The Alpenglow of Denali

“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” – John Muir

This was it. Denali, the park that changed my life forever. I obsessed over Alaska for four years because of that incredible mountain. I saw it for the first time in 2012, two days after the summer solstice. I remember cycling on the park road all night under the twilight of the Alaskan summer, easily the most backbreaking ride I’ve ever done. I climbed over hill after hill, hours beyond my threshold of exhaustion. I was getting schooled on what it is like to go beyond wherever your limits are, only to find out that you’re not even close to your goal. Finally, I cleared one last big hill to the first overlook, and saw Denali thundering into the morning sky, five times as high as I remembered in my dreams. It shattered my whole world. But little did I know that it would make me into what I am today: A traveler.

Since that trip, I have traveled as often as possible by train, foot, bicycle, or raft. And I’ve seen a lot of amazing places. But nearly every day for years, Alaska was on my mind. It was time to come back and finish what I started.

The first place to go on my trip back was Wonder Lake, a scenic area at Mile 85 of the park road. It is about twenty miles further than where I ended my trip last time. I originally planned to see it then, but was way too fucking exhausted to go any further than the Eielson center that day.

I boarded a Denali-bound train from Anchorage on a cloudy Saturday morning, got to the park in the afternoon, and camped at Riley Creek, a large campground by the welcome center. Early the next morning, I loaded my bike and gear on a shuttle bus for the Wonder Lake Campground, where I planned to spend up to a week waiting out the clouds, which more often than not will cover over the mountains. But if luck will have it, the mountains will eventually clear, giving me the pictures I had hoped to get four years ago. The north face of Denali and the majesty of the Alaska Range above a large open plain of forests, lakes, and rivers. This time I would get it – this time with better gear and experience.

The shuttle was full of backpackers who planned for days or weeks of hiking in the backcountry. As the bus went along the turns of the outer range, sheets of clouds and rain bombarded the mountains, clearing just long enough to reveal a fresh dusting on the high ridges. Occasionally, the driver stopped to point out moose our caribou walking through the tundra fields. I hadn’t yet adapted to the time change, and my caffeine addiction was killing me.

After a few hours, the rain backed off to occasional breaks of sun between the dark clouds. We got to the Wonder Lake Campground in the early afternoon, which sits on a hillside of tundra facing the Alaska Range, 20 miles to the south. I managed to find a campsite and set up about an hour before the next shower. From there, I waited out the bad weather for better fortune.

I hiked for a few hours on the McKinley River Bar Trail to the edge of the McKinley, a huge braided river that flows out from the north side of the range. The trail starts through about a mile of tundra, stream crossings, and kettle ponds before going through a dense taiga forest, and then stopping abruptly at a rushing channel of the river. From here, people who want to hike the further reaches of the backcountry will scout out the McKinley’s elaborate braid system and ford the shallowest channels they can find. Instead, I went back.

Later that evening, a ranger gave a presentation at the small amphitheater next to the campground. The life of a park ranger in Denali. He summarized the history of the NPS and the park, and told us what it was like to live out there every summer. Behind him, the evening sun lit up the forests under dark summer clouds, which still blocked the high mountains. That night, I slept under scattered showers.

I finally got my break the next morning. The clouds started clearing up, revealing the curves of Wickersham Wall against the blue sky. Soon, Denali and the sister mountains were in the clear, standing high above the countryside in resounding glory. The evening sun descended slowly in the north, casting alpenglow on the high mountains.

It was game time. I am going to timelapse the shit out of this. I got on my bike with my camera gear and rode a few miles out to Reflection Pond, a classic vantage point where many a famous picture of Denali has been taken and remembered. I set up my camera across the pond, programming the shutter to hit every 5 seconds as the orange glow of sunset left the mountain. Slowly, it blended from orange to pink, to lavender, to pastel blue, and then finally bright colors again in the early morning. All while a solitary duck swam around the pond. All while the park slept under the twilight of the summer night. All while my camera clicked away, burning, forever burning the landscape into memory.

At about 5, I took my camera to a hill next to Wonder Lake, another famous overlook a few miles away. By now, the Alaska Range was blazing in white under a crisp blue sky, and the park was waking up from one of the shortest nights of the year. The sun crested over the hills to my left, slowly casting light onto the trees ahead, while ripples of wind blurred the glassy lake below. This moment was every bit as glorious as I had hoped it to be. There’s not enough breath in a lifetime to fill that sky.

