The wild beauty of Alaska’s most popular National Park

Florian Sanktjohanser –

The northern part of Alaska’s Denali National Park has some well-trodden hiking paths and is accessible by bus and train, rather than by air only. Its campsites tend to be busy as a result.
Meanwhile, in the southern part of the park, there are no roads, no campsites and no visitors’ centres – just a base camp high up on a glacial lake. That’s where we’re headed.
The all-inclusive adventure begins in Anchorage, the largest city of the 49th US state, with a population of around 300,000.
We head north along the Parks Highway in a minibus. Chip, a man with a goatee and sunglasses, is waiting at Fish Lake. He has been working as a pilot in Alaska for 19 years and flies a Beaver seaplane, built in 1949.
The plane hums as we fly over Ruth Glacier, a 5-kilometre wide ice stream winding its way down between mountain chains.
Looming ever-white in the background is Denali, North America’s highest mountain at 6,190 metres. The view is indescribable.
Chip steers his plane left into a high mountain valley and lands on the milky-grey Backside Lake. It’s the highest lake he can land on, he says.
A blonde woman in sunglasses and a baseball cap waves from the bank. This is Kasha, our guide. Catherine Rigby, 46, is a legend. US magazine Outside called her “the best female telemark skier in the known universe.”
But here, she is quite the opposite of a diva. She wears a 44 Magnum by her side, in case of bears. After some tips on how to store food and other fragrant items so as not to tempt them in, it’s time for our first excursion.
We ascend the slope behind the stream and head cross country through the pathless wilderness, stalking through squelching marshes and shoulder-high brush.
We rest by a mountain lake, marvelling at the icy peaks of mounts Hunter and Huntington; a taste of what is to come. That night, we eat chicken enchiladas and crumbled tacos from plastic bowls.
The night sky is stunning, with stars sparkling away to the horizon, the milky way glowing above us. Then someone shakes my tent. “Come on – northern lights!”
You might mistake them for a veil of clouds, until they start to dance. A green flash streaks across the sky, a red spiral appears. It is a long time before we yield to cold and sleepiness.
The next morning, we proceed over the crest of a moraine. After about half an hour, we reach the pretty cascades of Cook’s Creek. This is the standard route – the guides take people here every time.
We ascend through a picture-perfect mountain valley, past berry bushes and fireweed. As we reach the crest, Mount Denali rises before us in all its glory, grey granite capped in ice white.
North America’s highest peak, Denali was officially known as Mount McKinley until summer 2015, when President Barack Obama reinstated its traditional Athabaskan name.
The next morning, we take our final hike along a nameless river to Ruth Glacier. There, at a safe distance, we see a black bear in the bushes. He lifts his head briefly, looking over towards us, be-fore turning away. — dpa