Into the Alaskan Wilderness Post 2

Another impressive point on the railroad was Hurricane Gulch. As the train slowed down, I couldn’t believe my eyes. We were crossing a canyon on a steel trestle spanning 918 feet. And we were some 296 feet above a glacier fed creek. I looked out, then I looked down. Then I caught my breath.

By late afternoon, we arrived in Denali. This was the stop for hiking, biking, riding or backpacking into Alaska’s premier wilderness attraction — Denali National Park and Preserve. In fact, over 500,000 people will visit the park this summer. And as all will discover, only one road leads into this vast wilderness of mountains, tundra, wildlife and flora. The dirt road is 89 miles long and leads into an area larger than the state of Massachusetts.

The only way into the park is by shuttle bus. This park is one of the most strictly regulated in the country, and rightly so. There are no RVs clogging the road. There are no crowded trailheads. In fact, there are no trails at all. Hikers and backpackers create their own paths. There are no congested parking lots. There is no unsightly garbage along the road. There is nothing but scenic vistas, grazing wildlife and seemingly endless mountains. And of course, the “high one” looms dramatically over all other mountains in the range.

On the four-hour trip into the park, I saw a red fox, Dall sheep, caribou herds and a couple of brown grizzlies. The wildlife is well within view because most of the park is above timberline, which starts at 2,700 feet.

Within the park, there are several destinations to choose from. Your choice depends on how long you want to stay in the park and what you want to see. I went as far as the Eielson Visitor Center. The building is perched high on the tundra slopes and has an incredible panoramic view of the mountain range. Due to the cloudless sky (again), we had a clear view of Mt. McKinley.

After hiking to the riverbed below and lingering in the midst of this spectacular scenery for hours, my friends and I decided it was time to head back. But not because the sun was setting, that wouldn’t happen for hours — 11:58 p.m. to be exact. We were tired and hungry.

To cap off my Alaskan adventure, I decided to experience the park one more time. Not by land, but by air. I boarded a six-seater helicopter and strapped in. Our pilot flew crewmen out to oil rigs in the winter and was working Denali for the summer. As the helicopter rose up from the pad, he turned to me and asked with a sly grin, “Ready for a ride?” All I could do was grin back as we took off.

Each one of us had a headset. By pressing a button we could ask questions. Otherwise, our ears were filled with music by Enya, which was perfectly matched for soaring above this dramatic scenery.

We flew through river valleys, crested over snow-capped mountains and dropped down along massive icefalls and glaciers. We spotted wildlife and experienced breathtaking views. Then our hour was up. It was time to head back.

That night, as I rode a taxi to the airport in the Alaskan twilight, I felt a yearning unlike any before in my travels. Not for home but for one day returning to Alaska. It had grabbed hold of my adventurous spirit and filled my mind with wild, wilderness wonder. I can’t wait to go back.