Denali National Park

"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit"
- Edward Abbey

We’re on our own. We reached Teklanika Camp, 30 miles in from the park’s entrance. On most other parks, there are village stores and markets where you can restock or grab any additional supplies. But not in Denali National Park. Once you’ve driven in past the 15 mile marker at Savage River, you don’t get to drive up and down the only road in the park at your leisure. You have to rely on the network of camper and visitor buses that travels further into the park. And there are no other stores or restaurant in the park. The word "wilderness" defines this park, and I haven’t been to any other park that lives up to that designation as much as Denali does.

The Koyukon Athabaskan tribes who have resided in these lands for hundreds of years called the 20,310 foot high mountain Dee-naa-lee, “The Great One.” But a gold prospector in 1896 named the mountain Mount McKinley after then newly elected President William McKinley. The name itself has been a source of contention for decades until President Obama directed the US Geological Survey to officially change the name back to Denali. The whole naming debacle is also symbolic of the struggle between nature and development in the park; and the painful recognition of this country’s appropriation of land from its original native residents.

We drove for about 3-hours from Anchorage to reach the park entrance and main visitor center. There is only one road in the park, it enters the valley from the Eastern side and runs through several mountain passes to its terminus in the Kantishna district (a former gold mining town). Private vehicles can traverse the road up to mile 15, beyond that you have to purchase a bus pass at the Riley Creek Campground store to go further into the park. You have the option of narrated and non-narrated buses, but really all of the bus drivers are very knowledgeable about the park and will tell you some history about the park along the way.

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Map from the official Denali NPS Website

Before reaching our campground, we first stopped at the Sled Dog Kennels by the park headquarters area. This is the only working dog kennel in the entire US parks system. Rangers rely on these specially bred Alaskan Huskies to take them deep into the wilderness where no motorized vehicles are allowed. These dogs work in the winter to take out trash and debris, assist rescue missions, carry supplies to the ranger outposts, and even help carry scientific devices or sensors as part of the various studies being conducted within the park.

But the best part… is that they get to chill by their houses in the summer while visitors come by and give them all the belly rubs and scritches they could possibly want. The rangers in the kennel also conduct demonstrations and talks several times a day to visitors. These dogs have been an integral part of the park for the 100-years of its existence, and it is wonderful that we get to interact with them.

It's a lousy job giving these each and every one of these dogs a belly rub... but somebody's gotta do it

We camped at Teklanika Campground at mile 30, a nice quiet little campground by the Teklanika braided river where ancient glaciers used to flow through.  The campground was well maintained with only functional amenities.  There are fresh water, RV hook-ups, and a food storage hut in every loop.  Other than that, there is only an outhouse and utility sink.

With the sun setting around midnight in the summer (and rises by around 3AM), I headed out to the river stream behind our campground.  By 10:30PM, the sun was low but still plenty bright.  And the mosquitos were abound.  Just one of the few things that makes photographing in this park challenging, but also very rewarding.

Teknalika River by the campground.  Shot before the midnight sunset whilst being swarmed by mosquitos.

As with majority of visitors to Denali, we mainly enjoyed the park through the windows of the visitor busses. On our first day, we took the bus all the way into Kantishna--with a few rest stops in between. Imagine it as an American Safari--as photographer Jonathan Irish described it--there’s a good chance that the bus will stop several times along the way to let visitors see the wildlife abound in the park. From Dall sheep, caribous, mooses, grizzlies, and wolves. We were lucky enough to be able to see all of them during our stay there.

A lone Dall Sheep on a steep rocky mountain.  The Dall Sheep is what inspired Charles Sheldon to push for the creation of the park.

But beyond the bus routes, the rest of the 6-million acres of land in the park are designated as wilderness. Which means, that there are no roads, no motorized vehicles, no established trails, no structures, and no campgrounds. You hike and explore at your own risk. Hikers should be experienced in navigating through the terrain and reading topographical maps to not get lost.

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And in the early summer, mother grizzlies will be rearing their young as they come out of hibernation. An especially protective time for them as they protect their cubs. We saw at least three sets of grizzly families while we were there. You should never backpack here without proper bear protection equipment.

Contrary to what most might think, the park didn’t include Denali mountain when it was established. When Charles Sheldon advocated for the protection of these lands, he did so to protect the unique Dall Sheeps and the other animals from being hunted to extinction from big game hunters and poachers. But what a landscape these animals have chosen as their home.

Spot the sow (momma bear) and her frolicking cub viewed from the Polychrome Overlook

Riding the bus, the best view really start to come into view after Sable Pass. Buses will stop at the Polychrome Mountains overlook where you can get a sweeping view of the multi-colored range. The colors comes from the variety of exposed rocks and minerals that the mountains are composed of.

Panoramic shot of the Polychrome Mountains, 9 stitched vertical exposures

Light is always fleeting in this park and gives off dramatic contrasts in the landscape.  There are stretches of clear sunny days, but mostly overcast and cloudy.  The sun would peak in through the breaks in the clouds, but will only last minutes at any given location.

And as you approach the Thorofare Mountain pass, Denali starts to come into view… if you’re lucky enough that is.

On average, this tallest peak in the American continent (>20,300 ft) is only visible 20-30% of the time, as the mountain generates its own climate and unpredictable weather. We had a glimpse of the summit on our first ride into the park, but by the time we got to Eielson visitor center at mile 65 it was completely obscured by clouds. We never saw the mountain again for the rest of our trip.

Like the mountain for those who have tried to summit it, Denali National Park may seem intimidating--at least it was for me. It is a wild, rugged, natural, untamed landscape. But that’s the way it should be. There should still be some lands that is still left to nature to tend and animals to roam, protected from the ever growing development that is our civilization. Somewhere where quietness is the norm, away from the noises of our everyday lives. Where it is not always accessible for everyone and anyone, except for those who’s willing to struggle to get there.  A desolate island of wild nature, where those who makes the effort to get there can have his or her own transformative experience. 

We didn’t get to see all of the park, didn’t even come close to venturing out to the wild. We only got a glimpse from the comfort and safety of our tour busses, as will most visitors. But that’s okay. That is what makes Denali so wonderful.

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