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Denali: The Incredible Wilderness

By Rahuldev Rajguru

Last Updated: 07 Apr 2024

A trip to Alaska is action-packed. There is so much to do and so much to explore. The icing on the cake is the fascinating and myriad landscapes that adorn this amazing land. From the most incredible drives to exciting adventures that we ventured into, Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After an exhilarating road trip around the southern part of the last frontier, our next adventure was visiting Denali National Park and Preserve. The drive to Denali from Whittier is over 300 miles and in Alaska it is a lot to cover. We also figured that there is not much to do in Denali other than the tour of Denali National Park. So, we drove midway and stopped at a quaint town of Talkeetna in Alaska. A 15-mile deviation from the highway on Talkeetna Spur Road took us to our 2nd dry cabin experience.

Talkeetna Cabins - a unique experience

With so many things to do in Talkeetna, this quaint town is the hub for companies offering various Alaska adventure tours. It's all here in Talkeetna, from helicopter tours for Mount Denali to charter planes and seaplanes for different islands in Alaska. A majority of tourists visit Talkeetna to participate in Alaskan adventure activities. There are numerous places to stay in Talkeetna but we checked into Kevin's dry cabin, an Airbnb. Those interested in staying in dry cabins, Talkeetna has plenty of cabin accommodations. As the name suggests, "dry" really means dry; there is no water anywhere. Of course, there was a toilet outside the cabin, but no shower, with a signboard reading "Scoop after you Whoop". We still laugh at it even today. These Talkeetna cabins are used as cold storages where the locals store their food supply for the winter. During the summer, they are rented out to tourists. Usually they are fully furnished with a kitchen and sometimes with a loft to accommodate families with kids.

The "dry Talkteena cabin" in the middle of the Dneali forest in Alaska

This is my wife in front of the "dry Talkteena cabin" in the middle of the forest, a unique experience for our family

Drive to Denali Park through Cantwell & McKinley Park

Rested and rejuvenated, we started quite early next morning with the intention to board the 10 am bus to visit Denali National Park. Of course, we did not make it because of the numerous stops we made en route. It was another spectacular drive from Talkeetna to Denali on George Parks Highway (AK-3). There are a couple of pullouts on the Denali highway to capture spectacular views of Mount Denali. We made our first such stop after driving just 40 miles at Denali Mountains View Pullout. My daughter was delighted to see snow for the first time and spent time playing in the snow.

View of Mount Denali from the highway pullout in Alaska

Mesmerizing view of Mount Denali from the highway pullout

Fluffy white clouds floating above the snow-capped mountains in the distance and roads lined with pine shrubs made for a hypnotizing view. The stretch from Cantwell to McKinley Park is especially mind blowing. The changing hues of white, blue and grey resembled winter wonderland. The deserted roads of Denali highway were an added advantage. We pulled over even at non-designated stops and took loads of pictures of ourselves and the spellbound landscape of Alaska. I find driving in Alaska to be quite mesmerizing, with the urge to stop almost every 30 minutes.

Family picture from highway of Denali National Park in Alaska

Stunning vistas all around definitely calls for a family picture!

The sun-kissed Alaska glaciers on both sides of the road against the clear blue sky will be etched in our memory for a very long time with the desire to repeat this trip several times. Thanks to my GoPro, I relive this drive several times even now. As we were not returning to Anchorage via Route 3, we leisurely drove for 2 hours to cover Cantwell to McKinley Park, a distance of just 22 miles.

Once in a lifetime drive with snow covered mountains on both sides of the road, sunny day and clear blue skies

Denali National Park and Preserve

We arrived at Denali Visitor Center, also known as Wilderness Access Center and parked our car at the free parking space available. The roads inside the Denali Park are unpaved and narrow which discourages people from driving inside the preserve. This is done in an effort to preserve the ecology of Denali Park as well as its precious wildlife. While driving in the state, especially on Denali roads, it is important to remember that the insurance on your rental car in Alaska is void if you drive on an unpaved road. The best way to experience the park is through designated Denali Bus Tours. These buses are refurbished school buses that make for perfect tour vehicles. There are multiple options for Denali National Park tours. The shortest tour is the "Denali Natural History" tour, which is about 4 hours and the "Tundra Wilderness Tour" which is about 8 hours. There are narrated (you pay more) and non-narrated tours. Those seeking adventure can take guided Denali wilderness excursions.

Converted school buses inside Denali National Park and Preserve

These converted school buses make for perfect tour vehicles inside Denali National Park and Preserve

Denali National Park and Preserve is spread across 6 million acres of unique wilderness and is home to North America's tallest peak, Denali Mountain. This spectacular ecosystem is the brainchild of two remarkable gentlemen, Charles Sheldon and Harry Karstens. They conceptualized and established the world's first national park to conserve wildlife in 1917. Over the years, Denali Park has become a landmark and we were thrilled to be here to experience nature's extravagance. We began our Denali adventure on one of the non-narrated Denali bus tours. We were lucky because the driver explained the facts about Denali National Park and other information through the built-in announcement. Our wish was to take a guided wilderness hiking tour of Denali. However, it was too early to do that since summer was still a few weeks away.

