A Big Post For A Big Park

I managed to keep a daily journal of our activities in Denali National Park. As a tribute to the vastness of the park and the mountain, I present the entire journal as one mega-post. This is our story.

Denali Day 1
Aug 2, 2012
Mostly Cloudy, Occasional Light Rain

Today is the day we finally head into the park. We get an early start with the hopes of getting a better spot in the campground. Before hitting the road we head over to the camp Mercantile to secure firewood and ice, and to pay for showers (our last real showers for a week).

Then its over to the dump station to flush our waste tanks and fill up with fresh water. We have a minor mishap while flushing out the black tank as both Reen and I lose our concentration and let the tank fill up a little too high causing some splash out and allowing some “stuff” to get places where it shouldn’t be. A little extra cleanup work and we’re back on track. We take our showers and then reform the caravan for the drive in.

We’re staying at the Teklanika campground which is about a 30 mile drive in. Even though much of the road is unpaved, it is pretty smooth and the drive is mostly uneventful. We even stop to see a moose and some caribou on the way. We find two nice campsites across from one another and set up for the long haul. The rest of the day is spent relaxing, exploring, and enjoying another birthday cake, this time for Brian and Will’s friend Paul.

We are disappointed to hear that the mountain is not visible from this campground, regardless of weather.

Moose spied on our drive to the campground. This poor guy seems to have an antler issue. The antler on his left side is actually hanging downward.

A few caribou decided to commandeer the road causing a little bit of a backup.

A nice vista through the windshield.

We make it to the campground.

Denali Day 2
Aug 3, 2012
Overcast, with rain, sleet, and snow!

On our first full day in the park, we head out on our reserved bus tour. We’re up early (for us) and on the bus by 9am. Our destination is the Eielson Visitor Center, a six hour round trip, with the intention of doing some hiking there. As we start out there is a light drizzle.

The bus is more comfortable than expected, and the ride goes pretty quickly, save for an annoying old guy in the seat behind us who just wants to talk. The road is quite precarious in places, especially with buses coming the other way, but our bus driver seems up to the task.

After a few stops along the way, we arrive at the visitor center for lunch. By this time a constant rain is falling. After lunch, we deliberate whether or not to hike in the rain, and decide to go for it. The hike we planned, to a nearby alpine peak, turns out to be shorter than expected, about a mile each way and up about 1000 ft. We start at the visitor center in the cold rain and end at the top in the colder sleet/snow.

After returning and warming up a bit in the visitor center and talking to the ranger about future hikes, we head out to the miserably cranky bus coordinator. He’s no help but our timing is good and we are able to get on the first bus leaving. This gets us back to camp around 5pm for a warm dinner and early bed.

Although we had no mountain sightings today, the bus rides did not disappoint in the wildlife department. We saw moose, grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, a falcon, and a coyote. Not bad for one day.

Reen and I at the top of our hike. We don’t look cold at all now, do we.

Our first bear sighting!

Another bear sighting.

Herd of caribou.

Sheep, very far away. Without the zoom, these would be white dots.

Coyote posing for everyone on the bus to get his picture.

View from Polychrome Pass.

Denali Day 3
Aug 4, 2012
Overcast, with occasional drizzle.

Today we’re signed up for a ranger led discovery hike. There is a special bus assigned which we pick up around 9:30am. We’re a bit dismayed to discover that our “favorite” annoying old guy from yesterday and his non-wife are going to be our hiking companions. We get Cindy who is the world’s friendliest bus driver; she had given Paul a personalized tour to Wonder Lake and back yesterday. She’s so popular, at one point on our ride we stop next to another bus and that driver hands Cindy a bag of cookies!

We pick up ranger Monica in about an hour or so at the Toklat rest stop (many of the rangers live nearby) and continue another half hour toward our destination, which is a river bed. Our hike takes us down the river bed and then about 1000 feet up a nearby mountain. We don’t get as high as we could due to an excessive amount of fog/mist up on the mountain. We learn lots of interesting information about the geology, flora, and fauna of Denali, most of which I have already forgotten. We learn even more about the lives of the annoying couple who wont stop talking which I wish I could forget as easily.

Still no sightings of the mountain. And still more sightings of wildlife. On the bus we see more grizzlies, caribou, sheep, and moose, as well as a fox. On the hike we got a close up of a hoary marmot and watched a bunch of very fat ground squirrels frolic amongst themselves.

View from the hike.

This marmot was waiting for us at the top. He never mover from that rock, just stared at us until we left.

A moose climbing up a hill rather quickly.

Some caribou grazing among the tall plants.

Bear with very brown legs roaming the braided river.

A bear two-fer!

Fox on a ridge running alongside the road.

Denali Day 4
Aug 5, 2012
Partly cloudy, with occasional light drizzle.

