Denali State Park is a 325,240-acre state park in Alaska adjacent to the southeast corner of Denali National Park. Except for a few campgrounds and trails, Denali State Park is mostly an undeveloped wilderness. It boasts many of the best views of Mt. McKinley, which at 20,320 feet is the tallest mountain in North America. The mountain actually resides about 40 miles away in the national park.
The joke in Denali National Park is that you have 95% chance of seeing a bear but only a 25% chance of seeing Mt. McKinley. That’s because this massive mountain generates its own weather and is often shrouded in clouds. And the joke held true on our visit to the national park, as we saw 8 grizzly bears but no mountain. But on our third day of visiting the state park, Mt. McKinley peaked out of the clouds for about an hour to wow the tourists at the Denali South Viewpoint.
Most Alaskans call the big mountain “Denali,” a native Athabascan word meaning “The High One.” The mountain was originally named “Mt. McKinley” in 1896 by a gold prospector in honor of Ohio politician and America’s 25th president, William McKinley, who was a staunch supporter of the gold standard and hence well-aligned with the prospector’s interests. This was despite McKinley having nothing to do with the mountain and having never visited Alaska. Alaskans tried to rename the mountain to Denali while Congress debated the Alaska Lands Act in the 1970s. But representatives from Ohio have blocked the name change for more than 50 years, saying it’s an insult to the state of Ohio to take the name away from an Ohioan president. The U.S. Board of Geographical Names has tried to keep out of the fray, saying “Some names will cause some emotions and some consternation, but I don’t think we’ve had any that have gone on this long or at that high a level.”
Climbing a 20+ thousand foot mountain is challenging even today. So far this year only 38% of climbers have reached the highest south peak of Mt. McKinley, and many have died trying. Normally about half the climbers each summer will reach the summit, but rangers told us this was an especially stormy and snowy year, thus leading to the lower ascension rate. But modern climbers have it much easier than in the early 1900s when the mountain was first conquered. Today’s climbers have lightweight equipment, synthetic waterproof clothing, state-of-the-art guidance and communications devices, and they start their climb with a 40-minute helicopter ride to the 7,000-foot base camp. But on the first successful climb in 1913, the climbers had to hike for three months through hundreds of miles of challenging Alaskan wilderness just to reach the base camp.
This beautiful snow-capped peak is called Deception Mountain, because tourists often mistake it for Mt. McKinley. While we were camping at the Denali North Viewpoint, Mt. McKinley was socked in the clouds most of the time, but Deception Mountain was showing in full glory. One woman leaped out of her car and beamed with delight when she spotted the false peak. I was going to tell her that she was viewing the wrong mountain, but when I saw how happy and satisfied she looked, I couldn’t bring myself to break the bad news.
On our first hike in Denali State Park, we were surprised to see the forest floor covered in lush ferns.
The park is full of many small lakes and ponds. We hiked by a tiered succession of ponds created by beaver dams. The dam in the photo above was hundreds of feet long and must’ve taken quite an effort for the beavers to build.
We climbed out of the forest and onto the tundra of the Kesugi Ridge. “Kesugi” is a Tanaina Indian word meaning “The Ancient One.” The 4,000-foot high ridge runs for about 30 miles between the Chulitna and Sustina Rivers and was created by the same faulting that produced the Alaska Range and Mt. McKinley.
From the Kesugi Ridge we could see the Eldridge Glacier. I was so excited to see my first large-scale ice field. You wouldn’t know it from the photo, but the ice field is over 2 miles wide and would take an experienced ice climber a day or more to cross. Glaciers are extremely dangerous to hike because the top layer of snow can conceal deep crevasses and ice-cold rivers. Tourists are strongly discouraged from hiking on glaciers without a professional guide and proper equipment. A person that falls in a glacier crevasse will typically die from hypothermia in less time than it takes to summon help. While in Canada, there was a warning sign near a glacier that drove home this point by saying, “Our last 3 rescue attempts have been unsuccessful.”
While hiking on Kesugi Ridge, the clouds started to dance around and tease us with a Mt. McKinley appearance. So we decided to take a little snooze and wait it out. Here you can see the dogs and I dreaming about big mountains (well, the dogs were probably dreaming about squirrels). Though we waited for an hour, we got only a quick glance at a portion of the mountain.
We didn’t think Byers Lake was that big until we started hiking around it. Four hours and six miles later, we had gained a newfound respect for this pretty blue lake surrounded by mountains. About halfway around the lake we met a nurse who looked very out-of-place in the backcountry and nervous carrying a bottle of bear spray in her hand like a gun. She was supposed to meet her nurse friends at one of the public cabins that unfortunately was on the other side of the lake. We were happy to show her through binoculars where she was supposed to be and probably saved her hours of additional hiking.
Loons are excellent swimmers that can travel both above and below the water using their webbed feet, which sit far back on their body. However, the placement of their feet makes it difficult for them to maneuver well on land, thus loons spend most of their time in the water unless they are nesting.
This beaver entertained us for quite a while, swimming in circles right in front of us. He was obviously quite used to humans.
Here’s another beautiful view of Byers Lake.
On one of our hikes it was “snowing” from the cottonwood trees. The cottonwood is a large tree, and a cottonwood discovered in Haines, Alaska set the national record at 101 feet tall and 32 feet around. It’s considered an ornamental tree with its fast growth, scented foliage in the spring, and cotton seeds in the summer. But its roots can be quite invasive and damage nearby buildings if planted too close.
Shadow plopped down for a rest in the wildflowers along the Chulitna River.
Alaska summers are short but intense. We were quickly consumed by tall ferns while hiking down to the Chulitna River. It was a little unnerving because we could barely see the trail and certainly wouldn’t be able to see any nearby bears. So we were sure to make lots of noise while hiking through the thick foliage so we wouldn’t become a bear snack.