The year was 1959. The United States had already owned the land that comprises today’s Alaska for nearly a century, having purchased it from Russian Czar Alexander II in 1867. In 1912, the far-flung area became organized as an official territory, though it wasn’t admitted as the 49th state for another 47 years under the Eisenhower administration.
The largest state in America (twice the size of Texas), Alaska is also the nation’s third-least populous. By comparison, consider that the population of New York City numbers around 8.5 million over about 305 square miles. In Alaska, a mere 750,000 people are spread over 663,000 square miles. To say that the state is sparsely populated is an understatement, one that explains why its vast and unending wilderness stands among the most unspoiled and pristine expanses on Earth.
Without question, its two most fabled national parklands stand out for their magnificent scenery. Discovery Tours is thrilled to show them to you during one of our latest small group adventures.
Denali National Park
Few places embody Alaska’s untouched and dramatic beauty like Denali National Park. The 6-million acre park and preserve center around the highest peak in North America, once known as Mt. McKinley but renamed “Denali,” meaning “the high one” in the language of the local Koyukon people. The 2015 name change generated a fair amount of controversy. But you’re sure to agree that, no matter what you call it, the exquisite splendor of the peak and its surrounding wilderness defy any language.
Our small group journeys to the park in the most dramatic fashion: by deluxe dome railroad car. This spellbinding route is one of the most scenic train rides in the United States, stopping along the way in remote mountain towns where locals are as likely to board with luggage as with huskies. You will traverse magical woodlands, vast tundra and craggy peaks dusted with snow en route to the park, where more dazzling vistas await.
Denali National Park hosts a leg or two of the world-famous Iditarod, the “Last Great Race on Earth.” During your stay, you’ll have the chance to meet with a sled-dog musher and his team of four-legged racers who habitually careen over rugged mountains and across frozen rivers. After your visit with the hardy team, you’ll get a taste of the wild terrain over which they race when you drive through the expansive and legendary tundra itself. Grizzlies, moose and eagles call this untamed, subarctic wilderness home, roaming freely in the shadow of Denali and the majestic Alaska Range. For the most serene experience, your small group is invited to leave your touring vehicle behind and embark some sturdy rafts for a gentle float down the glacier-fed Nenana River. Few experiences compare to drifting in silence through such a breathtaking and inspiring landscape.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The beauty of any visit to Alaska is that you are constantly immersed in the wonder of your destination. Everywhere you look, during every waking moment, you encounter panoramas more spectacular than the last. All the more wondrous is the time we spend above the treeline admiring the alpine vistas, which we’ll do as we drive to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest park in the United States. Secluded valleys, madly flowing rivers and rich wildlife make this wilderness area hugging the Canadian border truly special.
Small mining towns were built in valley crevices and on mountain slopes as prospectors seeking gold and copper arrived in the area’s early days. Today, what remains of these towns such as Chitina and Kennicott provide a fascinating glimpse of yesterday. But the highlight of your stay in Wrangell-St. Elias may not be the time you’ll spend on the ground, but the bird’s-eye view you’ll have from high above.
You’ll take wing in a small plane over some of the most breathtaking terrain in the world, flying over mountain peaks, massive glaciers and rushing rivers. All around you, snow-covered rock walls spill down into graceful valleys and ravines and fantastic rock formations dot the landscape. You might even spot flocks of Dall sheep or mountain goats carefully traversing cliff sides.
Your destination is the airfield in McCarthy, a modest town nestled in the middle of the park and surrounded by more 14,000-foot peaks and more glaciers than any other place in North America. This is one of the most unique and thrilling experiences you’ll likely ever enjoy. But to Alaskans, travel by small plane is commonplace: Cities and towns are so far apart here that travel by car is not only impractical but sometimes impossible as many remote regions cannot even be accessed by road.
But such is Alaska: rugged, remote and astonishing. And throughout your Discovery Tours adventure – whether you’re walking atop glaciers or ascending Mt. Alyeska by tram, cruising the pristine waters of Prince William Sound or visiting a reindeer ranch, experiencing native heritage, meeting an Alaskan native elder in Fairbanks or touring the Native Heritage Center of Anchorage – you’re sure to be mesmerized by this unique and spellbinding state that seems a nation unto itself.
Experience Alaska in a Discovery Tours small group. Join us on our new Alaska’s Natural Beauty.