Week 7: July 29 – August 1 – Denali National Park

Tuesday, after reorganizing at the ranger station, we were on our way to Denali National Park.  The fog and clouds from the morning had burned off into a beautiful afternoon, offering stunning views of the Alaska Range as we moved our way closer and closer along the Parks Highway towards our destination.

We took advantage of a roadside pull-off, Denali South View, in Denali State Park to get a few pictures of the rare site. Though there were a few clouds blocking a perfect view of Mt. McKinley itself,  it was still a grand site. McKinley is a tricky mountain, it is said that only 30% of visitors get to actually have the clear weather needed to see the mountain.

After a couple hours in the car, oooh’ing an ahhh’ing over the landscape, we had finally reached the “town”/tourist trap outside the national park, known as “Glitter Gulch,”  home to several hotels, guide services, restaurants, and countless gift shops.  We made our way up the long an and windy road to our hotel, The Grande Denali Lodge.  Yes, you heard us right, we were staying in a hotel!  That is all thanks to Theresa and Justin, otherwise, we are pretty sure we would have been sleeping in our tent instead of the comfy bed, with real pillows, blankets, and a bathroom (with plumbing!) that was a mere few steps away.  The hotel was situated, somewhat perilously, partway up a mountain on a rocky outcropping, and the road was adorned with all sorts of road signs alerting us to things such as the “road is wet when raining,” and the outcome of moose-car interactions.

After settling into the room and showering, we headed “downtown” for dinner.  While we waited for our table at Prospector’s Pizza, we perused a few of the nearby gift shops.  The four of us decided to share cheese fries, an elk meatball sandwich, and a “Densmore Mountain” pizza.  The food was delicious, and even so filling that for the first time this week, we had leftovers!  We headed back to the hotel, bypassing the tempting smell of the ice cream shop because there was no room left in our bellies, to settle in for a comfy night’s sleep.

Wednesday morning, the four of us headed to the Black Bear Coffee House for breakfast.  The food, coffee, and red eye chai tea was excellent!  We enjoyed it so much, that we actually returned each day of our stay for breakfast.  There were a few little mix-ups with the timing of our food on the first two days, but nothing worthy of deterring our return.  If you ever happen to make the trip, have the “Goldilox,” a fresh bagel topped with herb cream cheese, smoked salmon, dill and red onion.
After breakfast, Theresa and Justin dropped us off at the entrance to the park, and they headed off for a flight and glacier landing.  It was a beautiful, clear morning, so we were confident they would have an amazing time.  We all planned to rendezvous later that afternoon at the sled dog kennels in the park.
We entered the Wilderness Access Center to gather some information about the park, and the shuttle buses that run through it.  Denali National Park is very different from every other national park we have visited. The biggest difference for us was the freedom to go wherever you want. Most hikers in state and national parks are used to being told to “stay on the trail.” In Denali, there are a few maintained trails, but otherwise, you can go wherever your heart desires, and your feet can take you.  Another difference is there is a single 92 mile road that runs through the park, and you can only access the first 15 miles in personal vehicles (during the summer season), any where beyond that requires use of the park shuttle buses.
After gathering the needed info, we walked up the road to the Murie Science and Learning Center as well as the Visitors Center.  We had some time to check out a few exhibits before hopping on a shuttle that would take us into the Savage River area of the park.
The clear blue skies provided us with unobstructed views of mountains, including McKinley itself.  The often heard question, “Is the mountain out?” could today be answered with a definite “YES!” 
Before we could reach the Savage River stop, Dave spied a mountain with a trail winding its way up its side and said to Alex, “Want to go up there?”  Sure!  We hopped off the bus at the next stop, Mountain Vista, and headed towards the trail.  We only had two hours to hike before we needed to make our way to the sled dog kennels, so we would go as far as we could.  Dave was determined to reach the top, and was all wound up on coffee, so was practically running up the trail.  Alex was doing all she could to keep up with him as they passed group after group of hikers.  As the terrain steepened, Alex was practically hyperventilating trying to match Dave’s pace, and finally “let him loose” to run up the mountain.  She knew this would be the best for both of them since Dave would get to burn off some energy and they were on a well marked trail with lots of tourists.


The pair rejoined on a rocky outcropping after the designated amount of time. Alex had worked her way upwards and Dave moved downwards from his run straight up the mountain, along which a group of ladies resting in the grass told him he was “adding to the view” when he apologized for running nearby.  We took some selfies, admired the views, and then headed downwards at a pace they considered somewhat leisurely… but many would consider brisk.

We were down in plenty of time to catch the next shuttle.  The bus would take us a bit further into the park to the Savage River area before turning around to return us to the visitor’s center where we planned to meet our companions and head to the dog sledding kennels.  At Savage River, we had 25 minutes before the bus would depart, so we walked down to the river and Dave tried to “pan for gold” in the frigid water… without a pan!  Sadly, no nuggets (or flecks) were found.

Once back at the visitor’s center, we found out that Theresa and Justin were held up in traffic and would not make it to the kennels in time for the presentation, so we hopped on the bus and enjoyed some time visiting the dogs and hearing information about their purpose and history in the park.  In Denali National Park, sled dogs are used to help travel into areas where any other means of transportation would be useless or unreliable. Throughout our time in the park, we also saw volunteers taking the dogs on walks along the park road for their daily “off-season” exercise.  

