Denali State Park
The 325,240-acre Denali State Park (907/745-3975, www.alaskastateparks.org) lies just southeast of Denali National Park and Preserve and is bisected by the Parks Highway from Mile 132 to Mile 169. Situated between the Talkeetna Mountains to the east and the Alaska Range to the west, the landscape of Denali State Park varies from wide glaciated valleys to alpine tundra. The Chulitna and Tokositna Rivers flow through western sections of the park, while the eastern half is dominated by Curry Ridge and Kesugi Ridge, a 35-mile-long section of alpine country.
Denali State Park provides an excellent alternative wilderness experience to the crowds and hassles of its federal next-door neighbor. The Mountain is visible from all over the park, bears are abundant, and you won’t need to stand in line for a permit to hike or camp while you wait for Mt. McKinley’s mighty south face to show itself. Several trails offer a variety of hiking experiences and spectacular views. Trailhead parking is $5 per day.
Denali State Park is best known for its breathtaking views of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range from pullouts along the Parks Highway. If The Mountain or even “just” some of the lower peaks of the Alaska Range are out, you won’t need to read the next sentence to know what or where the sights are.
The best viewpoint along the highway in the park, and the most popular, is at Mile 135, where on a clear day you will find an interpretive signboard and crowds of fellow travelers. Set up your tripod and shoot, shoot, shoot. Other unforgettable viewpoints are at Miles 147, 158, and 162.
The Alaska Veterans Memorial at Mile 147 (within walking distance of Byers Lake Campground) consists of five monumental concrete blocks with stars carved out of them. Turn your back to the monument, and if you’re lucky, there’s blue-white McKinley, perfectly framed by tall spruce trees.
The western section of Denali State Park lies within the remote Peters Hills, an area known for its pristine Mt. McKinley vistas and open country. This section is accessed via the Petersville Road.
Little Coal Creek trailhead is at Mile 164, five miles south of the park’s northern boundary. This is the park’s gentlest climb to the alpine tundra—five miles east up the trail by Little Coal Creek, then you cut southwest along Kesugi Ridge, with amazing views of the Range and glaciers; flags and cairns delineate the trail. Watch for bears! The trail goes 27 miles until it hooks up with Troublesome Creek Trail just up from Byers Lake Campground. About halfway there, Ermine Lake Trail cuts back down to the highway, an escape route in case of really foul weather.
Troublesome Creek Trail is so named because of frequent bear encounters; in fact, Troublesome Creek Trail is frequently closed in late summer and early fall because of the abundance of bears. It has two trailheads, one at the northeast tip of Byers Lake (Mile 147), the other at Mile 138. The park brochure describes this 15-mile hike along Troublesome Creek as moderate. It connects with Kesugi Ridge Trail just up from Byers Lake or descends to the easy five-mile Byers Lake Loop Trail, which brings you around to both campgrounds. Just down and across the road from the Byers Lake turnoff is a family day-hike along Lower Troublesome Creek—a gentle mile.
Based at Byers Lake, Alaska Nature Guides (907/733-1237, www.alaskanatureguides.com) guides easy 2.5-hour nature walks ($59 adults, $39 children), and more interesting 5.5-hour hikes up Kesugi Ridge ($94 adults, $39 children, including lunch and gear). The guides are former national park rangers with years of local experience; the company also provides custom trips for birders.
Denali Southside River Guides (907/733-7238, www.denaliriverguides.com) rents canoes and sit-on-top kayaks at Byers Lake; they’re located at the day-use parking lot.
Turn off the highway at Mile 133 for a one-mile side road into Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge (907/733-2900 or 800/426-0500, www.princesslodges.com, mid-May–mid-Sept., $189 d). This stylish 334-room retreat is famous for its riverside location and picture-perfect vistas of the Alaska Range and Mt. McKinley. Most rooms are filled with Princess cruise passengers, but anyone can stay or eat here. The lodge itself centers around a “great room” with a stone fireplace, a pianist at the grand piano most evenings, and enormous windows fronting the mountain. Lodging is in smaller buildings scattered around the grounds; ask for one of the new rooms with a king bed. There’s also a small fitness center, two outdoor hot tubs, a restaurant, and a café.
Located at the southern edge of Denali State Park near Mile 134, Mary’s McKinley View Lodge (907/733-1555, www.mckinleyviewlodge.com) has a restaurant, great views of The Mountain out the big picture windows, and eight guest rooms ($100 d) with private baths. You can buy autographed copies of the many books authored by owner Jean Carey Richardson and her late mother, Mary Carey.
Cabins and Camping
Byers Lake Campground ($10) has large and uncrowded sites, water, outhouses, interpretive signs, and beautiful Byers Lake a stone’s throw down the road. Also at Byers Lake are two popular public-use cabins (907/745-3975, www.alaskastateparks.org, $60). Just under two miles along the Loop Trail from the campground or across the lake by boat is Lakeshore Campground, with six primitive sites, outhouses, no running water, but unimpeded views of The Mountain and Range from your tent flap. Across the road and a quarter-mile south, Lower Troublesome Creek Campground ($10) has 20 sites and all the amenities of Byers Lake.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition