I have always wanted to go to Alaska. The mountains, the snow, the Northern Lights, the wildlife, and the idea of very few people per square footage compared to wildlife and nature. It has always been a lure for me. I had made plans when I was around 24-25 years old to move there but ultimately it did not work out. Life went on and years went by. I was actually working as a law enforcement Park Ranger for the State of Tennessee and had just graduated with my Master’s in Science/Paleontology when my parents surprised me with a graduation gift of a trip to Alaska.
Finally I was getting the chance to go to this majestic state and run wild. I flew into Fairbanks and downtown for starters. I went to Alaska in early spring so it was daylight for most of the time. I went walking downtown my first night at midnight and it was completely daylight. I did have a questionable man approach me while out walking, not sure what he wanted and I didn’t give him a chance I just said “don’t even start with me pal” and he scurried off. Even though it was daylight out, there were some usual suspects that lurk after midnight. After staying in downtown
Fairbanks, I then went to a hostel called Billie’s Backpackers Hostel just outside of town for a few days.
Now if it were me planning this trip I would not have stayed at a hostel. Not that there’s anything wrong with hostels. They can be very affordable, very social, and you can meet some interesting characters staying there, however I am a very unsocial person, hate crowds, hate sharing a bathroom, and rooming with strangers is a nightmare for me. So you can imagine the look on my face when I arrived and was taken to a room with 2 bunk beds and a roommate. Turns out my roommate was a welder from Michigan working in Alaska for the season and had a vehicle. The first day I was at the hostel I rode the bus all over the area just to see the sites and get a better feel for where everything was. The next day my roommate offered to drive me around in his vehicle so that worked out pretty good from there on out until my departure.
Next I headed to McKinley Chalet Resort just outside of Denali National Park on the Nenana River. It was roughly 2 miles to the entrance of the park from the resort. They do have a shuttle service that will take you to the park just check with the front desk for details. The resort was a beautiful place, rustic and modern qualities complimented each other. It was so quiet sitting outside just listening to the river running, the birds chirping, and the wind whistling.
McKinley has a fine dining and a casual dining restaurant so you can choose what you prefer. There is a gift shop at McKinley but there is also shopping just across the main road where you can find all kinds of great art, jewelry, local art, Native and Alaskan art. There is also a white water rafting company nearby along with all kinds of ATV tour companies, horseback riding outfits, fishing excursions, back country hiking/camping tours. I have listed a few below. Just talk with someone at the front desk and they can help you set up any tours you would like to take.
While I was staying at McKinley I took a tour of Denali National Park and boy is that a beautiful park! It brings to mind what North America must have looked like before the people arrived and how peaceful that must have been. There is so much wildlife running around; wolves, caribou, grizzly and black bears, moose, Dall Sheep, and more.
So visitors will never be disappointed here, everyone will have the opportunity to view wildlife in this plentiful Arctic wonderland. Mt. Denali is North America’s highest peak reaching 20,320 ft and it is still growing about 1 millimeter per year. The origin of Mt. Denali is due to the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. These plates are still actively pressing against each other. The park itself is 6 million acres of wilderness and 16% of that is glacier. The region has been inhabited by humans for over 11,000 years. Some of its residents include the Dena’ina, Koyukon, and Tanana people. The Koyukon would be the ones to call the mountain Dinale meaning ‘tall one’.
Most of the native people in this area were excellent trappers and made money doing this through trade with Russians. Unfortunately with this contact of foreigners they were exposed to smallpox and other diseases from which many died as a result. In 1876 a gold prospector named the mountain McKinley in honor of President William McKinley and the name became official in 1917 a few years after President McKinley’s assassination. However, the locals never stopped referring to the mountain as Denali. The mountain’s name was finally officially changed by President Barack Obama in 2015 back to the native Denali.
There is a lot of history at Denali National Park and if you want to learn more on its history there is a tour for that. The park has several different tours you can sign up for depending on what you are more interested in or if you have the time take all the tours. The history tour will vividly describe the long human history of the region as well as about the park. There are wildlife tours, gold rush tours, hiking tours and more. There is a link below where you can sign up for tours before you go to make sure you get one.