After the presentation, Theresa and Justin where waiting at the visitor’s center to catch a shuttle back to our hotel.  We doubted our shuttle would get us there before they left, so we decided to start briskly walking their way, and would hitch a ride from a bus further down the road.  As luck would have it, Dave stuck out his thumb, a passing bus stopped, welcomed us aboard and returned us to the visitors center just in time to catch the shuttle with them back to our hotel.  We all took our turns showering (YAY! for running water/indoor plumbing!) before heading north to the town of Healy for dinner at the 49th State Brewery

The place was packed, and we had a wait 45 minute wait ahead of us, so when we spied four adjacent empty seats at the bar we snatched them up.  We enjoyed a fantastic dinner and entertaining waitress before heading outside to take some pictures with the bus from the movie “Into the Wild.”  The movie is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, who went off to live and die in the wilderness along the Stampede Trail which begins outside of the town.

Shrimp Tacos and Black Bean & Quinoa Melt

Before heading back to the hotel, we took a drive along the 15 miles of open road into the park in hopes of seeing some wildlife.  Sadly, the only thing we saw was what Dave was SURE was a grizzly bear along the Savage River. The rest of us however, we were sure it was a rock.  It was never verified to be a rock, however, it was definitely not a bear.

Thursday morning, Theresa and Justin were up and out the door early to begin their 12+ hour bus tour along the entire 92 miles of park road.  We, however, enjoyed the comforts of a quality mattress and pillows for a couple more hours before saying hello to another amazingly clear blue sky and sunshine.  After another tasty breakfast at the Black Bear Coffee House, we made our way into the park via the hotel shuttle.  We had about 45 minutes before the park shuttle would take us to Savage River, where we planned to begin our hike.  We watched a video of stunning park views in the auditorium and wandered around the visitor’s center before heading outside to catch our ride.

Unfortunately, we made a bit of a mistake and let our bus drive away without us on board…. so we had to wait around for another hour.  Once we finally arrived at the Savage Canyon Trailhead, we officially began our hike. We chuckled as we passed a teenager walking the opposite direction with an armful of large rocks. What he did not know was that we just passed a park ranger who would soon be telling him collecting rocks from a National Park is not acceptable.

When the trail came to a footbridge that crossed the river and returned hikers back towards the trailhead, we began our ascent towards the top of Primrose Ridge.  Our path soon turned steep as the trail faded away and our route was up to our own discretion.  Along our steep and chossy ascent we ran into two hikers who were retreating because the path they chose seemed too difficult.  When we asked what way they tried, we quickly realized we should be fine…. they went the one route that we had already clearly identified as the way NOT to go.  

Once we gained the 1,500 foot rise to the ridge, we were walking on wide open alpine tundra.  Alpine tundra is an interesting surface to hike on, it is kind of like a non-stop walk in a bounce house.  The tundra was also filled with many alpine flowers, and Alex had to take a picture of each and every variety. We walked for an undetermined time and undetermined distance before we decided to begin making our way off the southern side of the ridge towards the park road.  From atop the ridge, we tried to pick out a line that would avoid as much of the hated alder patches as possible, however, avoiding them all was going to be a hopeless case!  We made our way through the dreaded vegetation that varied in height from ankle, to waist, to over our heads, making up songs as we went…. “Hey bear… be aware bear… don’t be a scare bear…” As we made our way onto flatter terrain, we started to spy blueberries!  Knowing we were getting close to the road, and time was not an issue, we stopped periodically to pick the berries.  Now, we added in lines to our bear songs letting them know they had to be “share bears” and let us have their berries…. emphasis on the BEAR sound in berries.

Closest we came to seeing a dall sheep

Primrose Ridge from near the park road
We made it back to the road, at what appeared to be about two miles west of the Savage River stop. Much to our dismay, we did not see anything larger than a marmot during our hike.  We didn’t want to surprise a bear while we were in the alder patches, but one from a safe distance or a dall sheep or caribou herd would have been nice!  Recalling the bus schedule in our minds, we knew we could probably make it in time to catch the bus, but not in time to get the 6:00 shuttle to our hotel… this was the last shuttle that would be in the park without having to call for a special (but free!) pick-up.  Unfortunately, we realized we were going to miss our 6 pm shuttle by 10 minutes.  As we were pulling into the visitors center, an idea came to mind… a bus from one of the lodges across the street from “downtown” was pulling in.  We could always hop on that bus, grab a bite to eat and drink.  Then, we could have our official dinner when Theresa and Justin returned later in the evening. Perfect! Shrimp pad thai, cold drinks, and mountain views!  As we were sitting, enjoying the cool weather and cool drinks in our puff jackets, a text came through letting us know that Theresa and Justin were at the hotel.  Again, timing was perfect!  Our hotel shuttle appeared alongside the road, we waved it down and were on our way. We decided we enjoyed 49th State Brewery so much, that we would head there again for dinner!
Pitas and Hummus

Roasted Red Pepper, Mushroom and Spinach Mac & Cheese
Over dinner we were able to exchange stories of our day’s adventures.  It sounded like Theresa and Justin had a fantastic tour of the park and had the opportunity to see many different animals and pan for gold along the way.  On our way back to the hotel after another great dinner, we spied a moose along the road, but apparently Justin had seen enough wildlife that day and didn’t care to stop for very long to look at another moose.

Friday, we packed up our belongings and headed once again to the Black Bear Coffee House for breakfast, where we once again had the exact same, delicious breakfast with chai tea.  
We made a stop in Talkeetna, walked around town and the climbing ranger station, before we decided that none of us had enough room in our stomachs for the giant Seward’s Folly burger we talked about sharing at the West Rib, and instead had some ice cream before getting back in the car.  Once back at the Nancy Lake Station, we said our goodbyes.  We would be heading to Wasilla for our weekly grocery resupply, while Theresa and Justin would be heading to Anchorage for a few days before returning home.  We were sad to see them go after having another great visit with them this year!
Alex’s Alpine Flower Picture Collection

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