Denali National Park & Interior Alaska
In my first post on the site I shared some thoughts on escapism. That deviated from the norm a bit, so my second post will be a bit more conventional and I’ll share with you some insights about a specific destination: Denali National Park and Interior Alaska. For most people visiting the Interior this means Fairbanks, Alaska and the surrounding attractions.
Alaska had always been I state that I was interested in visiting but it always seemed like it would be a bucket list destination, more so than an achievable one. But life has ways of surprising you and making impossible things feasible. When my son joined the Army he was stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks. So my dream destination instantly became a “must do” while he was there. There was no way I could let the opportunity slip away. Plus, I wasn’t going to go three years without visiting my boy. That was an even higher priority than see this amazing swath of country.
So, I was able to accomplish visiting my son and having an experienced tour guide (his Alaskan-born girlfriend) show me all the beauty that Interior Alaska had to offer.
I’m not much of a planner when I travel. I prefer to wing it and see what experiences come about organically while I’m in a location. But I do usually do a cursory google search to see the “must do” destinations. So in talking to my son before arriving I told him I really didn’t have any plans or things that I absolutely wanted to do except that I wanted to get to Denali if that was feasible. The reason I was wondering if it was feasible was because I was traveling to Alaska in April and Denali isn’t fully open year round. But Patrick assured me that what remains open is still worth seeing. But that actually seeing the peak that the park is named for is a crap shoot in the off season.
While I was there one of the first things we did was we took a road trip to Denali National Park seeing the weather was cooperating, we didn’t want to waste the opportunity. The drive from Fairbanks to Denali is about 2 hours. The views the entire way are awe-inspiring and the vast openness of Interior Alaska is mind-boggling. For a guy from the most densely populated state in the union, traveling through true wilderness and not seeing another car on the road for miles on end were disorienting.
The scenery just kept getting more and more breathtaking as we got closer to the park. Seeing the wide open space and real mountains really fed my escapist dreams. I came to realize what I have always seen as mountains on the east coast (the Poconos, the Catskills, even the Adirondacks) were basically hills compared to the mountains of the Alaska Range. I kept seeing what I thought was a TREMENDOUS mountain and asking “is that Denali?” Each time I asked I was answered by a chuckle from my tour guide. “Nope. You’ll know it when you see it. Its MUCH bigger than that.” Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate with us enough to be able to see Denali, but based on the huge mountains I saw only to be told they were dwarfed by Denali, I MUST get back there again to see what has to be a spectacular mountain with my own eyes.
As I said, we visited the park in the off season, so we were literally alone in the wilderness. There probably wasn’t another person within five miles of us as we hiked up one of the scenic lookouts. It was such a unique experience to be in a National Park, a huge tourist attraction, and yet be completely alone.
Being completely alone in Interior Alaska brought to mind Jon Krakauer’s interesting and spell-binding book, “Into the Wild”. The story was made into a movie of the same name. Its the story of a young man from a well-off family that left the world behind and hitch-hiked his way into Interior Alaska to live off the land. Unfortunately he only survived for a few months.
While that isn’t an uplifting story, it does feed, again, into those same escapist motivations that I keep touching on. Alaska is definitely home to more than its fair share of escapists and people who chose to drop out of the rat race.
While in Fairbanks we also checked out Pioneer Park where some of the original buildings from Fairbank’s gold rush beginnings have been moved and preserved. There are shops with local vendors and in the summer an amusement park is there to enjoy. Its only minutes from downtown Fairbanks and well worth the trip if you are there.
Southeast of Fairbanks is the town of North Pole, Alaska. They take their name seriously as everything in town is Santa-themed with roads like Kris Kringle Drive and candy cane striped street lamps. There’s also the Christmas-themed Santa Claus house that is open year-round. Its kitschy and tourist-trappy in the world’s largest ball of string kind of way, but isn’t that the kind of stuff that makes you pull off the highway when you are road tripping? If so, North Pole should definitely be on your itinerary.
Another great place to visit is the Chena Hot Springs. About an hour north of Fairbanks is a natural hot spring that hosts a resort that has been taking in visitors for over 100 years. You can visit for a dip in the springs or you can go and stay overnight and enjoy the warm water and try to get lucky and see the Aurora Borealis while you soak.
The closest major lower-48 city to Alaska is Seattle. As such, a lot of Alaskans are fans of the Seattle sports teams and there is a fair amount of Seattle culture that has crept into Fairbanks…or at least that’s the way it seemed to me as an outside observer. One of the first examples of this that I noticed was the Seattle coffee stand culture. If you aren’t familiar, in Seattle and also Fairbanks on most corners you will find small shed-like structures that are converted to small independent coffee stands. They usually have drive-up windows on each side. Some even draw in clientele by having their barista’s wear bikinis. (Its such a thing there is even a Yelp list for Seattle’s best bikini coffee shops!)
If you visit Fairbanks during the colder months, one of the popular things most visitors and people new to Fairbanks do is to get their picture taken in front of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks sign that shows the current temperature. The college students like to take pictures there during extremely cold days in bathing suits.
For those of us who like to hit the road to travel, the roads in Alaska are a great place to explore. You can go for miles without seeing another vehicle and no matter which way you head the vistas are incredible and the wildlife is abundant. It should be on every road trippers bucket list.
Have you been on an Alaskan road trip? Share your experiences in the comments. We’d love to hear your ideas.