Friday, July 11: camp on Denali Highway
We spent last night at the municipal campground at the Little Susitna River. Surprisingly there were only three or four of us staying at the 96 site campground. It is primitive, without hookups or running water, but itís nice with wooded sites. I really prefer those. Unfortunately, some noisy kids kept yelling and screaming until about 1:00, so it wasnít a peaceful night.
We both needed a shower, so we stopped at Trapper Creek where we showered and did laundry at the campground. It was, for the most part, cloudy and cool Ė normal Alaska summer weather. We got a little rain early this morning, but it stopped soon after we left. We drove past Denali State Park and this time could barely see the mountains. Denali was completely hidden. It was still a pretty drive in its way: a wide green valley with white and black spruce, ponds and streams, and mountains rising above the valley blanketed in clouds.
Jim wanted to head back up the Denali Highway to see what we missed last time because of the rain. I donít know whether it will be any better the second time around, but tomorrow may be clearer. The forecast for the next week is basically cloudy with chance of showers. At least itís not pouring this time around. Traffic was light, making it easy to stop and look for wildlife. We got out at the knob and climbed up to enjoy the expansive views. We could see the Alaska Range several miles to the north with its glaciers and snow-touched ridges. We ended up driving about 70 miles on the dirt highway before we turned around. The sun came out for a while and there were patches of blue sky. A mama moose and calf crossed the road ahead of us, but disappeared too quickly for photos. We stopped for the night at an overlook: green hills to the south of us, ponds and distant mountains to the north. Mosquitoes are abundant. So are hares. Two came within 20 feet of us while we ate dinner.
Saturday, July 12: Denali National Park
We woke to the sound of something gnawing on the car. Weíve camped in porcupine country, so we recognized the sound. We got up, looked under the car, and banged a hiking stick against the metal. No porkie, just a squeaking ground squirrel. We couldnít see it, just heard it. We ate breakfast and drove off. A mile or so down the road, Jim stopped the car and began poking around under the car. Sure enough, the ground squirrel was crouching in the frame, tucked up on top of the spare tire. It didnít want to leave, so it growled at Jim, a funny squeaky sort of growl. Finally Jim poked it with the hiking stick and it dropped to the ground and ran off.
Some time later we saw a porcupine on the road and a moose with two calves. All ran too fast for good photos.
It started as another grey cloudy day. We had sunshine late yesterday and a beautiful sunset, so I hoped for clear skies. Instead we couldnít even see the mountains when we started, though the clouds lifted as we drove west. By the time we reached Denali National Park, the sun was shining and the mountains rose clear and beautiful beside the road.
We went into the Visitors Center to see about campground availability. Riley Campground was full tonight but open tomorrow, so we started to reserve a spot there, but then I noticed that Teklanika Campground had an opening. Tek is a drive-in campground 29 miles inside the park, past the point where private vehicles are usually required to turn around. If you want to camp there, you must agree to stay at least three nights. You canít drive anywhere except directly to and from the campground, but you can use the shuttles freely. You can go anywhere in the park on a standby basis hopping on and off the shuttles. You just canít leave the park. A three-day bus pass costs the same as a one-day pass usually does. Works for us. Since we both wanted to spend more time in the park, hiking and looking for wildlife, three days is better than one.
We drove out to our campground, picked a site, then picked up the shuttle bus to Eielson (about halfway up the Park Road) at 1:15. We actually got a view of Denali on the way in and a couple more as we drove deeper into the Park. By the time the bus reached Eielson, the mountain was completely hidden again in clouds, but I was happy to have seen it at all. The day remained clear and sunny otherwise, absolutely gorgeous.
There were a lot of people out enjoying the good weather, hiking or walking on the road. There are few formal trails in Denali NP, so most hiking is cross-country. It makes for some interesting walking. Since we started so late, we didnít manage to get outside, except at the visitors center. Drat. From the bus, we saw four bears, three moose, some Dall sheep, caribou and two golden eagles. It was a good day. The caribou were mostly on the few remaining snow patches, trying to get relief from the flies. A bear had spent the afternoon wallowing in mud, so looked a bit odd with a blond front half and a dark brown rear end. We watched another lie down on his back, one foot in the air, to take a nap. Far away we spotted a mama griz with her cub on a hillside. We got back to the campground about 7:10, then hurried to hear the ranger talk at 7:30 Ė Wilderness 101, or how to dayhike with a very heavy pack. We missed half of it, but then it was pretty basic stuff.
