Grizzly and cubs in Denali National Park.
Seward to Gakona
The brisk air that comes off the water at Whittier is redolent of salt water, creosote, and fish. As the E. L. Bartlett pulls from the dock with our car safely aboard, we see hundreds of fishing vessels in the harbor. Thousands of seagulls flap into flight, squawking and swooping as they escort the boat away from the second-largest rookery on Prince William Sound.
Captain John Klabo brings the ferry close to shore at Bull's Head Point, where hundreds of barking sea lions lollygag in the sun, some nursing month-old pups. We take cups of coffee onto the deck to view humpback whales and pods of orcas. The ferry pauses only when it passes the Columbia Glacier. As we watch, the distant, towering wall of ice groans; then, with a horrendous splitting sound, an enormous vertical slice of ice pulls away and crashes into the sea.
The ferry revs back to life and later passes Bligh Reef, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the sound.
Driving off the ferry, we head into Valdez ― rebuilt after it was hit by a tidal wave caused by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. It's now the terminus of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline and portal into the vast, unpopulated Alaskan interior.
Heading north on Richardson Highway (State 4), we speculate about how little Alaska has changed in the last century. This road is so lightly traveled that, while paved, it's dusty where we pass the massive ice falls of the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site. About 65 miles north of Valdez, we pull over at Pump Station 12 for a good view of the pipeline, which slips silently through the brush like a metallic anaconda.
While there are the scruffy basics of a town at Glennallen, places like Gakona and Copper Center are barely villages. To the east are the peaks of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, some topping 14,000 feet. These stops are among the last places in the state where you'll find a doorway into the early days of the Alaska frontier: the roadhouse.
A rambling collection of old log buildings put together with wood dowels, the Gakona Lodge and Trading Post dates back to 1904 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Barbara Strang greets us with a welcoming Alaska smile.
"When you were out in the middle of nowhere in brutal weather, the roadhouse represented civilization and safety," she explains. "Travelers found a warm place to sleep, buy food and supplies, rest horses, or get attention for frostbite. It was the area hub. There aren't many of them left."
We take our spot in the dining room for Strang's fresh Copper River red salmon, simply grilled in a cookshack out back.
Gakona to Denali National Park
Hoping to see as much wildlife as possible, we get up near sunrise ― about 3 a.m. ― to start across the 134-mile Denali Highway (State 8). Just over the Tangle River, the pavement becomes gravel and the potholes get big. We slow down, pulled along by the majestic scenery. Vast sweeps of marshy valley stretch out before us; the massive mountains to the north change colors by the minute in the cloud-filtered light of an endless day. Streams dammed by beavers form little ponds.
Five hours after starting out, we pass our first car: Everybody waves. We drive into the cloud of dust they've left behind; they drive into ours. Finally we reach Gracious House Lodge and stop for breakfast.
Three hours later, we roll into Cantwell. The car is filthy and both of us are caked with dust, but we feel outrageously courageous. We're ready now for the ultimate Alaskan wilderness, Denali National Park & Preserve.
Ranking right up there with Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon as one of America's premier parks, Denali is about as wild as most people will ever want to experience. Here, just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, grizzly bears meander along the roads, caribou feed with calves in tow, and mountain goats and Dall sheep cling to high outcroppings. There's never a question that the 6 million acres of park belong to the wildlife ― despite the well-managed herds of tourists who come to look, all aboard buses.Because of its size and shuttle-bus access, this is a park you can barely see in two days; given the stunning landscape and wildlife, you may want to stay longer. Not once during our visit, however, do the clouds part to reveal the park's most prominent landmark: 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, which towers above the Alaska Range.
Next: Denali National Park to Anchorage