Denali, or Mt. McKinley, as it’s more commonly known, can be seen from all over the state of Alaska. At just over 20,000 feet, it can be seen from Anchorage on a clear day. That’s almost 200 miles away. The best places for photographing the towering vista, in my opinion, is south of the mountain. The nearby areas of Talkeetna and Trapper Creek offer stunning views from that direction. There are pullouts along the gravel road for the best views. Mile 20 on the gravel road will give you my favorite vantage point for a photo in the fall. Take care in scheduling your trip around the moose-hunting season. There will be a lot of hunters on the road, and they can be a hazard with their 4-wheelers. Traveling up the George Parks Highway a little further to Mile 135 brings you to one of the best views of Denali. Be sure to take the short hike up the local trail for a magnificent, sweeping view.
Weather is always an issue in Alaska. Denali creates its own weather; it might be clear throughout the state, but conversely the mountain will be shrouded in clouds. Be sure to bring warm and waterproof clothing no matter what time of year you travel because the climate can vary greatly throughout the day and even in different areas of the mountain. Summer, the most popular season, has averages that oscillate from 33º F to 75º F. Summer has the heaviest precipitation, as well, and it even snows in July on occasion. Winters are cold in the extreme, with highs in the 20s and lows that can extend all the way down to -40º F. This kind of cold can last from late October through March. Spring and autumn temperatures often will depend on seasonal conditions following summer and winter.
Ironically, it’s said that visitors to the park only have a 30% chance of seeing the mountain, so getting good photos of McKinley can be a challenge. Hoping to get the right combination of light and weather, I’ve slept in my truck several nights waiting for weather to clear and to get a chance at sunrise photos. Denali is so large and the environment so diverse that in order to work from different angles and for wildlife, a telephoto zoom provides compositional and tracking flexibility while a wide-angle zoom is best for incorporating foreground elements.
Though services are limited, without a doubt, fall is the best time to photograph Denali. Summer can be difficult and, while winter is great for capturing inclement conditions, the temperatures are extreme. Since we have such long days in the summer and year-round, the sun is very high in the sky, which often causes harsh lighting conditions. Fall brings much more pleasant low-on-the-horizon light along with colorful foliage.
Contact: Denali National Park & Preserve, www.nps.gov/dena.
For nature photographers, it’s important to stay light on your feet while traveling, but expansive landscapes and skittish wildlife also require fluctuating focal lengths to achieve the best captures. A telephoto zoom like the Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD is great for working with fast-moving critters while still allowing enough compositional freedom to incorporate natural settings as a backdrop or primary subject. Dedicated zooms will gain you faster apertures, but a single telephoto zoom is much lighter than multiple lenses.