We had allotted ourselves one full day in Denali, and given the alterations to our lodging plans and the persistently rainy weather, it seemed best to spend the time on the longest stretch of established trail offered in the park, the Savage Alpine trail and the adjoining Savage River trail. These were as deep into the park as we could go without paying for guided tours, and they covered what looked like a pretty good sample of the available terrain.
We shuttled to the park visitor center to catch a park-managed bus — an actual school bus, painted NPS green — to the trailhead. The previous night’s sun break was truly over, with misty rain and clouds hiding the ridge lines to north and south as we left the visitor center campus and followed the park road west. There was, still, no sign of the big mountain. The park road climbs from the visitor center through boreal forest, which got patchier as we went higher. After a stop at park headquarters, we disembarked at a joint trailhead for a short loop, Mountain Vista, and the longer climb into the hills, Savage Alpine.
You can get from Anchorage to Denali National Park by rental car, Alaska Railway passenger train, or chartered flight — but we took the bus. A regular service runs from the convention center in downtown Anchorage to multiple stops in and around Denali, about four hours’ drive north on State Highway 3, and it leaves early. C and I hiked our luggage through a light morning drizzle to join a small crowd of fellow-passengers huddled under the convention center portico, and by 7:30 am we were driving north.
We took the highway — the only highway — east out of town and then west towards Wasila, with views of mountains through the cloud banks. Eventually the rain got too heavy, mist rolled in, and the highway headed north and left more developed territory, running between walls of forest that looked, to eyes raised on eastern temperate-deciduous woods, distinctly scraggly. The trees were aspen, spruce, none more than 40 feet tall, rising out of thick undergrowth like bathers wading in the shallow end of a crowded swimming pool. Large swathes of the spruce were dead-looking, gray-brown ghost groves — killed by spruce beetles, apparently.
We landed in Anchorage at eight o’clock in the evening, but it might have been any time from dawn to almost midnight. High-latitude summer light is uncanny enough to a southerner such as me (flying in from Los Angeles via a long stopover in Seattle) when it’s still fully light out at nine o’clock in the evening; but then also a mid-July weather system had swathed the city in low clouds and persistent drizzle, filtering the sunlight down to a high-twilit grey.
C and I took a taxi to a rental apartment we’d planned to use as a base of operations for the trip. I had an academic conference in Anchorage, and we’d taken that as an excuse to fly up a week early and see some sights — Denali National Park, then the vicinity of Kenai Fjords. First, though, we had a day in town to settle in and get our bearings. The rental-apartment host and her husband met us and our heap of luggage on the doorstep of their house — which, in addition to having our apartment in the basement, appeared to operate both as a multi-unit bed-and-breakfast and as the local consulate of the Netherlands. Our host was, it developed, a Dutch transplant. She showed us around: kitchen, living space, bedroom, washing machine and dryer, sofa bed in the living room (I suspect she didn’t realize C and I were a couple), and an orientation to the city via a tourist map on the kitchen table. Downtown was a dozen blocks north, on the other side of a long east-west strip of parkland. We thanked her out the door, unpacked a bit, and then hiked into downtown to the nearest late-night food we could find, by-the-slice pizza with, it turned out, reindeer sausage — how local!