Alaska's Denali National Park stands tall as a last frontier

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.

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