Today started out just like the previous days, we got up early and hopped a bus to head further into the park. We planned to hike Geode Mountain. However, since there looked like a chance of clearer weather, we chose to stay on the bus out to Eileson Visitor Center to gamble on seeing the mountain. We didn’t have as many wildlife sightings as on previous days, but the ones we did see were the best so far. We had two up close bear sightings, and one included a National Geographic worthy scene of a bear digging out and eating a ground squirrel.

As it turns out, we were too late to see the mountain. The upper parts had been visible earlier in the morning, but the clouds moved in before we got there. Tomorrow is another day.

It was too late to head back to Geode Mountain and get in a decent hike, so we headed up the same trail we did on day 1. This time, however, we continued off trail about another 3 miles up the ridge to another peak about 1100 feet higher. With much nicer weather today, we experienced some breathtaking views of the park on the way up. Reen and I also adopted a ptarmigan for part of the journey.

The high point of our hike was marked with a group of antennae. We took a break for snacks, but that was cut short by some fog moving in and some light rain/sleet/snow. The weather slowly improved as we continued down the ridge looking for a good route down the mountain. Then we got another close wildlife encounter with some sheep. Close enough for some great pictures but not so close as to spook them.

At this point, it was getting late, and without a known route down, we started to get concerned about catching a bus in time to get back to camp before 8. We considered continuing on for some gentler slopes down or heading back out the way we came, but in the end pretty much just slid straight down the scree on the side of the mountain. It looked pretty steep from the top but turned out to be relatively easy to “ski” down the gravel and small rocks. And fast too.

We got lucky and were able to flag down a bus just as we reached the road and managed to get back to camp around 6pm for some much needed generator time to recharge our batteries. And of course our favorite couple just happened to be on that bus as well. We cannot escape them; I believe they may have planted a tracking device on one of us. It’s a good thing they are leaving tomorrow, because some of our party (who shall remain nameless) are beginning to consider setting fire to their tent.

We have a nice dinner and manage to catch the ranger presentation on wolves (summary: wolves are great), before heading in for an early bed.

Another bear from the bus, this time less than 50 feet away.

This bear has just dug up a ground squirrel from its hole and is chomping down on it. He was just above eye level from the bus windows.

Big views from the hike.

Our friend the ptarmigan. We accidentally rousted this guy from under a snow cave, and he tagged along with us for quite a while thereafter.

Dall sheep lounging about. He had three other friends with him.

Here we are on Thorofare Ridge.

There was even a rainbow!

View of the slope we “hiked” down. Its about 1000 feet high. We came down in that crease.

That’s us going down the slope.

Woo hoo, we made it to the flatter grassy area. Now we only have to worry about bears between us and the road.

Denali Day 5
Aug 6, 2012
Partly sunny.

We had learned earlier in the week that today was expected to have the best weather. We expected this day to be our last and best chance to see the mountain, so we decided to devote the entire day to this one goal.

We wake up around 5am in order to catch the first bus out. The morning (till around 10am) is usually the clearest part of the day and only the first two buses get to the viewing areas in time. We are first in line at the bus stop, just barely beating an entire troop of boy scouts. We finally catch our first break as there are exactly 4 free seats available on the bus when it arrives.

The morning is still overcast but there are signs of light in the sky as we move westward toward the visitor center. Then it happened. At about 2 hours in we caught our first real glimpse of the mountain, almost all the way to the top. From there to the visitor center the view just kept on getting better and better. At the final overlook before the visitor center we got the million dollar view. It took 8 years and 8000 miles to get, and we were not disappointed. It is one damn nice hunk of rock and ice. I think we all breathed quite a sigh of relief knowing that we would not have to leave without experiencing the mountain.

We stayed on the bus another 20 or so miles beyond the visitor center all the way to Wonder Lake. This part of the road can provide almost uninterrupted mountain viewing but as the morning grew long, the clouds started forming around the mountain and it once again disappeared out of existence; the only downside to an otherwise perfect morning.

Once again the bus trip provided ample wildlife viewing opportunities. We saw a golden eagle for the first time on this trip. And we got even closer views of bears than yesterday, which nobody thought would be possible. But today, the bears (and caribou) were intent on traveling directly on the roads. One bear was literally brushing up against the bus as he walked by.

We ended the day by going to a ranger presentation on the dog sled teams used by the park for all winter transportation within the park, and by enjoying a wild blueberry cobbler Brian made for dessert from blueberries he had picked today at Wonder Lake and the areas around the campground. Yum!

Here’s are very first decent view of Denali from the road.

At long last, the mountain in its entirety!

And just to prove we were there…

One last view from the Eielson Visitor Center. The clouds are filling in.

Extreme bear closeup. This guy walked right alongside the bus.

Caribou close through the bus windshield.

Denali Day 6
Aug 7, 2012
Cloudy and Rainy

After 5 days of early wakeup calls, and expecting bad weather, Reen and I decided to take a day off and hang around the campground for a relaxing day. We had a nice egg breakfast to start the day. Reen did some sewing while I read most of the morning and took apart our once again leaking water pump.

