If magnificent glaciers, spectacular wildlife and grand mountain vistas sound like your ideal setting for a getaway, you’ll need to etch a trip to Alaska on your travel bucket list now.
With scenes straight out of the Discovery Channel, Alaska is a sanctuary of untamed splendour for those who want to get away from the daily grind of city life.
Armed with layers of clothing, trusty binoculars and telephoto lenses, we made the trip to Alaska early this summer.
And it was quite the trip of a lifetime.
To see a multitude of natural land and seascapes, we visited the Interior, South-central and Inside Passage of Alaska, which together offered a perfect land-and-sea vacation.
First up was Denali National Park, the crown jewel of America’s national park system and highlight of Alaska’s Interior region.
As the United States’ first wildlife sanctuary established in 1917, Denali National Park was set aside to protect the abundant wildlife species residing in the park.
In the early days, visitors travelled from afar to experience a touch of unspoiled wildlife and majestic scenery.
90 years on, nothing has changed.
From the moment we approached the reserve in our car along George Parks Highway, we felt tiny in the grand arena of snow-capped mountain peaks (in summer, no less), massive expanse of forests, thawing tundra and blossoming wildflowers.
In the distance stood the honored Mt McKinley, a mountaineer’s dream and the highest peak in North America, one that reaches a staggering 20,320 feet.
As if it were not enigmatic enough, the mountain is only fully visible one out of three days and shrouded in a mystical veil of clouds the rest of the time.
For us, Mt McKinley was partially obscured by significant cloud cover during the days we were in Denali. This did nothing to dampen our mood but added to the aura and beauty of the place.
In fact, the cloudy skies were a boon to our wildlife spotting attempts, as the animals proved to be more active in cooler weather.
To explore the reserve, you journey on park-run buses along the Denali Park Road, which parallels the Alaskan mountain ranges. Driving is disallowed.
The shuttle buses allows you to disembark and re-board anywhere along the road, which means you can experience the wildlife sanctuary on your own terms.
And so the fun starts.
Aboard the shuttle bus, passengers act as extra eyes of the driver.
On our trip, the eagle-eyed Sherlocks among us would frequently shout “Stop!” whenever wildlife was spotted, rendering the full-day road-trip deep into the wild extremely eventful.
You need not wait long before animals appear.
Within fifteen minutes of the journey, our bus came to a complete stop.
Majestically trotting across the road right ahead of us were two wild moose, as if to stop us to remind that this park was, indeed, theirs.
Minutes later, a teenager yelped and our eyes rested on a community of grizzly bears. Several meters away from a massive grizzly that was fast asleep was an adorable cub, learning to forage for its own food.
A symphony of cameras shutters went off – those ranging from cute point-and-shoots to heavy duty ones mounted with professional white lenses – often the only sounds in the stillness of the park.
In all, we spotted four of the iconic “big five”– moose, bears, dall sheep and wolves. Outstanding was the caribou, otherwise known as the reindeer, popularised by the Santa Claus legend.
But we knew it was not a zoo; it was a treasure trove of wilderness waiting to be slowly uncovered, and wildlife sightings were never guaranteed. Go with this mindset, and you will be amazed.
The Eielsen Visitor Center, located 106km into the park, is an excellent place to learn about the natural resources of the area. Rangers take groups on guided walks that focused on the flora in the area.
Denali National Park is an absolute hiker’s paradise, unfettered by well-established trails and bush aids commonly found in many destinations.
As rangers explained, it is the park’s philosophy that the most complete experience would be created through unstructured exploring.
To be sure, there are several short trails that act as handy stepping-stones for those less accustomed to hiking, such as the Savage River trail.
If you are game for more adventure, create your own route and explore the splendid tundra forests or forge the banks of bubbling rivers. If you dare, you can even attempt to make it to the top of glaciers.
There is literally no limit to where you can hike.
Park rangers issue tips on how to manage bear sightings during hikes. Always make your presence known, they say, hike in groups and make noise to prevent shocking a bear into provocation.
We didn’t encounter grizzlies up-close on our hikes – till now I can’t quite decide that was our fortune or not – although we saw many of park’s smaller but no less fascinating creatures.
Friendly marmots literally posed for the cameras, and gulls vainly fluffed their feathers akin models in a couture fashion show. The ptarmigan – the Alaskan state bird – displayed key lessons on camouflage, as its feathers turn from brown to white in the winter.
Back at the Denali’s Visitor Centre, sled-dog demonstrations were available, and the Alaskan huskies stole the hearts of many dog-lovers.
These are the same resilient sled-dogs that traverse the backcountry in the heart of winter, when roads are blanketed with impenetrable layers of snow.
Denali National Park was really a great start to the Alaska trip. It’s definitely a must-see destination within Alaska!