Camping & Hiking in Denali National Park & Chena Hot Springs
Basking in the brilliant colors and natural terrain that only autumn in Alaska can offer
Andrew M. Upchurch
35mm Fuji Pro 400H, Agfa Vista 200
Night had long since fallen when I arrived in Alaska from California, and all I wanted was to sleep in the car during the long drive from Fairbanks to Denali National Park and Preserve, where I'd be staying with a friend who lived and worked within the park. But the normally overcast Alaskan skies had opened up with the Northern Lights on full display, proving too much to ignore. Just moments into my trip and I had managed a sighting. I was stunned, and hoped it was a sign up what was yet to come.
On my first full day in Alaska we had no plans other than to take the main park-operated bus 62 miles out along the road to what was said to be a wonderful vantage point of Mt. Denali. To my disdain, the windy mountain road took four hours to go one way. To my delight, the windy mountain road took four hours to go one way.
"To my disdain, the windy mountain road took four hours to go one way. To my delight, the windy mountain road took four hours to go one way."
From the bus the roadside scenery and wildlife alone proved more than worth the trip. At one point three grizzlies sauntered down the middle of the road as though they owned the place. Then again, in Denali, the basically do. Beyond that, I lost track of how much wildlife I saw…
By the time I reached the end of the route, the mountain had shrouded itself with clouds. This was not an uncommon occurrence as the clouds cover Mt. Denali more often than not. A bit discouraged, I headed back on the bus, opting for a fantastic hike up to Mt. Healy Overlook instead. The panoramic views there soothed my soul. And as chance would have it, I saw Mount Denali in all its glory the following day (after a second, equally long bus ride). They say only 30 percent of visitors get to see the mountain on a clear day, and I for one, was ecstatic to be a part of the club.
With Denali in the bag it was time to see a different part of the state. On the docket this time was the Chena Hot Springs Campground. After loading up the car, we hit the golden road. And I mean literally golden road. Aspen trees were the most prolific in the area and their yellowing colors dominated the landscape for almost the entire length of our drive. I simply could not wrap my head around it.
At the campground, greeted at the entrance by a giant airplane at the end of a rugged dirt runway, we swiftly scouted for the best campsite. It did not take long to find an available campsite that instantly became my favorite I have ever staked claim to.
Fall colors were everywhere around—a beautiful aspen was right in front of us even—and a stream formed a perfect horseshoe bend around the spot where we would pitch our tent, and drink our autumn-appropriate, Alaskan stream-chilled ciders. Campsite rules were different here—the greatest perk of camping on private land, I suppose.
I couldn’t wait to fall asleep to the sound of the stream that night, but first we had some serious business to attend to: Peanut Butter S’mores. If you have never tried using Reses Peanut Butter Cups instead of regular old Hershey chocolate bars, you are seriously missing out. I mean, this is a drop-everything-you-are-doing-right-now-find-your-nearest-fire-ring-and-make-a-freakin’-Reses-s’more kind of missing out. No joke. We made Reses S’mores for breakfast the next morning too. No shame.
With dawn came time to burn off a few calories. And a trail that started practically at our campsite provided exactly what we needed. We walked through some of the most yellow forest I have ever seen, past a serene lake with a beautiful reflection, saw a couple of caribou, and even found ourselves in the middle of a kennel of Alaskan racing huskies.
The eclectic hike felt as though we were in an outdoorsman’s version of Disneyland. Needless to say, I never wanted to leave.