Alaska - The last Frontier - Part II: Denali National Park

Finally i found time to write the second part of this article. I will cover about the Denali national park visit in this blog.

Denali national park gets its name from the native Athabaskan name for Mt. McKinley. It means "The high one". It is one of the largest national parks in America at 6 million acres. The centerpiece of the national park is Mt. McKinley which is the highest peak in North America at 20,320ft. The Alaska range of mountains runs through the center of the park and offers breathtaking landscape with its perpetually snow covered peaks and glacially carved valleys. The range is also the source of several glacially fed streams & braided rivers. 

Most of the Denali national park is a designated wilderness area. There is a 90-mile road from the entrance of the park to Kantishna(Old Mining community) that offers the only connection to external world. Visitors are allowed to drive in their vehicles for the first 15 miles of this road. There are regular shuttle buses that ferry visitors beyond Mile 15. The round trip from Visitor center to Kantishna and back takes around 10-12 hrs. There are also no designated trails in the park unlike most of the national parks in US. So you can pretty much get off the road and hike wherever you want !!

The vegetation in the park varies from Taiga to Tundra. At lower elevations and near the entrance of the park the vegetation consists of boreal forests consisting of coniferous trees like pine, spruce & willows etc. As you travel deeper and higher into the park the coniferous trees start becoming shorter and stunted and gradually pave way to Tundra landscape consisting of Moss, Fern, Lichens & grasses. As you go even higher you start encountering barren landscape which has been stripped bare by the natural elements. The transformation of the vegetation/landscape from Taiga to Tundra is pretty dramatic.

We took the shuttle bus from visitor center and went up to Eielsen Visitor center(Mike 66) on both the days. Few miles out from the visitor center the road starts climbing and roughly between miles 10-14 you can get a view of Mt. McKinley on a clear day. The scenery on this stretch is very beautiful. You can see the changing vegetation and stunted pines here. Late August/early September is fall in Denali and the whole landscape consisted of plants in different hues of red's, yellow's and brown's. This stretch is also a popular Moose watching area. We saw around 3-4 moose in this stretch. The nearest one we saw was at 50ft and it was a bull Moose sporting huge antlers!!

The Savage river camp ground where we camped was at Mile 14. A mile from this campground the road descends and goes across the savage river and you get to a check post. Only Park shuttles are allowed beyond this point. We got off at this point and did a short 3 mile hike by the savage river. The hike follows the river for little over a mile. Here there is a small wooden bridge allowing you to cross the river. We Crossed over and followed the river on the other side back to the road. We saw marmot & arctic squirrel in our hiking path(<10 ft) on the way back. There were some good, challenging rocks where we tried our hand at climbing/bouldering during this hike:-).

After the savage river the road climbs back again to Primrose ridge and descends to Sanctuary river/campground. This is a primitive campground with minimal facilities. Few more miles along the road you get to Teklanika river(Mile 30). The shuttle makes the first stop at this point. There is a nice viewpoint for viewing the Teklanika river which is very wide and braided. There is also a campground at this place. It looks like couple of Grizzlies had visited the campground the night before :-). From here on the next 20-30 miles the possibility of seeing Grizzlies is good. Infact we saw around half a dozen plus grizzlies in the stretch between here and Eeilson visitor center. Beyond this point the park road is unpaved and is a gravel road.

As we continue along the road we pass thickly wooded stretch for a few miles. We cross the Igloo campground and we start climbing up. This area is a good hiking area and there are multiple mountain tops that you could hike to like Igloo mountain, Cathedral mountain, Sable mountain, Double mountain etc. You get a great view of the Alaska range from these mountain tops. These mountain tops are also very popular with Dall Sheep which graze along the steep and precipitous slopes. We saw quite a few Dall sheep on these slopes. They normally graze in small groups. If you notice any white specs on these mountains its the Dall sheep. 

The road then goes past the sable pass, descends and we cross the East fork river. This and the Tolkat river beds are a popular spot for Grizzlies. We go off the bus here for a hike. We tried to climb down off a steep & slippery slope(roughly 200ft) without much success. We followed the road for a little bit and got off on a small side road which leads to a winter cabin by the river side. As we hiked down the path and came around a bend we ran into a red fox. It had just hunted a small animal(possibly Squirrel)and was eating it in the path. We stopped a good 25-30 ft from this Fox. To our surprise, the fox started walking towards us and it crossed us and disappeared into the brush!!!! We saw the fox at <10ft distance. One of the things that really surprised me was that most of the animals in this park are not afraid of humans. We continued our hike along the river bank, spent some time there and hiked back out.

From here, the road climbs back very steeply for a few hundred mtrs and you pass thru stretches with steep drops. The top of the climb takes you to Polychrome overlook(Mile 47). You get a nice panaromic view of the Alaska range and the Tolkat river from here. The landscape here is amazing. You can see all the different colors in the palette as part of the scenery. There is also a short hike from here to the Polychrome mountain. This would give you a even better view of this landscape and on a clear day you could see Mt McKinley. 

Further along, the road descends to the Tolkat river. There is a visitor station here on the river bed displaying some artifacts & books regarding Alaska. This river bed is also a popular hiking spot and you have a good possibility of seeing some wildlife(Caribou & Grizzly). The river is huge and the river bed stretches a good 1+ mile across. The road continues to climb through highway pass and then you go thru a sharp descent, series of hairpin bends and few miles further down you get to Eielson visitor center(Mile 66). We saw a large caribou with huge antlers during this drive. From Eielson visitor center you can some of the best views of Mt McKinley. The best months for viewing McKinley is in Winter when the sky is clear. We were at Denali for 3 days and were not successful in viewing the mountain. The visitor center has a good clay model of the Alaska range and the surrounding mountains. It clearly highlights the various glaciers, climbing paths, features etc. It looks like from this point on it becomes very foggy even in the best weather conditions. We stopped at this point and didn't continue due to bad visibility. 

Beyond this point the road goes through a flat stretch and reaches Wonder Lake at Mile 85. You pass the Muldrow Glacier on the way. This is one of the largest glaciers originating in Mt McKinley and is around 30 miles long. This used to be one of the major climbing paths to the top of McKinley during early days. On Clear days the view of Mt McKinley from Wonder Lake is supposed to be one of the most beautiful views of the mountain. You get a clear reflection of the mountain on the lake. We same some fotos of this at the visitor center and it was breathtaking. Few more miles from here the road ends at Kantishna which used to a mining village during the early 1900's.

In terms of wild life Denali is the Serengeti of North America. Some of the wild like we saw during this trip include Grizzlies, Caribou, Moose, Dall Sheep, Red fox, Marmot, Arctic Squirrel, Cayote and Snow shoe hare. Some of the major birds we saw include Golden Eagle, Ptarmigan, Arctic Warblers and Gyrfalcons.

Overall we had a great trip to Denali and we really enjoyed the scenery and wild life. Though we were there for around 2.5 to 3 days it was over in a flash and i wish we had some more time to spend here.

To be continued. The final part of this series will cover our trip to Kenai Fjords National park.

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