The Alaska Range is a U-shaped chain that extends roughly 600 miles from the top of the Alaska Peninsula (at the head of the Aleutians) up through the park and down below Tok. It’s only a small part, however, of the coastal mountains that include California’s Sierra Nevada, the Northwest’s Cascades, the Coast Mountains of British Columbia , Yukon’s St. Elias Range, and eastern Alaska’s Wrangell Range.
The Park Road starts out a bit north of the Alaska Range and follows the U 90 miles southwest toward its heart—Mt. McKinley. One thing that makes the mountain so spectacular is that the surrounding lowlands are so low: The entrance is at 1,700 feet, and the highest point on the road, Thoroughfare Pass, is just under 4,000 feet. The base of Mt. McKinley is at 2,000 feet, and the north face rises at a 60-degree angle straight up to 20,000 feet—the highest vertical rise in the world.
Weather patterns here differ between the south side of the range (wetter and cooler) and the north. During the summer, the prevailing winds come from the south, carrying warm moisture from the Pacific. When they run smack into the icy rock wall of the Alaska Range, they climb, the moisture condenses, and depending on the amount of moisture and altitude, it either rains or snows—a lot.
On top of that whole system sits mighty Mt. McKinley, high, cold, and alone; it’s so alone that the mountain has its own relationship to the weather. The combination of wind, wet, cold, and height creates extremely localized—and often violent—weather around Mt. McKinley.
Storms can blow in within an hour and last a week or more, dumping 10 feet of snow. Winds scream in at up to 80 mph. The mercury drops below zero in mid-July. Some of the worst weather in the world swirls around up there. But when the mountain emerges bright white against bright blue, and you’re craning your neck to see the top, it’s an unforgettable sight worth waiting around for—even in the rain.
From sea level to around 2,300 feet is the habitat for the boreal forest, in which the black spruce, with its somber foliage and clusters of tawny cones, is the climax tree. Younger white spruce, along with deciduous aspen, birch, and cottonwood, grow near the streams and the road and in recently burned areas.
Climbing out of the forest above 2,300 feet you enter the taiga, a Russian word meaning “land of twigs.” This transition zone (between the forest below and tundra above) accommodates no deciduous trees; the spruce are thinned out and runty (though they can be over 60 years old), and a green shag carpet of bush, mostly dwarf willow, layers the floor. Sitka spruce is the state tree because of its size, grandeur, and commercial value, but it’s the willow that vegetates Alaska.
And it has endless uses: Before synthetics like nylon, the bark was stripped, split, and braided and made into rope, bows, wicker baskets, snowshoes, fishnets, and small game and bird snares and traps. The inner bark is sweet; the sap is very sweet. Young buds and shoots are edible and nourishing, and willows are the nearly exclusive staple of the moose diet. The taiga also hosts a variety of berries: blueberries and low-bush cranberries by the ton, crowberries, bearberries, soap and salmon berries, and raspberries.
Above 2,500 feet is the tundra, its name a Lapp word meaning “vast, rolling, treeless plain.” There are two types of tundra: The moist, or Alaskan, tundra is characterized by the taiga’s dwarf shrubbery, high grasses, and berries, but no trees; the alpine tundra, the highest zone, has grasses, moss, lichens, and small hardy wildflowers, including the stunning forget-me-not, Alaska’s state flower.
The animal life varies with the vegetation. In the forest, look for moose, porcupine, snowshoe hare, marten, lynx, two kinds of weasels, red or tree squirrels, and several varieties of small rodents. On the taiga—or in both the forest and the tundra—you might see coyotes, wolves, foxes, grizzlies, and ground squirrels. In the tundra, keep an eye out for caribou, wolverines, Dall sheep, marmots, voles, lemmings, and shrews.