Wow! Just Wow! I LOVED Denali and the surrounding area. I finally felt like the long drive to Alaska was worth it when we entered the beautiful Denali National Park.
Denali was established as a park in 1917 for the purpose of protecting Dall sheep, which were being over-hunted at the time. They seem to be doing well now. We found some grazing high up on a mountain.
The park’s size and purpose grew over time. Today, the park is around 6 million acres. There is only one road in the park, running east to west. It is 92 miles long. With the exception of the first 15 miles it is a narrow gravel and dirt road. Parts of it are subjected to landslides during heavy rains.
This very scenic road starts in a low, forested area and then rises and falls along mountain passes. The only way to travel on this road past mile marker 15 is via a national park service bus, with the exception of traveling into a campground near mile marker 30. If you are staying at that campground you are allowed to drive in, but then your car must remain at your campsite for the duration of your stay.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, we temporarily broke off from the Fantasy tour group in Fairbanks so that we could have a few extra days enjoying Denali. We spent 3 nights at the Savage River Campground in the park. It is located near mile marker (MM) 13, which is the area where anybody can drive their vehicle, and it is paved.
The campground is rustic and there are no services (no electric, water or dump station). Getting through the campground with our 40′ motorhome was challenging at times, mostly because the tree branches hung out into the road far enough to scrape along the motorhome. Very nerve-racking. All sites are first-come, first-served. When we finally found the one and only site that could possibly accommodate us we spent at least half an hour maneuvering into it. Once we finally got situated we took a breath and looked at our phenomenal surroundings. We were in the wilderness of Denali and LOVED it.
Less than a 1/4 mile from our site was a path leading to the Savage River and the flat lands surrounding it. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the area was. Here is an early morning shot.
The park was especially beautiful this year due to the unprecedented fireweed bloom. There were purple flowers everywhere.
Wildlife roam freely throughout the 6 million acre park and simply ignore the busses traveling along the road. At times, the busses have to come to a standstill and wait for the wildlife to mosey on out of their way, like this caribou.
There is no shortage of wildlife. We spotted numerous moose.
I didn’t spot any bull-moose in the park though. However, here’s a funny story. While we were staying at the Savage River Campground Charlie was outside fiddling with the motorhome when the people staying in the spot behind us ran over to him and said “Oh My Gosh, look what you just missed.” They showed him their cell phone picture of the biggest bull-moose they had ever seen in their life. It crossed the gravel road right behind Charlie. It was so quiet though that Charlie never knew it was there. Sadly, we never did find it after that.
We spotted numerous Caribou in the park.
I loved the antlers on this one.
These guys were just chillin’, watching the busses go by.
And this was my favorite. We never did see his body, only his antlers moving around.
I had quite a scare on one of the bus rides. The bus was cruising along a section of road that had tall bushes along the right side of the bus, where Charlie and I were sitting. We were in the last row and I was against the window. All of a sudden a caribou came running out of the bushes at full speed, heading directly for me. I jumped and squealed, as he was just feet away from his end of life, and maybe mine, or not. The caribou skidded on his hind legs, made a sharp 90 degree turn and just missed us. Whew!
We saw grizzly bears, including cute baby ones.
We saw many adorable arctic ground squirrels. This one was enjoying a snack.
We spotted a few Willow Ptarmigan (pronounced as tarmigan). The Ptarmigan is Alaska’s state bird. It stands 14-17 inches high and is a ground-dwelling bird. We frequently spotted them along the road and hiking paths. The Ptarmigan feathers are light brown in the summer but in the winter they turn white.
Since we are on the subject of birds, I’ll share a couple pictures of some cute fellas I spotted near our campground.
On our first full day at Denali we took a transit bus to Wonder Lake. There are two different busses which you can take. One being the Transit bus which lets you get off whenever you want to take a hike. The Tour bus is one which you stay on and the bus driver gives you information about the park, etc. There is no getting on or off, except for restroom breaks, which are only 10-15 minutes long.
The round trip transit bus ride to Wonder Lake, at MM 85, takes around 11 hours. Yes, 11 hours on an old school bus. We caught our bus at 5:45am right outside our campground. We had great weather; high clouds and temps in the low 60s. Between the awe-inspiring landscape and all the wildlife you see along the way, the bus ride goes by quickly, relatively speaking.
For our second full day at the park we decided to sign up for a Discovery Hike. This is a ranger-led hike with a maximum of 11 participants. They are called discovery hikes because the ranger gets to select a hiking area in the park that is off-trail and has not been selected by any other ranger that year more than once. Our hike was with a wonderfully energetic young red-headed lady named Cinnamon. She chose a hiking location around MM 53. We had some discoveries along our hike such as when we got to the top of the mountain and found that our path down the backside was fairly steep and rocky. As a group we decided we could handle it and actually had a fun time getting down. The scenery from the top of the mountain was spectacular. After getting down the hill we walked along the riverbed back to the park road. It seems that no matter where you are in the park you can always see the park road. That gave me a little comfort while hiking off-trail. We ended up hiking about 4 miles with an elevation gain of nearly 1,000 ft. We enjoyed it so much that we signed up for another one a few days later. Here are a few photos from our first hike.
In addition to our transit bus ride to Wonder Lake (MM 85) and our two discovery hikes (both near MM 53) we took a Tour Bus ride with the Fantasy group after they all arrived in Denali. As a side note, bus driving in the park appears to be a coveted job. Many of the drivers have been doing it for over 20 years. I guess the scenery and wildlife never get boring.
Below is a gallery of photos taken during our time in the park. Click on the first photo to enlarge it and begin a slide show.
On a clear day you can see Denali, North America’s tallest peak, as you travel along the park road. It is 20,310 feet tall. They say only about 20% of the visitors to Denali get the opportunity to see the mountain in its full glory. We were very fortunate in that we saw it numerous times during our stay. It is spectacular.
In addition to visiting the National Park we took a day trip along the Old Denali Highway. This is a 135 mile gravel road connecting Cantwell, AK to Paxson, AK. Much of the road lies above timberline so the views are phenomenal. We drove nearly 70 miles of the road beginning in Cantwell. We ended up at Alpine Lodge. This lodge is one of only a hand full of lodging places along the road. We dropped in and found that they offered a small lunch menu. As we ate lunch we chatted with a gentleman that helps out at the lodge and a young man that grew up there. We learned a bit about the area and life in the wilderness. After lunch we backtracked back to Cantwell. If you are ever in the area of Denali we highly recommend you take a side trip along the Old Denali Highway. It is one of the most scenic drives we’ve done.
Charlie captured some good photos with the drone.
…while I captured some photos with my camera.
Back on the Parks Highway we enjoyed dinner at a restaurant called 229Parks. Its name comes from the fact that it is located at MM 229 on Parks Hwy. There is not much around this restaurant and we almost passed it by.
We had heard that it was a great restaurant so we wanted to try it out, and we were not disappointed.
As a side note, getting around Alaska is pretty easy. There is generally one road to take from one populated city to the next. The George Parks Highway (generally referred to as simply the Parks Highway), runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks.
Aside from 3 nights at the Savage River Campground we also stayed at the Denali RV Park. That’s where we rejoined the Fantasy Tour Group.
That about sums up our stay in Denali. I can’t say enough good things about it! After Denali we headed down to Anchorage and then on to the Kenai Peninsula, which will be covered in my next post. Stay tuned……