As Dermott Brereton discovered, Alaska's Denali National Park isn't the easiest place on earth to reach, but the two flights, three-hour drive and four-hour train trip was well worth it. Its two biggest drawcards are the views of Mt McKinley and the relative ease of watching wildlife.
Denali's habitat is a mix of forest at its lowest elevations, including deciduous taiga. It also has tundra at middle elevations and glaciers, rock and snow at the highest elevations.
The park is in the heart of Alaska and Dermott travelled on the Midnight Sun Express. There is no private-vehicle access, and one way to get there is by the train. The trip into the 2.4 million-hectare wilderness passes through rugged land and is an absolute highlight. The scenery is fantastic and most trains have scenic dome windows on the upper level and the dining area on the lower. A favourite meal is their Kodiak stew, which includes reindeer, buffalo and beef. There are viewing platforms between carriages and a gift shop. There's a knowledgeable local tour guide for each carriage.
The Alaska Railroad was built in 1915, and played an important role in the development of the state throughout the 20th century. It was a vital link between the rugged and untamed, mineral-rich interior and the coast.
The train stops off at Glitter Gulch, nicknamed because of the hotels and gift shops that belie the delights on offer inside the park.
Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is a rustic yet modern and comfortable lodge. Its expansive deck overlooks the park and Nenana River. Even the outdoor hot tubs have great outlooks. For a memorable meal, King Salmon Restaurant has excellent cuisine and more views. Lynx Creek Pizza and Pub are excellent for a huge pizza and pint of beer brewed on-site.
There is only one road into the park creatively named "Park Road" and shuttle buses are used to take visitors in and out. They leave the lodge every half-hour, starting at 5am. An early start could mean you see more animals. You can hop off and hop on when you want.
Bus drivers double as guides and they are great at animal spotting. The Alaskan Big Five are moose and caribou which are fairly easy to see, Dall sheep are usually high up somewhere, wolves are not so easy to find, but everyone has their fingers crossed that they will see a big grizzly bear.
Don't discount Denali's little creatures. There are plenty of them, including collared pika or rock rabbit, Arctic ground squirrel, hoary marmot, beaver, snowshoe hare, gray jay, voles, shrews, mice and lemmings.
Many migratory bird species live in the park during late spring a summer. Waxwings, Arctic warblers, pine grosbeaks, wheatears and the majestic tundra swan delight birdwatchers. Predatory birds include a variety of hawks, owls, gyrfalcon and the striking golden eagle.
Trout, salmon and Arctic grayling are among 10 species of fish sharing the park's waters. The wood frog is the single amphibious species living there.
The Elison Visitors Centre is a good place to stop for lunch and a leg stretch and it's a great vantage point to take in views of Mt McKinley. With a peak at 6200m above sea level, it's North America's tallest mountain and has the highest vertical rise of any mountain in the world including Mt Everest.
Denali National Park in the heart of Alaska.
Scenic Tours has 23-day Rockies and Voyage of the Glaciers tours, including sightseeing, most meals and tipping starting at $11,485 per person, twin share, land only. After exploring Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies, luxuriate on a seven-night cruise to Alaska, staying at Mt McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge; see Mt McKinley, North America's highest mountain peak; visit Denali National Park and take an unforgettable journey aboard the Midnight Sun Express.
Scenic is offering buy one, get one free flights with Air New Zealand to Vancouver. The offer applies to various dates between May and August, 2010. Air New Zealand flies to Vancouver three times a week. Twenty-three-day Rockies and Voyages of the Glaciers will cost $14,260 from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, $14,560 from Adelaide and $14,760 from Perth for the first person. The price for second person starts at $11,485 per person twin share, land only.
Prices correct at November 5, 2009.
For further information
Ph: 1300 136 001
Air New Zealand
Ph: 132 476