June 4: Denali National Park, AK
Leaving the Fairbanks area, we retraced our route on the Richardson Highway to Delta Junction and then continued on the Richardson to the Denali Highway. We had originally planned to take the Parks Highway south to Denali National Park, but decided to take the longer route since the weather was improving and our previous trip revealed the Denali and Richardson Highways to be absolutely gorgeous.
The Richardson Highway runs from Valdez in the South to Fairbanks in the North. On a previous trip to Alaska, we traveled the Richardson from the Denali Highway South to Valdez. This time we traveled the road from Fairbanks to the Denali Highway. There is stunning scenery along the whole highway.
Like it or not, you really can’t go to Alaska and ignore the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (a.k.a. Alaskan Pipeline). The pipeline, completed in 1977, is an engineering marvel built to withstand frigid, hostile weather conditions, permafrost and earthquakes.
The Denali Highway is a seasonal road. There is no maintenance from September 15 through May 15. The first 17 miles of the eastern end are paved and from there it is gravel. After the Liard route and the Top of the World Highway, the Denali Highway was a pleasure. The slower speeds and rough ride are easily overshadowed by the magnificent views of the Alaskan Range.
Camp on night 17 was a quiet pull-off along the Denali Highway with the mountains as a backdrop and the sounds of nature all around . . . and it was totally free including the firewood we were able to easily collect.
Our travels would not have been complete without wildlife. These days, like all others, had plenty. We came upon an artic ground squirrel playing peek-a-boo with us from the brush, a family of marmots that had setup home on the edge of the road, a pair of bald eagles sitting in a short tree right next to the road (the other one flew away when we came around the corner) and more moose. This gal was in the tundra maybe 200 yards away and wandered over to take a look at us as we watched her.
Due to weather patterns and a micro-climate on Mt. Denali (a.k.a. Mt. McKinley), only 15% of visitors to the area ever get to actually see the mountain. This is our second visit and we are two-for-two. Coming down the Denali Highway toward the Parks Highway, we came around a curve and there she was in all her glory, miles away.
And now for a history/politics lesson: The native Athabasca’s and the Alaska Board of Geographic Names refer to the mountain as “Denali,” the great one. A gold prospector named the mountain Mount McKinley because McKinley was a strong proponent of the gold standard. This name was accepted by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Attempts by the State of Alaska to have the name officially changed to Denali by the US government have continually been foiled by the congressional delegation from Ohio, the home state of mountain’s namesake William McKinley. They maintain a standing resolution in congress to preserve the current name. Federal maps refer to Mount McKinley in Denali National Park. Alaskan maps refer to Mount Denali in Denali National Park.
Next on our itinerary is Denali National Park, home of Mount DENALI. I guess the side of the dispute on which we come down is evident.