The Denali National Park is a massive preserve in interior Alaska, containing the highest peak in North America, 20,310 feet tall Denali (previously known as Mount McKinley). It might be better known in popular culture as the place where Chris McCandless ventured and eventually died, as chronicled by the book and later film ‘Into the Wild’. Most people believe Denali is a summer park, but in reality it’s open all year around, and is definitely worth a visit in the winter, if you find yourself in Alaska. For us, it was an obvious choice when deciding where to spend the last day of our Alaska weekend, after a day enjoying the amazing World Ice Art Championship in Fairbanks and a night marveling at northern lights. Denali is 120 miles from Fairbanks, mostly on highway, so it can be reached in 2 and a half hours, which makes it a long but totally viable day trip. It would be a pretty eventful one.
We set out early in our rental car, aiming to get to the Murie Science and Learning Center, not much after 9am. This center is located right at the beginning of the park road and acts as Denali’s visitor center in the winter, and we had read that the rangers in it offer free snowshoes on a first-come-first-serve basis. The weather was unstable, with wind and reduced visibility, but it wasn’t snowing and the road felt safe, clear of snow for the most part. We enjoyed the drive, scenic as so far as it was simply the interior of Alaska, and made good progress, barely encountering any other car on the road… until the cops appeared behind us and their sirens indicated that we should pull over. Oups, apparently I was just driving through a town well above the speed limit. Sorry, officer, didn’t see the signs, I’m a tourist. Thankfully, he let me go with a ticket well below what I deserved.
We moved on, and by the time we reached the visitor center, the road was covered in compact snow, and the first flakes had started falling. The rangers were extremely nice; they waived the entrance fee, lent us snowshoes and microspikes, gave us a map and offered a good explanation of the park. Some of the activities people enjoy there in the winter include cross-country skiing, snow mountain biking or dog mushing. We weren’t interested in sledding like tourists (I had done it years ago in Argentina), but we still stopped by the rangers kennels and saw one of the dogs (the rest were on patrol) – cute!
We continued driving on the park road and suddenly, I lost control of the car and we skid sideways for a few meters and sank on the shoulder of the road. It didn’t feel dangerous, just that the snow layer hadn’t allowed me to differentiate the compact snow in the middle from the soft one on the shoulder… And now we were stuck. We tried to dig the car out of the snow, using our hands, and once those got too cold, the snowshoes as improvised shovels. When we felt like we had made good progress, we tried to push and drive out of the hole, but the tires skid again and stirred the soft snow, trapping the car again. This wasn’t going to work. Luckily, we had on and off cellular service, so we called the rangers number on the park’s brochure and they assured us they would be sending help as soon as possible. By then, it was snowing pretty heavily and the temperature was quite low, but there was nothing much for us to do other than waiting in the car. Eventually a ranger truck showed up; they quickly dag the snow around and under the car, and pulled it out with their recovery strap.
Ok, the day was not going great, but we were relishing the adventure and determined to go forward. We soon got rewarded for our perseverance; a few minutes after we started driving again, we spotted a herd of caribous on the side of the road. What a wonderful scene, these magnificent animals roaming in the winter landscape. We eventually made it to Mountain Vista parking lot, at mile 13 the end of the plowed road. Unfortunately, the skies were completely covered, so we didn’t get to experience any of the impressive views of the glaciated mountain range and the Denali peak.
Nevertheless, we put our snowshoes on and set on Savage Cabin Trail. It was a really cool experience, being completely alone in this winter tale scene, a dense pine forest covered in fresh snow. And it was a great workout, keeping a good pace while stepping in and out of powder and gaining altitude. After about an hour, the snowing was getting heavier and we had seen everything we could aspire to see (no trace of the moose herds that are supposed to be common in this area), so we returned to the car. As we were driving out of the park after returning the borrowed gear, we noticed that the road was being closed for snow. As usual, we had managed to make the most out of a challenging day, and come out unharmed 😉