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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Insider’s Passage

Get a look at America’s Last Frontier from a seasoned nature photographer who makes his home in Alaska

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Denali National Park
Denali National Park & Preserve
Easily the best known of Alaska’s parks, Denali National Park & Preserve is about a six-hour drive north of Anchorage. “The great thing about Denali is that you have both great wildlife and incredible scenery,” says Niebrugge. “Chances are good that you’ll see numerous grizzly bears, and there’s always a chance to spot rare animals like wolves and lynx.”

And few sights, he adds, are more amazing than seeing the park’s crown jewel: Mount McKinley on a clear day.

One of the problems with exploring such a popular park, Niebrugge points out, is that access is almost entirely restricted to the park service shuttle—that means an 86-mile school bus ride into and out of the park each day. “Most people who go to Denali stay in a hotel at the front of the park,” he says. “That first part is a zoo, and then you have a long day on the bus, and you don’t have time to get off and look around because you have such a long drive in and out. It can be a miserable experience.”

But for those camping or traveling by RV (which Niebrugge highly recommends), there’s a little-known park service campground called Teklanika, or “Tek”, that can get you twice as far into the park in your own vehicle. “Tek is 30 miles into the park so you’re able to drive the first 30 miles into the park,” he says. “Staying at Tek saves you 60 miles of bus riding each day, and that’s over two hours of sitting time in the bus.”

Denali National Park
Another advantage is the insider’s perspective. “It puts you in a more remote portion of the park where there’s some very cool stuff,” he says. “I’ve seen wolves walk through that campground, I’ve seen bears in the riverbed right outside the campground, and I’ve seen moose and caribou very nearby.”

Regardless of where you stay, bus strategy is key to a successful Denali visit. “Look for buses that aren’t full because it’s easier to photograph from them,” Niebrugge says. Equally important: Get off the bus and explore. “Use the bus to your advantage—get on and off whenever you want. You can wave them down and get back on at anytime.”

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve
Backtracking toward Anchorage and then heading south on Alaska Route 3 (the Parks Highway) and east on Alaska Route 1 (the Glenn Highway) will reward you with one of the most spectacular sites in Alaska: the 13-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. “For sheer grandeur of scale and utter remoteness, it has no rival,” says Niebrugge.

It is, in fact, the largest national park in the United States (larger than six Yellowstone National Parks put together) and is home to 18,000-foot Mount Elias, the second highest peak in Alaska.

While he grew up near the mountains in the town of Copper Center and drove past them every day on his way to school, Niebrugge is still awed by their size. “It’s an amazing park with numerous peaks over 15,000 feet,” he says. “The vertical relief that you get is incredible, more than in a lot of the more famous of the world’s big mountain ranges.”


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