Denali National Park – Would We Be Among the Lucky 30%

The drive from North Pole to Denali was a pretty good drive. The weather had finally improved to the point of needing sunglasses again. We had wanted to have some work done on the motorhome in Fairbanks, but we couldn’t get in until the next day so we just kept on going through Fairbanks. We drove the 128 miles to Denali with only a lunch stop along the way. When we arrived at the campground we had chosen just eight miles from the park entrance we got a pretty thorough briefing from the on duty work camper as to how to get the most out of our stay. Of course the primary goal of any visit to Denali National Park is to be able to actually see the mountains. Specifically to see Mt. McKinley or Denali, as is its proper name. We had driven in constantly improving skies, so we had high hopes.

As soon as we got the coach settled and the refrigerator back on we took off for the park. Denali National Park is huge. It covers some 6.2 million acres of pristine wilderness area. There is one road into the park and it is located to cause minimal impact on the environment. The road enters the park at the northeast corner and travels to the west and southwest some 89 miles. There is unrestricted travel for the just the first 15 miles of the road. Those 15 miles are paved with the exception of a short section fairly close to the entrance that was redesigned and rebuilt over the last two years. That section should get paved yet this summer. Our intent on this our first day in the park was to get to the first turnout where Mt. McKinley can be seen from the road and hope to be able to see it. Well, we got there and we could in fact see the mountain, but it was not easy. I took a couple of photos and am sharing them via my web album. Of course we wish we had gotten a better look, but you take what you get.

There are some eighteen or nineteen peaks in the park that rise above 10,000 feet. Among those giants are numerous other peaks of lesser grandeur. Due to this large mass of extremely high mountains, the park sort of generates its own weather systems. In the summer, as the moisture laden air from the west moves up the west face of the range, clouds form and on most days they create a shroud around the bulk of the range above about 10.000 feet. As a result only 30% of the visitors to Denali actually see the mountain.

After stopping to view the mountain we continued our drive to the end of the pavement at the Savage River Turnaround. This is the point at which travel is restricted to special permit holders and authorized government vehicles. At the turnaround parking area there is a trail that follows the Savage River for a couple of miles and then crosses the river and returns on the other side. We took that trail and were delighted to meet up with a family of Willow Ptarmigans. There were the mother, father and ten little ones all working their way up the river through the grass, grazing on the flowers as they traveled. We were really surprised at how close they came to us. Of course their courage led to many photographs, some of which will be in the web album that accompanies this article.

Having gotten to see Denali took a great load off our minds, as the forecast was for worsening skies over the balance of our stay in the area. That said, there are too many other things to see in Denali to get too broken up over the mountain being in the clouds. With that in mind, our next mission was to get reservations to go beyond the 15 mile mark in the park. When we returned to the entrance area we stopped at the Wilderness Access Office to make reservations for the shuttle bus for the following morning. We had intended to try to ride the bus the entire 89 miles, but there are only three buses each day that go the entire distance. The next shorter distance is 85 miles and there were several buses that made that journey. Our initial thought was that we would buy tickets for as long a ride as we could and then stop along the way at the various rest stops, do some exploring and then catch the next bus heading deeper into the park until we reached the end of our tickets. We would then ride back staying on the same bus all the way. The young lady selling tickets advised that we should definitely ride all the way to our tickets’ end point to ensure we got there and then hop scotch our way back down the road. So, with tickets in hand we headed back to our RV Park with a stop along the way for dinner as it was already pushing 8 PM.

We prepared as much as we could for an early departure the next morning before going to bed. While Connie showered in the morning I got things together to go into the car. While I showered Connie fixed us a fantastic lunch to pack into our day packs. By 6 AM we were on the road headed back to the park anticipating a great day. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was not being too cooperative as we traveled through drizzle and light rain all the way to the park. By the time our 6:45 AM bus loaded and got underway the rain had pretty much stopped and we were left with just a grey day. That said we saw some absolutely fantastic sights. One of the many things that I found so impressive was the fact that once we cleared the entrance area and the necessary infrastructure that is required to operate a park of this majestic size and beauty there are no fences and no power lines to obscure ones view. It was just wonderful.

As we traveled, Rich, our driver had a running commentary on what we were seeing. He stopped frequently and certainly whenever anyone yelled stop to view game. We were fortunate to see some 11 bears, untold numbers of Caribou and several moose during our day. One bull moose was particularly impressive in size and that he had chosen a pond close to the road as his dining room for the day was really neat. He had a huge rack of antlers and every time he pulled his head up off the bottom of the pond with a mouth full of grass he brought gallons of water cascading off those antlers. I got some great photos of this guy and am sharing them in the web album. I hope you can get the sense of the power this fellow displayed with every lift of his head.

The end of the road for our bus at mile 85 was Wonder Lake. The bus was to be there for about 30 minutes. The weather was not great and the mosquitoes were plentiful. As we got off the bus and started to explore a bit we realized that we need not wait for the next bus. We had plenty of time to see what we needed and get back on Rich’s bus. In fact, the stops we had made along the way going into the park turned out to be of sufficient length that we felt we did not need to stay at any of them on the way out. In the end we were happy with that decision as we were both exhausted by the time we got back to the starting point. We had a great day and saw plenty of wildlife including Dall Sheep, Arctic Ground Squirrel, Moose, Caribou and Grizzly Bear. We saw several bird species and Rich was kind enough to even stop for bird sightings when it was safe to do so.

We slept well that night I can assure you.

The next day we took a little side trip along the Denali Highway away from the park. The Denali Highway connects the George Parks Highway (the north/south highway along the eastern edge of Denali National Park) and Alaska Highway 4 which is the north/south highway from Delta Junction to Valdez. Running roughly east and west the highway runs along the southern extreme of the Alaska Range and it is a gravel road. So, why were we on it? We had read that the first 40 miles or so from the western end was supposed to be great bird watching country. So, we packed another lunch and off we went. 40 miles at an average of seven or eight miles per hour can take its toll on a person. Frustrating the drive was the few numbers of birds we actually heard or saw. One of the problems we have encountered with trying to bird in Alaska is the vast areas of appropriate habitat make it very difficult to have birds in any small scale area where they can be easily observed. I really think a person could do better by setting out a lawn chair at some point and see what flies by in the course of a day. With the birds moving and us moving it seems the odds of running into birds goes down. We have seen hundreds of ponds and lakes that in most places in the lower 48 would be covered in ducks and grebes with several species of shore birds along the banks. Up here we seem lucky to see one species on such a body of water. Most times the numbers of birds within the one or two species is also very small. Therefore, on days we have dedicated to bird watching we have generally exhausted ourselves for seemingly small numbers of birds.

Our day along the Denali Highway was a great example of that frustration. I recorded only 14 species in a very long day of birding. However, we were fortunate to see our first Bohemian Waxwing on this drive. That nearly made up for all those miles of driving.

On our final day in the Denali area we went back into the park to the visitor center. We spent several hours inside the visitor center studying the displays and learning more about the park. It was really worth all that time and more. As I said earlier, although Mt. McKinley is the main attraction to the park for most people, there is so much more to see and enjoy while there. So, regardless of the weather and the viewing conditions for the mountain, Denali National Park is a must stop for any visit to the interior of Alaska.

As promised this offering is a little shorter than most have been during our Alaskan adventure. Our next stop is the Anchorage area. While you wait for that chapter to come out, enjoy the photos that I have included in my web album. Remember, click on the photo that appears below and you will be whisked away to my web album. Once you are done with the album, simply click on your web browser’s back button as many times as it takes to get you back here. Enjoy!

Denali National Park and Views from the Denali Highway



1 thought on “Denali National Park – Would We Be Among the Lucky 30%”

  1. The photos just take my breath away! I think Denali will be the highlight of your travels in the years ahead. Frank, aren’t you happy that you retired now, rather than make these travels when you are older?

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