North to Alaska: Stalking Denali

If there was one word that I’ve overused these first few days in Alaska, it’s been “wow.” I’ve uttered it at so many turns, at scenes that change with the closing and the parting of the clouds.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an AvGeek, but honestly at this point my first flight since October 2019 pales in excitement compared to the past few days. Summary: 757 EWR-DEN was good, and I certainly appreciate these aircraft more than ever now as they are starting to vanish. Denver layover good, quick duck into the United Club for a beer then on to Anchorage. DEN-ANC good, amazing views over BC and the Yukon. Then we got to Anchorage. Twelve hours in a face mask wasn’t the most fun thing, but worth it to have adventures. All in all not bad, and after five months of mostly isolation and ten months since my last flight, this view was sorely missed.

I rented a car through Midnight Sun Car Rental, an indie outfit which has fewer restrictions on gravel roads than the multinationals. I decided that their rates, openness towards adventure, and small business nature all appealed to me on this trip, and in these times. I ended up with a Subaru Outback, which turned out to be a great choice. It’s good on fuel at around 30 miles per gallon, fits my giant ExPed MegaMat in the back without moving the seats (the only other car I’ve done that in perfectly is an LR3), and it’s a pretty fun drive quite frankly…even with the moderately dire CVT transmission. I mean, I’d totally rather have my Land Rovers, or any Land Rover, but I’d also rather…be here.

After some stops in Anchorage (REI for gear I couldn’t fly with, supermarket for food), it was north up the Parks Highway. Honestly, it was so foggy on the way up here, I didn’t really get the scope of the place. The mountains were clouded in, and all I could see was spruce trees. Still pretty, but it reminded me more of the subtle beauty of Northern Maine. It’s a beauty I love back east, but I was having mild feelings of “what’s the big deal about this place?”

Then, about an hour before I got to Denali, the clouds broke. Suddenly, massive mountain ranges started to appear on either side of the highway. The fog rolled away…like usually happens in the morning, but the midnight sun makes everything a bit wonky here. And then, for the first of what’s already been many times this trip, I slammed the brakes and stopped the Subaru short to get photos with my jaw dropped.

With tepid first impressions fully dismissed, it was off to Denali National Park and the Riley Creek Campground. This was one of the places up there that have had their business decimated by the cutback in tourism with Covid-19. Usually, it’s a campground that’s entirely sold out for the whole summer at the beginning of the year. This time, I made my reservations just a few weeks ago. I was there too late to register, so I just picked a site and set up for the night. It’d been a long day — I’d gotten up almost 24 hours ago, at 5:30 AM New Jersey time. I rolled out the mattress in the back of the Subie, set up the sleeping bag, and put on one of my smartest items packed — my United Polaris eye mask from my 747 upper deck trip a few years ago. Yay useful souvenirs!

The next morning (morning being a deeply relative concept as regards sleep under the midnight sun) I had a 10:00 AM reservation on the Transit Bus into Denali National Park. I’d been hoping to get one of the special self-drive permits that were issued on select weekends as part of the park’s Covid mitigation plan, but they sold out faster than Adele tickets when I tried to buy one the second they released. So I decided to do the next best thing, and go for the transit bus. Since they reduced the numbers on each bus for social distancing, I figured it probably wouldn’t be a bad experience, even though I hate bus tours.

I headed over to the visitor’s center to get the all-important National Parks Passport stamp, then to the bus station to board the bus. The buses are more or less Blue Bird school buses, right down to the slide-up windows that never stay up…just like my Blue Bird school buses decades ago. But it’s been an intrinsic part of the Denali experience for decades, ever since the buses were introduced to mitigate the vehicles driving on the narrow, rough, and fragile Denali Park Road.

While it’s called a “Transit Bus,” and while there are narrated “Tour Buses” as well, the experience was certainly not just an out-and-back shuttle. We stopped for wildlife, and with only a dozen people maximum onboard at any time, we got the chance to photograph it out both sides of the bus. The first sighting was just a few miles down the road, with a big cow moose grazing by the side of the road. The only other time I’d ever seen a moose was one that was running through the Canadian Shield from afar on the Sudbury-White River train a few years ago. So, mark one for the Alaska Wildlife Photo Bingo card.

We continued on, over the Savage River, where the road turns to gravel. It’s also where the scenery really started to open up, with the mountain views I expected. There was still some low cloud cover, but by the time we reached the Polychrome Overlook, it opened up, leading to some excellent vistas over the colorful rocks of the mountains and the glaciers.

As the bus wound through the park, we made a number of wildlife sightings. A lot of them were pretty far away, too far for any kind of decent photo, even with my 400mm lens. We saw a number of caribou, some Dall sheep on the tops of mountains, a grizzly bear chasing after ground squirrel holes, and a few birds (though not as many birds as expected, honestly.)

This year, the transit bus ends its run at the Eielson Visitor’s Center, at Mile 66 of 92. The park is operating on reduced staff in the Covid times, so they can’t justify opening beyond here, and it’s a good turnaround point. They have an outdoor visitor center set up with brochures, maps, and passport stamps, and the bathrooms are open, but the exhibits aren’t. The transit bus gives you an hour here, though, which is much more than normal, so  I was able to go do a bit of a hike down towards the river flats. It was then that I realized that the past few months had not been kind to my hiking stamina, and as I struggled back up the mountain to the parking lot, I decided that I’d scrap my backpacking element of the trip in the Kennicott area of Wrangell-St Elias National Park, saving it for the future. It’s one part of the trip that’s not normally crowded, anyway, and the goal of this trip is to see the usually-crowded without crowds.

The return bus journey was much the same as the outbound, with a few more wildlife sightings. Overall, even though I’d been hoping for a self-drive Denali Park Road permit, the transit bus was a decent way to ease my way in here. After all, yesterday had been pretty tiring, and it was nice to have someone else drive and give me some narration. I’m not usually a fan at all of bus tours, but this was a nice in-between…a bit of a shuttle, a bit of a tour. I’d like to drive the road myself one day, and I’m planning to apply for the road lottery every year in the future with the hopes to get it eventually. But I already know there’s so much more to explore here so it wasn’t a big deal — there will be more trips, that I already know.

With that theory in mind…I still had some unfinished business here. The namesake, The Great One, Denali. I hadn’t seen her yet, at all. The fog, the perspectives in the park, it had all conspired against me. I had two more nights planned at Riley Creek, which meant I had a full day to burn. I decided over my dinner of dehyrated Kathmandu Curry…I’d spend Sunday in the Subaru, driving to other locations on the Parks Highway, “Stalking Denali.”

My bad luck so far was not exactly abnormal. Denali is so huge, it creates its own weather system. This 2008 CBS News article describes it better than I can, but basically it’s due to the position of the Alaska Range and how it influences the climate. The top is often ensconced in clouds of the mountain’s own making; even when the peak is visible, the middle may be wrapped in clouds, like the Empire State Building’s mast sticking above low clouds. When I woke up on Sunday there were blue patches in the sky, though, and I was going to give it a try.

My first attempt was to drive south to Denali State Park, which occupies much of the land south of the National Park and Preserve. Though the NPS “owns” the mountain itself, the State Park encompasses much of the range to its southeast. Two overlooks off the Parks Highway give commanding views out the mountain, and it was from here I would make my first assaults. I began with the northern viewpoint, about 90 minutes south of the campsite and National Park. No luck, though. The other mountains nearby were fully visible, but Denali’s peaks — there are actually two, the South Peak being the absolute tallest — were still hidden in clouds.

I lingered for a bit seeing if the clouds were moving, but no dice. I decided that my next shot would be the South viewpoint, about 20 miles away. There were clouds there, too, but they were starting to thin, at least.

I decided to head down to Talkeetna, a small town a few miles off the Parks Highway to the south of where I was. I had heard about it, but didn’t know too much about it, but it did seem like a decent place to grab lunch and regroup. Located at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna Rivers, it was originally a district headquarters for the Alaska Railroad, and became a typical Alaskan small town. Today it’s a bit of a touristy town and a gateway to various adventure activities in the Denali area like rafting and flightseeing. It’s got a bit of a “Handmade Fudge Town” vibe, but the Denali Brewpub offered a nice location to grab lunch and a nice Kölsch beer.

After lunch I headed back north, figuring I’d make my way back to the campground via a few more attempts at the two wayside viewpoints. This plan worked out pretty well as I found myself at the South wayside with the peak showing, just barely, behind clouds. A total view of the mountain? No…but a definite and clear view of the most prominent South Peak! I’ll take it…I got the scale of the thing!

A few of us hardcore photographers ended up talking cameras, and one of them, Karilyn, I ended up talking to for a few hours. She and her husband were driving back to Fairbanks from a sports tournament down south, and he desperately needed a nap, so he stayed in their RV while she took photos. We have very similar interests in nature and landscape photography and spent hours talking about where we’ve been and where I should go in Alaska. It was the kind of chance encounter I really love when I travel…meeting other people who love the same things you do! We swapped Instagrams and contact info before parting ways to head north and plan to keep in touch.

I had about an hour and a half of driving north to get back to Riley Creek for my last night. Once again, with the midnight sun, the sun didn’t really “set” at any time, but it did start to linger low on the horizon. While the “golden hour” lasts a few minutes in more southerly latitudes, up here it really hangs on for a while. There were about five times I stopped short on the side of the Parks Highway, overcome by what I was seeing. One particular thing that was neat to photograph in the low light — the Denali Igloo, a tragic folly of a building whose story is, again, best explained by someone else in this Vice article.

And then it was back to camp, Goal #1 of the trip accomplished: see the peak of the tallest mountain in North America. Time for bed, and then onward to a new place and new horizons.

6 thoughts on “North to Alaska: Stalking Denali

  1. thank you Greg, for the beautiful pictures and the commentary. Have a nice vacation and keep posting your photos.
    Pia

  2. Yup! Amazing! Hope you grab the norrhern lights! Michael built the terminal at the airport back in 2004. He was just up there bidding new work at Elmendorf Airforce base. Watch out for those big dear with things sticking out of their head, they are not friendly. Go have pizza at Moose’s tooth in Anchorage. Huge King Crabs at New Sagaya market! Not sure if they steam. Ultimate vaca! Hugs Adreana

  3. When I visited Alaska in the 80s, I never saw Denali because of the cloud cover, but, I did ride the school bus thru the park. I flew to Port Barrow AK just to see the northernmost point in the US. (my Subaru Outback has 130,000 miles, more than any car I’ve owned.

  4. Loved traveling along with you….I was hoping we would have the opportunity…and here you are!!! Hope I can read all your upcoming words. Hugs

    Derith

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