Saturday, June 21: Denali Highway, Tangle Lakes Campground
It rained in the night but we woke to blue skies and sunshine. We started the day with a visit Valdez Glacier, but it was disappointing since it was mostly hidden around a corner and out of sight. Our best view of it was from the road about a mile away. We couldnít get closer without fording the outwash, so we didnít try.
We then wandered through town looking for a grocery. It was also hidden, but we found it eventually. The town was bigger than I expected. The Visitors Center and library were both closed and we didnít want to spend more money at the museum, so we soon headed back up over the Pass. It was a gorgeous day and the mountains were spectacular. Worthington Glacier was completely visible today. Jim saw someone climbing out on the ice. Brave man. Jim spotted a bear in the rearview mirror that crossed the highway behind the truck. I missed that one. It was probably a grizzly, given the open tundra around us. I did see an eagle in a tree though. There was a nesting pair at the campground last night. They had blocked out the sites below the nest to keep campers from disturbing them.
It was a slow leisurely day. We didnít go far. At Glenallen we stopped at the library to use the internet. Clouds began building, hiding the mountains. Around 4:00 it began to rain, first light showers, then a major toad-strangling downpour. Fortunately that didnít last long. We had occasional views of the Wrangell Mountains and the Alaska Range; both were big, white and beautiful. We passed a lot of lily pad-covered ponds. There were a lot of people fishing on the Gulkana and Klutina Rivers. I wonder if the sockeye are running yet? At Valdez there is a fish observatory, but we were told that it is too early to see any salmon yet. Same as Haines. People seem to be catching other fish though.
Weíre heading out to the Denali Highway, the primitive route to Denali National Park. Only in Alaska is a major highway a graded dirt road! Iíve heard itís beautiful, but rough. Someone said itís like visiting Denali National Park without the regulation. What we saw today was rolling hills covered with willows, very few trees, and lots of small ponds. Itís beautiful alpine country. The hills make me want to climb and climb, just wandering higher and higher. I love alpine hills. To the north were the icy peaks of the Alaska Range and the Gulkana Glacier. We stopped frequently to look for wildlife. Weíre here at the wrong time of year for caribou (they migrate here in the fall) but there are supposed to be moose, foxes and bears, if youíre really lucky, and lots of birds.
We ended up at the free BLM campground at Tangle Lakes. Itís very popular; there are RVs scattered all over. We got the last site with a table and grill, though people seem to just park wherever they can find room. We barbequed hamburgers, then went for an evening walk. Nine p.m. looks like 4:00, much too early for bed. We climbed a hill above the lake, thrashing through the willows. The top of the hill had a nice view, but I wanted to go higher. Instead I had to fend off an irate arctic tern that was dive-bombing me. Evidently I was near its nest, so it chased me away with numerous attacks. A plover this afternoon played wounded, folding up one of its wings as it circled on the ground, crying piteously. Itís another tactic to scare off predators. Both worked.
We walked back to the campground and headed up the entry road above the creek. Down below us we spotted a moose with two tiny calves crossing the water between two groups of fishermen. We tried to follow them, but they got up to the road while we were peering into the bushes down below. We just caught sight of their tails as they trotted up the road and disappeared into the brush. We saw some swans, harlequin ducks and scaups today.
Down south there were lots of flowers lining the highway. When we stopped at Thompson Pass, I was impressed by all the alpine flowers blooming. There are fewer here, but since there are still patches of snow along the highway, it isnít surprising.
Sunday, June 22: Cantwell
We had a nice pink and gray sunset last night, at midnight. Our late night meant a late start this morning. It was completely overcast. The mountains were all cut off midway and the land and sky all looked gray and hazy. Disappointing. We stopped a few miles up the road to climb a ridge. The ridge turned out to be taller and steeper than it appeared. It took Ĺ hour of heavy breathing to reach the top across tundra and talus. I wanted to hike along the ridge, but it was windy, spitting rain and cold. Jimís knee was hurting so we turned around. It was a nice walk, but too short. There were lots of alpine flowers and one ptarmigan in summer camouflage--brown and white--that blended into the rocks amazingly well.
