Posted by: kerryl29 | November 5, 2018

Alaska: Denali State Park

Did you know that there was a Denali State Park in Alaska?  Most people don’t and, prior to the planning stage of the Alaska trip, that included me.  The northern part of the state park is located about an hour south of the entrance to Denali National Park.  The state park flows along both sides of the George Parks Highway (which runs primarily north-south) and, like most things in Alaska, it’s big:  more than 325,000 acres (roughly half the size of the state of Rhode Island).  The park is filled with hiking trails that are mostly easily accessed.

We’d had to alter our original plans while in the Denali area, due to the weather forecast, as I mentioned in an earlier post.  Having changed our original day of exploration into the National Park to the following day , and having had an all-too-short taste of the Denali Highway the previous day, we had one day left to check out Denali State Park.  The day started out–this was becoming a trend–rainy, but cleared up throughout the morning and we set out on the drive south on the George Parks Highway.  Along the way, a view of the Mountain came upon us so we pulled off the road to take advantage of the scene.

Denali View, George Parks Highway, Alaska

Denali View, George Parks Highway, Alaska

When we reached the state park, we decided to check out the North Viewpoint area–which has a nice view of the Alaska Range–before setting out on our pre-determined hike (more below).

The Alaska Range Black & White, North Viewpoint, Denali State Park, Alaska

The hike we’d decided to do, based on a guidebook description, was the Ermine Hill Trail.  Like many of the interesting sounding trails in the park, this one climbed toward a ridge with (we read) excellent views of the Alaska Range and the valley below.  It was approximately seven miles round trip and back with an elevation change of roughly 1700 feet.  What we discovered, when we started the trail, is that it actually descends several hundred feet before ascending on the climb to Kesugi Ridge.  The trail runs through a heavily forested area, crosses a couple of streams and then passes along a wetland before beginning the climb through another set of woods.

Much of the low-level area of the trail was quite muddy–there had been, as I chronicled earlier in this series, plenty of rain over the past few days–which we worked to avoid.  On what had become a partly cloudy day, we moved relatively quickly over the first 3/4 of a mile or so of the trail before reaching the wetland.  There, we spied a pair of tundra swans.  They were quite a distance away, but I managed to obtain a few shots before they flew off.

Tundra Swans, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

The trail then climbed through a series of switchbacks before entering a fairly steep climb through a forested area.  As the sun danced back and forth between cloud banks I started to find interesting things to photograph.  Ellen and Debbie moved on as I worked several scenes that intrigued me, beginning with a a fern-filled area just off the trail.

Sun-Kissed Ferns, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

The next spot that stopped me in my tracks was a series of birch trunks.  I spent a fair amount of time sizing the trunks up, trying to identify the ideal composition.  I finally found it, and completed a four-frame stack.  (The fern shot, above, is a three-frame stack.)  It was the only way to retain sharpness from front to back in the scene, given that I was using a 50 mm focal length.  Fortunately the wind was light and, with patience I was able to complete the sequence.  This was a bit trickier with the bracken ferns in the above photo, since the fronds will blow with even a breath of wind.

Birch Trunks, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

I caught up to Ellen and Debbie who were photographing a particularly nice patch of the forest floor, including subjects I had been admiring all along the recent part of the hike but hadn’t stopped to shoot because I didn’t want to fall any farther behind.  But now I had an excuse to play with the colorful, intimate scene.  When, after being asked what I’d seen, I mentioned the birch trunks and showed one of the frames to Debbie via the LCD screen on the back of the camera she made me promise to show her the spot on the way down.  (I said I would, with the caveat that it might be a bit difficult, given that we’d be approaching the location from the opposite direction, making it potentially tough to spot.)

Forest Floor Intimate, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

Not long after this point, we left the thick forest behind and emerged on the hillside leading up towards the ridge.  The views behind us–in the direction of the Alaska Range–were exceptional.  I took note of an old log that I thought would make a nice foreground for possible re-investigation on the return trip.

We hiked much of the rest of the way up the hillside.  Ellen stopped part way, Debbie went off trail a bit to a rock outcropping she spotted and I worked a section, also slightly off trail, in search of foreground elements to complement the view.

Alaska Range View, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

Alaska Range View, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

When everyone was ready, we went back down.  When I came upon the log I’d noted earlier, I let Ellen and Debbie move ahead, telling them I’d catch up; another view of the scene had convinced me that I definitely wanted to photograph at this spot.  After sizing up the scene with the 24-70 mm lens I determined I needed something wider and switched to the 14-24.  Even with the ultra-wide lens I had to resort to a three-frame stack to retain front-to-back sharpness.