After lunch, we went blueberry picking at a blueberry patch near the campground that Brian discovered last night. We had a little trouble finding it, but eventually did and returned to the camper a couple of hours later with about 4 cups of wild blueberries.

I made some pizza for dinner which came out pretty good and then it was our turn to host the blueberry cobbler dessert party.

No pictures, it was the photographers day off.

Denali Day 7
Aug. 8, 2012
Partly Cloudy

For our last full day in Denali, we are signed up for another ranger led discovery hike, this time to Cathedral Mountain. After last night’s heavy rain we are thankful to see some blue sky when the alarm goes off. The hike starts only 8 miles out on the bus, so we get to spend most of the day hiking instead of riding for a change. We enjoy a nice 5 mile, 1600 ft elevation gain hike with ranger Kimber and are back at the camper around 3pm.

We spend our last afternoon, relaxing and prepping for breaking camp tomorrow. After a leisurely dinner, we all share s’mores around the campfire before heading off to bed.

Since we did not spend much time on the bus our wildlife sightings today were limited to some squirrels on the hike, and one lone caribou on a mountain ridge someone spotted while we waited on the road for a bus back to camp after the hike.

Reen’s favorite view picture from the hike.

Our hiking party. From left to right: Colorado Guy, Charlotte who works at the Toklat book store, Will, Ranger Kimber, Me, Brian, off duty Ranger Brian, and Reen(behind the camera).

Will, Me and Reen at the highest point we hiked to.

Here’s the lone caribou.

And the squirrel.

Denali Day 8
Aug. 9 2012

Today is the day we leave our campground in Denali Park. We wake up on the early side and Reen notices that it is an unexpected sunny day! While we are happy to see the sun, we are sad not to have this day to enjoy the park, especially knowing that the mountain is likely completely visible. Reen has been reading a book all about the park and discovers there is a lookout point on the road out where the mountain can be viewed. So we decide to pack up as fast as possible and head out to the lookout for a last mountain viewing. We get there around 9am and there was plenty of room to park so we set up our chairs for some relaxed mountain viewing. Brian and Will, who had more packing up to do, showed up about a half hour later.

We had some pretty good views for a couple of hours. We weren’t in a rush to get out, and the park staff didn’t seem to mind, so we decided to hang out for what turned out to be most of the day. In addition to seeing the mountain, we watched a distant bear for a while, went for a nice hike on a nearby peak, and picked more wild blueberries. We looked so at home there that whenever a park bus stopped and let visitors off, they all wanted to apologize for disturbing us! Most would not even walk in front of our chairs until we prodded them.

We finally make it out of the park around 4pm, stopping at the entrance to flush our tanks and eat some ice cream. We decide to stick around for two more nights to explore some areas of the park near the entrance that we did not have time to visit on the way in. So, we pulled into an RV park about 10 minutes north of the park. After relaxing a bit, we end the day with a nice meal at the 49th State Brew Pub in the nearby town of Healy.

Relaxing at the overlook like we own the place.

Our last view of the mountain.

Our last picture in front of the mountain. What is up with my hair? I hope there is a barber in Fairbanks.

Maureen doing some yoga on our hike.

On the final drive out we crossed paths with a rather interesting caribou. Initially he was off in the brush so motionless for so long, we thought maybe he was fake. Then he suddenly got very agitated, frequently shaking his head in a violent manner. He started darting around erratically and ended up in the middle of the road as you can see. About 15 seconds later he bolted up the side of the road right alongside our car. It was so fast we barely had time to turn around to watch the blur. Good thing too, because if Reen had been leaning out the window, she’d probably be wearing those antlers now.

Denali Bonus Day
Aug. 10 2012
Sunny, then cloudy, then rainy.

We spent our bonus day going back to the park entrance area. Most visitors to the park never get beyond this point. We visited the park’s science center, went back to the main visitor center, and did some souvenir shopping.

In the afternoon, we took a short bus ride out to the park’s sled dog kennels for a program. We got to pet the dogs and then listened to a ranger talk followed by a live sled demonstration. Those dogs love to run! In the winter, the dog teams provide the only ranger transportation into the park; they do not use powered snow machines. In some cases, the trip to the end of the park road can take a couple of weeks to complete. The teams literally log 1000’s of miles each winter season in minus 20-30 degree temperatures.

We had planned to walk back to the visitor center, but it started to rain and we ended up back on the bus. Before leaving the park, we drove back in toward the kennels to view some of the oldest remaining park buildings, now used for the park headquarters and supporting offices.

The dogs are resting with water and treats after their demonstration run.

Some of the older park buildings.

3 thoughts on “A Big Post For A Big Park

  1. Thank you for sharing your adventure. The views are beautiful. This made for great reading while having my morning coffee.

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