Denali National Park is particularly concerned with preserving as much land as possible in a pristine wilderness condition. Consequently, there are only a handful of areas within the park boundaries that visitors are permitted to access, and across its 6 million acres there is just a single 92 mile-long road, only the first 15 miles of which are paved. Visitors can travel the road by means of the park bus service, there are a handful of campsites along the way, and a few lucky individuals can take a backcountry hike with a ranger each day.
Our first full day was taken up with a bus ride to the Eielson visitor center – 66 miles into the park, and an 8 hour round-trip. We were extremely lucky as our driver, Sandy, also works in environmental education and spent much of the journey telling us all kinds of interesting facts about the park’s history, its landscape and wildlife. Watching for animals kept us all amused for hours, and whenever anyone saw something (or thought they did) they’d yell “STOP” and everyone would pile across to the appropriate side and jockey for window space. In total, we spotted 7 bears (grizzly), 6 ptarmigan, 1 spruce grouse, 30-odd Dall sheep, 3 caribou (aka reindeer) a marmot, and squirrels both terrestrial and arboreal.
Weather-wise, it was the perfect day to be inside a bus – cold and grey but with reasonable visibility, although sadly a bank of localised clouds meant that we saw the foothills of Denali but not the summit.
Back at the visitor centre, with plenty of light left (darkness fell around 10:30 or 11pm) we went for a walk down to Horseshoe Lake, where we spotted a moose and a beaver.
Back at the cabin we decided to eat dinner at the Denali Salmon Bake – housed in a decidedly lopsided wooden structure, this local favourite is apparently famous for both its food and cocktails, so of course we had to sample some of both.
The following day (Wednesday 30th), it was time for an adventure – we were booked to experience the backcountry on foot on a Discovery Hike. The option we’d chosen involved hiking about 4 miles up and down a steep hill, with a 1900 ft elevation change. Our group of intrepid explorers (10 + ranger) bushwhacked through brush & forest, then across the tundra towards the summit.
Cool breezy conditions turned decidedly chilly as we ate our lunch on the top, so it was a relief to get back down to the tree line. Happily no bears were spotted, although (to Tom’s bizarre excitement) we did find some reasonably fresh scat.
On our travels we’d heard quite a bit about how important sled dogs still are for life in the wilderness, and the park keeps a whole pack of them so that rangers can patrol throughout the winter. During the summer they combine dog exercise with demonstrations for visitors, so on our last morning in Denali we decided to go and visit the kennel. Alaskan huskies aren’t a recognised breed per se, but are a somewhat mixed bag of wolfy-looking strength and stamina, and they love to run.
The road back to Palmer took us past both the Denali viewpoints again, and of course this time we stopped to peer into the mist without success. It rained most of the way – the first real rain of our trip, amazingly.
Pulling into Palmer we were a little concerned as our hotel looked like it had closed for the winter already, but it was still open and our room was waiting. With the Alaska state fair in full swing (of which more next time) the town centre was completely dead, so we found some dinner and called it a night.