The Tall One

I have had two opportunities to look upon North America's highest peak. In 2011, the clouds were low and thick. The mountain never made an appearance. In 2001, bright blue skies shone over the snowcapped peak, perfect visibility. Will Denali be seen today?

It's five til six and we're standing in line, ready to board the green bus that will deliver us into the heart of Denali National Park. High clouds drift above the taiga on this cool June morning. We get seated at the front, right behind Barr, our driver, who tells us the rules and starts driving west. Fifteen miles later, the pavement ends as we cross the Savage River. We are now in bus-only territory.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the park, permit me this explanatory aside. Denali is what we can call here an "accessible-wilderness" park. There is but one 92-mile road that penetrates the interior. The first fifteen miles are paved and open to private vehicles. At Savage River, though, the road turns to gravel and carries on beyond the reach of your rental car. If you want to travel the remaining 77 miles to Kantishna, you'll likely need to walk, bike, or get a bus ticket. Motorized travel is restricted, a model that is very different from most other parks and, in my opinion, for the better of the park and the people who visit it. The National Park Service was tasked with a dichotomous mission in its Organic Act of 1916,

to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

Conservation, but also enjoyment. Preservation, but also accessibility. These goals are inherently opposed. Perfect conservation would likely exclude our species, fulfilling one half of the mission while failing the other. Easier access means sacrificing at least a sliver of the wild we wish to protect, again falling short of the stated mission, for every road we pave is another impairment passed on to a future generation. I love our parks, but I am not alone, and thus there is the danger of loving the parks to death. Increasing popularity means increasing strain on the ecosystems and landscapes we come to behold, changing them for the worse in many ways. But what if every park was like Denali? The change would be tough at first. Cruising on your own through Yosemite Valley, Cades Code, or Yellowstone would be a thing of the past, but the product of our restraint would be the return of the wild we sought to save in the beginning. The sound of motors would fade, the air would clear, and the land would thrive. What a dream.

But I digress.

The clouds are giving way. At Polychrome Pass we glimpse blue sky above the mountains. At the Toklat River we watch Dall sheep and Arctic ground squirrels in the warm sunlight. I can't get my hopes up, though. My heart longs for the mountain, but I know the odds, I saw the forecast. I am content with the animals, the tundra, the lower but still-majestic mountains that have decorated the morning already. There are fewer clouds in the west, though...

We carry on, and now the glimpses begin. Above the ridges ahead, far higher than any other neighboring peaks, snow and rock are seen through the clouds. Each view is less obstructed; a little more mountain, a little less cloud. But the clouds keep moving, and the weather can change as quickly as it pleases. This, however, is a lucky day.

At Stony Hill, we are greeted with one of the continent's grandest vistas: a sweeping view across the tundra to the high point of North America, 20,310 feet above the ocean that is visible from that elevated, icy summit. Denali stands before us, wrapped in clouds that only add to the aura and wonder of it all. I can't help but smile and stare.


It's a simple thing this view. Just a vista, a clear line of sight towards a mountain. Why should this be any more special than the other mountains we've seen today? Why do I feel such a swell of emotion for this peak? I see mountains all the time. I go out of my way to see them and learn their names on maps well before I stand before them. It's far easier to see the peaks of the Cascades that sit just west of our home in Bend, but I have come all this way to see this mountain. It's a curious desire, but I know exactly why it exists.

Why is this view so precious? Because it's the highest mountain on the continent, one of the great Seven Summits of this planet. Because its weather makes it notoriously hard to see, and today we have been granted good conditions. Because the mountain is covered in snow, a towering, supremely beautiful mass of rock and ice that has been forced up to heaven. More than anything, though, it is because this is Denali, the centerpiece of a vast, largely-undisturbed, six-million acre wilderness protected by the national park that shares its name. Denali is wild and wonderful, immense and imposing. I dare not look away.


Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer