Denali National Park is so big, the bus ride from the visitor’s center to the end of the road, which is not even at the far end of the park, is over 90 miles. Denise and I had only one day to see what we could, and the park entrance is over a two hour drive from Talkeetna. That doesn’t count our requisite random mountain photo stops. Denali dominates the landscape much of the way, but beyond that, there were countless lesser peaks, some glacier draped, some craggy, some forested. The entirety of these peaks, these wild areas, borders on overwhelming. It is good to know that such wilderness still exists when development threatens it in so many other places.
At the visitor center, we asked a few questions, used the plumbing, saw some exhibits, then headed toward a spot I’d already considered based on a tip from my sister Sarah. She and my niece had been in the park a few months earlier, and they had love the Savage Alpine Trail, a dozen miles into the park. Good enough for me!
The Savage Alpine Trail is a point to point hike with a car or bus shuttle in between. We opted for the closer beginning because we found parking there and heard it could be tight at the far end. The trail climbed casually through a scrubby forest above a creek, with views popping out here and there. Eventually we started climbing the side of a ridge, and views became far reaching in short order. We passed other hikers, and they passed us back a few times until the trail began climbing in earnest, switchbacking above the treeline into a world dotted with rocks and various ground cover. Denise was the one pushing the pace. I was almost giddy with excitement to hike in such terrain. I love open alpine ecosystems.
Descending hikers told us there were Dall sheep hanging out near the trail above us. It would be our first large Alaskan mammal sighting. We rounded a sort of promontory and got stunning views of the broad ridge above us, but more importantly, to the Alaska Range in the other direction. We were probably fifty miles from Denali, and range after range were in front of it. They could not hide the massive peak’s majesty. I geeked out on the terrain right here, on the shoulder of a minor peak, only a two mile hike from the road. Then we turns up hill and saw the sheep. They were lying in repose on a rocky crest above the trail, seemingly at ease with hikers nearby. Awesome.
The trail descends a bowl in an arc, then angles toward a rocky spur. It was fun terrain that got challenging on that spur, where we navigated among small crags and descended steep rock steps. No casual switchbacks here. It was an entirely different trail than the one we’d casually climbed. It made me wonder if traversing the route the other direction was more popular and easier on middle aged knees. There certainly seemed to be more hikers at this end. The snowy high peaks of the Alaska Range seemed to tease us in the distance. At the same time, the farther we descended, the more we could see of the shining Savage River. The final half mile took longer than expected, but the views were always there, in every direction.
At the bottom of our descent, I wandered along the Savage River while we waited for the shuttle bus. This was a fantastic introduction to Denali National Park. Certain spots and certain views reminded me of places I’d seen in Colorado or California, but ultimately, Alaska is always its own place. The scale is too grand to compare to anywhere else in the U.S. I hope I’ll be back for more. For now, it was beer thirty, and then we would move on to other Alaskan adventures.