Our National Parks are the best our country has to offer, and the two featured in this special adventure are some of most magnificent of the planet. Denali is a wilderness of uniqueness known far and wide, from the great mountain itself to the expansive alpine vistas that best allow witness of its wild inhabitants of bear, moose, caribou and wolves.
We'll camp two nights in our own little spot with views of, "The Mountain" (should it deign to show!), with a full day into the center of the park and several hikes to savor its singular nature. From here we cross the haunting Denali Highway to lodge in cabins at Meier's Lake before heading to the heart of our largest National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias.
Situated just outside of the ghost town of McCarthy, our wonderfully private island camp is overlooked by the great glacial icefalls, with McCarthy Creek flowing just in front of the tents. Here for two nights, we'll wander the abandoned town and mine of Kennicott and onto the face of the Root Glacier to marvel at this exquisite environment.
To balance the land lubbing so far, next it's off to Valdez over Thompson Pass to lodge in a B & B, before crossing Prince William Sound the next day (more darned glaciers) by ferry. Arriving in Whittier for a mountain tunnel passage back to Anchorage allows one to reflect on the depth and breadth of the worlds just experienced. It's only seven days, but it's a lifetime of memories.
Day 1: The adventure begins at 8AM, meeting in downtown Anchorage at the Susitna Place B&B, unless otherwise previously arranged. From here we'll head northward with a quick stop in Wasilla at the headquarters for the 1000 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race. The displays and short video here give a good insight into dog mushing in general, as well as the lifestyle and the commitment it takes to train for and run the Iditarod itself.
Pushing northward towards the beacon of North America's highest peak Denali (also still referred to as Mt. McKinley), we'll enter into the great Alaska Range of mountains which serves as the divide between the vast drainages of the Yukon to the north and the Matanuska-Susitna Rivers to the south. The location of our hike this afternoon will depend upon recent weather and trail conditions, but will certainly feature some wonderful scenery and the possibility of coming across wildlife such as moose or caribou. Our alpine camp for the next two nights is a private one on a bluff overlooking Jack River, with The Great One, Denali, hopefully deigning to fill our tents' doors . . .
Day 2: In the morning we'll drive the last 30 miles northward to the entrance of Denali National Park. A stop at the Visitor's Center will better acquaint us with Denali, and it is here that we will board a Park Service bus to travel into the Park, as the vast interior is closed to private vehicles. The round trip is a full day, and opportunities are some of the best anywhere for wildlife viewing. And then there's the scenery . . . chances are very good to see bears, caribou, moose, and possibly even wolves.
Photographic possibilities are excellent, as the bus will stop at any desired location at the group's request. In the late afternoon when we exit the Park, our legs will most likely demand a stretch and a variety of trails await. Should the weather be cooperating, another highly recommended option is flightseeing from a nearby airstrip (cost approx. $200-275/person). It's a truly indescribable experience to witness the stark and formidable higher elevations from this perspective --and if "The Mountain" is "out", then there's just no question. It's then back to our camp for dinner and an evening tundra exploration.
Day 3: After breakfast we'll pack up and turn east to cross the spectacular Denali Highway. It is a 135 mile gravel road across wide valleys, alpine tundra and haunting scenery that is open only in the summer months and the only road through this remote area. Crossing glacial river and lake country, wildlife viewing opportunities abound in this large stretch of wilderness inhabited year-round only by the occasional trapper and wilderness hermit. We'll stop along the way at a couple of the unique establishments to mingle with some of the locals.
After crossing the beautiful Maclaren River we will gradually climb up to Maclaren Summit (elev. 4082 ft), the second highest point on Alaska's road system. Here we will leave the van for a great ramble above treeline, walking north towards the impressive Maclaren Glacier and mountains of the Alaska Range. This alpine tundra hike is spectacular, allowing for expansive views in all directions. Numerous kettle lakes dot the landscape and the possibility of seeing migrating caribou is good.
After reaching Paxson, we will turn north on the Richardson Highway and depart the road to reach the base of the imposing Gulkana Glacier for a quick hike across a swinging bridge and onto the glacier's terminal moraine. A few miles south we'll find our dinner, and evening's lodging in the comfortable rooms of the scenic Meier's Lake Roadhouse.
