Secrets of the National Parks
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Denali National Park, Alaska
The setting: Named after its centerpiece, the tallest mountain on the continent (also known as Mount McKinley), Denali is a mix of green-carpeted forest, rock, and snow, and a home to a wide variety of wildlife.
The inside scoop: Traffic on the park's main road is limited to tour and shuttle buses beyond Mile 15. If wildlife is what you're after, park public affairs officer Kris Fister—who has worked at Denali since the mid-1990s—advises boarding a bus at least as far as Mile 53, near the Toklat River. The three-hour ride will take you past wide-open fields with low alpine vegetation—the better for spotting caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and even grizzly bear. If you're set on seeing Denali itself, camp out at Wonder Lake (bring mosquito repellent) and set your alarm for 1:00 a.m.: The sky never completely darkens in summer this close to the Arctic Circle, and very early in the morning is the best time to see the mountain without its usual veil of clouds.
Plan B: If you're short on time, says Fister (perhaps your cruise ship awaits in Anchorage?), Primrose Ridge is a great hike just past Mile 15; you can leave your car near the ranger station at the Savage River and then follow the ridge as it rises 1,500 feet above the road.
Money-saving tip: The park shuttles are less expensive than the bus tours, and the drivers will still stop for wildlife viewing; they know the park well enough to help you figure out what you're looking at. Reservations for either buses or shuttles should be made in advance.
When to go: Denali's season is short—park transportation starts running in late May and stops in mid-September. Fister likes late August; by then, the moose have their new coats, the mosquitoes are gone, and the foliage has already started to turn.