Good Vibes in Denali National Park Alaska
I’ve often wished a sunset in hues of burning orange or wispy pink would last just a little bit longer before dropping over the horizon. I didn’t realize that was a plausible dream until I boarded an Alaska Airlines flight in Seattle, bound for Anchorage, just two days after solstice. The sun was already coloring the sky when we ascended, and we chased that burning ball of light for over three glorious hours. It set just before landing, though I would not see darkness for the next two weeks.
Alaska had long been on my list of desired destinations. I’d visited once, briefly and in the middle of winter, to celebrate the New Year in hopes of catching the Aurora Borealis. Not only did I not see the Northern Lights, but daylight was a rarity as well. Regardless, there was something about that short stay in the tiny town of Haines in Southeast Alaska that left me wanting more.
But Alaska wasn’t a destination I was prepared to do alone, despite my extensive list of solo travel. The vastness of the wilderness and the lack of people and place had intimidated me. So when I decided to finally go, I reached out to Ann Marie, a woman I’d met on a train platform in India more than five years prior. I remembered she had lived in Anchorage, and according to Facebook she still did.
Within hours of messaging her, I had my two-week timeline narrowed down, invites to go on multiple trips, an offer to stay in her guest room and use it as home base whenever I passed through, long emails with tips and suggestions on what to do, where to eat, etc. and the opportunity to catch up with a kindred spirit.
“Please come!” she’d said. “You’ll love Alaska!” I instantly booked my flight.
I arrived late on a Thursday and by Saturday morning we were driving up to the newest campground in Denali State Park to sleep in a rented, friend-filled cabin on the K’esugi Ridge, overlooking the Alaska Range. Sitting around the campfire with eight people who call Alaska home, I realized just how much this place had captured each of their hearts.
The next day I would head the 100 miles to the entrance of Denali National Park (did you know there is a state and a national Denali park?) to explore during the week on my own. “Take the Subaru,” Ann Marie had insisted, as if it were a communal car. “Then you won’t have to hitchhike.” I had been about 1/3 excited for the adventure, 2/3 terrified, and now, 100% relieved, despite the fact I wouldn’t actually need a car inside the park since they don’t allow them.
“Alaska is not an easy place to travel,” Ann Marie, a fellow globetrotter, admitted when I thanked her profusely for her help and kindness. “It’s my duty to make sure people love it because when I hear about people who don’t have a good time here, I think they must have missed it.”
Monday morning I loaded my backpack into the cleared out space in an old school bus, now painted white and called a Camper Bus. There are also Transit Buses and Tourist Buses, and except during the Denali Road Lottery, they are the only vehicles allowed on the sole road, a 92-mile stretch of dirt and gravel, that winds inside the six million acre park and preserve. I was headed to Mile 85, where Wonder Lake and about 32 tent sites exist.
“What does everyone want to see today?” our chatty bus driver asked as we rounded our first bend.
“A grizzly!” someone shouted from the back.
“A wolf,” said another.
“Denali,” I exclaimed, a mountain girl to the core.
As if on cue (mine was the answer he’d been waiting for, after all), North America’s tallest peak was shining bright and white, basking under a cloudless blue sky. Several locals had told me that only 20% of the parks nearly 600,000 annual visitors (and continually increasing; click here for some fun statistics) ever catch a glimpse — only half of those are blessed with a completely unobstructed view. Now the bus driver — who drives this same track out and back four days each week — was confirming that. I had a feeling of contentment wash over me. If I saw nothing else, this trip was already a success.
The bus crawled closer and closer to the mountain and by the time we arrived at Wonder Lake we were just 26 miles away. It was early afternoon and she was beginning to cloud over, but the next two mornings I would wake to her unabashed beauty at several hours throughout the night (since it never really got dark, my body got confused!), stifle a giggle to myself in my tent and eventually get up to face the day. I would also see both the grizzly (with two cubs) and the wolf before leaving the park, as well as snowshoe hares galore, a moose bathing in a pond and more caribou than I could count.
I couldn’t help feeling like something was at play here. I’d already had my impossible wish for a longer sunset granted, then several very rare sightings in a park that’s larger than the state of Connecticut, not to mention the seemingly bottomless generosity of a woman I barely knew. It was as if Alaska was trying to woo me, and woo me it did.
I drove back to Anchorage to meet Ann Marie and some friends for dinner and a movie at the Bear Tooth Theatre Pub before heading south to Seward and then, later, east to McCarthy at the southern base of Wrangell St. Elias National Park. “How was it?” she’d asked.
“Incredible!” I’d said, beaming as I relayed my luck.
“I knew you’d love Alaska,” she’d said with a grin. “And we’re just getting started.”