Wild animals large and small roam un-fenced lands, living as they have for ages. Solitude, tranquility and wilderness await. — NPS
Our exploration of the great Denali National Park and Preserve began by boarding “The McKinley Explorer,” the train we’d be taking into Denali, at the Fairbanks train depot.
The train embarked on a three-hour journey through rugged and beautiful wilderness—over deep canyons and rivers, and through valleys of colorful mountains and vibrant vegetation. As we got closer to Denali, we saw rafters going down the rapids in the rivers below the train. It looked like an adventure!
We’d be spending the night at the McKinley Chalet Resort in the heart of the Denali Canyon. The surrounding mountains made for spectacular views no matter which direction you looked. After finding our rooms and dropping off our bags, we were off for our Denali Natural History Tour.
Our first stop was the park’s Visitor Center, where a short video outlined its history and how it was first created. It was opened in 1917, with the vision of protecting and preserving the wildlife populations that naturally lived in this area. However, the park received very few visitors for the first few decades, mainly because there weren’t many ways to get there!
The only access at that time was by bush plane or railroad. "Everything changed for the lightly visited park when a paved all-weather road, the north-south oriented Alaska Route 3, was completed in 1971 to link Anchorage and Fairbanks," a National Parks Traveler article explains. Also known as the "Parks Highway," this stretch of road delivers visitors right to the main park entrance at Riley Creek.
National Parks Traveler says:
It’s quite an understatement to say that the new highway access and shuttle road service triggered a dramatic increase in Denali visitation.
Sitting at six million acres, Denali National Park is absolutely massive—and it’s basically untouched wilderness! Apart from the highway and a few visitor centers and stops along the way, it’s a land of vast open valleys and mountain ranges. Its limited infrastructure is one of the reasons it’s such a haven for wildlife, and I had my fingers crossed that we’d see some of Alaska’s “Big Five” during our visit.
Our journey through the park began with a quick stop at “Savage Cabin,” where a park ranger told us some of the history of the cabin itself, as well as the first superintendent (and founder) of the park and what their duties were. He spoke as if it was still 1917, sharing what life here was like at that time.
We continued on up the road, stopping every so often to look for wildlife out in the tundra. Early on, we saw our very first moose of the trip! It was grazing through the trees a little way off in the forest. Most people had never seen a moose before, and the bus was abuzz with excitement.
We also stopped to see caribou, Dall sheep up on the mountaintops, and finally even a grizzly bear far off in the distance. Our tour guide had a powerful telescope that she’d set up at each stop, and we’d take turns looking through it at the different animals we came across. The view through that thing was pretty impressive. I could clearly see each animal walking and grazing its way through the bush, almost as if I was standing right next to it (which I’m glad I wasn’t!)
One of the park staff came onto the bus at one point to welcome us to the park and tell us about the mountain. Known as Alaska’s crown jewel, it was worshipped by the Native Athabascan people, and its elders named the mountain. The Athabascan word, Denali, means “The Tall One,” which needs no explanation given that it’s the highest peak in North America at 20,310 feet.
The majesty of the mountain and its wildlife bring thousands of tourists to the park annually, mostly in the summer months, while avid hikers and mountain bikers and climbers can be found exploring the park year-round.
Denali is now open, with some limitations and changes to services due to the pandemic. Be sure to visit the park’s website in order to plan your trip accordingly.