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FALL COLORS OF DENALI

(Travels North Part III)

Reflection! Alaska Range from Denali Highway

Fall is a wonderful time of the year! I love all the seasons, but there are such magical moments in the fall, and this season in the North Country is just magnificent. The following images were taken in early September in Denali National Park or along the 135 mile mostly-gravel Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxson, Alaska Highway 8. This is easily one of the most spectacular drives anywhere in the world.

Mama Moose along the Denali Park Road (baby was nearby)

Fall means different things to different people: back to school, puffy jackets, Halloween, and the approach of the winter season with its snow, ice, cold and so many forms of outdoor adventure. But everyone appreciates nature’s showcase and the total riot of red, orange, umber, and gold that comes with cooler temperatures and the shorter daylight hours.

Alaska Range from Denali Park Road, Denali National Park

My favorite memories include fall trips to Maine’s Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park, New York’s Catskill Mountains, Pennsylvania drives with my family as a child, Novembers spent with red maple and yellow oak at Tallulah Falls State Park in northern Georgia, and more recent trips along the Columbia River Gorge with a mix of fall foliage, waterfalls, and Mount Hood as a backdrop. Then there were the mystical mornings spent camped along West Virginia’s Gauley River. That special mix of cool nights, low lying clouds, and humidity combined to create a beautiful ground fog and rain-soaked dew among the valleys. While that would eventually burn off with the morning sun, it made every morning especially beautiful (and wet!).**

Fall Colors on the Denali Highway

The US Forest Service has a great explanation of why leaves change color. Briefly, the timing of color change and leaf fall are primarily affected by the increasing length of night during autumn, when the production of chlorophyll slows down. Temperature, rainfall, and food supply also affect fall colors, but are secondary to the loss of light.

Trumpeter Swan, Denali Highway

Here in the north, every change in nature is quick, abrupt, and dynamic. In Denali, the fall season is very short, usually just seven to ten days. With the Alaska Range and Denali (20,322 the highest mountain in North America and the greatest base- to-summit elevation gain in the world) as a background, the alpine and sub-alpine tundra, lower elevation taiga, the freshly fallen mountain snow over the past two days -- I have timed my trip perfectly. The 360-degree view of yellow willows, red dwarf birch, brilliant gold aspen and balsam poplar, still-green firs, and clear views, has my head spinning and my eyes aching. What is more beautiful? What do I take a photo of? How to I decide which best represents?


Since I don’t think it is possible to have too many north-country fall photos, and because Denali is rarely out, and I don’t know how long it will be before I can get back here, my answer was to buffer out a few memory cards and take as many photos as I could. Perhaps the hardest part was driving (with photo stops almost every few feet) or picking the limited images to include in this blog?

Reflection 2, Denali Highway

For any road trip, or photography shoot, it pays to keep constantly aware of your surroundings. Keep your eyes on the road, remember to look up for birds, watch for movement on the landscape for wildlife, and remember to turn around. Thank whoever you pray to for allowing you to visit and partake. After driving west to east along the Denali Highway, and east to west along the Denali Park Road, I traversed back the other way. It is amazing how different life and landscapes look when you change direction and perspective, and to see all that you missed by not looking back.

Dwarf Birch & Willow, Denali Highway

I hope you enjoy this selection and look for additional photos to be added soon to the website.

Mountains & Birch, Denali Highway

End Notes:

**After spending nearly 20 years on the New and Gauley Rivers, and at the Gauley Festival with American Whitewater (cancelled this year due to Covid), every September still feels like Gauley season. I miss that and need to get back.


For more information on Denali National Park, see www.nps.gov or Exploring the Parks: When Fall comes to Denali National Park.


Just before I arrived at Denali National Park, the Park Road was closed for the season due to a fast-moving landslide (fourteen inches per day – Wow!). Worse off, the only solution is to re-route the road or build a bridge. Either solution will take years to complete, so the future for visiting past mile forty-three, and camping at Wonder Lake is in serious doubt. A September 7th Time Magazine article also talks about climate-change impacts on Alaska elsewhere, see A Climate Change-Inducing Disaster in Denali National Park.


If you plan to drive the Denali Highway, know that hunting season for Dall sheep, caribou and moose runs from early August to late September. That means that your chance to see wildlife is reduced, and that you will share the road with a lot of trucks and ATV’s. Except for limited wildlife, that wasn’t a problem for me. Everyone was friendly, and campgrounds at night were filled with the barking and braying of hunting dogs. While I might prefer the howling of wolves, I enjoyed a few nights of listening to the dogs and missing mine.

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