Monday, July 26, 2010

Alaska Trip Day 12: Denali National Park

Denali National Park. Home of the highest point in North America (Mount McKinley, a.k.a. Denali) and oodles of Alaskan wildlife, a visit to Denali is the easiest way to sample the vast Alaskan wilderness. In my opinion, this was the main event of our Alaska trip.

Before I get to the pictures, here's a little background on how a visit to Denali works. There is only one road into the park, and private vehicles are not permitted on most of it. So, the best way to visit the park is by taking a bus, either a cheaper shuttle bus (which let you load or unload at any time) or more expensive tour buses (which are more structured and offer more narration along the way). We took a shuttle bus about 3/4 of the way into the park to the Eielson Visitor Center, an eight-hour round trip.

But if you don't feel like a long bus ride, you still can go to the main visitor center and do a short hike around there. That's what we did with our "bonus Denali time" the day before:

Ooo, look, wildlife!

Now, the bus ride. There are a few scheduled stops along the way, but mostly, it's sit and HOLY CRAP THERE'S A BEAR IN THE DISTANCE STOP THE BUS STOP THE BUS!!!

I think wildlife is the main attraction for most Denali visitors, so any time we saw a bear, caribou, sheep, or anything like that, a bunch of people on the bus would just go NUTS. We like wildlife too - Amber especially - but there's no need to get our panties in our wad every time we see a speck in the distance that may or may not be an animal. Just our opinion.

Part of the reason some people on the bus insisted we stop every time we saw an animal off in the distance, even if it couldn't be seen with the naked eye, is because lots of people brought big fancy cameras with them. Which is silly, because there were plenty of bear and caribou close to the road, so why settle for specks? But moose, on the other hand...well, I'll save that for later.

This is called a "braided river". Sure, there are braided rivers all over Alaska, but this one is inside a National Park, so it's special.

I'm glad I didn't have to drive this road myself.

Hey, look, it's Mount McKinley/Denali! For real this time! Here's a closer view:

The summit on the left is McKinley/Denali's South Peak; that's the tall one (20,320 feet). The summit on the right is the North Peak, with an elevation of "only" 19,470 feet. These pictures were taken from about 30 miles away, which was as close as we got, geographically.

According to a local, only one out of every five visitors to the park actually get to see the top of Mount McKinley/Denali during their visit. The rest of the time, the mountain is covered by clouds. So while THERE'S A BEAR STOP THE BUS wasn't always necessary in my opinion, THERE'S THE MOUNTAIN STOP THE BUS was absolutely necessary. Because a few minutes after those pictures were taken...

...McKinley/Denali was gone, not to be seen again the rest of the day. Poof!

But that's okay, because there are still plenty of nice views to be had. The following pictures are from a hike up a mountain near the Eielson Visitor Center:

This would be Mo the cow puppet with McKinley/Denali in the background, except for the clouds, of course. The moments of McKinley/Denali visibility were so frantic, getting Mo in the earlier pictures wasn't really a priority.

Alright, so...we've seen the highest point in North America. Now I want to see some moose, darn it! Our moose quest came up empty on the way out. But on the way back...


That's actually an extreme close-up. Here's the same picture, zoomed out:

This would be the closest we'd get to a moose. We never did get that classic "moose crossing the road" or "moose eating grass next to the parking lot" moment during our trip, but hey - better than nothing, right?

Here's another moose we saw (or, I should say, other people saw and pointed out to us) from a distance.

While there were only a couple of visible moose, we saw lots of caribou. Or reindeer. Or something. I'm not an expert.

Antlers are big.

Again, I'm not a wildlife expert...but I think this is some kind of bird. (UPDATE: This is a Willow Ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska.)

Amber thinks that squirrel sex is "the cutest thing ever". But while these two Arctic ground squirrels never made love (at least not in front of us), they're still pretty darn cute.

This is the "no private vehicles past this point" point, the Savage River. We got off the bus here, walked around a bit, and then took the next outbound shuttle back to the main parking lot. More pictures from the Savage River hike:

A while back, I posted two sets of National Park rankings: parks I've visited, and parks I haven't visited but want to. The park I hadn't been to but wanted to visit the most? Denali. Did Denali National Park live up to expectations? Yes. It comes in 11th on my "favorite National Parks" list, between Grand Canyon (10th) and Sequoia (12th). That may not sound like a very high ranking at first, but given how competitive this list is (and how much I love southern Utah), that's pretty good. By the way, I'm placing Kenai Fjords between Badlands and Redwood, which makes it my 23rd favorite National Park out of the 30 I've visited. Did I mention this list was competitive?

One more thing, for those of you who are wondering how I've managed to visit 30 National Parks in my lifetime. My parents also went on vacation this summer, and in just two weeks they went to seven National Parks: Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains (maybe?), Carlsbad Caverns, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Rocky Mountain. That means they've now visited 37 of the 58 National Parks, at least (the same 30 as me, plus those 7, plus Grand Teton, minus Kenai Fjords). Looks like I've got some catching up to do! In the meantime, I'll just live vicariously through their vacation photos.

Well, anyway, here's the bottom line. Your Alaska vacation is not complete without a visit to Denali National Park.


James Allen said...

Braided streams are found in areas of high sediment and high slope, namely mountains.

Your geology lesson for the day.

Spartangoogle said...

I bought a 2011 National Parks calendar and found, since we went to Rocky Mountain, we'd been to every park featured. Some parks only involved a drive through (Guadalupe Mtns.) some 2 - 3 hours (Great Sand Dunes) but we didn't go anywhere that we said, "We shouldn't have bothered to come here."

Spartangoogle said...

We've also been to Glacier Bay when we were on our Alaska cruise/tour.

Chris said...

My girlfriend and I made a trip to Alaska in May of this year spending much of our time between the Seward area and Denali National Park. Kenai Fjords N.P. was awesome, well, the entire area surrounding Seward was awesome! Denali was amazing as well.

In Kenai Fjords N.P., I wish we could have gone on the Harding Icefield Trail, however, two feet-plus snow levels and it still being avalanche season made it impossible for us. Instead, we hiked on and around Exit Glacier which was extremely awesome. We also took a 6-hour round trip boat tour which was totally worth it. I'm not much for tourist related excursions, however, in Alaska how else will you see a lot of the amazing scenery up close? We were able to travel in out and of fjords and see glaciers up close. Was amazing! We spent about 3 days in and around Seward. The Caines Head Tidal Trail south of Seward in Lowell Point was amazing.

Denali was quite stunning. I've never had to use the word "majestic" to describe a place, Denali was just that. With it being late May, we were only able to make it as far as the Toklat River station on the shuttle bus. Would have loved to have seen the view of Denali that you saw. However, we got lucky and it was perfectly visible with no clouds every time we saw it from the South Viewpoint on the Parks Highway or saw it from certain points in the park.

I would like to some day drive to Alaska the way you did and hit all of those spots.

Feel free to check out the photos from our trip here: