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Thrill-seekers: Big truck tour offers Denali Park bus tour alternative

Jill Burke
Jill Burke photo

The last thing I expected to be doing last month was hoisting myself into a big green monster truck with oversized tires for a sightseeing tour of Denali National Park.

As someone who values pristine wilderness and its thoughtful stewardship, riding a machine with big tires and an engine powerful enough to power the rig through rivers and up steep grades didn't exactly fit my idea of a conscientious outing. And yet, on a Monday in June, I found myself excitedly meeting up with a guide, family in tow, for a ride we can't stop raving about.

I could tell you we chose the adventure for the kids, and it would be the truth. Well, half the truth. We knew our short-attention-span children would have a tough time on the park's conventional bus tours. We'd taken those full-day tours in previous years with other adult relatives -- trips we enjoyed and still remember fondly. But it would, we believed, be too much for the children. We knew our 13-year-old boy would be thrilled with the truck, and we took it as a good sign that it was painted green, his favorite color. But quietly, we were as excited about the prospect of this trip as we assumed the kids would be. 

We'd wanted a chance to get into the depths of the park without feeling hemmed in by a schedule too rigid for what our family would enjoy. As an alternative to the park's officially sanctioned bus tours and shuttles, we looked into flight-seeing tours and helicopter rides that would whisk you to glaciers, alpine hiking, or to great heights over the park's crown jewel, Mount McKinley. But they were generally short trips and significantly more expensive than land-based options. With our getaway weekend nearing its end, and with one day left to play, we settled on spending it with Denali Sightseeing Safaris.

The tours begin in Cantwell, at Mile 188 of the Parks Highway, about an hour's drive south of the park. Denali Sightseeing Safaris operates under a commercial use permit granted through the National Park Service, and is authorized to bring people into the park along the 100-foot-wide state-owned right of way, and take guests on day hikes.

This is where a few disclosures about the truck rides should be made. They don't drive into the heart of the park they way the main park road does, some 93 miles to the historic Kantishna Gold Mine. This tour takes advantage of the park's southeastern boundary, navigating a road that isn't fit for passenger vehicles and is used only by a handful of miners and hunters. Glacial rivers, including the Chulitna, interrupt the path as it weaves through valley brush and high into the alpine tundra to the Golden Zone gold mine. It's difficult to imagine anything other than Denali Sightseeing Safaris' trucks getting through.

Honestly, the scenery on our tour was as stunning as anything I've seen when I've traveled the direct routes into the park. And our guide was a gem -- knowledgeable, personable and patient. Steve Voth, the company's owner, had told us they could customize a tour to suit our inclinations, a point he wasn't overselling. The kids wanted to try gold panning, so the guide made sure we had gold pans stashed in the truck before we left. A side stop below the ruins of an historic mine long abandoned made a good gravel bed lunch spot, and doubled as our own Gold Rush camp. Swirling the water and silt through their pans, the kids were delighted to find flakes of gold emerge before them.

With the exception of two hikers at the beginning of our day, we never saw another person. It was just us, the truck and our guide. We were rewarded with catching sight of a blonde grizzly bear lumbering across a mountainside. For 45 minutes, we watched as the bear crossed snowfields and gravel patches, and sat for rests. We also caught glimpses of dozens of caribou, some near streams, others high atop ridge lines. Beavers rounded out our trip's wildlife menagerie for the day. Sweeping views of mountains, alpine tundra, valleys and rivers also graced our journey.

This was a great way to spend a low-key day with the family with high reward. The trucks are impressive, but it was really our guide's knowledge and patience -- his willingness to let us explore at our own pace and focus on our own interests -- that made the trip for us. We can't wait to get grandma on board!

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com