Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Our plan was to stay near Denali National Park and Preserve for as long as we needed to in order to view the mountain. Of course, we also wanted to see as much wildlife as possible. We had a reservation in the park for five days and had two unscheduled days between leaving Fairbanks and then. We did this because we had mail sent and weren't sure how long it would take. Good news, the US Postal Service came through in three days. We knew we would encounter road construction, or reconstruction as they call it here, so we covered the CRV to protect it from flying stones. Good thing we did, as we encountered several miles of reconstruction gravel on the Parks Highway. We spent those unscheduled two days in Healy, just up the road from the park campground so we had one of our shortest travel days ever, nine miles, the day we moved into Denali.
Here is what they mean by highway reconstruction dodging heavy equipment while driving on gravel.
In Healy we checked out the 49th State Brewery which was very good. Out front they have the bus from the movie, Into the Wild, that was based on the book by John Krakauer.  It is a great read about a young man who wanted to live in the Alaska wilderness.  I will not tell you how it ended.

The park was established in 1917 as McKinley National Park, in honor of the Ohio senator and US President. The native Athabascans of Alaska had always called the mountain Denali,"the great one". The park was originally intended as a preserve to protect the Dall sheep from over hunting. In 1980 President Carter tripled the size of the park and renamed it Denali, though the official name of the mountain is still McKinley. Denali is a wilderness park so public vehicles, with a few exceptions, are only permitted to drive the first 15 miles of the 92 mile park road. All access to the interior is by foot, on bicycles or the park buses. There are only 17 miles of developed trails within the six million acre park.
As I said, we really wanted to see “the mountain.” Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America. When we were leaving the 49th State Brew Pub it was clearing a bit so we drove into the park and this is what we saw, just enough to tease us. Remember only 30% of Denali visitors ever see it at all.
The next morning we drove the nine miles to Riley Creek Campground in Denali under skies that were more sunny than cloudy. So as soon as we were set up in a spot we drove out to the same viewing stop again and sure enough we could see both the north and south peaks.  The view is over 70 miles away but still impressive.
On Friday we had a reservation to take the eleven hour shuttle bus trip to Wonder Lake, 85 miles inside the park. It has the closest view of the mountain in the park. We opted for the shuttle bus rather than a tour because it is much less expensive and you have the option of getting off and catching a later bus if you choose. We awoke to overcast skies and dim prospects of getting a closer view of the mountain but still hoping to see the wildlife. Not two minutes into the trip we saw this moose along the road. The first of the big five wild animals we were hoping to see.  Next we saw number two of the big five, a wolf. Unfortunately, I was not quick enough to get a picture before it ran into the woods.
A bit farther into the wilderness we saw number three, this group of Dall sheep high on the mountain. They are the nine small white dots. You can click on the picture to enlarge it.
Later we got up close with more Dall sheep.
And more.
And the two of them together.  It sure was great getting a real up close look at these majestic animals.
Not all the wildlife was part of the big five. This is the Alaska state bird, the ptarmigan. The ptarmigans are one of only a few birds that are in the park year round. In the winter their feathers turn white.
Then number four of the big five, the caribou. We saw several groups of them grazing on the tundra vegetation.
Their new racks are still in velvet. They had a rack at the visitors center you could pick up. I could not believe how heavy they are .
The road going over Polychrome pass was very steep and narrow. They call it Poison Pass, because one drop will kill you. At the top of the pass the view of the old glacial moraines and mountains is beautiful.
The clouds began to clear a bit and we were treated to an even closer look at the mountain. It is amazing how it dominates the sky.
More wildlife, a snowshoe hare, with its summer coat. They are another animal that turns white in the winter.
Someone on the bus yelled stop and we got to watch this red fox stalking some prey. All the animals seem like the buses have no affect on their behavior.  The guide asked that everyone be very quiet when we stopped to see the animals so they do not associate the bus with humans.
Another even closer look at the great one. We were now close enough that I did not need to use my telephoto lens.
By the time we arrived at Eielson Visitor Center clouds were beginning to cover the top of the mountain. We had had our best look and it was wonderful, especially when you realize that only 30% of visitors ever see it and we saw it three days in a row. WOW!!!
Since I did not get a picture of the wolf I had to settle for this one at the visitor center.
These Arctic ground squirrels are everywhere. They are always begging for food and the park service really does its best to let people know that a fed animal is a dead animal. They will not make it through the winter if they become dependent on humans feeding them.
While we had great views of the mountains, much of the park road is across the open tundra. This far north the tree line is about 2700 feet, so it is great for seeing animals.
Another moose with now cloud covered Denali in the background. This was near Wonder Lake so we did not get that close up view, but it is still beautiful.
Finally, number five of the big five, the grizzly.  This mother and two cubs were on a kill so they had been in the same place for a couple of days.  They are beautiful animals.
The same family in the same spot on the return trip, still eating and protecting their kill.
And then, just down the road from the mom and her cubs, this bear casually walked down the road past the bus and into the woods.
We were just a few feet away and the bear did not react to our presence.  

The trip into the wilderness was fantastic.  We saw the mountain and all the animals we had hoped to see.  It was a long but very rewarding day that we would recommend to all.

1 comment:

John and Pam (ohtheplacestheygo.wordpress.com) said...

Wow!! I love all the wildlife. Great photos:) The snow covered mountains are just gorgeous.