I’m slowly hiking the trail up to Curry Ridge in the Alaska Range with my friend Carl Portman.
Behind us is a palpable presence, but it isn’t a person. It’s a giant, snow-clad rock. It’s Denali, and at 20,310 feet, it’s the largest such rock in North America.
Adjoined with its sisters to the west, Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker, this massive mountain chain dominates the skyline as we hike upward, turning around often to admire the spectacle.
The sun is bright. The air is warm and crystal clear. Golden leaves stretch for miles across the valley below. The meandering Chulitna River is a deep blue that rivals the sky. We feel blessed.
We agree it’s one of those autumn days that in most years could be counted on one hand. But throughout this September, nature has been generous. Through southcentral Alaska and the Interior, we’ve been graced with weeks of clear skies and record-setting high temperatures.
A pair of young folks from Munich, Germany, pass by us. Speaking very good English, they marvel at the sight of Denali’s white ramparts contrasted against a stark blue sky.
“It can only be seen about 30 percent of the time throughout the year,” I tell them. “You’re seeing it at its best.”
Stopping often to take photos, we continue hiking upward on the very gradual, 3.1-mile trail that ends atop a ridge at nearly 1,900 feet. The trail begins at Mile 135.4 on the George Parks Highway at Kesugi Ken Campground, in Denali State Park. For more information on the park, trails, public-use cabins, etc., go to:
Nearing the top of the ridge, a Golden eagle wings through the air, but isn’t curious enough to approach us for a closer look.
In less than two hours, with much of that time taking photos, we’re on top of Curry Ridge, which is somewhat lower than Kesugi Ridge, to the north.
I’ve heard Park Rangers discuss connecting the Kesugi Ridge Trail with Curry Ridge. If so, it would constitute a roughly 40-mile trail system that begins (or ends) at Little Coal Creek, Mile 164 of the George Parks Highway.
We’re thankful for a breeze that keeps small gnats, sometimes called “no-see-ums,” at bay. We take a path down to a small lake (elevation: 1,787 feet) to check out a beaver I spotted last year, but there is no activity near its house. Nearby, a pair of loons drifts languidly in the lake’s gentle waves.
We then hike back up to the ridge and have a late lunch on the tundra, with Denali in full view. It’s about 30 miles to our northwest, but it seems much closer.
In the sun, it feels like 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
We speculate that it’s probably 10 degrees F on Denali’s summit, or even colder.
One source notes that about 30,000 people have attempted Denali since it was first climbed in 1913, with an average success rate of roughly 60 percent in recent years. https://www.livescience.com/40595-denali-mount-mckinley.html
It’s such a stunningly gorgeous day that we forestall our return hike, looking around for vestigial blueberries. As the sun swings to the west, shadows deepen across Denali’s eastern face, creating more dramatic images for photo buffs such as Carl.
We pass several ebullient folks who are out to capture this precious day. I pass a former colleague at BP whose smile is wider than everyone’s – she has recently retired after 30 years at the company.
“Congratulations,” I mention. “You really deserve this day!”
I continue down the trail and Carl stays behind, busily popping photos with both camera and iPhone. One of our former college professors at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, always admonished students to “take lots of photos to get a few good ones.” Carl has taken that to heart and at the bottom of the trail, his tally for the day is about 250.
Very often neither words nor pictures can describe a day like this. But on reflection, I think Carl’s photo says it all.