The rain got worse as the day wore on. Our already leisurely drive got even slower, though we stopped less often to look for wildlife. We did see another moose with two calves high on a hillside. That was it for wildlife aside from several swans and a few ducks. Most of the way the road wasnít as bad as expected. There was a section with lots of potholes, but mostly it was a good graded road, just with some washboard. Traffic was light. We were surprised to see three bicycles during the worst of the downpour. One had set up camp at the campground; the others were a couple of miles away. They did not look happy, riding in the pouring rain.
Mid-afternoon we reached the town of Cantwell on the Parks Highway. Our friends Beau and Ninon were staying at the campground there with their eight beautiful Samoyeds. That was one very full RV! We had been in touch via email, so were able to find them easily. We spent all afternoon and evening talking with them and a friend they had made locally, Jane, the local vet. It was a good evening. All three are really interesting people who have led fascinating adventurous lives. Spending the evening with other people was fun and different. We rarely talk more than a few minutes with anybody when weíre traveling, so it was great to have a real conversation with such good people. Jim and I are both introverts, natural recluses. Iím actually worse than he is these days. Beau and Ninon make friends wherever they go. We really had fun seeing them again.
Jim: Seeing Beau again was a real treat. He looks better than we've seen him in a lot of years. And happy. Ninon is good for him. And probably the dogs, as well. I love dogs - but 8 at a time? That's a little much for me.
At midnight we came back to the RV park and discovered the showers were locked at 10:00. That was disappointing. After so many days camping primitively, I needed the shower. Oh well. I can wait until morning.
We never did see dark. At 12:30, when we went to bed, it was still light. When we got up to go to the bathroom at 4:30, it was light enought to walk without a flashlight. At 8:00 a.m. it looked just the same. Gray, but daylight. This is the land of the midnight sun Ė or at least twilight.
Monday, June 23: Denali National Park
We took our time leaving Cantwell since we needed to take showers, recharge camera batteries and talk to Beau and Ninon. We were on the road at noon, heading 28 miles north to Denali National Park. It was another cold gray day. It seems so odd to be so cold all the time Ė midí40ís Ė at the end of June, but weíve been told that cold and gray is normal for this time of year. Our last trip was the anomaly Ė hot and dry, with huge wildfires. I think Alaskans prefer this kind of weather, or at least theyíre more used to it.
By the time we got to the Park, the campgrounds inside the park were full and booked for the next three days. I had hoped to camp out at the campground at Wonder Lake, breaking the long trip out there into two shorter days, but it was full. Teklanika Campground, about 30 miles inside the park, was still closed due to ice, which meant that the other campgrounds were filled more quickly.
Denali restricts tourist traffic to the first 15 miles of the road into the park, for the most part. After Savage River you need to take a bus, either a full tour or a shuttle. Last time we took the shuttle out to Eielson Visitors Center, about halfway through the Park. This time I wanted to see the rest of Denali, taking the shuttle all the way out to Wonder Lake or Kantishna at the end of the road. Tomorrowís shuttle out to Wonder Lake was full until late morning, which would have gotten us back at 10:00 p.m. or later. Instead we bought a ticket for the bus that goes all the way to Kantishna. It will be a long day. It takes about 12 hours to drive the 90 mile road, partly because itís unpaved and thus slow going, mostly because they stop every hour to go to the bathroom or stretch your legs, and if anyone sees wildlife, the bus stops so everyone can get pictures.
We had a list of private campgrounds outside the Park. Most are the busy RV gravel parking lot kind, right in the middle of busy Denali Village, but one said it was a nice quiet tree-covered campground six miles from town. We drove out there. They only had room for us tonight, but said we could park in the overflow lot next to the highway tomorrow. Since our main alternative was to drive 16 miles north to another campground, we agreed, so we could be sure weíd have a place to sleep after the long bus ride tomorrow.
Afterwards, we drove the Park road out to Savage River, 15 miles into the park. Thatís as far as the tourist vehicles can go. We saw a moose cow next to the road and the antlers of a bull moose (the rest of him was hiding behind a tree.) There is a nice short hike along the river, a two mile round trip. There were lots of wildflowers blooming. We saw five snowshoe hares with their big white feet and a mew gull with three chicks. Jim got video of one of the chicks hogging all the food that mama brought to the trio.
It started to rain just as we finished the hike so we headed to the Visitors Center where we watched a lovely film on Denali, with pretty pictures and music. Theyíve built a huge new visitors complex Ė a waste of money, in my opinion. It is more complicated for tourists. There are three totally separated areas now: the regular Visitors Center, the building where you make bus and campground reservations (the former Visitors Center), and the building where you get backcountry camping permits. They used to do it all in one building, which was much simpler, though pretty hectic. Itís two or three miles between the reservations center and the visitors center now. The Visitors Center has the movie and a very limited display. It also has separate buildings for a large gift shop and cafť. What a waste of space and money. Itís hard to take the shortage of funds seriously when we see so many national parks and monuments with brand new, very expensive (and frequently redundant) visitors centers. Great Basin NP and Escalante Staircase NM spring to mind. Denali also rebuilt the Visitors Center at Eielson. Again itís pretty, but the display isnít much better than the one it replaced. It is however, Ďgreení, with solar panels, etc. They are very proud of it. But I still think they could have used the money better elsewhere.
We ate an expensive dinner at the Overlook ($11.95 for a burger!), but it was tasty and the view is good. Then we headed back to the campground in the rain. Yech! We bought a snack for tomorrow afternoon since we wonít get back until late. Iím tired and depressed by all the rain and grey skies. This is why I canít live in Alaska. I need sunshine! Iíve been taking my moodiness out on Jim, poor man. Itís not his fault that it rains every day so Iím sad and weary. But the dismal weather and lack of real hiking are both getting me down.
Tuesday, June 24: Denali National Park
The day started out dreary, still raining after a night of deluge. We could barely see the nearby ridges and had no distant views at all. Wildlife was slow to appear and always far off in the distance, so impossible to photograph. The bus was only half full and there were no eagle-eyed wildlife spotters, except me, and Iím not good at spotting bears. By our turn around point we were feel a bit disappointed, though we had seen three moose hidden in the brush, a couple of caribou herds and some Dall sheep, plus a beaver, an immature great horned owl, a short eared owl and a northern harrier. Nice, but spotting only one bear in six hours was disappointing.
Soon after we reached Kantishna the clouds lifted and the sun began to make an occasional appearance. Our spirits lifted as well. Denali really is spectacularly beautiful, even when you canít see The Mountain. I hated not being able to see the snow-covered ridges and the bright colors of the rock, especially around Polychrome, on the way out. So the return journey was a real pleasure.
We also started to see more wildlife: two moose near enough to photograph, more caribou and Dall sheep, an adult Great Horned Owl and, best of all, bears! A bus stopped on the road alerted us to both of our afternoon sightings. First we spotted a large blond grizzly with brown feet. While we were admiring that one, someone noticed a sow with one cub a few hundred yards away. She was also blond with chocolate feet and a brown stripe on her back, but the cub was a darker brown. We watched them for a while. Later we were watching some caribou on the right side of the bus when someone on the left side said, ďLook, another bear.Ē That was another blond sow with two dark cubs. All of our bears were a long way off, but with binoculars we could see them fairly well. (One thing we learned last time we visited Alaska: both good binoculars and a good zoom lens on your camera are indispensable.) About an hour from the end, a bull moose appeared right next to the road and crossed behind our bus. We had had a good cow sighting as well, so he was a bonus. Grand total: seven bears, five moose, three owls, an eagle, two hawks, several herds of sheep and caribous, some arctic ground squirrels and several hares. The snowshoe hares are in the middle of a population explosion right now. They have stripped the willows bare in some places. The guide said the explosion will end in a ďharetastropheĒ but for now the predators are eating well. We saw a hare carcass up in a tree, dropped by an eagle or hawk.
