Out of the Airplane and into the Arctic (Part I)

Hey! I’m Skate, a new blogger at True Airspeed. I fly jets and travel the world when I’m not writing blogs or books. Want to see more stories? Follow and sign up for my newsletter.

One of the many perks of flying fighters is the fantastic training events. Of the more remote exercises, Red Flag Alaska takes you to the northern reaches of the upper latitudes. Flown out of Eielson Air Force Base, fighter, bomber, and mobility aircraft are pitted against each other in a massive air war. The airspace is flanked by the rolling pine covered hills at the edge of the Arctic Circle to the north, and the sixteen-thousand-foot mountains of the Alaskan Range to the south. Slashed with deep glacier carved valleys and wide river basins, it makes for a perfect fighter pilot’s playground.

While far-flung, one of the upsides of the training is the ability to explore the vast wilderness in the downtime between missions. After a few weeks of looking down at the pearly white peaks, Denali National Park provided a perfect place to start. If you ever find yourself free from the lower forty-eight, come check out the highest mountain in North America.

Denali National Park Entrance

Sweeping valleys between the mountains create a basin packed with wildlife. The Park recognizes this, and to limit the impact of tourism, requires a bus ride to see the majority of the park. Personal vehicles have the ability to drive the first 15 miles of the 92-mile trek. While this won’t get you to the picture-perfect vistas of Denali’s peak, there are plenty of worthy trails for hiking.

If you are looking for an easy riverside walk, check out the Savage river loop. This casual experience takes you on a two-mile roundtrip along the banks of the Savage river. The lack of elevation change makes it a perfect way to experience the outdoors while keeping the effort low impact. For others who might be looking for a more breathtaking trek, I recommend a personal favorite, the Savage Alpine Trail. This hike takes you vertically up the hillside, and the sights are worth the sweat. Though, plan a few hours if you intend on completing the full course.

Even within the first fifteen miles, a sharp eye will pick out a grazing moose or two. However, if you want to really delve into the wildlife that roams the park, you’ll have to book a bus into the heart of Denali. While the thought of riding on a tour for a few hours may not seem appealing, the photos alone will be worth it, and that doesn’t account for the access you’ll gain to the hundreds of hiking trails that line the mountainsides.

There is a choice between a guided tour and a transit bus. The non-narrated (transit) bus will allow you a choice of destination for a day hike, or just an enjoyable ride along the winding roads. With this pass, you ride to whichever destination desired, sightsee and hike, and hop back on any bus to continue deeper into the park or return to the entrance. Each stop into the park brings to the forefront incredible new scenes. Mile 30 brings with it a fifteen-minute break and an opportunity for photos along the Teklanika River. A waterway famed for separating hiker Christopher McCandless from the Stampede Trail in the book Into the Wild. On a side note, while his bus has been removed from its resting place, by helicopter of all things, a replica makes for an enjoyable visit to the 49th State Brewery in nearby Healy.

The Teklanika River

The next break along the adventure offers a more austere and remote river basin. The Toklat River, at mile 52, appears unique as it runs to the northwest, eventually joining the mighty Tanana River on its way to spilling into the Bering Sea. If you find yourself in need of an educational moment, the ranger station along the banks provides an easy read on the local flora and fauna.

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Toklat River

For the long haulers, willing to dedicate eight hours of their day to a bus ride, an unparalleled view of Denali’s glistening peak is the reward. At mile 66, Eielson visitor center is a perfect turn-around point for the trip. Much like the Air Force base to the northeast, the visitor center is named after famed aviator and bush pilot Carl Ben Eielson. Best known as the first pilot to fly from North America, over the North Pole, and into Europe, he navigated a twenty-hour mission from Point Barrow to Spitsbergen on the Svalbard Islands of Norway.

Denali from the Eielson Visitor Center

The bus turnaround is generally 45 minutes to an hour, which gives plenty of time to enjoy the vistas. Additional time can be spent browsing the on-site museum while you warm up or cool down depending on the time of year. For the more adventurous, multiple trails scale the steep slopes behind the center. Even a short climb will be worth the effort as the sightlines only improve with each step upward.

September Colors

Exhausted or not, prepare for a long ride home. Keep your eyes peeled on the way, with dusk approaching the wildlife tends to come out to play. Grizzlies, sheep, moose, and caribou are just a few of the animals you might pick out. Don’t worry, if you don’t catch it at first glance, the bus drivers love to pull over to give everyone a chance to see. A note of caution, don’t stray too close to the creatures, or the sharp drop-offs at the edge of the road for that matter.

At the end of your day, you’ll have a camera full of photos, dust filled boots, and creaky bones from the hours of traversing dirt roads. Not a bad trade-off for a peek at the Alaskan backcountry. While the national park is fairly remote, a cold beer to celebrate the adventure is never too far away.

49th State Brewery in Healy, Alaska

Denali National Park makes a worthy visit to experience the best of Alaska, but by no means is it the only must-see in the massive state. Please sign up for my mailing list at my website to receive notifications for the next set of Alaskan adventures in Part II.

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