We were warned before we boarded our light aeroplane that North America's tallest mountain only reveals itself in full for a couple of weeks each year, and as we climb through the clouds in Denali National Park, it looks like Mt McKinley is going to have one of its "elusive" days.Canada and Alaska Guide:
The eight-seater bumps and shudders for about 10 minutes and we break through into bright sunshine. Snow-capped mountain peaks pierce the cloud and hanging glaciers dot the landscape that seems to go on forever.
Up ahead at 6200m is our ultimate destination and the peak of Mt McKinley takes on a surreal atmosphere as a tiny wisp of white cloud creates a halo at the top. Even the pilot, who does this run several times a day when weather permits, is impressed. The weather gods are on our side and we're spoilt with a couple of extra loops of the peak.
This was just the second day of a one-week land tour which was combined with a one-week Voyage of the Glaciers cruise with Princess Cruises. After two previous cruise-only Alaskan experiences, this was a great way to gain a different perspective of this vast wilderness.
The first week on land was a jet-lagged blur of motor coaches, hotels and early starts and began in the "big smoke" at Anchorage, but the reward each day was experiences like Denali National Park which also happened to be going through its amazing autumn colours.
A typical day can go something like this: you wake at 7am and head to an 8am breakfast before leaving your bags outside for staff to pick up and load on to the coach; board the bus at 9am and head to the first unique wilderness area featuring wildlife and/or glaciers; have lunch outdoors and then get back on the bus and head to the next national park (usually with more amazing glaciers) in the afternoon; finish the day in a new wilderness lodge with bags already delivered to your room; go for drinks and dinner; get up and do it all over again.
It is fairly hardcore touring but is a hassle-free way to see the best of inland Alaska and in between leisurely evenings in the comfortable lodges, there are opportunities to ride horses in the shadow of Mt McKinley, see the fantastic Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park and its wildlife, including bald eagles, puffins and sea lions, drive through the Portage Valley and its ice field, which is home to several hanging glaciers, see bears in their natural habitat fishing for salmon, and meet some of the interesting characters who call this part of the world home.
Boone, our horse wrangler at Mt McKinley Lodge, looks like an extra from a Wild West movie but he has been riding since he was three and like most of the "locals", he can't put his finger on why he likes living in Alaska.
"It's not for everyone, living up here," he says. "We had a guy arrive to work with us last week. He did a day and then he was off, couldn't handle the quiet, I suppose."
The transition from land touring to cruising took us from Denali National Park down to Whittier on a scenic nine-hour journey on a train owned by Princess with a glass roof for ultimate sightseeing.
This is undoubtedly the best way to do the land touring-cruise combination, with two leisurely sea days on Coral Princess to kick things off after an intense week of sightseeing. This Voyage of the Glaciers cruise was true to its title and began with the longest tidewater glacier in Alaska, Hubbard Glacier. It stretches some 122km from the Yukon, spilling into Yakutat and Enchantment Bays, with an impressive open calving face spanning 10km.
We'd already seen at least a dozen of these amazing ice formations on land, and were beginning to show signs of "glacier fatigue", but Hubbard and Glacier Bay National Park, which followed on day two, were sufficiently overwhelming to put an end to that.
Then it was time to get serious about exploring on land again, and of our three ports of call, Juneau offered the chance to include another of Alaska's "bucket-list" experiences. Bad weather had scuppered our previous two attempts at dog-
sledding on Mendenhall Glacier, but on this day we got lucky.
The helicopter ride up to the glacier revealed lush rainforest and glaciers carved into mountain peaks, and we landed in a surreal world of pure white and the echo of dogs barking with excitement. Our musher, Dustin Schmidt, introduced us to his team that was extremely keen to get running.
We learnt that Alaskan sled dogs are neither a breed nor anything like the stocky, Siberian huskies you commonly see in movies.
Dustin spends most of the week with his wife Kym on Mendenhall Glacier in a tent looking after the dogs and running them during the day.
"The Alaskan is a mix of breeds. They're leaner dogs bred to run and as you can see they come in many colours," Dustin explains. "They just love to be on the move and really don't like waiting around."
It was a bumpy ride through the ice and snow as we made a large circle of the camp, stopping occasionally to take turns standing on the back, allowing the dogs to cool off. Before long our exhilarating ride was over, leaving us with a little time to pet some puppies before returning to town.
Our other ports of call took in the quaint Gold Rush outpost of Skagway and Ketchikan, further to the south. In Skagway, we headed to Glacier Station in the Sawtooth Mountains for an 8km guided hike through the stunning Tongass National Forest, and a ride back to town on the White Pass train.Ketchikan was our last stop, earmarked for a much anticipated bear-watching expedition by seaplane to Neets Bay, but bad weather forced its cancellation.
But to be perfectly honest, although it was disappointing, it was a chance to take a day off and try and absorb nearly two weeks of seeing the mountains, glaciers, wildlife and landscapes that make the 49th US State so special.More Alaska:
GUIDE TO CANADA AND ALASKA
THE IDITAROD DOG SLED RACE
• Princess operates five Wilderness Lodges in Alaska; Kenai, Mt McKinley, Denali, Copper River, and Fairbanks. All Cruisetours include a seven-day Voyage of the Glaciers cruise (see below) enabling guests to combine visits to Alaska's top two attractions - Denali National Park and Glacier Bay National Park. Pre and post-cruise stays in Anchorage and Fairbanks can also be added.
Princess Cruises' 2013 Alaska program has 13-night cruise tours including a seven-night Voyage of the Glaciers cruise and six nights on land with stays at Mt McKinley and Denali Princess Wilderness Lodges, priced from $1886 per person twin share.
For more information contact a licensed travel agent, visit princess.com or call 13 24 88.
Qantas operates services from Perth to Los Angeles via Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, with connections to Anchorage with Alaska Airlines (13 13 13, qantas.com.au, alaskaair.com).
The Hotel Captain Cook is located at 939 W. 5th Avenue in downtown Anchorage with 547 rooms and suites and three restaurants including the AAA-four-diamond rated gourmet Crow's Nest. captaincook.com.''Ben Hall travelled as a guest of Princess Cruises."