In the end, we had a very good day. The sun came out and we were able to enjoy the great beauty of the Park, though not Denali itself. I am really happy to have seen so much wildlife.
We were both really tired by the end. I wanted to drive south to see if Mt. McKinley/Denali would make an appearance, but we were both exhausted after spending 12 hours on the bus. Although the buses stop every hour or so for bathroom breaks and include a couple of longer breaks so you can stretch your legs with a short walk, itís still a long day. I thought it was worth it though. Last time we only went as far as Eielson, about midway. Most of the wildlife is seen in the 20 miles before Eielson, since that is the highest section of the road, with lots of open tundra and ridges. Beyond there is some beautiful country with rolling hills and lots of ponds and lakes, but it isnít as spectacular as the Polychrome area, unless Denali is visible.
We stopped for a break at Wonder Lake and I was really glad we hadnít been able to get a spot in the campground there: the mosquitoes were horrible. Kantishna wasnít much better. Both are 1000í lower than the tundra zone. There are four lodges and some private inholdings at Kantishna. Itís a pretty area, which Iím glad I saw, but I was just as happy not to be camped there.
We ate dinner at the Salmon Bake, then drove down to our campground south of the Park. They had filled our ďoverflowĒ spot with a tour bus, so we ended up at a very lumpy site up the hill, which was actually better since it was farther from the highway.
Wednesday, June 25: Kesugi Ridge Trail in Denali State Park to Trapper Creek (8 miles on Kesugi Ridge)
The Mountain did come out last night, or so we were told. We were too tired to drive to a viewpoint, even though I had a feeling the clearing skies boded well. We woke to blue skies and sunshine and decided to head to Denali State Park to go for a hike rather than deal with the shuttle system inside the park. Iíve heard that the Kesugi Ridge Trail is one of the most beautiful hikes in Alaska. Itís 27-36 miles long (depending on which trailheads you use) a great backpack trip if the weather is right, with views of the Alaska Range and Denali, if youíre lucky. There are several possible trailheads, so we headed south to do a dayhike to check it out.
On the way we stopped briefly in Cantwell to say hi and goodbye to Beau and Ninon. They are heading north to Fairbanks tomorrow. They told us about spending the late evening watching the sun set over Denali Ė beautiful! Evidently the best time to see Denali is late evening or early morning, since the clouds are most likely to lift then. Theyíve managed to see the mountain several times during their stay in Cantwell. Last time we were in Alaska, we saw Denali from Anchorage and from Fairbanks, but never when we were close to it. Iím hoping for better luck this year.
By late morning, dark cumulous clouds were beginning to appear. We ate lunch at Denali North Viewpoint on the Parks Highway. Denali was completely hidden, though the Alaska Range below was visible and very beautiful. It was fun watching people try to figure out whether they were actually seeing Denali. I figured it would be fairly obvious, since itís 10,000í higher than itís neighbors. Jim said simply, ďItís white, completely covered with snow. Those mountains are streaked.Ē We still enjoyed the view. Fifteen miles farther south we stopped at the Veterans Memorial and lo and behold, a big white mountain appeared above the cloud layer. I was right; it is unmistakable. We watched the mountain for a while, then drove around the corner to Byers Lake. Denali State Park has several campgrounds and recreation areas as well as the Kesugi Ridge Trail. We hiked 1Ĺ miles along the lake, then two miles up to the ridge. Just as we reached treeline it started to rain, but that didnít last long. We continued another half mile on the ridge to Mini Skinny Lake. It was an area of alpine tundra, rocks and mosses Ė beautiful in its stark way. Flowers were tiny miniatures of lowland plants. The trail up was very steep and eroded so we were very slow. (We learned later that Byers Lake is not the recommended trailhead for dayhikes up to the ridge, since it is so steep.) There were views of the Alaska Range, and Denali appeared on the way up, though it was hidden again by the time we descended. We sat at a view spot and admired the mountains while we tried to catch our breath. There was a nice 100í waterfall and lots of wild flowers: blue iris, geraniums, lupine, pink roses and white bunchberry, as well as the alpine flowers and blueberry buds. The sun came and went, as did the showers, but mostly it was warm and sunny. Heaven. I wore a t-shirt for the first time in over a month.
We finished our eight mile hike around 7:00 and continued the drive south. At the southern end of Denali State Park there is another very nice developed viewpoint. When we arrived, Denali was visible, but lightly wreathed in clouds. We decided to cook dinner there and wait a while. Sure enough, the clouds slowly drifted off and we ended up with some really clear views of Denali and the nearby peaks. The sun was in the wrong direction for great photographs, but it was beautiful to watch. We spent a long time watching the clouds and mountains and the people coming and going. It was a very busy place for a while.
I had a good day, between the sunshine, the hike and the views. Weíre tired and sore but happy. A few miles south is the tiny community of Trapper Creek. We got a site at the RV park there, took a most welcome shower and decided to do laundry since we needed to be in the main building anyway to get internet. It was midnight by the time we were finished, but it was good to get that least enjoyable chore done.
Jim: Finishing the laundry was fine, but even better was looking up the road and seeing a Denali sunset. I got in the truck and drove about 8 miles back up the road to get a better photo. Not that we "needed" more photos of Denali - we only had about 50 or 60.
Thursday, June 26: Anchorage
We woke to blue skies and sunshine, so decided to head back to the Denali Viewpoint to see if we could get better photos. Although you can see the top of the mountain above the trees from Trapper Creek, you canít see the rest of the range and the whole massif is beautiful. A few clouds were beginning to gather around Mt. Hunter, but Denali was clear and really spectacular when we arrived, worth the extra miles, I think.
A few miles to the south, we decided to detour to Talkeetna. We spent the night in town last time we were in Alaska, but didnít see much. Today we stopped at a viewpoint near Talkeetna with a good view of Denali, though more cloudy than earlier. Jim parked the car and we wandered through town. Thereís a good used bookstore and the Roadhouse has a good bakery, however, the town itself was jam-packed with tourists, so we didnít stay very long. Evidently the cruise ship buses stop here on the way to Denali, so there were hundreds of people walking about. Supposedly Talkeetna was the inspiration for the TV series ďNorthern ExposureĒ but these days itís just another tourist trap with lots of quaint shops, restaurants and tour companies. Hyder was much closer to the Northern Exposure version of Alaska. Talkeetna has one activity I would love to do some day: there are numerous air charter businesses that fly to or around Denali. Itís not that expensive Ė around $200 Ė but itís more than we want to spend right now. Our credit card is already overloaded, just paying for gas.
After a grocery stop at WalMart in Wasilla, we detoured to Eklutna, a Russian Orthodox Athabascan community with a very old church and 100 or so colorful ďSpirit HousesĒ built over graves. It was interesting. The early Spirit Houses were much simpler, but some of the newer ones were really fancy. We also did a short walk to nearby Thunderbird Falls. It is a 200í waterfall, but only a short segment is visible from the trail, so it was a bit of a disappointment. Still it felt good to stretch our legs for a bit before heading into the city. We bought gas at Costco ($4.26) then went to REI to buy a bear canister.
Jim: Never thought I'd voluntarily buy a bear can. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do. And I don't like carrying food to feed the bears, so.....
We hope to do some backpacking in Alaska, and a bear canister is a good idea with so much treeless country. Finally we ate dinner at Dennys then went to look for a campground. Centennial Campground is a nice big municipal campground with lots of trees, especially around the edges. The noise from the highway is constant, but weíre good at blocking that out. Thereís supposed to be a resident black bear, but we didn't see him. Evidently there have been a couple of grizzly maulings in Anchorage this month, so people are a bit nervous. One was a girl doing a 24 hour race on her bicycle who startled a sow in the middle of the night. The other was someone who got between a sow and her cub. Neither should have been a surprise, but I think people were upset that they happened so close to town.
Iím sure Anchorage has some fine sights, but we didnít see them. Itís a city. Enough said. The nearby Chugash Mountains are pretty and the rain that threatened all afternoon never fell, but I have no desire to spend much time here.