Day four of our Alaskan adventure was focused on the immense beauty of Denali Naitonal Park. As an avid hiker, Denali has been a dream of mine for many years. Famous for Mt. McKinley (recently changed by the Obama Administration to Mount Denali to the chagrin of the Ohio delegation), the highest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet, the park is an icon of American natural conservation. It is breathtaking in size and beauty — 1,334,200 acres of pristine tundra, glaciers, rock and forest. It was everything that we dreamed it would be as we hit the trails of Denali.
Once again, in planning for Denali, we relied on our Alaskan fairy godmother, Judy White of RaftDenali. We slept a second night at the great cabin at RaftDenali overlooking the rapids outside of Denali (near the entrance to the park). Many people start out at Denali by taking a tour bus through the park. This is a great way to see wildlife and figure out areas that you would like to explore if you are a hiker. There are various tours, including a guided tour by the Park. However, it tends to a little pricey and Judy encouraged us to take the standard bus ride. The reason is that there is only a two lane road (largely a dirt road) going into Denali. So it is the same road and you are paying extra just for the commentary. What we found was that the standard bus (which is roughly $34 to Eielson (kids under 16 are free) was perfect. Our driver there, Elton, was wonderfully knowledgeable and literally guided the whole four hour drive to Eielson which is roughly 66 miles into the Park. All of the drivers are incredibly well trained and friendly (as are the rangers). They could not be nicer or more eager to help you plan your visit. The drivers give you all the history and facts of the park and stop for animal sightings. By the end of the trip with Elton and Kim as drivers, we saw bear, caribou herds, eagles, moose, foxes, and sheep. I cannot imagine more information on a “guided” tour so this is the ticket for those entering the park. We chose Eielson, which put us deep into the park and was a jump off for the Alpine trail. The only unnerving part of bus is that the drivers move at a good clip over a dirt road that can barely fit to two buses. At points they drive along the edge of deep cliffs with only a foot of gravel road between you and the almighty. As the passengers watch in terror, the drivers continue to chat away without the slightest concern that they are inches away from making the evening news. If you do not like heights, sit on the right side going to Eielson and the left side returning.
Since the drive into the park takes hours (which is well used in seeing animals and scenery), you have to choose your hike on the first day carefully. Fortunately, the 20 hours of sun helps you hike later but you can generally do one good hike before having to make the long trip back. We chose the Alpine Trail next to Eielson. This is one of the few marked trails in the park. I love to hike on tundra so it was perfect. The trial takes you to one of the highest points in the area and you can see Mt. Denali. It also takes you to a ridge line and we then went off trail for a good portion of the hike. It was one of the prettiest hikes that I have ever taken. What makes it particularly special was that it was raining cats and dogs for much of the day. We were very bummed by how overcast and gloomy it was — with limited visibility. We still saw animals on the way but most people just got back on the bus for the return trip (most people just do the bus ride but some are hikers). One group of hikers bailed after arriving. We were stubborn and decided to do the hike in the rain. I am so glad that we did. When we reached the top, the rain stopped and suddenly a gorgeous blue sky emerged. It was magical. Jack and I were elated. We were literally hiking in the clouds. We hiked off trail with incredible views of the surrounding glacial plains, mountains, and tundra. At the summit, we encountered a huge community of Arctic Ground Squirrels and collared pika. They are totally fearless and will come right by you. Hikers generally are good about not feeding the animals and they are not begging for food. They simply have no fear. Neither did a red fox that walked right by a group of hikers that we saw earlier in the day. They are incredibly cute, though we did find evidence that a certain butt-kissing exists in every hierarchical society:
We finished the hike around 5:30 and went standby for a return bus (you are guaranteed a seat on the bus that you leave on but hikers can always jump on any green bus from Eielson. You rarely have to wait more than one bus to hop on and the rangers will not leave you stranded. However, you need to let the rangers know if you are trying for that last bus. The last bus leaves at 7:30 but checked with the rangers). That meant that we got back to the park entrance at 9:30 but we saw a lot of animals on the return including a sleeping bear on a hillside. Unfortunately, as we discussed earlier, the wolf population has been devastated by climate change and hunting. The state refused to continue a protective buffer zone around the park, which allowed hunters to trap and kill the few remaining wolves in the area. It is a huge tragedy for the country and a shameful record for state wildlife officials. The famed East Fork Pack is likely to die this year due to the failure of these officials to maintain basic protections. For one hunter to get a trophy, the last remaining Alpha male has been killed at a loss for the entire nation. I love the Alaskan balance of hunting and recreation and land use. However, what happened to the East Fork Pack is a terrible tragedy.
We returned and had dinner (more on eating opportunities tomorrow) and then collapsed. We found homemake muffins by Judy and her sister waiting for us at the cabin which (particularly after an exhausting and wet hike) tasted like the best food ever created by human hands! We are seriously thinking of barricading ourselves in our lovely cabin by the river and refusing to leave RaftDenali. Our next day, we will be doing another Denali trail before getting into our rental jeep and head to Talkeetna for another unique Alaskan adventure.
Until then, it is back to the outback of Denali for Jack and I.