Mike Chowla
Alaska August 2010:

Denali National Park

Denali has a huge place in the national imagination. It conjures up an image of a huge, untamed wilderness and is one of the places almost every visitor to Alaska goes to. For people on cruises, if they see anything in the Alaskan interior it will be Denali. However, Denali is overrated, at least for my style of travel. For the casual tourist who wants to see a bear, a moose, and Mt McKinley, Denali will probably serve up two out of three. Surprisingly, at least to me, only one out of three visitors sees the mountain in summer due to the very cloudy weather across the Alaska Range.

For the intrepid back country traveler, I'm sure there's lots to explore and it won't be hard to find the true wilderness experience. I fall somewhere in between these two extremes and private cars being restricted to only the first 15 miles of the road, is a big hindrance to my experience. The bus system is well executed but it's also slow and takes away options for a casual hike. It's possible to get off the bus anywhere but then one has to wait for the next bus with empty seats and on the way back in my bus was unable to pickup several hikers who had been waiting over an hour because it was full.

The bus system means that even though I'm in a 4 million acre park, I'm surrounded by people most the time so it didn't feel that much like wilderness to me. The park service tries to promote the idea that the travel limits make the experience feel more remote but I felt the opposite. Being able to stop the car, get out and admire a vista with no one one else in earshot, is much more satisfying. There may be no perfect solution at Denali since the road would need major upgrades for private vehicle traffic and the number of visitors is very high. I did find the experience I was looking for at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park later in my trip.