George Parks Highway | Reader's Digest

George Parks Highway

Threading through the land of the midnight sun, this wilderness ramble reveals the many facets of Mt. McKinley, the icy jewel in Alaska's craggy crown.

  from The Most Scenic Drives in America

7. Denali State Park
Back on Rte. 3, the drive passes through a white-and-green grove of birch trees intermixed with ferns that stretches all the way to the Susitna River bridge and beyond. From here north, the terrain gradually shifts from the open valleys of south-central Alaska to the icy escarpments of the interior.

Nowhere is this change more dramatic than in Denali State Park, a 324,000-acre wilderness preserve that lies in the shadow of Denali National Park. Turnouts throughout the state park afford views of Mt. McKinley and the mammoth glaciers — notably Ruth, Buckskin, and Eldridge — that inch their way down the southern flanks of the McKinley group, sometimes coming within five miles of the road.

8. Hurricane Gulch
With so many natural wonders at every turn, it’s easy to forget that Alaska also harbors its fair share of man-made marvels. A prime example of these is the bridge at Hurricane Gulch, a 260-foot-high, 558-foot-long span across the widest and deepest gorge on the George Parks Highway. Built in 1971, the bridge is in turn eclipsed by the railway trestle to the west, which is 36 feet higher, 360 feet longer, and 50 years older.

9. Broad Pass
After vaulting Honolulu Creek, the drive takes aim for a breach in the wall of the Alaska Range and enters Broad Pass, the pivot point for a panorama of peaks that soar nearly 12,000 feet skyward. Broad Pass divides the east and west segments of the Alaska Range. Forming part of the Continental Divide, these majestic mountains segregate rivers to the south, which flow into the Gulf of Alaska, from those to the north, which empty into the Yukon River.

10. Denali National Park
Some call it the Denali dilemma: in spite of its size (6 million acres — an area larger than the state of Massachusetts), the park has so many visitors (about 600,000 per year — nearly equal to the population of Alaska) that it must limit access to protect its fragile wilderness. This spirit of preservation has been a hallmark of Denali National Park since its inception. In 1906 hunters in the foothills of Mt. McKinley were eradicating the Dall sheep, shaggy white critters with curlicue horns, at an alarming rate. Outraged, conservationist Charles Sheldon launched a campaign to save the animals. On February 26, 1917, his efforts finally paid off; President Woodrow Wilson signed a law that brought Mt. McKinley National Park into existence, saving it for perpetuity.

Three boundary expansions and one name change later, Denali National Park remains a pristine wildlife sanctuary that is home to 38 kinds of mammals and 158 species of birds, which migrate here from several continents. To protect the preserve, the park prohibits cars beyond the Savage River, 15 miles west of Rte. 3 on the park road. Shuttle buses departing from the visitor center cover the final 70 miles to Wonder Lake.

If you can’t spare the two or three days it may take to get a bus pass during the summer, try to catch a glimpse of Mt. McKinley between miles 9 and 11 of the park road. Even from 70 miles away, you’ll easily see why Alaskan natives dubbed the peak Denali, “The Great One.” The mountain towers more than 18,000 feet above the surrounding lowlands, making it, when measured from base to summit, even higher than Mt. Everest. Yet McKinley’s majesty is often veiled by a mist: warm, moist air from the Gulf of Alaska condenses on the mountain’s southern face, creating a steady drizzle that obscures it from view two days out of three.