Everyone goes to Denali. Everyone. Sometime. Somehow. The most popular national park in Alaska's vast Interior region, it's one of few in the 49th state identified by one word. It's popularity is evident by the string of hotels, diners, gift shops--not to mention the Salmon Bake--along the George Parks Highway on the eastern edge of the park, known to locals as "Glitter Gulch."
Some love the glitter. Some loathe it. If you're among the former, enjoy. If you're among the latter, don't be turned off. Denali National Park and Preserve is 7,370 square miles of nothingness seldom visited by anybody. Imagine having the entire state of Massachusetts to adventure about, seeing ever fewer people the farther in you roam.
Touring this wilderness by bus, as most people do, is great. It's almost guaranteed you'll get to see grizzly bears, Dall sheep, wolves, caribou, ptarmigan, pikas, foxes, squirrels, and maybe some golden eagles, a moose or even a wolverine. The park encompasses two major mountain ranges--the Talkeetnas and Alaska Range--with glacier-covered peaks stretching on as far as the midnight sun shines.
If you're here on an organized tour (via cruise ship or other itinerary) your rump will be exhausted from all of the sitting you'll be doing. You'll be shipped into port, bussed to a hotel, corralled at feeding time, hauled to a train, carted up the Railbelt, trucked to a "resort," bused into the park, and all the while, generally regarded by most as so much cattle being rustled up the trail.
Do yourself a favor and schedule a day of solitude in Denali. If you need more sitting, take a guided bus tour to the Toklat River. If sitting has become too cumbersome, invite a friend or other adventurous traveler and head onto the Mount Healy Overlook Trail.
One of Alaska's best walk-up mountains
It was the first peak I climbed my first summer in Alaska. I dragged my teenage cousin up here with me from Texas to spend a summer working in the park, and then proceeded dragging him up every mountain I could. I hiked it again (and again) with friends from around the world that I met that summer, some of whom, like me, were so captivated by the state and its ways that we've been struggling not to stay here ever since.
Years later, as more family and friends ventured north to figure out what I was "up to" here, I took them to Mount Healy, too.
A sunny day promises breathtaking views of the Savage River drainage, Polychrome glaciers and the random glacial erratic--strangely abandoned, massive rocks left behind by the retreating glaciers of Alaska--that dot landscape between the park entrance and the sled dog kennels. I don't ever recall seeing the erratics (or any other of the truly "lifetime memories of Alaska" I have) from a bus.
Climb above the tree line and if you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley to the southeast. Keep walking up until you go through the rocky switchbacks near the first, false summit. See that sign that welcomes you to the top? Sit down, have some water and relax. Feel the cool breeze, and enjoy the quiet, since you're likely above the din of noise from approaching and departing bush planes--and you guessed it--all those folks being bused into and out of the park.
When the sweat has cooled, look up. There's a little animal trail that's likely been worn in by the Parkies (those kids with strange accents who sold you your Alaska shirt or sourdough breakfast). Start following it. You'll probably run into a few friendly people along the way.
Breathe deeply and thoroughly. Let go of whatever travel stress you're carrying and resolve to make more time to enjoy the fresh air. You'll be hard-pressed to find any air fresher than that on top of Mount Healy in Denali National Park.
About the Mount Healy Overlook Trail
Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com