The first teams to summit Mt. McKinley aka Denali had it rough: they spent weeks via horse, mule, dog sled and on foot just trying to get to the mountain itself, and then spent weeks more establishing camps to support their summit attempts, and reaching the summit itself. [Another fun Denali/McKinley fact: although Mt. Everest is technically the higher of the two mountains at 29,029 feet, its base is on the Tibetan Plateau which is already at about 17,000 feet, making the mountain itself a measly 12,000 feet tall. McKinley is technically the taller, being 18,000 feet from base to summit, meaning that the first groups to summit McKinley really had their work cut out for them!] Climbers today have it a bit easier: most take an air taxi from the quaint little town of Talkeetna to base camp on Ruth Glacier at about 5,000 feet. We stopped in Talkeetna on our way south and loved it. A brisk 10 minute walk will get you around the whole town but I’d recommend a slower mosey to take it all in. Many of the buildings are original from gold rush days, and even the newer buildings have character. Nearly all had a profusion of flowers out front to take advantage of the long summer days. There are a surprising number of restaurants offering vegetarian and vegan dining options (I suppose those mountain climbers are a healthy bunch) and the Denali Brewing Co. is here as well. There’s a municipal campground right on the banks of the confluence of the Susitna & Chulitna Rivers, but it’s for tent & van campers only. We spent a delightful couple of days visiting.
Continuing our drive south, our next stop was the town of Cantwell and the Old Denali Highway. Before the modern highway connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks was built, the Old Denali Highway was the only route to the National Park. It is unpaved for most of its 135 miles but was well worth a day trip in the Jeep. The road from Cantwell travels through a valley carved by the Susitna Glacier, and the Susitna River and numerous glacially carved lakes are a beautiful complement to the stunning mountains on both sides. We had a gorgeous clear sunny day for our drive and enjoyed it immensely. Some of the best views were of the West Fork Glacier, but we also happily snapped pics of bees in the fireweed and of grass in the sunshine, and even found a beaver going about his beaver business.
About 65 miles from Cantwell we were looking for a picnic spot to eat our brown bag dinners when we spotted the Alpine Creek Lodge. Their sign advertised Food & Lodging, so we decided to see if we could get a nicer dinner there. We arrived to find Sunday dinner (roast beef with all the trimmings) laid out on the buffet, and a family-style dinner in progress. We felt a bit awkward but were kind of committed at that point so we decided to stay. It turned out to be a fun serendipitous moment and we enjoyed chatting with the Lodge guests and staff over a great meal. We’re glad we stopped.
We drove another 10 miles or so past the Lodge to see a cool geological feature: glacial eskers. And yes, we know we’re nerdy – you don’t have to put it in the comments. Eskers are winding deposits of rock and sediment that are deposited by meltwater which runs in tunnels beneath a glacier. They’re often used by travelers since they can be the high points of otherwise boggy glacial valleys, and that’s certainly the case here as the Old Denali Highway runs along the top of an esker for several miles. According to the Milepost they are some of the best examples of eskers in North America.
We would have loved to have driven the Highway all the way to Paxson, but reluctantly turned around and headed for home. And right there, 5 miles out from Cantwell with barely a cloud in the sky, was Denali. We got our unobstructed view, and it was indeed a great one. I love Alaska.