For the next part of my trip I headed to the town of Healy just North of Denali. There I met up with my pilot of a bush plane to fly me to my next destination, Denali Wilderness Lodge* on the Wood River. When I first got there and saw the plane I thought wow that’s small! The pilot said I could only take one small bag because he had supplies for the wilderness lodge. This plane was only big enough for 3 people and it was packed with supplies and a few plants so one small carry on bag was all I could take with me.
My pilot was a retired military man and had been flying helicopters and planes for a very long time. Not that I was worried I love to fly large or small. I love the feeling and honestly it’s better in the smaller ones. First of all you can really feel what it may feel like to fly yourself, every movement and turn with all those windows to look out of as you’re flying. My pilot asked me If I wanted to get some really good pictures while flying, of course I said yes. So as we flew over the snow capped mountains with Dall sheep, and the long, winding frozen rivers, he would tilt the plane sideways on my side so I could get some really nice shots. Fantastic!
Now I realize this type of acrobatic flying probably isn’t for everyone but if you can take it then you will get some wonderful pictures and have a great time doing it. I think it took us a little longer to get to my destination because of all the trick flying and picture taking but it was so worth it. It also gave me the chance to talk with my pilot about his life in the military and his retirement to Alaska. He was such an interesting man.
So upon approaching Denali Wilderness Lodge I happened to ask my pilot, “where do we land the plane?” as there was no airstrip or anything. I never really thought about it before. He said ‘oh we’re going to land on that old dry river bed”. Well that sounded a bit crazy but ok I was ready. This was definitely the roughest part…landing and it was very bumpy but he did a great job. So finally we made it to the lodge where I was met by some of the workers there so they could show me to my cabin and then show me around the camp area.
This would be my longest stay of anywhere else while I was visiting Alaska and by far the best time I had the whole trip. It was so remote, very few people, no roads coming in or out and it was so peaceful. The only sounds were nature, the wind, the river, animals, birds that’s all you could hear. Just my kind of place.
My tour of the camp was a few cabins, the lodge where you could get a drink or hang out by the fireplace and play some board games, a theater cabin, the main lodge where meals were served, a horse corral and barns for them, and the observation deck down by the river.
During my stay in Alaska was the time of the ‘midnight sun’ so there was plenty of daylight to explore the area each day. One of the workers there was a hiking guide so he and I went hiking up Mt. Anderson one day. He had to give me some tips on wilderness hiking and about what to do if we ran into a grizzly on the hike. So up the mountain we went. Every time he showed me scratched up dirt near small animal dens he would say ‘that’s from a grizzly trying to get food, they are hungry right now’ I would think great, but I hope they won’t eat me I’m a very bad eater and I probably don’t taste too good haha. It was a little nerve wracking to think at any moment we could come across one.
We never did see any grizzlies on that hiking trip but we sure did see a lot of other wildlife out looking for food; Dall sheep, marmots, Willow Ptarmigans, porcupines etc. But every time I saw those scratch marks a grizzly had made my heart starting racing again thinking ‘well any time now we are going to walk up on one and be lunch’ The hike was so rocky and actually pretty dangerous with a lot of loose rocks so if you ever visit and plan to hike be prepared with the proper clothing and equipment. Once we got to the top and sat down to eat a bite that we had packed in our backpacks, it was so beautiful, quiet, and the air was so crisp. I wish I could have stayed longer.
The next day I decide to hike out on my own to the nearby Wonder Lake. I had talked with some of the workers and they were telling me about how far it was and to look out for moose, grizzlies, and mosquitoes on the hike out. So I set out with my camera to see what all I could take pictures of. This was an easy hike and not too far from the camp area. As I was walking, cautiously, I had my camera ready for anything. All of a sudden I heard something large walking nearby over a small hill. I thought ok get the camera ready this could be a grizzly and I wanted to be ready for it, before it attacked me I thought. My hands were getting clammy, heart racing again and there it was..At first I thought it was a young cub from the color and size so I immediately thought, this is bad the mom will be close by. However when our eyes met I realized it was a very large porcupine and he realized I was human and took off running, but not before I snapped this picture of him. The staff workers had also mentioned the mosquitoes as you got closer to Wonder Lake. They were correct, by the time I reached the lake I could hardly see for swatting at these pest they were everywhere. Note to self; lots of bug spray next time I visit!
