“When you get into the larger aircraft it becomes like a hotel, with dozens of staff supporting the plane based in a galley area down below. You have very comprehensive cooking facilities, and on larger aircraft we have looked at theatres, with spiral staircases and a Steinway grand piano. The limitations for what you can put inside a plane are pretty much the limits of physics, and even money cannot always overcome that. Even so, people are still always trying to push [the limits]. ”
August in Alaska
It’s almost heaven—and the state is so big that you could spend years exploring it. Here’s where to start.
Alaska is vast. So vast that it is difficult for me to fully grasp, though I’ve been privileged to explore it a half-dozen times over the years—by beat-up rented truck, camouflage ATV, boat, raft and bush plane. Its 663,000 square miles, if overlaid on a map of the lower 48 states, would stretch from northern Minnesota to the Texas panhandle—with the narrow strip of Alaska locals call “Southeast” reaching Savannah, Georgia, and the chain of islands called the Aleutians stretching to Arizona.
August and early September is the perfect time to fly to Alaska. The weather is typically clear and magnificent; meadows of fireweed and lupine and bluebell are in vibrant bloom; blueberries and soapberries are ripe; mosquitoes are less bothersome; and wildlife is abundant and on the move. It’s a sublime season to hike, climb, backpack, bike, expand your photography skills and simply get away and immerse your senses in a stunningly beautiful landscape.
Where to experience your adventure? The obvious choice is Denali National Park and Preserve and Mount McKinley, in the Alaskan interior. McKinley, at 22,237 feet, is the tallest peak in North America. Below its granite crags, lingering snowfields and giant glaciers are millions of acres of sweeping tundra; below the tree line are descending bands of upland spruce forest, then a mixture of spruce and poplars in the bottomlands, then low-brush bog.
Black bears and the formidable Alaskan brown bears (interior grizzlies) roam the park—especially the soggy muskeg and tundra regions this time of year—gorging on the wild blueberries that are ripening in profusion. You’ll also see caribou, moose, hoary marmots and Arctic ground squirrels, tundra swans, Arctic warblers and pine grosbeaks, ptarmigan and golden eagles—and, if you’re lucky, a herd of Dall sheep on the mountainside, a pack of fleeting gray wolves and the elegant and speedy gyrfalcon.
You’ll have lots of daylight to enjoy the summer splendor. On August 1, it starts getting light in Denali National Park at 4:30 a.m. The first rays of sun hit the snow on the eastern slopes of McKinley at 5:34. The sun sets at 10:34 p.m. and twilight ends at 11:38. That’s one long cocktail hour on the deck.
While there are several air strips in small towns on the edges of the national park, they are gravel and unattended. Nevertheless, you’ll find detailed pilot information about flying around Denali National Park here. The best bet for private jets is to fly into Anchorage (240 miles to the south) or Fairbanks (120 miles to the north). You can then rent a car and drive to Denali, although once you get there, the 92-mile Denali Park Road (the only road into the park) is open to private vehicles for only 15 miles; shuttle and tour buses can take you the rest of the way. A better strategy is to hop aboard the Alaska Railroad, sit back and enjoy the breathtaking scenery.
Planning Your Visit
The best places to stay are family-run operations called Camp Denali and North Face Lodge. They are at the end of Denali Park Road and are surrounded by six million acres of pristine wilderness, with spectacular views of the snowcapped Alaska Range.
Camp Denali is a throwback, a taste of frontier Alaska. The hand-hewn-log lodge dates from 1954, before Alaska was a state, and was one of the first wilderness lodges in the territory. Guests stay in well-spaced private cabins with the lush tundra and taiga right out the door.
North Face Lodge is a modern but traditional north-country inn with 15 small, well-appointed rooms, en-suite bathrooms and electricity. It features an inviting central living room with a classic stone fireplace and a full library of books about Alaskan adventure and natural history.
The per-person weekly rate for adults at both lodges, based on double occupancy, is $3,885, with shorter stays available. Prices include round-trip transportation from the Denali Park Rail Depot; lodging; all meals; naturalist-guided hikes and other activities; entertaining evening programs; and use of canoes, bikes, fishing tackle and outdoor gear.
For information about lodging, visit campdenali.com or call (907) 683-2290.
For information about exploring Denali National Park and Preserve, including maps and seasonal updates, visit nps.gov/dena or call (907) 683-9532.
Thomas Pero (email@example.com) is publisher of Wild River Press, the former editor and publisher of Fish & Fly and the author of two books about fly fishing.
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