Sunday, July 13: Denali National Park (4 miles)
It was a mixed day, but all in all a good one. Things just didnít go as we expected. It was raining when we woke up, but lightly, so I made my coffee, packed up lunch and we left the campground about 9:00. We had nice weather for a while as we rode the shuttle bus deeper into the park, but then we climbed into the clouds and lost all visibility. Yesterday I saw some people walking on a ridge high above Stony Overlook and it looked like a good area to explore, so I asked the driver to drop us off there. In total whiteout conditions, it wasnít a good idea. Wildflowers were plentiful and walking on the soft dry tundra was easy, but we had no way of knowing where to go. It would have been too easy to get lost, so we walked up the ridge a short distance then turned around toward the road, then walked up the other side a short way, then returned to the road again. We followed the dirt road a mile or so toward Eielson in a light drizzle, then picked up a bus headed the other way. It turned out to be our original bus. A large group had gotten off the bus when we did, but they also turned back. They hadnít realized there was no trail, and werenít prepared to bushwhack through the clouds.
We rode the bus back to Sable Pass where we descended and walked a couple of miles through the Pass. Itís a restricted area (no off road hiking) since itís such a rich wildlife area. They donít want conflicts between backpackers and bears or caribou, I guess. All we saw was one big caribou that ran up the ridge, shaking its head to get rid of the flies. (Evidently there is a fly that burrows into the nose that drives caribou crazy. You often see them shaking their heads, or putting their noses into snowbanks to get rid of them.) Sable Pass is a beautiful area, so it was worth spending some time walking slowly through the pass, looking up at the green hills on both sides. We finally got on another bus, which we rode out to the Teklanika Rest Area, about a mile from the campground. We got off and walked the last mile or so along the river to our truck. It didnít rain again, but sunshine was scarce.
Wildlife was scarce today too: no bears or wolves, only a few caribou, a moose cow, and a couple of dozen Dall sheep. I pointed out most of them. The shuttle buses rely on the passengers to spot wildlife. A trip is only as good as the eyes of the passengers. Today wasnít a good day for spotters. People were bored and didnít even look out the window. Some just napped most of the way. One woman saw a fox, but didnít yell ďSTOPĒ so we drove past it. She wasnít sure and didnít want to be embarrassed if she was wrong. I donít care. Iíll yell stop whenever I see a possible animal. Sometimes itís just a rock Ė a stone bear or a stone sheep Ė but how can you know until you get a good look at it? One yellow spot I saw off in the distance may have been a bear, but it was so far away no one would have been able to see it well, so for that one I kept my mouth shut.
We got back to the campground around 5:00. It was cold and gray but not actively raining, so we put on charcoal for hamburgers. As we finished eating, the rain began again and kept it up for the next three hours, then continued off and on all night.
Monday, July 14: Denali National Park
Another rainy day. We slept in, hoping it would stop, then finally got up and fixed breakfast in the rain. We got on a shuttle to Eielson and it rained the entire way. The bus windows were soon coated with mud. We cleaned them as best we could at the rest stops, but within minutes they were coated with brown goo. Not surprisingly, wildlife sightings were scarce. I spotted a moose and Jim spotted a bear right next to the road, but the bus didnít stop quickly enough and the driver refused to back up so we could all see it. There were two other moose that another bus had spotted. We stopped when we saw them all looking out the window. Then we had the highlight of the day: a wolf trotted up the road right next to the bus. Jim got video but no stills. My camera was stowed and the wolf was gone by the time I got it out. (With the rain and low clouds there was no scenery to shoot and all of our other wildlife sightings have been too far for my camera. A 5X zoom isnít enough out here; you need at least a 10X to get decent wildlife photos.)
At Eielson it was cold and rainy, not good hiking weather, so I asked the dispatcher if there was room on the next bus to Wonder Lake. He said that there was an unscheduled bus leaving in 15 minutes, so we grabbed our daypack and made the switch. The bus was completely empty, except for us and the driver. It was a sweeper bus Ė an extra one sent out to pick up hikers and backpackers when the regular buses are running full. When the weather is bad, people are less likely to get off the shuttles to go for a hike, which is hard on backpackers who are counting on getting a bus out but find the buses all full. At Wonder Lake we got a call that there were 17 people stranded at Kantishna, a large group of backpackers plus a few extra that the regular camper bus couldnít take, so we made the detour out to Kantishna. It made for a much longer day than we had planned, since Kantishna is about an hour past Wonder Lake. We had intended to get off the bus along the way and hike, but it was cold and drizzly most of the day. Wonder Lake and Kantishna were dry but very buggy, so we didnít want to hike there. It was a noisy group. The large group of backpackers was young and boisterous and the driverís wife was one of the other people picked up at Kantishna and she talked non-stop all the way back. It was better than the boys who were fighting on the bus this morning. They irritated me enough I told them to quit hitting each other. The family got off soon afterwards to hike in the rain Ė was it something I said?
