We’ve just spent 4 days camping in a couple of different campgrounds in Denali National Park, and got to see Mt McKinley/Denali/’The Great One’ for several days in a row. What a treat!
We drove north on the Parks Highway from Anchorage with a brief stop at a lookout on the south side of Denali, but her top was covered in cloud. We heard of someone who has visited Denali 3 times and never actually seen the top. Then we read that in an average June, there are only 4 clear days. So our chances of seeing the whole mountain weren’t looking good. Anyway ….
We headed straight to the Wilderness Access Centre to pick up the bus tickets and campground permit for Wonder Lake, which we’d booked online a few days earlier, and to book a night at the Riley Creek campground, right at the entrance to the park. It was a wet night, and packing up the next morning was a pretty soggy affair, but the forecast for Wonder Lake was ‘fine, partly cloudy, maximum temp 55F/13C’for the next couple of days. We were booked on the 11am camper bus the next morning which picked us up at Riley Creek, and we were able to leave our car on the Riley Ck car park, so it all worked out well. I got a bit closer to a moose than I would have liked at Riley Ck – there was a young one wandering around and he spotted me walking back to our tent from the toilets. I walked for a few metres, so did he. We did that a couple of times, until I got to some trees and hid behind one, then he lost interest and wandered down to the creek.
The park is closed to private vehicles at the 23 mile mark inside the park. From then on, it’s only park buses, park vehicles and one private tour company which charges $165 for the same thing that we paid $34 for … although they do include lunch. We brought our own. The bus driver was very knowledgeable, has spent many years in and around the park, and stopped several times for us to view wildlife along the way – a couple of small herds of caribou, and a grizzly bear that got very close to the bus and walked right in front of it while we were stopped looking at it. It took us 6 hours to drive the 84 miles to Wonder Lake, but that included a couple of longish stops at ranger and information stations along the way to pick up/drop off campers and for us (and the driver) to stretch our legs. It rained a lot in the national park last week (10cms in 48 hours), and it had snowed above 2000 metres, so all the snowy bits looked like they had been freshly dusted with icing sugar. By this morning, it was all looking grubby again because of more rain overnight.
We got to Wonder Lake just before 5pm, found a campsite and set up the tent without the fly so it could all dry out … and it all did. At that stage, the top of McKinley/Denali was still covered in cloud, but that cleared a few hours later and we got our first full views of that magnificent mountain, and of the whole Alaska Range. It’s a stunning sight. I could not take my eyes off McKinley, she really is something very special.
Each evening one of the park rangers gives a talk about something Denali-related. The first evening was about history of climbing the mountain, the second night was about porcupines and the third night was about mosquitoes. The porcupine and mosquito talks were given by Kara, a young woman from Wisconsin. Great presentations – she really knows how to work a crowd and get them interested in topics she was clearly passionate about. The porcupine one in particular was excellent.
Our first day at Wonder Lake was, as the locals would say, a ‘real pretty day’ – fine, warm, not much cloud. We walked to the McKinley Bar, a wide stretch of river bed that gets run-off from the glaciers around McKinley and her neighbouring mountains, including Mt Mather. By the time I realised there was a mountain with such an interesting name, it all got too cloudy for me to be able to work out which one it was. Drat! We were joined on our walk by Jonathon, a young man from Philadelphia. We walked, and talked, and sat for a while along the way and generally enjoyed the fine weather and the wonderful view of the northern aspect of McKinley and her neighbours. The following day started off fine, and it was warm enough for Greg to have a swim in Wonder Lake, but it got cloudier as the day progressed, and when Kara came to give the evening talk on mosquitoes, she told us that rain was forecast – between .5 and 5cm in the next 24 hours. Yikes!
We decided to get the first bus back to the park entrance the next morning at 6.30am … a good decision as it has rained all day. We packed as much as we could the night before, and were lucky to pack the rest of it and the tent without getting rained on, but it rained the whole time on the drive back. Very low cloud made visibility difficult a lot of the time, and the people who were doing day trips would have been very disappointed as they wouldn’t have seen any of McKinley, and even spotting wildlife would have been difficult. Some parts of the road are built into the sides of hills, and at one stage Greg commented that he was glad he wasn’t doing this trip in Thailand or Colombo or anywhere else where the traffic was busier than, well, just us on the road.
The days here are very long at this time of the year. Not quite ‘midnight sun’ as we’re still a couple of hundred kms from the Arctic Circle, but sunrise is around 3.30am, sunset around 12.45am, and it really doesn’t even get dim in between. When we were at Seward, I would have to use a torch to read at ‘night’, but now we’re several hundred kms further north, the light seems to stay the same all the time.
We’re at Fairbanks (northernmost city in the US) now, staying in a hotel tonight. It’s good to be out of the rain, and to be warm and dry. We’ll start the long trip east tomorrow. It’s not over yet, although the Alaska part is, almost. We keep hearing about must-visit places in Canada and the ‘Lower 48′, as the Alaskans call the rest of the US (a bit like Taswegians call the rest of Australia ‘the mainland’).
And finally, a cute video clip of a porcupine eating corn on the cob. He loves a chat!