Sunday, September 7, 2008

Details: Visiting Denali

On a clear day, the drive between Anchorage and Denali National Park is stunning. Plan to take your time and enjoy it, as many of your best views of Denali itself may be from the road as you travel toward the park.

In addition to my photos, there are some lovely pictures of Denali at terragalleria.

Lodging

Lodging within the park is EXTREMELY limited and quite expensive, although there are some wonderful-looking campsites available to those willing and able to rough it a little.

The McKinley Chalet Resort is one of a number of Aramark operations in the Denali area. (We’ve stayed at Aramark properties in other parks as well.) It was actually better than I was expecting, although the note on Trip Advisor regarding unpredictable scalding water is absolutely true. The rooms are laid out along long, mostly covered, boardwalks. In the rain these can be slippery, but it makes the rooms a little more private and really increases your odds of having a view. (It’s a LONG ways to haul your luggage though.) There isn’t any internet access available in the rooms (although it is available in the lodge). Our room was small, but adequate, with a nice view over a lovely rushing river and up to Mt. Healy. . . no large windows from which to enjoy that view, but I did enjoy the sound of rushing water.

Despite the large groups of Holland American cruise tourists, service was excellent and independent travelers were treated very well.

Not being able to stay in the park itself wasn’t the disappointment I expected it to be. It was a quick drive into the park and, since most of the park is accessible only by shuttle anyway, we really wouldn’t have been able to move around the park more easily even if we were staying there. However, some of the park’s campgrounds looked really tempting. . . as do the lodgings located at Kantishna.

Dining
Dining within the park really isn’t an option, so be sure to bring provisions for each day. The options at the park’s Transportation Center are very limited, so don’t plan on purchasing food there. Our trail food for our long days in the park consisted of Indian River meat sticks and jerky, dried fruit, and granola bars. Not exactly gourmet, but it worked.

The Perch Resort and Restaurant is located at Mile 224 on the Parks Highway.

There is something about eating in a restaurant where the front door nearly deposits you in the kitchen and where the chef – a chunk of raw caribou in one hand and a slice of bacon in the other – directs you toward a table for two near the back window.

Small, local, friendly. . and great food. Seems perfect.

Indeed, dinner was lovely. (Although I do wonder why chefs always think they have to mess with the Caesar salad. A perfectly made Caesar IS perfection. Don’t mess with perfection.) At any rate, the caribou medallions were delicious, as were the garlic mashed potatoes and the anything-but-boring vegetable medley. Lane’s pasta carbonara with scallops was fabulous.

With only a couple of people in the kitchen, each dish is literally prepared specially for you, but this means the meal proceeds at a more European pace. The wines were nice and we got a lovely loaf of bread (that would have been beyond lovely had it been warm) and the views (even through pouring rain) were splendid, so it didn’t seem like that long of a wait. Certainly not long enough to break out the cards as one of the families near us had done. (But be warned if you are impatient.)

The turn for Perch is well-marked from the road, but you have to follow a rather rough gravel road up the hill to get there. It’s worth the effort. I would eat here every day if I could.

The McKinley Chalet Resort has two restaurants, the more formal of these is sort of a steak and seafood place. The food is good, but fairly expensive. It seems to always be busy, so plan accordingly. The café is where everyone goes for breakfast. It has an enormous breakfast buffet (at a fairly enormous price), if you are into that.

What to See
Denali National Park consists of 6 million acres of wilderness. Only about 90 miles of road within the park is open to the casual visitor and, of that, only 15 miles are accessible by private vehicle. For all but the most fit of hikers, Denali is viewed via tour bus or park shuttle (both of which are run by Amarak or in partnership with Amarark). The shuttles seem to vary between reasonably comfortable school buses (on longer routes) and regular school buses.

The shuttles are supposed to be just that, but most of the guides at give at least a little tour and help visitors spot wildlife. (Our Wonder Lake shuttle driver provided great information.) There are designated rest areas, but the time available at each rest area depends in large part on how much time was spent animal watching and can be very short. (Shuttles are supposed to stay on a schedule.) You can treat the shuttle like a tour bus and just stay with the same one out and back (like we did on our first day) or you can hop off and on wherever you want. The ability to get on and off wherever you want (or as far into the park as your ticket allows) provides flexibility to stop and take pictures or hike whenever you see something interesting. However, on the way out it is a bit problematic as you have to stick with a bus headed to your same final destination – of which there are relatively few and in the morning, almost none with empty seats. It works better on the return trip, when you may have to allow a few buses to pass, but eventually you’ll find one with space. This allowed us to stop at a couple places and hike along the road on the second day. We also discovered the “Sweeper” bus on the second day, which was sort of an unofficial express route that included animal watching, but only when the animals are near the road (thus no time wasted on distant-specks-that-might-be-caribou) and no stops beyond bathroom breaks. However, it shaved a considerable amount of time off our trip up the second day, allowing us more time for hiking. If your goal is just to get out and hike, see if there’s a sweeper available.

There are almost no shuttles that go all the way out to Kantishna. By the time I booked our shuttle (a little less than a week before we left), there were no seats available to Kantishna, so I booked us out to Wonder Lake (the second to last stop) instead. This limited availability means you are totally at the whim of the weather – by the time you think it will be a clear day, it’s going to be too late to book a shuttle out to the farthest reaches of the park road. (Of course, considering how fast the weather changes around Denali, it’s probably nearly impossible to guess anyway.)

As noted, there is no food available in the park once you catch the shuttle, so be sure to have plenty of provisions. Keep in mind that you will probably stay with the same bus all the way into the park, so you can pack your food in disposable containers, eat most of it and dispose of the containers at lunch. They’ll be no need to haul empty containers around after lunch.

The park does issue permits for private vehicles to professional photographers, but even these are issued on a very limited basis, meaning there is little traffic on the road besides the buses.

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