Denali! Planning the route:
This isn’t so much a drive to Alaska, as it is a drive to Denali, the crown jewel of the Alaska Range and the largest mountain in North America. Formerly known as Mount McKinley, Denali is a unique natural wonder that heaves upward from the rolling tundra, rising from a base that’s a few hundred meters above sea level to a staggering height of 20,322 feet. If it’s not socked in by clouds, it’s pretty hard to miss–Denali is an impossibly colossal chunk of rock and ice, so big that it creates its own weather. Denali National Park, which nominally protects it, totals six million acres, which makes it larger, in terms of area, than nine of the fifty states. (The original picture accompanying this post was not mine–it was from Wikipedia. I promised to replace it with one of my own after I’d been to Denali, and I’ve done exactly that: the photo featured at the top of this page is, in fact, my own. The full story of my trip to Denali will be available in a later post to this blog.)
Why does any of this matter? Pull up a chair: One of the seminal experiences of my youth was a singular, utterly breathtaking sunrise seen through the window of a rickety passenger bus in Argentina. We were approaching the extraordinary wall of mountains known as the Andes from a high plain, due west of the wine country around the city of Mendoza, headed toward a long series of switchbacks that climbed to lofty pass that would take us to the border, and ultimately across the Andes to Santiago, the capital of Chile. At 5 AM, the landscape was cloaked in dense fog, turning slowly from black to gray. At 5:30, the rising sun in the east started burning away the heavy mist, layer by layer, until the bright glow caressed the glaciers cloaking the unobstructed flanks of Mount Aconcagua, which, at more than 23,000 feet, is the highest peak in South America. Beams of light from the rising sun reflected back towards us like a breaking wave of molten gold, eliciting a gasp from the passengers, and a shudder in me that would be hard to describe–something primal. Moments like that are the reason for enduring the hardships of rough travel to distant lands, for getting off the beaten path into the remote places where our world was formed, and the thrill is addictive. For me, personally, there’s nothing quite like a massive, snow capped mountain, and the biggest, baddest mountain that us North Americans can drive to–without first traveling to another continent–is Denali.
Here’s an approximation of my proposed route:
Click the map, above, for an expanded view.
Up and back, according to this itinerary, is 8,327 miles, which Google tells me will require 162 hours of driving. Done in one big push, that’s eight hours a day, every day, for almost three weeks. When all is said and done, the distance will actually be even further, because there will most certainly be side trips. To put all those miles in perspective: if the route was a single straight line running due west as the crow flies from Phoenix? I’d end up in New Delhi. Due south? I’d be at the south pole. The only portion of the route that will be the same in both directions is the Alaska Highway proper, the 1500 mile stretch from Dawson’s Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks. Other than that, I’ll be traveling in a big oblong oval, driving north by way of the the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Pacific Coast of California, taking in Yosemite, the Redwoods, and fog shrouded beaches. From there, north through the Cascades in Oregon and Washington State, on into Canada, and the mountains of British Columbia, all the way to Alaska, and the biggest mountain of them all. I’ll circle Denali while I’m there, and I’ll explore the Kenai Peninsula below Anchorage before heading back down the Alaska Highway, back to Dawson’s Creek. On my return journey, I’ll swing further east, down through the Canadian Rockies, Jasper and Banff, Glacier National Park in Montana, Yellowstone, the Tetons, through the Colorado Rockies to Aspen and on to Durango. Pretty much every spot I’ve just mentioned represents another must-see location on my bucket list, so by the time I get back from Denali, I will have made some serious progress on that thing.
With all the information that’s readily available on the Internet there’s little need for a large hard copy library of tour books, but I did pick up a couple of current guides specific to the Alaska Highway: the aptly titled Guide to the Alaska Highway by Ron Dalby (which is excellent) along with the 66th edition of The Milepost, considered the bible of the Alaska Highway, with mile by mile descriptions of road conditions, construction warnings, available services, side roads, and scenic attractions. Photographing the Southwest Volume 3 is part of a very good series that offers tips for photographers, this volume being specific to Colorado and New Mexico. Everything else is from good old AAA, the American Automobile Association. I get my money’s worth from my AAA membership with the free maps alone. I’ll tell ya, people get so dependent on their GPS’s and their smart phones that map reading is becoming a lost art. I highly recommend bringing a real map along anywhere you’re planning to go, especially if it’s a place you haven’t been before. It might be old fashioned, but it will never break or run out of juice, and it still works just fine, even when you can’t get ANY bars on your iPhone.
Next up: Alaska: Step 3: What to bring along?