We made some good decisions, and we were lucky. What remained for us to explore in Alaska was the the Kenai Peninsula and Chugach Mountains south and east of Anchorage and a small area north of there that includes Denali State Park. The forecast for north of Anchorage was slightly better, so we headed that way.
Denali National Park protects the wilderness area around Denali, at 20,308 feet, the tallest mountain in North America. The smaller Denali State Park is just south of the National Park. There are three major attractions within the State Park – the Parks Highway with strategically situated view points, campgrounds and trailheads, the wide, braided, glacial Chulitna River, and the 37-mile long, open K’esugi Ridge – boasting views of Denali* from all three.
*But only on rare, clear days. We had two of them!
We arrived at the south viewpoint in the State Park and saw 95% of the mountain out of the clouds, far more than we saw when visiting the National Park six weeks ago. The south view is up the Chulitna River, above the glaciers and up the face of the Tall One. We just stood and stared in wonder (Denali does that to you!). As we drove further north, clouds continued to dissipate. At the northernmost viewpoint, the Denali summit was completely clear, although more of the mountain was now hidden by the (relatively shorter but still tall) peaks in between.
We spent the night in a campsite with a view of the summit. We watched the sunset behind the Alaska Range. Think about that for a moment… a summer sunset in Alaska and it’s not way past our bedtime! We also woke to another brilliant, clear view of the summit. It was early and we were off for a hike.
The Ermine Hill Trail begins in a lush, dense forest with grasses and fireweed 4-6 feet tall. Soon, the trail climbs through a series of switchbacks to a shoulder of K’esugi Mountain where we got our first views of Denali. Clear! Beautiful! Inspiring! After about 100 pix, we picked up our jaws and continued the hike to a pass where we connected with the K’esugi Ridge Trail near a pretty, unnamed lake which we decided to call Ermine Lake. The pass is a brilliant, green tundra broken up by the line of a trail, unusual rock formations, and lots and lots of arctic ground squirrel burrows.
From the pass, we hiked north for an hour or so to the summit of Ermine Hill where the views continued to improve. Denali! The Alaska Range! The pass! Ermine Lake! The hoodoos! Back down to the pass, we decided to hike south for an hour or so to see more of the ridge and explore the rock formations. We giggled as we entered an area that was a bit moon-scapish. We christened that area Lunartik. Climbing to one more ‘hill’ on the ridge, we again got views toward Denali and the Tall One was making its way back into the clouds where it’s most comfortable.
Thanks to Lloyd and Suzanne for suggesting the K’esugi Ridge. Since we don’t have backpacking gear with us, thanks to Nick for suggesting Ermine Hill as a great access hike up to the ridge for some fun and scenic exploration.
On our way up to Denali State Park, we made a quick visit to Talkeetna, an artsy community, very popular with tourists, where you could hire a guide for almost any kind of motorized mountain adventure. Jet boats, ATVs, bush plane trips, trains… Heli-biking anyone? We didn’t partake. The highlight of our visit was definitely a fabulous lunch at the Flying Squirrel Cafe on the edge of town.
At the north end of the park, our turnaround point, we found the opposite – a tiny, free campground on the Chulitna River where it was quiet, not much to do except chill, and it was sprinkling off and on for a couple of days. This was near Broad Pass, at 2300 feet one of the lowest divides in the entire US. Ah, balance…