Frozen river and snow covered mountains adorn the landscape of Denali National Park

Frozen river and snow covered mountains adorn the landscape of Denali National Park

We traveled to Alaska in May, which is when Denali reopens after winter, around 20th of May. This was one reason why we traveled from south to north Alaska. The park road opens in phases so please check details before signing up for any of the Tundra Wilderness Tours in Denali. When we took the Denali bus tour, it went only until the Toklat River. These are hop-on-and-hop-off tours as there are many things to do in Denali National Park. But ensure you know about the schedule of Denali bus tour to avoid getting stranded at one place for too long. There is no facility to buy food or water anywhere in Denali Park so stock up, but judiciously; because washrooms are scarce.

Red Fox strolling around the snow-covered Denali National Park in Alaska

Red Fox strolling around the snow-covered Denali National Park

The view of the landscape as we drove through the Denali National Park and Preserve was incredible. There was snow everywhere and the frozen rivers were beginning to melt creating a unique view. The driver stopped at key spots along the drive for us to get down, take pictures and enjoy the surroundings. Along the way, rangers would hop on board and share the facts about Denali National Park and their experiences. Since the season had just started, there were not many tourists which worked to our advantage. We were lucky to have an opportunity to view caribou and other animals but the highlight was the grizzlies. It is rather rare to spot these gigantic creatures but we saw them up close. They were roaming at the edge of the path and we enjoyed watching them for a while. There is a large bear population in Denali, making it a popular destination for see bears in Alaska.

A rare sight of Grizzly Bears up close during the Denali bus tour

A rare sight of Grizzly Bears up close during the Denali bus tour

Usually, the Tundra Wilderness Tour goes beyond Toklat. When we visited though, we did not go beyond Toklat because the roads had not opened yet owing to snow. We spent some time at Toklat immersed in the sheer magnanimity of nature before heading back. Deeper one goes into the park; more intriguing and enjoyable is the Denali Park. This 7-hour (the full tour is 11 hours) drive across the Denali National Park and Preserve will surely be itched forever in our minds. The sights, sounds and character of this phenomenal habitat left us mesmerized and in awe.

Denali bus tour is a MUST experience during the Alaska trip

Fairbanks - the northernmost city of Alaska

After bidding goodbye to Denali, we drove from Denali to Fairbanks, the land of the northern lights. Fairbanks is also well connected by air with Anchorage and a few other cities in the United States. There are many direct flights to Fairbanks from Anchorage and Juneau. Fairbanks is known to be one of the best places in Alaska to witness Northern Lights (the Aurora). It is just 12 miles south of the North Pole. Northern lights are visible in Fairbanks from September to April. Unfortunately, we missed this natural splendor. Fairbank is also known as "The Land of the Midnight Sun". The sun here never sets from 22nd of April till 20th of August. We were thrilled to see full daylight at 12 midnight. Of course, we had a tough time adjusting our sleep because we could not figure out when it was day and "night".

We stayed in Alaska Grizzly Lodge which was terrible. But there are many better hotels in Fairbanks that you can choose from.

Family picture against the beautiful landscape of Fairbanks Alaska

This family picture against the beautiful landscape of Fairbanks Alaska was taken at 11 pm with proper daylight! Amazing, right?

There are plenty of things to do in Fairbanks. Our day in started with a visit to Morris Thompson Cultural & Visitor Center. A beautiful place outside, the center itself holds a wealth of information on the history & culture of Alaska. We had plentiful resources to choose from, not to mention the friendly and knowledgeable staff. The 9,000-square-foot exhibition hall is filled with exquisite exhibits and dioramas that showcase life in Alaska and its unique culture and history. They also screen movies on Aurora, explaining the science and theory behind it. They also provided us information on museums in Fairbanks and recommended a famous Fairbanks gold dredge tour.

Visitor center entrance made of Moose and Caribou antlers in Fairbanks, Alaska

Visitor center entrance made of Moose and Caribou antlers

Gold Dredge in Fairbanks

Fairbanks is the 'golden heart' of Alaska known for the famous gold rush in Alaska during the 1900s. The city is largely built on the Gold Rush fervor. There are many ghost gold dredges in Fairbanks. A few of them provide gold mine tours and we chose Gold Dredge 8. While this Gold Dredge is currently nonfunctional, there is a narrated train tour inside the entire factory that we took to know about its history.

Abandoned Gold Dredge of Fairbanks

Abandoned Gold Dredge of Fairbanks now converted into a tourist attraction

Gold panning in Alaska is a unique touristy experience at such abandoned gold dredges. After learning the basics from the instructor, we decided to try our luck and we panned gold worth $70! We could not sell the gold. However, there was an option to make it into jewelry of your choice, right there and then, at an additional cost, a perfect souvenir. We enjoyed some free hot chocolate and cookies that were served there. All in all, a fun experience.

