too much to absorb. After a while I give up trying to identify things and instead choose to appreciate the Denali landscape, be overwhelmed by it. Then, moving in from the big picture, I turn my attention to the ridge-top tundra with its complex community of mosses, lichens, grasses, berry plants, heathers, dwarf willows, and wildflowers. None of them rise more than a few inches above the ground. Blue arctic forget-me-nots, white mountain avens, pink woolly lousewort, and purple oxytrope are among the flowers to bloom here in June. Looking for details I also notice an abundance of black tundra spiders and small numbers of bumblebees, butterflies, moths, and flies. But no mosquitoes. That's a pleasant surprise. Those who live in the Denali region say mosquitoes are usually at their worst from early June through mid July. Wet lowland tundra, like that in the Wonder Lake area, can be especially bad. Walking into the range we'd been attacked by mosquitoes, though not severely; but higher in the hills it's cool and breezy enough that we encounter few mosquitoes during our three-night stay.

The insects provide food for a variety of birds. An especially striking one that inhabits this valley is the horned lark, a ground-dwelling bird that nests in alpine tundra and has a fluid, bell-like song. Both males and females have mostly white faces with black stripes that curve downward from their bills to below their eyes. Tufts of black feathers form small black "horns" atop the lark's head, hence the name. Earlier in June, I watched a male horned lark perform a courtship flight: It would fly several hundred feet in the air, circle overhead while singing its high-pitched, bell-like song, then dive in a free-fall back toward the ground. Another eye-catcher is the snow bunting, a black-backed and white-headed and -bellied songbird that often nests on mountain ridges, beneath rocks, or in talus crevices.

Along the creek is a pair of wandering tattlers, a gray-bodied, yellow-legged variety of sandpiper known to nest along mountain streams. And lower in the valley, among the willow thickets, are several songbird species, including fox and white-crowned sparrows, and orange-crowned and Wilson's warblers.

Other local residents that we've been lucky enough to see are two pairs of black-billed magpies, which build large, domelike nests of twigs and branches in creek-bottom willow thickets; several ravens; two northern harriers; and a hoary marmot — a large gray-and-brown, grizzled-looking rodent that's known for its high-pitched whistled alarm. And lots of ground squirrels; they're everywhere, it seems.

No grizzlies so far, but lots of bear sign: old piles of berry-rich scat and large tundra excavations where they've been digging for squirrels.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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