We left Fairbanks and headed south to Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali the mountain, also referred to as Mt. McKinley, is the highest peak in North America and third highest in the world at 20,320′ tall. It’s so tall that it makes its own weather, and only 30% of visitors to the Park get to see the mountain unobstructed by clouds. And for a mountain that big, I guess you need a big park – 6 million acres, give or take a few. According to the bus driver on our tour it was the first national park created solely for the purpose of preserving wildlife and it’s one of the best places in Alaska to see a wide variety all in one place. But before we even got close to the Park we were awed by the mountains that make up so much of it: the Alaska Range. We thought what we had already seen of Alaska was beautiful but as the snow-covered peaks of the Alaska Range drew closer we knew we were seeing something special. The Alaska Range dominates the southern portion of the state, forming an arc that follows the shape of the tectonic plate that created it. [For a gorgeous relief map showing just how much they dominate the landscape, click here and scroll down to the Alaska map.] The landscape is one of never-ending snow-capped mountain vistas with winding braided rivers and glacially-carved lakes.
Since we prefer the “fly by the seat of your pants” method of travel and it was the week of July 4 when we were visiting DNP we weren’t able to get a reservation inside the Park, but found a camping spot nearby at Denali Outdoor Center in Healy, AK. Healy is about a 30 minute drive from the DNP entrance, but it has the advantage of being home to the 49th State Brewing Company where they brew some mighty tasty beer. On our first full day in the area, we drove into DNP to check out the visitor’s center and other features near the entrance. We first drove in to the Savage River, where visitors can park and enjoy a couple hikes. We chose the river loop hike and set off. The mountains & rock formations along the river are multi-hued and beautiful. Wildflowers and Arctic ground squirrels are everywhere. We even saw a family of willow ptarmigan right on the path! Ptarmigan parents work cooperatively to raise a brood of up to 10 chicks. We never did decide how many were in this brood because they ran around so much. I also spent quite a few minutes “stalking” shy ground squirrels for good pictures, only to have one run right up to me and sit on my foot! I guess there’s one extrovert in every crowd.
After our hike, we grabbed lunch at the visitor’s center and then caught a sled dog demonstration at the kennels. Denali is the only national park that maintains sled dog kennels, and the dogs are used in winter for regular patrols as well as for transporting researchers and their equipment to remote sites. The dogs were fun but the puppies were cuter!
That night we were treated to a glorious sight – the closest thing to a real sunset that we’d seen in weeks! Just driving the 125 miles or so south of Fairbanks was enough of a difference to treat us to something approaching nighttime, although it didn’t get much darker than what you see in the pics below.
The following day was July 4th, and we celebrated by taking the bus out to the Eilson Visitor’s Center at Mile 66 on the Park road. Because it was established to protect wildlife, nearly all of DNP is inaccessible by automobile. There is a single dirt road leading 92 miles into its 6 million acres and that is it. To further reduce impacts to wildlife, visitors are not allowed to drive past the Savage River at mile marker 15 on the road. To travel further into the Park you must have a special pass or must take a Park bus. The bus system is pretty cool though: to compensate for not allowing you to drive your own vehicle out, you can hop off & on the bus system any time or at any place along the route. Tired of sitting or do you see something great out the window? Ask the driver to stop & let you off. Hike as little or as far as you want, then hop on the next bus that comes by (usually only a 15 minute wait, if that) to continue your journey. Want to tent camp inside the park? Hop on the bus with your pack, hop off wherever you’d like and, as long as you are out of sight of the road, pitch your tent wherever you’d like (there is only 1 small section of the Park where tent camping isn’t allowed). The buses also act as “blinds” oddly enough. Wildlife is so used to their presence that buses are basically ignored unless some passenger sticks a head or appendage out of a window. We had caribou trot down the road within two feet of our parked bus! We had some great caribou and moose sightings, as well as my first golden eagle sighting (no picture though – drat!), gyrfalcon, Dahl sheep, and a couple of grizzlies. No close encounters with grizzlies though, so that’s still on our list! We did a loop hike at the Eilson Visitor’s Center and ate our bag lunches, hoping that the weather would clear and we’d get to see all of Denali, but no such luck. That’s it to the right in the first 2 photos below (Mt. Foraker is clearly visible to the left). Fun facts about Denali: the word means “the great one” in the native Athabaskan language and it does indeed tower over its neighbors because it is composed primarily of granite and the neighboring mountains have eroded over millions of years because they are made of softer sedimentary rocks. Mt. Foraker, 2nd highest peak in the Alaska Range, is known as Menlale or “wife of the great one” in the native Athabaskan.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in and around Denali National Park & Preserve. One thing we didn’t get to do was rafting on the Nenana River, considered by many to be the best rafting river in the state. We wanted to go but when we saw the launch we decided not to! [Kidding – they do launch the rafts this way, but the people board at another location.] Maybe next time!