The six-seater Cessna 206 takes off from a small gravel airstrip in the 9 p.m. summer sunlight and soon is buzzing like a gnat around the imposing snow-covered tallest peak in North America.
From the air on a "flightseeing" tour, Denali— also known as Mount McKinley— looks like an inviting iced confection. But the 20,320-footer, whose name means "The Great One" in Athabaskan Indian language, is a killing ground for hikers. Frozen remains still are recovered, says Kantishna Air Taxi owner/pilot Greg LaHaie, circling over the spot where climbers begin their final ascent — maybe waiting a week or more for favorable weather.
"You sit in a crevasse for days in freezing temperatures with the wind blowing like a jet engine overhead," LaHaie tells his passengers. "Not my idea of fun." But the more than 1,000 climbers who try each year would disagree.
As the 49th state celebrates its 50th anniversary of statehood this year, Alaska — also in the spotlight thanks to suddenly retired governor and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin— is still the USA's Last Frontier. It's home to glaciers, spawning salmon, giant halibut and foraging bears, hardy outdoorsmen and women and moose, as well as political mavericks.
At 6 million acres, Denali National Park and Preserve is about the size of the state of Massachusetts. Visitors come from around the globe for one of the world's remote wilderness experiences.
Last year, the park logged 432,309 visitors, says Ron Peck, president of the Alaska Travel Industry Association. Even though it's a long haul from Alaska's major cities, it drew about 20% of the state's nearly 2 million 2008 visitors. Most come to Alaska, and Denali, during the peak tourist season from mid-May to mid-September, when the sun is still high late at night and temperatures can hit the 70s and 80s.
If tourists are lucky, and clouds or smoke from wildfires don't interfere, they'll glimpse the park's towering centerpiece. Many park visitors never see the mountain.
A checklist of fauna and flora
Driving to the Denali Visitor Center means negotiating "Glitter Gulch," the $1.99-T-shirt-shop and fast-food pit stop not far from the entrance. Travel by private vehicle beyond Mile 15 is restricted, unless you have a campground reservation. Tour and shuttle buses are the usual mode of transport down the mostly gravel park road.
Buses and the occasional cyclist roll past taiga, tundra, black and gray spruce, birch, rivers, valleys and alpine meadows.
The drive down the 91-mile Denali Park Road with frequent photo stops can take six hours and yields wildlife around most every corner. In fact, you can even buy checklists of animals and plants at the bookstore by the Denali Visitor Center. (Long-eared snowshoe hares are everywhere; ptarmigans parade, red squirrels skitter, a golden eagle circles.) There also are more than 650 species of flowering plants alone, plus scores of birds, and enough moss, lichen and other plants to thrill any botanist.
As on an African safari, visitors are primed for glimpses of the "Big Five," Denali-style.
Dall sheep. Caribou. Moose. Grizzly bear. Wolf.
The sheep with curled horns are easy to spot feeding on ridges; a caribou or two come into view.
The deeper in you go, the more likely are bear and moose sightings. Typical Denali tourist talk:
I don't see it.
I did; now he's gone.
Bears are a big deal, but a wolf close-up during the daytime (they're usually more active near dawn and in the early evening) — now that's something to tell the folks at home about.
Suddenly, what looks like a dun-colored dog ambles across the road.
But it's no dog. It's a she-wolf, the guide says. Cameras start clicking.
Seemingly unconcerned about the tourists opening windows to snap her every move, the wolf continues her purposeful trek to wherever she is going.
No one bothers her. Rules prevent visitors from feeding or getting close to animals, and grizzlies have been known to gnaw on tires of bicycles tethered to tour-buses with impunity.
At the Polychrome Overlook at Mile 47 on the Park Road, buses stop to disgorge tourists for great photo ops amid multicolored rocks. Frank and Debbie McMullen of Omaha recount trip highlights.
"I'm just amazed (at Denali) — how vast it is, the sheer size of it," he says. "We saw moose yesterday and two sets of bears today."
Their kids went out on all-terrain vehicles, one of many pastimes in the park. Rafting, hiking and glacier-walking also are popular with summer visitors.
Catch a ride on a plane — or a dog sled
In the winter, snow machines and dog sleds are employed to get around the park.
Jon Nierenberg, a former Denali park ranger who now runs the EarthSong Lodge near the park with wife Karin, says folk from the "Lower 48" states love guided trips via dog sled.
He leads the way to a large kennel where two dozen dogs lie around in the unusually high 80-degree July heat. In Alaska, a good dog team is worth its weight in gold, he says. "In a bad storm, they can bring you home," he says.
His lead dog, 6-year-old Frodo, has an uncanny ability to sniff out a trail even when it's covered by feet of snow, Nierenberg says. "I wouldn't take $20,000 for him."
Down at the end of the Denali Park Road in Kantishna, small planes are the favored form of transport.
Bush pilots and tourists stay at LaHaie's Skyline Lodge, a simple multi-level wooden structure built on a hill facing magnificent scenery. Rooms are spare but comfortable and have no TVs or bathrooms. If you need a shower, you go to a communal bathroom in the main lodge. You want wine or beer, you bring it. Meals are cooked from scratch by Christina Blakely, who makes a mean coconut shrimp curry.
The lodge offers its flightseeing tours to non-guests, too. The cost: $195 a person for an hour of circling the almost-4-mile-high mountain at times when cloud coverage allows unobstructed views.
On this July night, the skies are blue, the plane swoops toward Denali and you feel as if you could reach out and touch it.
The five passengers, wearing headphones and communicating pilot-style via microphone, are enthralled.
"It was brilliant, a lifetime experience," says Graham Meyers of Melbourne, Australia. He's 66, and seeing Denali close up was "one of the best things I've ever done."
Other passengers nod in agreement before heading back up the hill to Skyline Lodge, to sit on the deck outside their rooms with cold glasses in their hands and savor the serenity of a Denali sundown.