Mt. McKinley disappears behind jagged lower peaks as the road descends into the broad, glacial Sanctuary River valley at Mile 23. Watch for moose, caribou, foxes, lynx, waterfowl, and eagles along here. Right on the other side of the Sanctuary is a good view down at a “drunken forest,” one effect that permafrost has on the vegetation. Notice how many of the trees are leaning at bizarre and precarious angles, with some of them down entirely.
As an adaptation to the permafrost, these spruce trees have evolved a root system that spreads horizontally across the surface soil; there’s no tap root to speak of. So the taller a tree grows around here, the less support it maintains, and the more susceptible it is to falling over. When the surface soil becomes saturated (because of lack of absorption over the permafrost), it sometimes shifts, either spontaneously or because of slight tremors (a major fault runs through here), taking the trees with it.
Next you descend into the broad Teklanika River valley, with a good view across the river of the three vegetation zones on the mountain slopes: forest, taiga, and tundra. You pass a number of small ponds in this area, known as “kettles,” usually formed when a retreating glacier drops off a large block of ice, which melts, leaves a depression, which fills with rainwater.
The stagnant water is rich in nutrients and provides excellent hatching grounds for Alaska ’s famous mosquitoes, and as such the ponds are good feeding spots for ducks and shorebirds. Look for mergansers, goldeneyes, sandpipers, buffleheads, and phalaropes in these ponds.
And in some of the higher, smaller, more private kettles, look for hikers and park employees with no clothes on…maybe even join them, if you care to brave the skeeters, which have been known to show up on Park Service radar screens.
Cross the river and enter Igloo Canyon, where you turn almost due south. The mountain on the right is Igloo (4,800 feet); the one on the left is Cathedral (4,905 feet). Igloo is in the Outer Range, Cathedral in the Alaska Range. At the closest distance between the two ranges, the canyon is right on the migration route of the Dall sheep and a great place to view them as white dots on the slopes; or climb either mountain to get closer.
Sable Pass is next at Mile 38, at 3,900 feet the second-highest point on the road. This area is closed to hiking and photography because of the large grizzly population. Keep your eyes peeled. The next good views of the mountain are from these highlands.