June 12, 2013 – Denali National Park
I made the mistake this morning of drinking WAY too much coffee. I drank a cup during breakfast, and filled my thermos to the brim in an attempt to wake up for the 6:00 am start to our 14-hour tour into Denali National Park and back. Unfortunately we ended up waiting for some stragglers and made a few more stops to other lodges to pick up more passengers, and by the time we ended up entering the park, I needed a restroom. Badly. I ended up having get off the bus at the ranger’s station, making the bus wait a little longer than expected. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. After I went, a handful of others realized it was probably a good idea to make a pit stop before we started our journey as well. I may have made us a bit later, but boy was I glad I spoke up. The next rest stop was about 45 minutes into the park (a warning to those who like to keep hydrated—or drink coffee—and want to do this tour!).
Denali National Park is closed for all private vehicles. You must reserve a spot on either a Park Service bus or a bus from one of the lodges found at the very end of the road in the park. The Park Service bus only do half day tours (the turn around at mile 62), while the lodge buses take passengers the full 92 miles into the park to their accommodations for a buffet lunch and activities. We figured, hey, this is the only way to get as many views as possible and explore the park, we might as well go all the way! And it was worth it.
Mt. McKinley (its original name, Denali, means “The High or Great One” in Athabascan) is 20,320 feet tall and 10,000 feet across. It is only visible 20 percent of the time because of weather and is actually best-seen in the winter when the park is closed. Even if weather is good in the park, the mountain itself has its own weather patterns, and it could be covered in clouds. However, we chose the best week to visit ever, and the mountain was out without a cloud in the sky, looming over the surrounding hills in menacing glory. We felt so lucky to be able to be in the park on such an amazing day, and of course felt obligated to take hundreds of photos as we continued past the mountain.
Every year, about 1,200 people try to climb Denali. About half of them get to the summit. It was first climbed in 1911, and about 100 people have died in attempt since then, one of whom a family friend of mine knew. She recently told me the story of how she and the family who lost their loved one eventually made a pilgrimage to a small town near the mountain’s base. They arrived at night to a small lodge, unsure of where they were in relationship to the mountain. When my friend woke up, she had a perfectly clear view of the sunrise over McKinley. She called everyone in to her room and they had a moment of wonder at its beauty and silent remembrance for their loss. It turns out that that was the first time the mountain had come out in months.
There are 14 people currently attempting the climb as of right now, which takes about two weeks. When we were on the train yesterday, it was announced that a few people on board had recently climbed the mountain and actually took their snowboards up with them and snowboarded most of the way down.
The first wildlife spotting we had was a bear and some caribou at a distance. Then, when we turned around a corner, we spotted a Dall Sheep on the side of the cliff we were passing close to the road munching on some grass. He was so cool! A bit further down the road, we saw some other buses stopped, and soon saw that a Grizzly bear was walking right next to the side of the road towards us! The entire bus scrambled to the right side, went silent, and watched in awe as the bear walked right by our windows. It was fabulous! Kelle said it perfectly when she mentioned that everything after this is icing on the cake. And we even saw two more bears sleeping near the road after that! We were able to get some fantastic pictures.
Another quick stop we made was at a Eielson Vistor’s Center, where we quickly looked around, felt some fur pelts while a ranger talked with us about the wildlife, and appreciated the view.
Kelle and the Ranger
There was also an interesting moose antler display with an even better story:
In 2003 near Moose Creek, two massive bull moose clashed in an effort to establish dominance and earn the right to mate. Heads down, they forced their antlers together and engaged their considerable heft to earn surrender from the other. At some point in the battle, theyir antlers locked. One tine pierced the eye socket of the other. And so they remained on the tundra until death called for both.
“Locked for All Time”
We finally reached the 92-mile marker around 12:30 pm and were able to enjoy lunch at the Backcountry Lodge. Afterward, we had the choice of either going on a botany walk with one of the lodge’s naturalists or watching a gold-panning demonstration and trying it out for ourselves. Of course Kelle and I wanted to try our hand at that! How cool to try to gold pan where it all began! Apparently people find some every once in awhile. They had a board outside the restaurant with Polaroids of guests holding up their gold, the last one from 2011. We didn’t find any, but there were some sparkly rocks I decided to bring home for Lauren U. at the office, myself, and Mom. The area is rich in metals, including copper, lead, silver, zinc, antimony, and coal. The water and rocks glitter in the passing creek.
A warning to all those who enter Denali National Park, and especially those who go all the way in: BRING BUG SPRAY! Near the creek at the Backcountry Lodge I have never SEEN so many mosquitoes. Luckily we ran into someone at the Hilton in Anchorage who warned us of this and showed us her eaten arms from camping in the Park last weekend. The bug spray we went into the park with was apparently pretty good, as I think I only got about five bites out of the 5 billion that seemed possible while we were there. Yikes! I don’t think I could ever stay at that lodge. I had had enough in the two hours we were there.
Just in Case you Forgot…
Heading back we conversed with a man and his kids who sat behind us. He told us that they were on their vacation to their 50th state, and that for the past nine years they took two weeks out of the summer to hit as many states as they could. Just passing through the states didn’t count—they would spend about two days in each state catching the highlights. He said he would stay in Marriott hotels because they have the best rewards for their points. I think that is such a cool idea! What an awesome and educational experience!
We were pretty tired by the time we returned. It was hot, dust caked our clothes, we had been sitting for hours upon hours—I think everyone was ready to get back. However, the whole experience was definitely worth it.
Luckily the bus dropped us off right at our hotel and we were able to clean up quickly for dinner. We walked down the hill into town to get our blood flowing and to try out a local restaurant we spotted on our way in yesterday, The Salmon Bake. Apparently we they have world famous fish tacos, so of course we each needed an order of those and a refreshing margarita.
We ran to the general store afterwards to pick up some snacks for tomorrow’s bus ride home, some much needed chapstick, and some wine. After being out all day, curling up in pajamas with some wine in the room sounded like the perfect ending. We lost track of time (again blaming this crazy sunlight) and realized it was already 11:00 pm and that we had missed the last shuttle back up to the lodge. We have had one of those trips where we have been a step behind the whole way for one reason or another! We missed the shuttle getting up to the lodge for dinner the first night as well and had to run up to its first stop to catch it (which was lucky, because it is a lot farther of a walk that we originally thought!). Plus we just keep thinking it is earlier than it is and haven’t been able to get to bed for a really good nights sleep. Someone said that sunset is at 12:30 am and sunrise is at 3:30 am. Even when between then it isn’t dark, but more of a dusk. At least we can sleep in until 9:00 am tomorrow!
General Store Parking