Trying our luck with Gold panning at the Gold Dredge 8 in Fairbanks Alaska

Trying our luck with Gold panning at the Gold Dredge 8

Another interesting feature here is the world's longest pipeline that runs from the Arctic sea where the oil is taken all the way to Valdez. Built between 1975 -1977, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) is a fascinating engineering masterpiece. There are display boards near the Gold Dredge 8, which showcase the history and design excellence of the pipeline. It is truly amazing to see the detailing and skill involved while building this pipeline. This construction project is the world's largest privately funded project. A whopping $8 billion was invested to build this magnificent pipeline. Considering the difficult landscape and conditions in the area, constructing this pipeline is an incredible achievement.

Alyeska pipeline demonstration with its history, facts and figures in Alaska

Alyeska pipeline demonstration with its history, facts and figures

University of Alaska Fairbanks

There are hot springs in Fairbanks near the Chena River State Recreational area, which is an experience in itself. Having experienced hot springs before, we gave it a miss and headed to University of Alaska Fairbanks. Well known for its Reindeer Research Program, they house many of these beautiful creatures. One of the Reindeer had given birth to a baby a few days ago so there was a lot of excitement among the staff. We spent time wandering around and watching these creatures before heading to a beautiful bird park.

A pair of Reindeer at University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks

A pair of Reindeer at University of Alaska campus

During the Alaska gold rush, Belle and Charles Hinckley operated a dairy that was later purchased by the Creamer family in 1928 till it ceased to operate in 1966. Migratory waterfowl congregated at open fields of Creamer's dairy complex. Later in 1966, the community raised money to preserve the Creamer field so the birds would continue to stopover along their migratory route. Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge has an incredible landscape. We just sat on the benches absorbing the beauty. We then visited the museum where there were exhibits of numerous birds. From skeletons of endangered species of birds to stuffed birds, it is a bird-lover's paradise. We were fascinated by the history and details shared in the museum.

Migratory birds in Creamer's field in Fairbanks, Alaska

Even after a few decades, Creamer's field is an important stopover for hundreds of migratory birds flying north and south during the changing seasons of Spring

And the incredible experience continues...

Another leg of our Alaska trip was successfully completed. What an exhilarating experience was so far! Looking back, we recounted the numerous fantastic drives across varying landscapes and amazing experiences and felt truly grateful. Planning for the next leg, we realized that there was plentiful excitement in store for us. Excited and in anticipation we headed to our next destination for the adventurous Matanuska Glacier Hike.

Interesting Trivia about Alaska

(1) Alaska: The Land of Extremes

(2) Experience the Wildlife of Alaska

(3) Explore the Rich History of Alaska

(4) Alaska: The Ultimate Destination for Nature Lovers

(5) Alaska: The Last Frontier

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is the best time to visit Denali National Park?

Denali National Park and Preserve remains closed during Winter and opens after the mid of May. The best time to visit Denali Park is immediately when it opens in May. You will face less number of tourists, no queues and a significant portion of Denali Mountains covered in snow.

How do I get from Fairbanks to Denali National Park?

You can take Route 3 (AK - 3), also known as Georges Park Highway from Fairbanks to reach Denali National Park. Alternatively, you can also board the Denali Star Train of Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Denali.

Where is the University of Alaska Museum?

Located on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus is the University of Alaska Museum. It has a variety of native wildlife including Reindeer.

Can you drive to the North Pole from Fairbanks?

The driving distance from Fairbanks to North Pole is just 14 miles and it takes about 20-25 minutes. Please note, it is an unpaved road so your rental car insurance is void if you drive on this road.

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Things To Consider

May and September is the shoulder season in Alaska. Perfect time to beat the summer tourist flow and experience the flair of Alaskan winter. October and November are the best months to view the magical Aurora Borealis.
It is said that no one tells a story like an Alaskan. This place is adorned with art galleries, studios & museums. It has a sparse population, some towns have just 50 people. They are busy fishing & gardening in summer to stock up for extreme winter.
Alaska is known for the best Salmon and Halibut in the world, don’t miss them. Vegetarians do face a challenge but it's a nightmare for vegans. The choice of food is limited as the agricultural scene is considerably small.
Alaska is a fairly safe place for the tourists. However, beware of the Moose! They outnumber bears and are the cause for many fatal accidents. Injury and death rate by Moose is higher than grizzly bear and black bear attacks combined.
Alaska has many offbeat attractions. The non-touristy places for wildlife and glacier hikes are not reachable by road. You need to go by a charter which would be quite expensive. Richardson highway between Fairbanks and Valdez offers a scenic drive.
Weather is unpredictable; keep warm clothes, umbrella & rainwear handy. Plan your trip in advance to beat long queues at popular destinations during the peak season. Economy car rental exceeds $100 a day in peak season if not booked well in advance.

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