There is no doubt in my mind that Winter 2015 will go down as the year AKontheGO went places. Low snow levels (I’m starting to sound like a broken record), warmer temperatures, and open roads mean opportunities to get out of town more often, and that, we’re finding, is a good thing. Denali National Park was our destination for President’s Day weekend, come rain, snow, or sunshine.
A five-hour drive from Anchorage, Denali National Park is by far one of the best-kept wintertime secrets in all Alaska. A popular park during the summer months that bustles with tour buses, trains, flightseeing aircraft, campers, hikers, and wildlife watchers, Denali’s winter face is decidedly calmer. Shrouded in snow, the park’s main visitor centers and concession businesses are closed from September to May, which means visitors have extra hurdles to jump for a quality visit.
Sent on this adventure by the Alaska Dispatch News, our family quickly found that winter in the park is far more than the mechanics of getting there. Beyond the road trip preparations, the fuss of finding lodging, food, or fuel, wintertime Denali visitors achieve a sense of historic independence, a main reason so many of us moved here in the first place. But more on that in my article, due out next week.
As I’ve written before, Denali’s entrance area surpasses most parents’ expectations for kid-friendliness. Wide pathways accessible for all, clearly-marked signs and directional maps, and everywhere, the opportunity to spot wildlife, feel the mountain breezes, or listen to the sounds of nature. For summer visitors, Denali’s park road provides easy-to-moderate hiking trails within easy reach. During the winter, those same trails become kid-friendly skiing, snowshoeing, or walking doorways to Denali National Park, unplugged.
Three trails stand out from our visit, in addition to the other, well-traveled ones available for those who venture to the park in the winter. Stop by Murie Science and Learning Center upon arrival. This is the winter visitor center for bathrooms, water, educational opportunities, and the free use of snowshoes during your visit.
Taiga Trail is a short loop connecting the Murie Science and Learning Center to the more-difficult Mount Healy Overlook Trail (great for big kids and experiencd hikers). Suitable for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking, this trail is reached either at the Horseshoe Falls parking lot just across the railroad tracks, or via the Murie center. Wandering through an aspen and spruce forest, the trail is full of birds, snowshoe hare tracks, moose sign, and all sorts of interesting views of the craggy hills, above, where Mount Healy stands. We did find a bit of a trail conundrum near the end of our hike where a bridge had been completely frozen by overflow; pretty, but also pretty impassable. Ask at the visitor center how best to navigate this detour; we bushwhacked around and found our way. Easy access to Murie Science and Learning Center for water, bathrooms, and a warm stove.
Horseshoe Lake is a delightful walk through a spruce forest and several opportunities to observe beaver habitat. Located in a bowl near the park road and railroad tracks, the lake is reached via a rather steep, narrow hike for about a third of a mile until the level lakeside trail takes over. Kids, and most adults, should plan to carry skis through this portion, but snowshoes would serve one well, here. Once at the bottom, either ski or walk around the lake, taking in views of the Nenana river, canyon area (also known as Glitter Gulch for the high number of vendors and hotels), and the little, quiet lake itself, where a family of beavers has created a wide dam across one end. Plan a picnic here, enjoy the view, and watch for the Alaska Railroad trains to motor by on tracks along the mountainside. Nearest facilities are at Murie Science and Learning Center, a mile from the lake.
Mountain Vista is an unexpected pleasure to visit this winter, thanks to the plowing of the park road to Milepost 12. The second year that Denali National Park maintenanace staff have experimented with opening the road beyond Mile 3, access to Mountain Vista is by far the gem of any wintertime visit. Featuring miles and miles of skiing and snowshoeing trails augmented by the occasional appearance of dogsled teams, skiing here was the icing on our President’s Day cake. Take the market trail leading out from the parking area, catching glimpses of Mount McKinley (Denali) from several vantage points. Explore the creeks and tributaries of the Savage River, then wind up and through the Savage River campground, crossing the park road and then skiing or snowshoeing to Savage cabin. This former trapping/guiding/ranger cabin is locked most of the time, but a sunny front porch beckoned us to stop and savor a picnic lunch in full view of chattering squirrels and chirping songbirds. Continue your loop along the park road back to your car. Small shelter, pit toilets, and plowed parking area available. Bring all water, food, and gear to sustain you this far out into the park.
Be sure to connect next week for the release of my full story about visiting Denali National Park during the winter.