Chores done, we usually attend a ranger talk. At one called "Scat and Tracks" we learn to distinguish moose, wolf, and caribou traces. As we head home, we meet a Pennsylvania family— a doctor and a physical therapist with two daughters the same ages as ours. They invite us back to their spacious RV, 30 feet long with a master bedroom in the back. As the girls somersault off the top bunk, we talk motor-home shop.
Amyas and I have noticed that most conversations at Denali have a competitive edge. Topics include wildlife sightings (the more animals, the better), cameras (who has the fanciest), and whether or not you've seen McKinley (the mountain's weather conditions make this hit-or-miss).
On our last morning in the park, the sky is clear and we have superb mountain views. After a sled dog demonstration at the kennel near the visitors' center, we make a pit stop to dump 'n' fill. By now Amyas, with Saskia's help, is adept at emptying the waste tank and replenishing the water tank. All it takes, he claims, is dexterity with a hose.
We head east on gravel-topped Denali Highway, which parallels the snowcapped Alaska Range, through high-alpine terrain of taiga and blue lakes. Unlike the more trafficked George Parks Highway, where we passed a parade of RV's, we see very few vehicles of any sort. At night, we camp in the middle of nowhere. That's the beauty of RV travel: you simply find a glorious spot and settle in.
The rest of the trip follows the jagged contours of the mountains that surround us, alternating between extraordinary highs and vexing lows. For me, many of the highs relate to my growing fascination with glaciers, culminating in a decision to pursue a career as a glaciologist as soon as I can find the time. We take a joy ride in a six-seater Cessna over the Kennicott, Root, and Gates glaciers in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Our pilot zooms up to the Stairway Icefall, close to Mount Blackburn, then cruises low over the glaciers; their ice and rock striations look like oozing Oreo cookies. Later, north of Valdez off the Richardson Highway, Tamzen provides some comic relief when she attempts a walk on minty-blue Worthington Glacier in a kid's version of strappy Manolos. And out on Prince William Sound, toward the end of the vacation, during a ferry ride from Valdez to Whittier, the temperature drops 10 degrees in as many minutes as our boat nears 30-mile-long Columbia Glacier.
Most of the lows result from our struggles with the motor home's water supply. Despite our self-restricted usage—showers every third day and limited toilet flushing—the water level is often down to a half or a third of the tank the day after we fill up. When we pull into the former railroad town of Chitina, just outside Wrangell-St. Elias, we are counting on finding a full-service RV park.
"You passed it 30 miles back in Kenny Lake," says the cashier at a gas station. "But you can get water at the fire department. Do you have a hose?" No. Nor, it appears, does anyone else in town, until we run into Alex, an enterprising 10-year-old. "Come to my house," he says. "We always give folks free water." He hops on his bike and we follow him. Sure enough, there's a water tank—with a hose—in his yard. He sells the girls gorgeous chunks of teal copper ore ($4 each).
We see more copper ore when we tour the park's ghost town of Kennicott,at the edge of Kennicott Glacier. In 1900, prospectors discovered rich deposits here and a company town grew up, only to be abandoned in 1938 after the ore ran out. Today the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other groups are working to save the red clapboard buildings. From atop the 14-story mill, we gaze at hills made of mine tailings, winking blue and green in the sun. Fewer than 50 people live in the area year-round. On a bus ride into McCarthy, five miles down the road, the driver tells us there are no newspapers, TV's, or radio, though "one person has a shortwave."
The next day we backtrack to Kenny Lake, where ours is one of only two motor homes at the RV park. Even though it's cold and raining, I'm in an expansive mood and don't mind when the girls splash barefoot in the puddles. I even take the wheel for the first time. My destination?Thirty yards to the dump station.
EVE GLASBERG is a former senior editor at Travel + Leisure.