After considering our options to get to Delani National Park, we decided to take the little used Denali Highway. This dirt road runs from east to west about halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, ending near the gates to Denali Park. We were teased the entire way by broken clouds and partial mountain views along with some distant moose sitings. It rained almost constantly and we hardly passed any vehicles along the way on this is a long desolate road with no sevices for 140 miles. We camped overnight on a roadside trail anticipating better weather for our planned excursions into the National Park. However, the morning was socked in with more rain so we decided to head to south of the park enticed by an exerpt in Lonely Planet of spectacular views of Mount McKinley from a little known road to Peters Creek. This backroad frequented only by ATV nuts, soon became a hairy ridgeside trail. I now began to appreciate the capabilities of my Toyota FJ, as creek fording became a necessity, not a photo stunt! Way off the map, we ended up hours beyond the marked road and into the tundra. Here we came across a set of cabins owned by some retired folks trying their hand at gold mining. When we asked about the ‘views of Mount McKinley’ we were informed that “Nope we havent seen him this year at all. Rainiest year we can remember.” Even though the road went for another seven miles, we elected to turn tail before getting stranded by the incoming weather. We were able to get some nice photos of the last of the wild irises blooming on the open tundra.
One of the notable things about photography north of 60 in the summer is that sunrise and sunset times mean little sleep for those of us behind the camera. Sunset is 10:30pm and sunrise 5:20am! So as we left Peters Creek making our way back to Denali Park, the sun began to throw stunning light on the surrounding mountains. We scrambled for some locations to get a good foreground and were treated to some amazing evening light and even old McKinley made an appearance in the distance. Finally at 11pm, happy with our evening photo shoot, we were on our way to look for a suitable pull-off to put up the tent, when some hikers flagged us down. One fellow had been injured on the trail and they were looking for help. Our vehicle was jammed full, but we somehow managed to re-arrange our gear to get one hiker onboard and delivered him their vehicle at the next trailhead. Somewhere in that process we lost the crank that erects our roof-top tent, so on arriving at our campsite exhausted, we had no means of getting our tent up. Luckily Tim is a mechanical wizard and improvised a turning crank with a socket and drill bit contraption and the rain stopped for just long enough to allow me to make pack lunches and organize gear for the next day. 1:30am and finally we bedded down for the night.
5:15am came quickly as we hurriedly packed up and headed for the Wilderness Access Centre where we had booked a ticket on the early bus into Polychrome Ridge. Access to Denali is highly regulated in order to preserve the pristine nature of the 6 million acre wilderness area. Words can not describe the vast expanse of wilderness that exists here. We travelled down the same valley that Chris McCandless did when he took his fateful trip “Into the Wild”, although we did not attempt the pilgrimage that many do to the bus where he lived the last four months of his life.
Wildlife is bountiful here, as our first day gave us of views of several grizzlies, moose, caribou, dall sheep, lynx and fox. But in the end it is the endless landscape that leaves one breathless. By the way I celebrated my 50th birthday by taking panoramic photos atop Polychrome Ridge!