While the region spans more than six million acres, there is only a single road winding through it for 92 miles. Its solitude suits the serenity of the landscape. Most of the time, it’s the only trace of human intervention in the vast wilderness, and there’s a visual poetry in the way the road loses itself in the misty horizons. Only the first 15 miles of the route are paved, and only the National Park’s fleet of sightseeing and shuttle buses are allowed to brave the formidable twists and turns of the rest of the route.
The lack of traffic means that the landscape still looks the way it did a hundred years ago — or a thousand. This lack of human interference also means that there aren’t many marked trails. Throughout most of the National Park and Preserve, the Park Road is the main pathway for motorists, cyclists and hikers alike. But this is liberating, not confining.
Off-trail treks take travellers through boreal forests filled with birch and aspen; across taiga scrubland, where winter frosts segue into mosaics of ocher-toned wildflowers in the spring and summer; and along the sides of mountains, where towers of granite are topped with glaciers. And since the road bisects the whole park, an adventurer can navigate back to it with a simple compass. Once there, a shuttle should arrive within the hour.
The weather in Denali National Park is as varied and dynamic as its terrain. Clouds come and go, fog rolls in and out, and rain and snow can fall in any season. In wintertime, the Northern Lights glimmer in the nocturnal skies. And because many of Denali’s native species lie dormant through the long, dark winter months, summertime is teeming with life.
Dall sheep traverse the craggy outcroppings in the mountain passes; moose wade through the scrubby meadows around the Sanctuary and Teklanika Rivers and meander between low-lying trees. Grizzly bears forage for wild blueberries. Packs of wolves and herds of caribou also call Denali home, especially in the summer, as do elusive species such as lynx, wolverines and black bears. Many smaller mammals — marmots, pikas, arctic ground squirrels, snowshoe hares and red foxes, to name just a few — make their nests in the National Park.
Even when the wildlife seems evasive, it’s everywhere. Hikers should take a moment to close their eyes and meditate on the sounds that surround them. The calls of ravens, gray jays and mew gulls are ubiquitous; voles and shrews can sometimes be heard tunnelling underneath the snow. Golden eagles circle overhead, scanning the ground for prey. And if the animals really are staying out of sight, simply return to that lonely Park Road. Not only does it offer some of the finest vistas in Denali National Park, but the local fauna don’t fear it, and might be spotted whiling away the afternoon on a mountainside just above the bus.
Written by Dillon Ramsey
Photographed by Young Kim