After spending our 18th day of our roadtrip travelling the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle, we arrived late at Denali National Park. We had reserved a campground spot at the park for only $11.00. The rain had stopped but the wind was horrible. It was the last week that Denali was open for the 2017 season, so the campground was not crowded. However, trying to find a level spot in the dark was not easy. We settled on one and went to bed as it had been a long 18 hour day.
We were up at 6:00am the next morning. The 19th day of our trip was going to be spent in Denali National Park. To travel the entire 92 miles of the park road to Kantishna, you must be on a tour. Private vehicles are not allowed past Savage River at mile 15. We arrived at the Wilderness Activity Center or WAC at 7:00am.
We had grabbed some snacks and drinks, as we thought it was an 8 hour tour. We boarded the bus and found a cooler on each seat, with snacks, drinks, and lunch.
Our driver, Dana, announces that she will be our tour guide for the next 11 hours. Wow, no wonder they give you lunch.
We left the WAC and drove towards the park entrance. We stopped for an orientation from the ranger about the park rules and then we had a moose run past the bus.
The landscape of Denali is dominated by boreal forests, which are around the world at this latititude. Where there are no trees, is is very barren, dominated by glacial fed rivers.
Along the way to our first restroom stop, Dana, gave the history of the park. Denali was made a park in 1917, 6 months after the National Parks system was established. It was originally called Mount McKinley National Park and was 2 million acres. In 1932, it was expanded to include the Wonder Lake area and expanded again in 1980 to its present 6 million acres. Much of the infrastructure was built by the Conservation Corp in the 1930s. It is the only National Park to have sled dog teams. These are used to patrol the park in the winter months. Snowmobiles are not allowed in the park. It is a very eco-park, as we could only eat on the bus, and there was to be no talking within 100 yards of wildlife. At our first “rest stop” Jim got out and cleaned the bus window so that we could take pictures!!!
Our bus was equipped with a video camera that would project the image onto the screens in the bus. When a passenger spotted an animal, Dana would stop the bus, focus the camera on the animal and then everyone could easily watch when the animals were far away. These are Dall sheep.
The valley of Denali used to be covered in glaciers. It is now covered in glacial ribbon deposits, called braided rivers.
On the way to the Eielson Visitor Center we also saw Grizzly bears. Jerie was the first person on the bus to spot them.
We were close to the bears, so were able to get some pictures of our own of the Mama and her 2 cubs. They had put on a nice layer of fat for the winter.
Denali currently has 2500 Dall sheep , 2700 caribou, 2000 moose, 300 grizzlies, and 70 wolves. It also contains a large population of birds. We were able to see 2 Gyrfalcons, which we were told is a rare sighting.
There are no Bald Eagles in the park as there are no salmon.As we continued up the valley, the landscape changed to low shrubs. Denali receives 15 inches of water from 80 inches of snow. It is a dry area, due to the surrounding mountains, as most of the snow falls to the south of the Alaska range.
When it comes to tourism, Denali has been an evolving project. The park was originally set aside, to protect the Dall Sheep from the expansion of mining operations that were and still are in the area. With the completion of the Alaska railroad in 1921, tourists had an easier trip in getting to the park. The first tours were on horseback, then by touring cars. The modern highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks was completed in 1972 and not wanting private vehicles inside the park, a shuttle bus system was introduced. This allows park officials to control the number of visitors, as you have to be on a scheduled tour to see most of the park and to have a close up view on Mount Denali.
The park has a 110 day summer season. It receives 500,000 visitors annually and there are 10,500 vehicles allowed on the park road. This is mostly from the shuttle buses. There is one RV park at mile 30. It is a 3 day stay. Once in the park you will need to take the shuttle bus system. There is no driving in and out.
The Eielson Visitor’s Center which was built to the platinum level of National Park environmental standards. This keeps in the tradition of the enviromental nature of the park management.
The center has numerous displays about Mount Denali. Originally the mountain was called Mount McKinley after the US president from Ohio who was assassinated. McKinley was chose as he had favored the gold standard of commerce to back the US dollar and gold mining was a large part of the Alaska economy. However, the mountain is considered sacred to the nearby Athabasca Indians. So what ensued was a century long political struggle to change the name to Denali, which means high or great one.
Many of the displays centered on the weather. Mount Denali is hard to see as it is shrouded in clouds most of the time. There is even a place you stand and look out the window towards the mountain and the image is drawn on the window so you can imagine on cloudy days, where the mountain should be.
We did our best to catch a view at the visitor’s center.
Even though we couldn’t see the mountain, we enjoyed the scenery. If you are on the hop on hop off shuttle bus, rather than a tour, this would be an excellent place to stop as there are several short trails.
After eating our provided lunch, which included canned water, as cans are better for the environment than plastic, the bus continued toward Wonder Lake. We kept hoping that the clouds would clear, but it was only the bottom half, but still impressive.
A group of Willow ptarmigans walked along side the road. This is the state bird of Alaska and is from the grouse family.
Next we saw a 2 caribou. Dana took the opportunity to give us a biology lesson. Caribou give birth around May 10th. Wolves and grizzlies congregate in the calving area, waiting for their opportunity. Only 1 out of every 5 calves reaches it’s first birthday. The caribou form large groups around the calves to try to protect them. By the end of the summer, these groups have become smaller as the calves do not need as much protection. The males go into rut in the fall and mating occurs. In the summer they eat the grass and in the winter they survive on lichen.
Occasionally the sun would peek through and give us a different look at the surrounding landscape.
We reached the Wonder Lake Ranger station were we picked up Jake, a seasonal ranger who lives here for the summer.
He had us take a short hike through the lichen, so that we could experience it. It was dry but squishy, and bounced back. Like a memory mattress.
We had a lady on our tour, who didn’t take pictures, but sketched the scenery.
Jake then told us that there was a gold discovery in 1903 at Kantishna, with a gold rush in 1905. This brought about the development of a rough road to bring the gold out. It also sparked the interest of conservationist Charles Sheldon, who pushed for the idea of a national park. A portion of Mount McKinley(Denali) excluding its summit was included in the original park boundaries. The mines were grandfathered under the 1980 expansion as well as the homestead sites. You can drive to Kantishna with a special permit, if you have a homestead or are a guest at the bed and breakfast lodges that were also grandfathered. However, there is no road access in the winter.
After our hike we re-boarded the bus, driving through Eureka and Friday Creeks on a slab roadway. We ended at the official end of the road.
Nearby was a back-country airfield. We laughed at the caution sign, until we heard a plane come zooming down the runway.
He took us to the last cabin of Fanny Quigley. She was one of the original homesteaders.
She was a tough lady, both physically and mentally.
Being under 5 feet tall, everything in her home was built at a lower height. She was one of the main reasons that the Kantishna area was populated by homesteaders.
There were several interesting informational boards…
It had been a great history lesson on the area of Kantishna. With all passengers on board, we headed back to the park entrance. The clouds had lifted a bit and we got some more views of the “bottom” of Mount Denali.
The mountain has 2 peaks, the north is 19470 feet high, the south is 20310 feet high. The first people to officially climb the mountain were Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal priest. Mr. Karstens, would later become the first superintendent of Denali National Park. The glacier between the 2 peaks is named Harper Glacier. Once they reached the top, they planted a pole with a small hand-sewn American flag. The pole had been carved with the following inscription, “the sign of our redemption, high above North America”. They also erected a six-foot high cross.
The road had some pretty steep drop offs….
On the way back we saw a very chubby bear. The official tally for the day we saw, 11 bears, 4 caribou, a bull moose, a beaver, a group of ptarmigans, a Gyrfalcon, Dall sheep, and a red squirrel. Jim and Jerie had spotted most of the wildlife. Dana said that it was the most wildlife that had been spotted all summer on one of her tours. She jokingly asked Jerie if she wanted a job next summer.
We stopped at Polychrome Pass and hiked the short trail to the top for a view of the valley. The wind was howling on the top!!!
It had been a very good day in Denali. Lots of wildlife, landscape, and history. It would have been nice to see the top of the mountain, but we were just glad to see the bottom, because some people come and don’t see anything. We took our final pictures…
We stopped briefly to boil water for one of one dehydrated meals. We would be driving through the night to Anchorage. We had a 7:00am flight to Barrow-The top of the World!!! More adventure awaits…