Neither group was looking for wildlife. I noticed a bear in the bushes near the spot Jim saw the bear this morning, probably the same one. It was too far away to photograph but we stopped to look. A parked bus alerted us to a large herd of Dall sheep in the Igloo Mountain area. I counted 36, scattered over the peaks. We walked the last mile back to the campground and got covered with mud. Tomorrowís forecast calls for sunshine, but weíre leaving, of course. Iíll be happy to get a shower. I need one.
I enjoyed our stay at Tek, but it was also somewhat disappointing. The weather the past two days really discouraged hiking. The first day was beautiful, but we got here so late there wasnít time to drive out to Eielson and do much hiking and then get back at a reasonable time for dinner. We didnít see nearly as much wildlife in the park as I expected. I wanted to see bears, and I only saw one today (Jim saw two Ė or maybe the same one twice) and none yesterday. We saw moose and Dall sheep all three days and caribou on the first two, but we saw much more wildlife four years ago, and even on our quick visit three weeks ago. If the people on the bus arenít interested in actively looking for animals (as was the case yesterday and today) then youíre out of luck unless another bus is stopped by the side of the road pointing to the animal.
Tuesday, July 15: Healy (7 miles)
After two days of rain, fog and clouds, we woke to blue skies and sunshine. Unfortunately, our permit was ended so we had to leave. We had a couple of views of Denali and the mountains were crystal clear and sparkling in the sun. We stopped again at Savage River on the way out and hiked along the stream on the two mile trail there. No wildlife but gulls, ptarmigans (the chicks are getting big!) and hares. Near the Visitors Center we hiked up the Healy Overlook Trail. We didnít intend to go all the way, as thereís an overlook of sorts only a mile up the trail. We only brought a half-full bottle of water and no lunch. At the overlook we stopped for a minute to look at the view, then without discussion headed up the hill. The trail climbs 1660í in 2.3 miles Ė and the first mile is nearly flat. It was a steep climb after that! The view from the top, and from several rock outcroppings along the way, was spectacular, though the sky was rather hazy. We even got a glimpse of the top of Denali. At the overlook, the trail continues along a ridge for a while, but we turned around since we were so low on water. Besides, Iíve been sick for the past few days (upset stomach) so my energy levels were really low. It was 2:00 by the time we got back to the car so we were overdue for lunch and water.
We drove a few miles up the highway to the town of Healy, which has an RV park that was supposed to be good since it has trees. The tent sites are nice, but the RV sites are the typical RV gravel parking lot, with one lone skinny tree between each site. Itís better than most in the Denali area, but not as good as some weíve stayed in. The showers were cheap ($2.50) but just tiny concrete stalls in the laundry room up the hill on the far side of the campground. The closer lower bathrooms were ďclosed for the seasonĒ. At least weíre not right next to the highway. We can hear cars, but at a distance. No WIFI but Jim wanted electricity so he could recharge the computer. Downloading photos last night used up a lot of the battery. Being clean after four nights of camping without running water feels good, even if the shower wasnít the best (no pressure). It is also really nice to spend a quiet afternoon reading in the sun after so many days of being constantly on the move.
Jim suggested going back to Teklanika for three more days, but I think Iím ready to move on. On a beautiful day like today itís tempting. Iíd like to do more hiking and see Denali from Eielson or Wonder Lake (they are closer, so the entire mountain is visible, not just the peak) but Iím tired of sitting on the buses surrounded by strangers who talk all the time. Iím not used to being around so many people. Besides, itís not likely that this beautiful weather will last. We seem to get one really good day out of every three or four. Riding the bus in the rain when you canít see out the windows is a waste of time. No views, no wildlife. On a day like today itís a joy, for Denali National Park is really beautiful with so many rich colors: green meadows, colorful volcanic mountains, white glaciers Ė and then thereís the wildlife. On a nice day they are much more visible. Or maybe itís just that people are more willing to look. Anyhow, we decided to continue the journey north tomorrow. Weíll come back to Denali another day.