Having seen the area around Anchorage (The Last Frontier -- Part 1, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula) and some of the coast (The Last Frontier -- Part 2, Whittier and the Glacier Quest) just to the south of the city, it was time to head inland. From Anchorage to Denali National Park is almost 250 miles, meaning a drive of about 4-5 hours. Knowing we’d be stopping at a couple borough (county) seats and to take photographs along the way, I planned for the drive to take most of the day. After getting beyond the fog and low-lying clouds around the coastal inlets, the Alaska Range came into view frequently. No matter where I travel, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing mountains.
According to the locals (and a few t-shirts on sale at various gift shops) only about 30% of visitors to Alaska get an unobstructed view of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. Apparently the top is hidden by clouds more often than not. Thankfully the weather continued to cooperate and the mountain was out (as the saying goes). As the highway snaked its way around rivers, lakes, and other mountains, Denali would appear from time to time, dead ahead, framed by the trees on either side of the road. You’re eyes are just drawn to it each time it comes into view.
Around lunch time, we detoured slightly off the main road to the town of Talkeetna. Here, still almost 70 miles from the mountain, is where most climbing expeditions of Denali begin. The town is a mix of rugged outdoors spirit and tourist kitsch, the latter due to it being a popular stop for cruise ship passengers who add on a land excursion to Denali either before or after their cruise. The Alaska Railroad also serves the town on its run between Anchorage and Fairbanks. We stopped in town for lunch, and found another great view of the 20,310 ft. mountain.
By the time we reached Healy, the town outside the national park where were staying for the next couple nights, afternoon was turning into evening. With a full-day (12 hour) bus tour of Denali National Park scheduled for the next day, and not much going on in a town with a population of around 1,000 people, we figured on an early night. By now, clouds had rolled in, and the threat of rain coupled with much cooler temperatures (50ºF as opposed to the 66ºF we had become accustomed to in Anchorage) confirmed our decision. With only a mere handful of restaurants in town, dinner choices were limited. Fortunately, we found the 49th State Brewing Company. Naturally, at a place like this (with the beer making equipment in the next room) I had to try some of the local stuff. A seat by the fire and good food and beer were sufficient enticement for a return the following night.
The next morning, it was up before dawn and off to Denali National Park, about 20 minutes south of Healy. It had rained overnight and a few scattered showers lingered. Temperatures had dropped into the low 40s, so we bundled up and headed out. The bus that would be a “home” for the next twelve hours arrived in the predawn twilight and the excursion began. Private vehicles are only allowed on the first 15 miles of the Park Road, so the primary way to see the park interior is by bus. There are several tours of differing lengths, as well as buses that transport those wanting to hike or camp. Here’s our bus. Notice that although the rain had stopped, the overcast skies continued. Had we not seen Denali the day before, we might have been part of the 70% who visited Alaska without seeing the mountain.
There were two main reasons for taking the longest tour available. First was to spend as much time in the park as we could to see wildlife. The other was to get to the end of the road in Kantishna. We accomplished both. Denali is known for what it calls “the Big Five” large mammals, brown (grizzly) bears, moose, caribou, wolves, and the Dall sheep. We saw all but the wolves. The Dall sheep were high up on the side of a mountain and appeared as nothing more than small white speck moving against the dark brown of the rocks. Here are photos of the other three species (taken with a really long lens).
And here’s the proof that we made it all the way to end of the road. Just think, at this point there are only six hours in a glorified school bus on unpaved roads still ahead.
While most of the time was spent on the bus, stopping frequently to take pictures out the window, there were a few opportunities to get out and explore. Denali is unusual in that in most areas, hiking is off-trail. In fact, there are only a couple dozen hiking trails in the park which encompasses about 6 million acres. During one stop we were encouraged to step off the road into the tundra and feel the springy turf beneath our feet. Even better, there was the chance to forage for low-bush cranberries, crowberries, or wild blueberries.
As the afternoon waned the rain returned. Eventually the bus arrived back at the front of the park and we made our way to Healy, the 49th State Brewing Company, and our hotel.
From Denali, it was back to Anchorage for a night at the Anchorage Marriott before our overnight flight home. I’ll cover that and a few last thoughts about the trip in the next post.