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At Alaska’s Denali National Park, the peak moments come wild and high

Wonder Lake is exactly that during this early morning display as Mt. McKinley, now officially called Denali, background, peaks through the nearby cloud cover.

Wonder Lake is exactly that during this early morning display as Mt. McKinley, now officially called Denali, background, peaks through the nearby cloud cover.

(Daniel A. Anderson)

Marie Monroe desperately needed some good news. An unexpected August snow meant guests couldn’t get into or out of Kantishna Roadhouse, the backcountry lodge Monroe manages in Denali National Park and Preserve.

As Monroe walked from one lodge building to another through snow flurries, a fellow employee shouted excitedly, “They’ve renamed the mountain!”

“It’s about darn time,” she replied.

Monroe, an Athabaskan Native American, had always thought of the continent’s highest peak, which looms over the roadhouse, as Denali.

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“But I was resigned it would take forever to lose the name Mt. McKinley because of government red tape,” she said.

The Aug. 30 announcement by President Obama’s staff drew both praise and criticism, but on one thing most people can agree: Denali is one of the nation’s most impressive parks, from its subarctic plains to its 20,310-foot peak. It’s especially worth seeing when Southern California’s summer is at its zenith.

More than 425,000 people visit 6-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve annually to see the mountain and the park’s other great resource, its wild animals: grizzlies, moose, Dall sheep, brown bears and caribou. I saw all of these and more — including snowfall — during a four-day visit this summer.

In some ways, Denali is an oddity. The mountain hides behind cloud cover two-thirds of the time, meaning you’re lucky if you get to see it.

It took me three tries; I finally became a winner this summer on a trip that included a 92-mile bus ride to the depths of the national park and a visit to Talkeetna, a quirky frontier town south of Denali.

My visit also gave me a chance to hang out for a while with some of the park’s famous canines — the hard-working sled dogs that protect Denali’s wildlife and its people during the long winter.

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Those domesticated animals, combined with the wild ones I spotted, were a trip highlight. Among my sightings were several grizzlies, including three cubs playing by the side of the road, a baby moose and its mom walking near the lodge where I was staying and dozens of Dall sheep grazing on the side of a cliff.

It was a wilderness experience without the backpack and camping gear.

Denali visitors sightsee from the windows of a national park bus during the summer, when there is limited access to the park in private vehicles. The only road in this enormous park — it’s bigger than the whole of Massachusetts — stretches 92 miles and ends near Kantishna Roadhouse and three other backcountry lodges that stand near the base of the mountain.

Visitors can choose trips of four to 12 hours. The good news is that there’s a whole busload of people to help you spot wildlife and look for the mountain, which isn’t visible from the park entrance or hotels. The bad news is … well, all those people on the bus with you.

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That restriction ends later this week when the buses stop running. Beginning Sept. 22, visitors can drive up to 30 miles inside the park, weather permitting, in their own vehicles.

“Fall is an amazing season here,” said Kathleen Kelly of the National Park Service. “There are moose everywhere, bears are busily eating everything in sight before they go into hibernation and you can have sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s.

“Or you can have rain or snow.”

Although many tourist businesses close, the park headquarters and some lodges in nearby Healy remain open year-round.

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If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a look at the snow-covered behemoth Denali, the “great one” or “high one,” as the Athabaskans have long called it.

Either name fits. Denali begins at a base of 2,000 feet, which means 18,000 feet of snow-covered earth and rock rise straight up from ground level. By contrast, the Himalayas’ Mt. Everest rises 12,000 feet from its base. When measured base-to-peak, Denali ranks as the world’s tallest mountain; Everest is higher only because its base begins at a higher elevation.

Obama didn’t visit the mountain when he toured Alaska in early September. But he saw it from the air. He called it “one of Alaska’s most beautiful sights.”

I couldn’t agree more. Even if it did take me three tries.

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

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From LAX, Delta and Alaska offer nonstop flights to Anchorage, and Delta, Alaska, US Airways and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $267, including taxes and fees. Alaska and Delta offer connecting service to Fairbanks. Restricted round-trip fares from $369, including taxes and fees.

Car and RV rentals are available in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Also, the Alaska Railroad, www.alaskarailroad.com, offers direct service between Anchorage, Talkeetna, Denali and Fairbanks, with one-way fares starting at $80 for adults.

WHERE TO STAY

Denali Park Village Lodge, 231 George Parks Highway, Denali National Park and Preserve; (907) 683-8900, www.denaliparkvillage.com. This riverside lodge has comfortable rooms plus a restaurant, bar and coffee shop. Seven miles from the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. Shuttle bus to park entrance. Double rooms from $149 a night. Closed off-season.

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Kantishna Roadhouse Backcountry Lodge, Denali Park Road, Denali National Park and Preserve; (800) 942-7420, www.kantishnaroadhouse.com. One of four backcountry lodges inside the park about 20 miles from the foot of the mountain. Hiking, van excursions, gold panning, fly fishing and nature lectures. $495 a person a night, double occupancy, including room, board, transportation and activities. Closed off-season.

Talkeetna Camper Park, 22763 S. Talkeetna Spur, Talkeetna; (907) 733-2693; www.talkeetnacamper.com. Full-service RV park is close to Talkeetna village. Laundry and gift shop. Open from April to October. $40 for water, power and sewer hookups; $35 a night for power and water hookups; $20 for all sites beginning Wednesday until snowfall.

WHERE TO EAT

Cabin Nite Dinner Theater, Milepost 231, George Park Highway, Denali National Park and Preserve; (800) 276-7234. Salmon and ribs dinner is the precursor to a homespun comedy and musical performance that spotlights the Alaskan Gold Rush. $67 per person, adults, and $33.50 for children.

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Black Bear Coffee Shop, Mile 238.5 George Parks Highway, Denali National Park and Preserve; (907) 683-1656, www.blackbeardenali.com. Budget dining at this friendly coffee shop across from the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge that’s open until 8 p.m. daily. Soups, sandwiches, tacos, breakfast items. Sandwiches from $10.

Talkeetna Roadhouse, 13550 E. Main St., Talkeetna; (907) 733-1351, www.talkeetnaroadhouse.com. This family-style inn, built in 1917, is known for pancakes the size of a dinner plate and Granny’s Chocolate Potato Cake and homemade apple pie and rhubarb pie. Breakfast entrees start at $6.25; dinners at $8.45.

TO LEARN MORE

State of Alaska Vacation & Travel Information: www.travelalaska.com

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travel@latimes.com

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