Day 4: The Richardson Highway, following the old Valdez-Eagle trail, leads us southward through Glennallen to the Visitor Center of our nation's largest National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias. An undeveloped jewel, the Park coupled with the adjoining Kluane National Park of Canada, is the largest piece of protected wilderness on the planet. We'll pick up a one-lane abandoned railroad grade at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers, that leads us 60 miles into the center of the Park and the near ghost towns of McCarthy and Kennicott.
The road ends at the Kennicott River, with public access to McCarthy limited to a footbridge. We though, will utilize a private vehicle bridge to access our own private facility on the island between the Kennicott River and McCarthy Creek. It's truly a fantastic spot with views in all directions, from the towering icefalls up high, to the glacial creek tumbling just out front. Legs and palates will no doubt demand a short walk to the tiny ghost town of McCarthy (possibly wetting whistles at the unique tavern/watering hole) followed by an "untrailed" hike over the glacial moraine below where the Kennicott and Root glaciers join.
It's an eery landscape seemingly of another planet, and darned beautiful. Working our way back along one fork of the Kennicott river to the confluence with McCarthy Creek, leads us back to camp for dinner and surely an evening fire on the river gravel bar.
Day 5: A post breakfast van trip up the remainder of the road four miles to the abandoned company town of Kennicott overlooking its glacier namesake, allows an almost unbelievable exploration of an entire town sitting much the way it was when the mines closed in 1938. It is almost eery to find the company store, a hospital with patient records still in the attic, dozens of other buildings, and the incredible 14-story mill building itself. Kennicott is truly a ghost town without equal, with its remoteness dictating that many things were not worth transporting out, coupled with a fortunate lack of vandalism.
We'll continue onward by foot paralleling the glacial moraine to reach the face of the Root Glacier itself. If careful, it's possible to walk up onto the face for a little ways. It truly is another world. Heading back down, possibly by the manual method along the old Wagon Road, brings us back to McCarthy for dinner in the local restaurant. The contrast between the two towns is now very apparent, with Kennicott the regimented company town, and McCarthy, the nearby free wheeling outlet for all of the those lonely miners . . . Another evening creekside fire with views all about is definitely in order.
Day 6: Today feels a bit more leisurely, with the morning open to explore such options fantastic flightseeing, hiking (cost approx. $150-200/person), hiking or just plain relaxing. In the afternoon we'll reluctantly be on our way, winding out of the park and back to pavement for the beautiful trip to Valdez, up and over the Chugach Range. Crossing Thompson Pass, we descend to follow to the ocean, the long impenetrable Keystone Canyon, whose shear cliff walls kept the route from even being discovered for many years.
Valdez, situated in beautiful surroundings, feels a bit different than many of the old Alaska places we've seen, in that it was "moved" after the near complete devastation of its former, geologically unstable location during the great 1964 earthquake (9.2 Richter!). Though the urban planning "grid" ideals of the mid-60's is quite apparent, all's you have to do is turn in any direction to see the mountains meeting the sea. Dinner will be on the town in Valdez, with bed & breakfast accommodations nearby.
Day 7: This morning we will board the state ferry for the beautiful five hour trip across Prince William Sound. It's a wonderful contrast to all of the land lubbing we've been doing so far, and we should see many local creatures including murres, puffins, and sea otters, with a good chance of humpback and maybe even orcas or killer whales, as we weave amongst the many islands of the Sound before reaching Whittier. Here we will climb back into our van and drive 2.5 miles through the Whittier Tunnel, the longest highway tunnel and the only one combining both rail and vehicle use in North America, connecting Whittier with the road system at the site of the '64 earthquake-destroyed community of Portage.
From here we will turn northwest, following the shores of Turnagain Arm, keeping an eye out for the local phenomenon of the "bore tide", a result of the Arm's tremendous tidal range. Stopping to visit the funky resort town of Girdwood shows even another Alaska, with a hike through the rain forest (yes, rainforest). From here it's not too long of a drive back to an Alaska that now seems foreignly raucous and populated, Anchorage.
From what probably seemed like a small city at the beginning of the trip now feels like a giant one, with the wilds and solitude of the last days leaving a quiet legacy with which to head to our respective homes. (A glance at the map though, reinforces just how much of the state remains, as your vow to return forms...).
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