Another tip from staff was if a grizzly comes through camp just run into the closest cabin possible for safety. I asked about locks on the cabins and they said ‘there are no locks on any building or cabin for such reasons as grizzlies coming into to camp’. They wanted visitors to be able to get to safety quickly if they needed to. Interesting I thought, of course you could latch it at night while sleeping with a cool antler attached to the door.
The cabins were small but had everything you needed, a bed and full bathroom and black out curtains as well so you could sleep since it stayed daylight so long. I loved my little cabin! Mine was close to the river and a beautiful view out in front of me. I had a little porch I could sit on but most evenings I walked down to the wildlife observation tower on the banks of the Wood River where the views were fantastic and it just felt so good to sit atop the tower with the wind blowing, listening to the sounds of nature and watching wildlife just live their lives.
As you can see in the picture to the right, there was still a lot of snow on the mountains during my visit in May. I’m generally a hot natured person so I thought it felt great outside but the wind was a little chilly in the evenings. The Wood River that ran through the camp also had quite a bit of ice on it still during this time frame.
Be sure to check the weather for your trip because this can limit what type of activities you will be able to do and can also affect where you stay as it does at Denali Wilderness Lodge. Alaska is definitely one of those places that it’s difficult to decide when to go, winter or summer, as the two are so different and both equally fantastic. The ideal solution is to go on a trip here during both if you can.
You may not be able to canoe a river during May here but they did have a horse corral where you could take a long ride through the countryside which will give you the feeling of living back in the 1800’s riding into the wilderness with no sign of civilization only nature. I Loved It!
After a long day of hiking or riding horses, one of the nice things was to unwind at the lodge bar by the fireplace. It’s a very cozy set up like a private hunters club. The bartender that was there when I went was also quite the character. He said he was a former green beret, had an eye patch over one eye, and was a little rough around the edges for sure. Full of great stories so he can keep you entertained for quite awhile. He also told me he was the caretaker for the lodge in the off season. He said the bush pilot would bring supplies for him for the 8 months he was there alone because the plane could not get to him during bad weather. A tough character indeed.
He also invited me to go porcupine hunting. I can only imagine what some of you may be thinking, and yes this is a delicate process to keep from getting injured. Apparently the porcupine are such a problem there and are literally eating the buildings down. So we did catch 2 of them on our hunt this one night and honestly I did not realize they were so big. Once caught they had dropped a few of their quills which were fascinating to me so I picked up a few to bring home. I was told that these quills were used in the past by local natives to sew clothing, shoes, bags, jewelry, artwork, and household items.
After spending a wonderful week at Denali Wilderness Lodge, I flew back to Healy where I would get on the Alaskan Railroad for a trip down to Anchorage. The train ride is a great way to see the countryside especially if you’re not much of a hiker or prefer to stay warm and safe looking through the glass windows instead of being out in the wilderness. The seats were comfy, the food was great, and the views were outstanding. I did see a large black bear on the side of the tracks but it happened so fast I couldn’t get a good picture of him. Finally I made it to Anchorage which is a lovely city right on the water. I stayed close to the Anchorage Market which was a fantastic food market, flea market, arts and crafts festival kind of place. This market is huge and there is so much to see. One of the best food items I tried was Halibut on a stick so seek it out if you’re in town. There are also some great restaurants in the area of the market and the hotel I stayed in. I have listed a few of those below.
Be sure to look at the Native Arts here, they really have some beautiful pieces of art both modern and traditional. If you want to know more on the process or the meaning behind the native art then check out the Native Arts and Heritage Center. Anchorage was the end of my Alaska tour. I left feeling very relaxed and ready for whatever comes next.
*The Denali Wilderness Lodge was closed due to the death of the owner in 2006 and stayed abandoned until new owners bought it and fixed it back up in 2018. They also changed the name to Wood River Lodge.
McKinley Chalet Resort
Denali National Park
Wood River Lodge