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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Awesome: Denali National Park

In late June of 2006 we arrived on a cloudy day and checked into the campground at Denali National Park. We had anticipated our visit for weeks, and were thrilled to finally be there. First thing on the agenda was signing up for the bus tour. As we stood in line, we heard some groups complaining that they had gone out the day before and Mt. McKinley* was completely hidden behind the clouds. They were not happy about paying $25.00 each to see something that, as far as they knew, wasn't even there. It was going to be a tough day for the rangers at the desk. (Note: since 2006 the prices have gone up. The shuttle tour we took would be $33.50 this year.)

Denali National Park is huge--six million acres--and very little of it is accessible by car. The land and it's resident wildlife are fiercely protected from human interference by the park so they have set up a system of buses to carry people down it's lone road. There are a few campgrounds and some backcountry permits for backpackers, but most visitors are limited to seeing it by the shuttle buses. (There is a lottery system that allows a few drivers into the park for four days in early September. It's very popular and you have to be flexible enough to be available; in turn Mother Nature has to allow you access. If you win and if snow doesn't close the road you are allowed to drive the 92 miles to Wonder Lake in your own vehicle for one whole day for a $25.00 fee.)

The campgrounds in Denali NP are pretty nice. Plenty of trees and foliage to shield you from your neighbors. (Our truck was coated with mud and dust from our drive on the Dalton Highway in the days preceding--the campground isn't really that muddy. Interested in that story? Click here)
As tall as it is, Mt. McKinley is not visible from the park entrance, or from the campground. The only way to see it is to get into a bus (or hike) and get beyond the set of foothills at the base of the Alaska Range. The gravel road through the park is 92 miles long and terminates at Wonder Lake at the base of the mountain. There are several choices for shuttle bus tours depending on how long you can take riding with a bunch of strangers in a converted school bus. We chose the halfway point (OK, two-thirds point): Eielson Visitor Center is located at mile 66 and takes about four hours to reach. It's located on bluffs at the base of the mountain, and on a clear day there's a terrific view from the back deck of the center. With stops for pictures and a half hour at the Visitor Center, the tour would last nine hours or so round trip.

We decided to make reservations for the next day starting early in the morning, figuring it might increase our odds of seeing the mountain. We spent the rest of that day washing ourselves and our clothes so we wouldn't be kicked off the bus by an angry hoard of tourists--we had been on the road at that point for over two weeks and were getting kind of ripe (most of the other visitors seemed to be staying in hotels so they probably appreciated our efforts.) The park campground has showers and a small laundromat available which couldn't have come at a better time. The sun finally came out that afternoon and we took a little hike and checked out the park a bit.

Moose having lunch in a beaver pond, Denali National Park

The Denali Star makes a stop in the park. This looks like a fun trip--from Anchorage to Fairbanks, with stops in between. Maybe when we retire and are too old for road trips.

At 6:30 the next morning, we crawled out of our sleeping bags, packed some snacks and water bottles and ran over to the Visitor Center to catch the bus. The driver not only drove the bus, but was our tour guide for the day. He told us about the park and the animals we might be seeing. He kept emphasizing that there was so much more to the park than just the mountain, which was only visible in the summer months about 20-30% of the time. True, it's home to grizzly bear, migrating caribou, wolves, fox, bighorn sheep, yada yada yada... Is the mountain out  today or not? we all wanted to yell. He was being very cagey.

Run, Forest, run! Dall sheep on the road in Denali NP

2006 was an unusually hot dry year in Alaska. We had seen huge wildfires up north of Fairbanks, and smoke was hanging over most of the state interfering with visibility. We were worried that if the clouds actually parted for us, the smoke might obscure our view anyway. So we tried to be patient, looking out the windows and listening to the talk. It was late June and we were still enjoying 24 hour light; by 9:00am it was already 80 degrees. We saw some caribou hanging out in the shade under a bridge, panting and not looking like they were having any fun. In fact, the guide said a lot of the animals were not as active as usual because of the heat. Other than the caribou, we did see a fox, a mountain goat, bighorn sheep and one grizzly bear way way up on a hillside. It was pretty amazing out there--once we passed the point in the road where cars were turned back, there were no fences, buildings or people for as far as the eye could see.

Arctic Fox, hanging out on the road

Caribou trying to escape the heat

The tiny blond dot in the middle is a very large grizzly bear, probably two miles away. 
(Picture taken with a telephoto lens--that's how far away it was.)

Bighorn sheep.

As we rounded a corner, the driver told us where to look, that this would be our first chance to see Mt. McKinley.

And there it was.

Pictures just can't do it justice: Mount McKinley 20,320ft.
For scale, look to the bottom right--that's a full size bus on the road. (Picture taken from Eielson Visitor Center)

"Awesome" got a lot of use back in the 1990s--it was used to describe everything from a rock concert to a good cup of coffee. I was irritated by that and remember thinking "what word are you going to use when you see something that's truly, well, awesome?" I think the moment we rounded that corner was the first time I actually saw the genuine article. Awesome. So awesome that the only thing any of the 50 people on the bus could say was "oohhhh."

We took about 100 pictures, but none of them can do justice to the sight. You have to go see it for yourself. Seriously, you have to.

Even the driver was amazed, not one cloud anywhere in sight. Often clouds settle at mid-level, with the top half of the mountain visible but the bottom obscured. There was a slight haze from the wildfires, but not enough to make it any less amazing. The bus pulled over and for the next ten minutes the only sound was the clicking of camera shutters. It was hard to get back onboard, but we had to in order to make the rest of the trip and keep the bus on schedule.

From there, we traveled up to the Eielson Visitor Center. A small center, it's only open from June to early September. There's a large picture window looking out toward the mountain with an outline in white etched on the surface to show what the mountain would look like if you were unlucky enough to be there on a cloudy day.  What a letdown that would have been.

Mark tries out the caribou antlers.

Mew Gull at Eielson Visitor Center deck, looking for a handout.

The bus ride back was hot and sweaty, but you couldn't wipe the smiles off our faces. We beat the odds and knew it--clouds were starting to form in front of the mountain as we made our way back to the campground.

I can't wait to go back and try our odds again.

Oh, just one more. Awesome.

*or Denali as it should rightfully be called. Sadly, the official change to the Koyukon Athabaskan's name "Dinale" or Denali is still in legislation. Ohio won't let it go, being the proud state of it's native son, President William McKinley. You can read about the controversy here.

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