Nature’s majesty in Alaska’s two premier national parks |

Nature’s majesty in Alaska’s two premier national parks

Carolyn Schwartz
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily/Carolyn Schwartz

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about Alaska’s national parks.

Everyone knows that Alaska is a land of superlatives and extremes. The country’s largest state boasts the highest peaks on the continent and glaciers the size of other entire American states.

While the majority of folks who visit “the last frontier” state see only the famous Inside Passage from the deck of a cruise ship, my husband and I recently visited several of the interior’s most magnificent national parks. Along with six other folks signed up for a multi-sport adventure with a tour group appropriately named “Get Up and Go,” we started with Denali. It’s said that the park compares with the state of Massachusetts in size.

The six million acres of Denali National Park, some 240 miles north of Anchorage, hold a special, almost holy, place in the minds of both visitors and Alaskans alike. For most, a sight of the park’s 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, equally known by its Athabascan name, Denali, (“The Great One”) is akin to finding the Holy Grail. We, who were duly warned that The Great One’s summit rarely emerges from its cloud cover, lucked out, not once, but on three consecutive July days. Because of such a windfall, I even coughed up big bucks for the outrageously expensive flight over the summit in a six-passenger Cessna. The experience was worth every cent.

The mountain is only one of the two reasons most people visit this parkland. The other main draw is the park’s wildlife, particularly grizzlies, caribou, Dall sheep, moose and wolves. Rarely do sightings of many of these creatures fail to pan out.

Denali’s scenic splendor is made wonderfully accessible by the Park Road, ninety miles of gravel that winds through lowland taiga (evergreen coniferous forest) until it reaches alpine tundra, with several high passes along the way. Private vehicles are allowed on only the first 15 miles of the route, so most visitors board roomy shuttle buses at the entrance to the park and take advantage of the moving “observation deck” for spotting and photographing wildlife. While I’m not a fan of tour busses, the system does minimize human presence in the park and helps to preserve the sanctity of the terrain. And from a strictly personal standpoint, I sure was happy to have plenty of heavy metal between me and those grizzlies that kept appearing in berry thickets and along the banks of creeks.

In choosing one of the several options for bus touring in the park (taking from five to 12 hours), it’s essential to balance not only your time, but your remaining stamina for other activities in and around the park.

Carolyn Schwartz writes from Frisco and Pittsboro, N.C. She loves a variety of travel adventures and can be reached at

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