It’s Indian summer down at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. The aspen shimmers orange and gold against the evergreens and the churning river is heavy with snowmelt.
But in just 20 minutes, we’ve risen through several eco-climates and into a scene straight from Frozen: The glinting icefield is ringed by splintered crags, and at my feet, an aquamarine stream rushes from a snowbank and sparkles for a few seconds before vanishing into a fissure.
In the still, thin air, we can hear the wap-wap-wap of the helicopter long before we can see it. It lands without a skid and as the door swings open, we climb up into a welcoming cushion of warmth. Lifting out of the frozen chasm, we see the snow cone of Denali piercing the sky at 20, 320 feet.
The pilot steers the copter past razor peaks and stony spires where clusters of Dall sheep cling like Velcro. We dive into the tundra, a treeless expanse of meadows carpeted with mosses, lichen, miniscule wildflowers and berry bushes, and before we can catch our breath, cross the raging river and land in a small circle of grass near the lodge.
Vast, empty and no cell phone service equals you’d better have a guide
I live off-the-grid in California’s High Sierra. We don’t have electricity, cell phone service or Starbucks up here -- just miles of wilderness and beautiful views of 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, my neighborhood peak and also the highest point in the contiguous 48 states. I used to think this was the wilds. Then I visited Alaska and discovered what “the last frontier” really means.
Denali pretty much makes Mt. Whitney look like an ant hill. But Denali isn’t just high: Encompassing 9,492 square miles, the peak (combined with the rest of the national park that bears its name), is also mind-boggling vast, and nearly all empty: You could put Yosemite National Park in one corner of Denali and there’d still be plenty of room left for Death Valley, Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Yellowstone, Glacier, Big Bend and Yellowstone national parks.
Last fall, when I was invited to explore Alaska’s wild places by land and by sea with expert guides from Princess Cruises, I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. We’d spend the first week touring Denali National Park, and the second week cruising through Glacier Bay National Park and the Inside Passage south to Vancouver, B.C., with stops in Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and Vancouver. We’d explore by foot, bicycle, dog sled, canoe, kayak, tram, catamaran, fishing boat, narrow gauge railway, jeep, horse and jet boat, and when that wasn’t enough, by sea plane and Cessna.
North to Alaska
We began our journey in Fairbanks, with the late August air already hinting at the Big Freeze that would encase the city all winter. The Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge was the first of several rustic-chic hotels we’d enjoy on the tour, not to mention the first of many memorable feasts showcasing Alaska’s bounty: wild salmon, crab legs, shrimp, cheesecake topped with mounds of wild Alaskan blueberries, local wines and beers –- if you thought the Alaskan wilds would be a good place to lose a few, Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.
From Fairbanks, we headed into Denali National Park and the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, a stone and glass monument to the mountains overlooking the national park village. So much for campfire grub -- we could sip a cappuccino in a café overlooking the stream, have a slice of gourmet pizza or wallow in grilled salmon at the Mountain View Restaurant, a swank eatery that looked like it had been drop-lifted in from Rodeo Drive.
Close-ups of Denali
The next morning, we boarded a souped-up school bus with giant windows and video monitors linked to a telescopic video lens for The Tundra Wilderness Tour of the park. En route we got a rare glimpse of the peak (mountains make their own weather and Denali is usually clouded over) and close-ups of caribou, a moose who was a dead ringer for Bullwinkle and a large grizzly bathing in a stream. He looked just like Pooh Bear sitting there scrubbing himself clean and panting like a dog. Then he stood up on his hind legs and whoa! I was glad there was some steel between us.
That night, the Northern Lights swirled across the sky in pulsating waves of greens, reds and purples --a magical ending to a day of wonder.
A day later, we’re at Princess McKinley Lodge, a park lodge overlooking the south side of Denali. It was another blue-sky day and the mountain looked huge -- like I was viewing it through a zoom lens. A tiny plane took us up-up-up to within 500 feet of the summit of Denali. At close range, Denali proved to be many peaks, spires and ridges, not the giant snow cone it appeared to be from a distance.
Back on terra firm, we toured the historic burb of Talkeena. Founded in 1919, the town looks like it’s on loan from Northern Exposure and is a popular base for climbers. Just beyond town, we said goodbye to Denali and boarded Princess’ Direct-to-the-Wilderness Rail Service,, a 500-mile scenic train ride through the heart of Alaska to the tiny port of Whittier, located on the west side of Prince William Sound about 58 miles southeast of Anchorage.
