Alaska, the Last Frontier - Summer 2012 travel blog

where the mountain should be

vintage convoy

old military vehicles

One of the reasons we stopped in Talkeetna was to see Mt. McKinley from afar in the south. Ironically, it's not possible to see it from Denali National Park where it is located without taking a school bus sixty miles down a a gravel road. Foot hills and lower mountains in the chain get in the way. More on that later. But since the clouds and overcast are back and the forecast is for five days of rain, we decided to head north to the national park and see and do what we could on ground level.

As we drove the traffic ahead of us slowed way down and after a few vehicles passed, we found ourselves at the end of the convey of old military vehicles commemorating the 70th anniversary of the building of the Alaska Highway. When we started driving the highway back in June we saw signs advertising this convoy and its route and hoped that our path would cross it somewhere along the way. About 70 jeeps, trucks, ambulances and other rolling warriors dating from World War II to Operation Desert Storm are visiting Alaska this month, accompanied by 30 more support vehicles -- motorhomes, pickups, trailers and motorcycles. They paused at a rest area commemorating Alaska veterans, an appropriate stop, which gave us a chance to move on at a more modern pace after admiring them a bit.

Denali National Park is a hard place to visit, not user friendly. It was begun as an animal refuge; mountain sheep were the endangered animal and it almost feels like the fact that the tallest mountain in North America is also there, was incidental. The mountain makes this park a world class destination and it could easily be swamped with visitors who could love the place to death as has happened with many national parks in the lower 48, or Outside as the locals call it.

So all management decisions have been made with the best interests of the animals in mind. There is one 92 mile road into the park. Visitors can only drive their own vehicles the first fifteen miles. Shuttle buses, which are old rickety school buses, take visitors the rest of the way. Tickets are required for the shuttle bus and must be purchased ahead of time. A trip to the end of the road costs $50 and takes twelve hours round trip. During busy times of the year tickets much be reserved far ahead, but these days at the end of the season, we could get on a bus tomorrow. The last time we took this uncomfortable trip, it was very frustrating. The buses stop when an animal is seen, but the small bus windows are either dusty or muddy depending on the weather and inevitably are on the other side of the bus from where you are sitting. Any animal with any brains never gets anywhere near the road so you are looking at brown specks or white specks or black specks. You can get off the bus to hike and catch another, but if the next bus is full you just have to keep waiting. And there are bears and other wild animals lurking out there. You also have to bring your own food and drink for the trip. There's nowhere to stop and buy something to eat.

We stood in line behind long lines of people, many of whom did not speak English very well, and listened to the park rangers try to explain these limitations to the park visitors from foreign lands. The line did not move fast. We thought about taking a ranger lead hike tomorrow. We weren't allowed to sign up without bringing in our footwear for inspection as to appropriateness. So we would have to go back to the campground, get our hiking boots, and stand in line again. It feels like park staff is doing everything within its power to keep people out. We'll see about that.

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