One of the first things we wanted to do when we arrived in Alaska was to take an early season day trip up to Denali National Park before the crush of summer tourists arrived. It turned out to be a bit of a comedy of assumption errors on our part, pretty wet and cold, and a long day in the car. Overall though, it was an appetite stimulant for many more future trips to this epic place!
The farthest north in Alaska we had been on trips prior to moving here was Talkeetna, which is about an hour from where we live. Anxious to hit the open road and go further, we started the road trip at 6 a.m. with Jeff and I plus 3 sleepy kids. Our plan was simple: Drive to Denali (the park only looked about 2 1/2 hours away), go through the park, take pictures, eat lunch, and be back by evening. Clean, no worries.
Except this is Alaska, and lesson 231 I’ve learned is throw out the rule book that applied to the Lower 48 parks and research before you go!
Undeterred, we headed north on Alaska Hwy 3 (Parks Highway) with treats, camera, binoculars, and clothing layers in hand. The drive was beautiful, even in the rain. Just like we hoped for, we had the road pretty much to ourselves.
About an hour into the drive, we spotted our first big animal of the day. A small black bear wandered out of the forest and onto the road about 20 yards in front of our car. He ran so quickly into the bush on the other side, I couldn’t get a camera shot of him, but it was an exciting wake up call for us all.
The journey winds through thick forests up to Denali State Park. We knew that Mt. McKinley was lurking behind the clouds, but that there was little chance of catching a glimpse of North America’s tallest peak on a rainy day. (Denali is notoriously shy even when it’s sunny around it. It’s tall enough to generate it’s own weather.) We stopped and took a couple of pictures before heading up the road…the national park entrance had to be somewhere around here!
Almost to Fairbanks
As we gained altitude, the scenery changed from thick forest to tundra. The brown vegetation, ice on some lakes, and a little snow here and there revealed that this far into Alaska, full break up (spring) was still a ways away. I enjoyed the changing scenery immensely…Alaska is a wild, vast place beyond anything you’ve ever dreamed!
After about 3 1/2 hours of driving, we reached Cantwell to purchase “keep the kids quiet” snacks. Big tip, buy these in a larger town like Wasilla or Fairbanks, (which we had done, but they were gone) before you go so you don’t end up paying $14 for a package of licorice and a bag of pretzel mix!
A half hour later, and we were at the park entrance, closer to Fairbanks (120 miles) than we were from home (200 miles). We stopped at the visitors center to sort a few things out, get the pass, a map, and tour the center highlights.
There’s one road into and out of Denali…and…you can’t drive your personal cars past mile marker 15. Wait, what? What happened to driving the big loop like Yellowstone or Grand Canyon. Mile 15 is the end of the line for personal vehicles, unless you are going to camp or you win the September lottery for private cars (more on that in another post). You have to take a bus tour if you want to head further into the park! That’s good to know before you get there.
A visit with the park ranger confirmed the über protected nature of this particular national park. Unlike other national parks (where I’ve often felt like I’m in a cattle herd), Denali is wild, and we are definitely guests in this ecosystem. The park’s goal is to manage the tourists not the wildlife and I respect that and appreciate it! This is after all their home and we are the intruders.
That being said, we didn’t want to pay the $150 for the bus ride to the end of the road, and decided to just head up to mile 15 and hike around. Besides, the park was not crowded and we had been in the car for a while now so a bus ride was not happening.
At around mile 14, we saw several cars pulled over with people out glassing. That’s a good tip there is something there. Sure enough, there was a sow grizzly and what looked like a 2-year-old cub grazing about 1/3 mile off the road. Are you kidding me? How absolutely cool is that! Big bucket list check off!
After about 20 minutes (I could have stayed all day), the natives got restless so we headed up to Savage River Trailhead and mile marker 15. We walked up the trail for 1/2 mile and found some caribou about 400 yards off, which was our first Alaska siting of these since moving here, and Dall sheep way up high on the cliffs. Just a note, when Denali was originally established it was to protect these sheep from over hunting.
We kept our eyes open while hiking for a park ranger verified rumor of a sow with 4 cubs, but weren’t lucky enough to see them. Maybe next time. On the drive out of the park, we saw a moose on a hillside. We see many moose where we live, but I love moose, and it was kind of a great finish to a pretty impressive animal viewing day.
Animal count for first Denali trip: 2 grizzlies, 1 black bear, 4 caribou, 1 moose, and 5 Dall sheep…Not Bad At All!
Long day, but worth it!
The whole day trip took us about 13 hours from Wasilla with 8 of those hours spent on the road, 4 hours in the park, and 1 hour eating dinner in Talkeetna. While it was doable in a day, of course it didn’t even scratch the surface. The lessons we learned will be valuable for future trips there and only reaffirm my first lesson on Alaska: Never assume anything!
Every been to Denali National Park? What did you see…