Denali – Adventuring in the land of the Midnight Sun

Alaska is a whole lotta state, with a whole lotta nature. Home to North America’s tallest peak, few people and much land, Alaska is roughly the size of Queensland with one-tenth the population. There is so much space, and so few inhabitants, it nears claustrophobic. The environment is incredibly varied – glaciers, mountains, lakes, verdant pine forests and desert tundras. Rightly earning its frontier mentality, this is the sort of place you visit and live if you want to disappear: from noise, from pollution, from society.

denali flight plane on glacier

Sorry to report Palin, you cannot, in fact, ‘see Russia from here.’ Having already driven otters and beavers to near extinction for their pelts, and racking up a massive debt to the Rothschild family who funded the emancipation of 1861, Russian Tsar Alexander II let Alaska go for a pittance of $7.2 million dollars. The American public was initially outraged, calling the sale “Seward’s Folly.” Within 20 years, gold was discovered, then natural gas, and most recently oil. Alaska now regularly tops the states with the highest GDP per capita, owing to its tiny population and abundance of since-discovered resources. We all know who came out the winner in that trade.

denali alaskan bald eagle

While rich in resources, I would argue Alaska is actually far more rich in beauty and life; you will see more animals and more epic landscapes than you could even think possible. It’s unavoidable. Grizzlies, caribou, and moose wander where they want. I once saw a grizzly roaming around in downtown Anchorage; like he owned the place. With a tiny population and few roads, Alaska is nature’s domain. This is the sort of place where you regularly have to pull over to let a mama bear and cub cross, where you might find yourself kayaking through icebergs and whales or biking alongside arctic hares and foxes. You find yourself in scenarios and interactions with nature that would happen few other places in the world. Even the famous bald eagle, symbol of freedom and liberty, is so common that it now stalks the ‘easier pickings’ found at the local garbage dump.

mom and cub grizzly bear

Within this huge state is Denali, the huge national park. Six millions acres worth of land ‘untouched by human hands,’ and named for its massive peak which rises 18,000 feet from base to summit. Yes, you read correctly, that would be a greater vertical rise than Everest. With but one access road servicing the entire park, human interactions are at a minimum and prop planes become the preferred mode of transport. Far from everything and difficult to reach, this isn’t the cheapest of adventures, but it is a total bucket list destination. Some diehards come to climb her peaks, a dangerous and lengthy endeavors, others just to observe the untouched scapes and beauty. Denali hides out behind a wall of clouds most days, so be sure to plan a few in the area, so you can catch a rare glimpse of her grandeur.

denali glaciers from plane

There is heaps for every adventure enthusiast to partake in outside of attempting to summit Denali. If you did fancy an attempt at the summit, know that the success rate is below 50%, and you’re looking at two to three weeks on the mountain, in snow and terrible conditions, year round, at a minimum. If you are looking for something a little less intense, hiking and camping prove very popular in Denali (even with a healthy wolf and bear population). This is not reserved for newbs, however; you have to do extensive preparations to ensure your stuff is bear-proofed and reserve special permits in advance.

fly fishing in alaska

Kayaking, white water rafting, mountain biking, fly-fishing, and birding are also tailor-made to round out your adventure bucket-list trip. You can always outsource the labor to the adorable Denali sled dogs. Sitting back and relaxing while a team of pups pull your lazy ass across the snow might just be the best way of seeing the sights. And yes, there is a puppy cam. All this activity will have you working up a hunger. The eating is definitely “American” sized in portion, meat from all manner of mammal is found on the menus, the marijuana legal and easy to access and heaps of new breweries sprouting up. And considering Alaska is the land of the ‘midnight sun’, you can stay active, and outdoors, until nearly midnight most summer days. Bless you, blackout curtains.

hiking alaskan mountains

So when do you go? Denali doesn’t even open until Mid-May when the area starts to thaw, and the snow starts to recede a bit. North American summer is optimal for maximum outdoor enjoyment. Expect days around 10 degrees Celsius/ 50 Fahrenheit, and bring layers. The tundra is stark, silent and martian in appearance. Outside of the scant summer month(s), it appears void of life. However for a brief few weeks in July and August Denali bursts forth with wildflowers and animals. Plan a flight into Anchorage or Fairbanks and factor in a day of travel to Denali via the scenic train, bus or car. One road in and one road out.

All photos courtesy of Erik Garbin and Heather Schmidt

denali mountain view from cockpit

denali alaska north america

snowy alaskan mountain scape

snowy misty mountain

alaskan pine snowscape

walking on a glacier in alaska

alaskan igloo hill

ground squirrel in snow

alaskan denali tundra

alaskan pine forest and lake

alaskan glacial snow melt