Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it
At first look, that may appear to be a somewhat unnatural combination - "monster
trucks" and "Alaska wilderness". I admit that was my first reaction, both to seeing the tour write-up and
to my first look at the trucks themselves as they pulled up to my motorcoach. However, now that
I've spent 7½ hours with the trucks,
their driver/guides and other passengers, I see just how perfect a match it is. These custom tour vehicles
provide a superb way to get into what would often be considered inaccessible backcountry in comfort.
Our tour began at a large parking lot alongside the George Parks Highway 50 miles south of the usual entrance to Denali National Park. Our group of 20 people climbed aboard
the three trucks and we were soon off into the forest to the west, headed for the dramatic peaks of the Alaska Range. Our starting point is also an
Alaska Railroad stop called Colorado, now being developed with a few recreational cabin lots.
I rode in the cab of the truck driven by Steve, who owns the company, Denali Sightseeing Safaris. Although I was
somewhat concerned that doing so would compromise my ability to get the photos I wanted, that wasn't the case at all, as Steve
stopped every time I wanted to get a specific shot and worked to get into the exact position I wanted. Riding with him allowed
me to get more information on the country, the business, and the trucks, so having the front seat worked out very well.
The road we were driving on was initially built in the 1930s to access several hard-rock gold mines that are not currently being worked, though at least one of them may be if some
development capital can be raised for the Gold Zone Mine by the current owner, Mines Trust. It's uncertain what effect that will have on these tours, but it seems unlikely that mining trucks could
peacefully co-exist with tour trucks.
The broad valley of the West Fork of the Chulitna River (seen to the left) provides relatively easy access to the perimeter peaks of the Alaska Range.
Roads, however, do not stand up at all well to the erratic power of this glacier-fed river, as we would soon find out. For people not used to the capabilities of even a conventional
four-wheel-drive vehicle, nearing the first major creek crossing was confusing. Was this the end of the trip already? As the front of our truck slowly crept down the bank into
the raging water, the surprised yells of some of the people behind me could clearly be heard.
This is not a rough ride at all. Steve (seen to the left checking out the truck)
commented that when people ask him about that aspect of the trips,
he compares it to riding an elephant - a slow rocking back and forth. With that mental picture
handed to me, it was quite easy to close my eyes and imagine myself on an elephant safari in India (though quite a bit cooler!).
For more information, see their Web site at denalisights.com.
For more information about the mining history of the area, I recommend Charles Caldwell Hawley's book on
Wesley Earl Dunkle, published by the University of Colorado in 2003 (see the Amazon link to the right). The 1996
report on Alaska's mining industry gives more recent information about the Gold Zone Mine.
The pile of wood to the left used to be a large bridge which was built across the
West Fork of the Chulitna River to access the mines above, but it was destroyed in the huge 1964 earthquake.