I loaded my bike on a shuttle bus a few hours later and rode 25 miles up the park road to Stony Hill. I spent the next few hours flying back out of the range and onto the open plain towards the campground, curving around the hills of the tundra fields. This was my favorite part of the park. While pretty much any mountain in that park could be its own postcard, the panorama here was by far the most dramatic. The outer range to the east, the Muldrow Glacier and Alaska Range to the south, and more kettle ponds and waterfowl than you could even begin to count. I was all out in it. It was so fucking awesome.

I got what I wanted. Finally, after all this trouble. Denali, the crown jewel of Alaska, in a rare moment of clarity. For the longest time, this was the holy grail of my whole traveling world. And I got it, finally, after four years of wanderlust. So when I got back to my campsite that afternoon, something unexpected happened. I wanted to leave.

How was that possible after everything I had put into this? I think some of it was definitely the fact that I felt like shit for lack of sleep. I was also starting to miss the comfort of showers, laundry, internet, red meat, and beer. I was getting sick of my backpacking food, and liked the mosquitoes even less.

But I think the bigger thing was that I felt like I saw everything that I came there to see. It was sort of like going to an art museum and eventually getting tired of looking at really cool art for two hours. Well, I guess I was tired of looking at Denali for hours and hours, as hard as that was to believe. Wonder Lake was every glorious thing that people had to say about it, but I was done. I took a bus back to the headquarters early the next morning and camped for the remaining days in the shade and comfort of Riley Creek. As soon as I got back, I went straight for the park restaurant for a burger of champions.

Riley Creek is a large campground in the shade of the forest, which was exactly what I wanted on a hot day like that one. That afternoon, I was in the middle of sorting out my gear when I heard a voice behind me: “Hey, you want to see a moose?” It was Allison, a woman from North Carolina who was visiting the park for a few days before a business trip to Anchorage. I agreed, and we quietly snuck 30 feet away from a female laying down in the trees. A minute later, its calf walked up to it, and they both wandered off. They continued to hang around the campsite for days, much to the curiosity and worry of the visitors, probably because the mother knew that predators tend not to be a problem at loud campgrounds. Moose are usually irritable and dangerous, but they seemed to know that the people around didn’t want to bother them.

Allison and I left early the next day to hike up to the Mount Healy overlook, which is a sharp 1700ft gain up the mountainside right next to the headquarters. It was a steep, exhausting climb up the face of the mountain and took hours. But we finally managed to scramble onto a bare, rocky outcropping and see a great view of the Nenana River Valley. To the right, the ridge system went on for 10 miles before it would slope downward to the Savage River. The very top of Denali could be seen above the mountains to the west, only a few hours before it would hide in the clouds again. The haze of wildfire smoke blew in from the valley to the east. Down below, the thin strip of the Parks Highway followed along the glimmering Nenana River.

We made our way back down the mountain, got lunch at the park restaurant, and Allison left on a tour shuttle bus to see the park road. I went back to camp. And for the first time in weeks, I did nothing.

The next day was our last one in the park, and we agreed on one last vitally important thing to see: The Sled Dog Demo.

These dogs are a very big part of the work that goes into maintaining the park. In the winter, rangers use them to access areas of the park where vehicles obviously can’t get to. They grow and train the dogs at the kennels close to the main headquarters and take them out on practice runs all summer long.

Three times each day, they have sled dog demonstrations, where a ranger comes out to tell large groups of visitors about the dogs and their history and use at the park. Then they bring out one of the sleds and have some of the dogs run a loop right in front of the audience. Whenever they do this, the dogs go completely nuts.

And finally, everybody goes over to the kennels to take pictures and pet the dogs. The rangers believe that socialization is a very important part of their training, and encourage tourists to visit and pet them. Cause after all, a social dog is a happy dog.

Allison and I agreed that it was a motherlode of cute. I mean look at those guys. They redefine badass. It was a good final note to end this chapter of our adventures. Soon, we boarded the southbound rail and shared a seat in one of the dome cars. Her exhaustion finally got the best of her and she passed out in the seat. I continued to watch the forests and mountains go by.

I got out at Talkeetna and she continued on her journey southward. The train rumbled and faded into the distance and all was quiet at the depot. I wasn’t done with Denali yet. I got on my bike and made for the hostel.

This story continues in the South Foothills.