The scenic sail to Vancouver
The Star Princess was docked in port and waiting to take us away in the 4-star fashion to which we’d become accustomed – nonstop salmon, shrimp and crab legs; movies under the stars; heated pools; a swank fitness center and spa; several cafes, bars, snack shops and restaurants; a library and computer room; pizza and ice cream stands and cushy cabins with balconies overlooking the ever-changing views..
The following morning, we sailed into Glacier Bay National Park, covering 3.3 million acres of rugged mountains, dynamic glaciers, temperate rainforest, wild coastlines and deep sheltered fjords. The ship anchored a few hundred feet from Hubbard Glacier, a massive hunk of ice that is 40 stories high and 76 miles long. We hung over the balcony as 10-story-high chunks of ice crashed into the sea with a cannon-like boom and sent up walls of seething foam and spray.
We sailed all night, rising at dawn to find the ship had docked in Skagway, a boom-to-busting mining town that once lured thousands of fortune-hunters bound for the Yukon goldfields. I boarded the historic White Pass & Yukon Railway for an eye-popping ride from the ocean to the mountains. An engineering marvel on par with the likes of the Eiffel Tower, the Panama Canal and the Statue of Liberty, the 110-mile railway was completed in 26 months in 1898 by blasting through the mountains with 450 tons of explosives.
Today, the fully restored cars, pulled by vintage diesel locomotives, climb nearly 3,000 feet over the first 20 miles of track. I gasped as the train rounded cliff-hanging turns, passed by thundering Bridal Veil Falls, plunged into mouse-hole tunnels and crossed trestle bridges that spanned yawning gorges. Near White Pass Summit, we passed the original Klondike Trail of '98. Worn into the rocks, the trail stands witness to the thousands of souls who passed this way in search of gold.
Alaska’s capitol city
We sailed all night and woke the following morning in Juneau. I spent the morning riding the Mt. Roberts tram to the summit and then hiking through dense spruce forests to the Alpine Tea House, where I settled in for a cup of blueberry tea cup and scones smeared with Alaskan spruce tip jam.
For lunch, I boarded a small floatplane for an unforgettable flight over lush rainforests and waterfalls, past snowcapped peaks and over five breathtaking glaciers. The plane landed with a splash at the 1923 Taku Glacier Lodge, located across the Taku River from Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier. Inside, we sat down to an all-you-can-eat home-style feast of wild Alaska salmon, homemade baked beans, coleslaw, sourdough bread and ginger cookies and lemonade chilled with ice from the glacier.
In Ketchikan, the salmon capitol of Alaska and a former Indian fishing camp located on an island, I spent the morning flight-touring Misty Fjords National Monument, the "Yosemite of the North," gawking at views of 1,000-foot waterfalls, glistening lakes, low-hanging mists and sheer granite walls plunging 3,000 feet to remote fjords.
In the afternoon, I took another seaplane flight from the bustling downtown Ketchikan harbor past Revillagigedo Island and the spectacular mountains of the Tongass National Forest. Everyone on board applauded the pilot as he did a water landing right in front of the George Inlet Lodge, a remote, rustic oasis that once served as an early 1900s cannery bunkhouse. We were escorted inside for another all-you-can-eat feast of Dungeness crab, and for dessert, cheesecake smothered in giant Alaska blueberries.
Bound for the Inside Passage
That night, we left Ketchikan and spent the next day at sea sailing through the Inside Passage to Vancouver. Stretching south from the Gulf of Alaska to the British Columbia coast and Puget Sound, Washington, the Passage has more than 1,000 islands, thousands of coves and bays and staggering scenic variety. One moment we were sailing through a wide bay of barrier islands and the next we were cruising through a narrow waterway flanked by towering forested walls.
When we arrived in Vancouver, B.C., it was an overcast morning and the sky was heavy with rain. I thought about staying an extra day to explore this gorgeous and fascinating city. But my camera was full, my laptop battery was dead, my feet were sore and my senses were seriously sated. In the end, I decided to call it a day -- and save Vancouver for a sunnier one.
Information: Princess Cruises, www.princesscruises.com; @PrincessCruises#ComeBackNew
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