Alaska Range View, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

I then found another composition I liked, using two trees as left-side-of-frame sentinels, with some fireweed as a right-side counterbalance.

Alaska Range View, Ermine Hill Trail, Denali State Park, Alaska

I caught up to Ellen and Debbie and did find the birch trunk location and, after Debbie had photographed them (the light was far less workable than it had been when I’d been there earlier, unfortunately), we completed the hike out, which seemed to take forever.  I might have photographed some more but it was now more or less completely sunny and I didn’t like the effect that had on the forest settings which dominated the remainder of the trail.

When we got back, we went in search of a sunset location.  There was a trail around a lake in another part of the park that we checked out, on my suggestion, but it turned out to be a poor choice–there were virtually no clear spots that reached the lakeside.  So we went back in the car and headed north, in an attempt to find a roadside location that might be compelling.  It wasn’t shaping up to be an epic sunset and, after driving for some time, well beyond the park borders, in frustration, I headed into a pull-out on the west side of the highway.  Given the status of the sky and setting sun, it was pretty much now or never and while there was nothing particularly noteworthy about this spot, at least, I reasoned, we’d be able to photograph some conifers against the sky.

I have to say that, given that this wasn’t shaping up to be a great sunset and the location itself left something to be desired, I didn’t have high hopes for the ensuing imagery.  But I’m (surprisingly) relatively pleased with what I was able to make out of it.

Sunset, George Parks Highway, Alaska

Sunset, George Parks Highway, Alaska

I used both normal and telephoto focal lengths during the 20-30 minutes we were on site and checked out both sides of the highway.  I ended up being more intrigued with the other side–the east side–of the road, which hadn’t even been a consideration when we pulled off.

Dusk, George Parks Highway, Alaska

Dusk, George Parks Highway, Alaska

Dusk, George Parks Highway, Alaska

I never like to spend time, as the light is changing, scrambling around looking for a location from which to photograph and I wouldn’t intentionally repeat the process of this evening, but every once in a while. accidentally, things sorta/kinda work out.



  1. Outstanding. For those interested in your post-processing technique I highly recommend your article on focus stacking.

    • Thanks! And thanks for the plug re my focus stacking post.

  2. Really enjoyed going on your walk with you – a walk with photographic stops – this is after my own heart

  3. Denali State Park is a true “gem” of a park. We lived in Homer, Alaska for 3 years and loved visiting the park. Too bad we can not always see the peaks because of the typical cloudy, overcast weather. Thanks for posting! Brings back beautiful memories!!!

    • Thanks very much!

  4. The mud and the uphill at the end made this hike a bit more challenging than originally anticipated. The views, in the forest, in the wetlands, and from up high, made it worth the effort. I particularly like the forest floor intimate.

    • Thanks…yes, the trail did present some challenges.

  5. These have me wanting to go….I love the black and site, and I always like the intimates; this time Birch Trunks is my favorite.

  6. Exceptional photos, Kerry. I wasn’t aware of the state park either. That’s where I’ll head when I get up there in the next year or two… seems much more accessible on foot. Can you backpack/camp in the state park?

    • Thanks, Mike.

      I’m almost certain that back country camping is permitted at Denali State Park. There are a number of trails in the park that definitely require a multi-day trek.

  7. Your usual superb images of some pretty wild and rugged country. I’m really enjoying this trip of yours. Do things back here in the lower 48 seem slightly diminished after the experience?

    • Thanks, Gunta!

      Wild and rugged…wait ’til you get an extended look at the Brooks Range (I’ll start dealing with that experience thoroughly in the next two or three weeks).

      Do thing seem diminished in the lower 48 after visiting Alaska…that’s a great question. Upon some consideration, I’d say I don’t think so (though I’m not sure why not). Over the past few weeks, before the fall color disappeared in the Midwest, I checked out some familiar haunts in Illinois and Indiana (and a couple of new ones as well) and as best I can tell I had the same sense of…whatever it is I feel when I’m out in the field…as I did before I went to Alaska. It’s definitely not as awe-inspiring as what I saw amidst the Last Frontier, but there’s something else that’s always going on that I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on.

      Thanks for making me think about this.

Please feel free to comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: