Everyone has heard of Denali National Park in Alaska. But how familiar are you with its neighbor, Denali State Park?
We were in the middle of a three-month RV tour of Alaska with plans to meet friends at the entrance to the national park in a few days. Maps showed that the state park abutted the southeastern side of the larger park and being in no rush, we decided to see what it had to offer.
Denali State Park covers more than 325,000 acres (nearly half the size of Rhode Island). It stretches along the Parks Highway for about 30 miles and has five campgrounds that range from not much more than a parking lot to a lovely site at Byers Lake, where he found an absence of crowds, lots of wildlife, both historical and quaint cabins, inviting trails, and family-friendly camping.
The first thing you notice about the Byers Lake campground is the variety of activities it offers. Even before you reach the camping sites, you will see a combination launch ramp and kayak rental area. To keep the lake pristine, it is off limits to motorized boats or the ever-present Alaskan aircraft. Picnic tables attract the day user or the tired hiker eager to rest and refuel after a hike.
The Byers Lake campground contains 73 sites for RVs and tents of various sizes. In fact, we were surprised with the spacious, treelined pull-through sites generously set apart from each other. There is drinking water available at a central location plus handi- capped accessible toilets.
The trailhead for the five-mile Byers Lake Loop Trail encircling the lake begins at the campground. The hike is relatively easy and provides great views and access to the water. The trail also offers unexpected sights and experiences. First you find an old log cabin built before the Parks Highway was constructed. Referred to as the Bemon cabin, it was used as a base for winter trapping during the 1950s. It is so undisturbed that the food storage and sleeping areas make it appear as though the trapper could return anytime. The next surprise is a suspension bridge across a river that in summer may be full of spawning salmon.
We spotted trumpeter swans at a small pond adjacent to Byers Lake. Typically, only one set of swans will be found in an area, and this pair had already staked out their territory. Loons are also frequent visitors.
We walked by several small waterfalls, crossed wooden bridges over the river that fed the lake and listened to the laughter that echoed off the lake from a family of kayakers paddling on the calm water. Finally we found the three log cabins that can be rented if you don’t want to rough it. One of the cabins reflected the character of the whole area with its green sod roof and burled wood porch railing.
Denali State Park offers three other campgrounds along Parks Highway at Denali View North, Denali View South and the Lower Troublesome Creek Trailhead. If you are a backpacker, you can seek out more remote campsites at Skinny Lake or along the major trails.
The trails in the park offer hikes that range from easy to difficult. The centerpiece is the 27-mile hike on the K’esugi Ridge Trail. Its rolling alpine terrain culminates in the sight of Mt. McKinley’s south face (of course, only on the proverbial clear day) and views of the Alaska Range and Talkeetna Mountains. If you are crazy enough to visit in the winter, the 11-mile Tokositna Flats Winter Trail is open to snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and dog mushers.
The park is threaded by the Susitna and Chulitna rivers, excel- lent examples of Alaska’s braided rivers. If you are hungry, try fishing the streams in the park for Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, rainbow trout and all five species of Pacific salmon. Of course, you will have to be on the lookout for the bears that roam the area and might be challenging you for those fish. Moose, marmots, muskrats, beavers, red foxes and porcupines also abound.
A visitor’s center can be found at the Alaska Veterans Memorial (at Mile 147 of the Parks Highway). It contains displays and videos and sells books, topographical maps and even bear spray.
You absolutely shouldn’t miss Denali National Park, but this “other Denali” offers a quieter, more relaxing introduction to the splendors of Alaska.
If You Go: The summer season at Alaska state parks runs from mid-May to early September. For information on Denali State Park, visit dnr.alaska.gov/parks/units/denali1.htm.
Campground fees at Denali State Park are $15 per night. There is no reservation system for camping sites. Cabins can be rented for $70. For cabin reservation information, visit dnr.alas- ka.gov/parks/cabins/.
Mary Taylor is a writer who lives in Long Beach, California.