August 9 – 14, 2014
This next part of the trip is what I was looking forward to ever since we put Alaska on our itinerary. In my research I read that the Denali Highway was perhaps the most beautiful highway in Alaska. It’s a hard packed gravel road that runs east / west across the tundra of central Alaska. There are no towns or cities to mar the landscape. Just wide open road and plenty of open spaces to set up a roadside camp.
The more direct route to Denali National Park is only about 120 miles. Instead I put the Denali Highway as a “must do” on our itinerary which added another 220 miles to our route. It was well worth the additional miles!
So, instead of heading southwest out of Fairbanks we drove southeast which took us straight to the North Pole! I remember sending letters to Santa Claus addressed to the North Pole when I was in grade school. Now, some years later (better to not think about how many years), I get to see where they ended up!
We stopped just long enough for the photo and then back on the road. We wanted to make it to Delta Junction before the end of the day since we only had a couple of days to complete the drive. There are only a few dates that we have to meet on this trip and our campsite reservation in Denali is one of them. We spent the night at the Delta State Recreation campgrounds just outside Delta Junction. We really enjoyed the change of scenery moving away from forests and into a land of braided rivers and distant mountain ranges across tundra dotted with tundra lakes.
Our next day was all about the Denali Highway. At this point of the trip we were wondering when we would actually start to see some wildlife. Before the trip I read something about the multitudes of bald eagles and that they were everywhere you looked. So far the bald eagle count is two and that was back in Wrangell. I thought that I would be braking for wildlife as it crossed the road in front of us. The only wildlife that we have stopped for has been captured in photographs that we admired at the fair. But now things were about to change. I could feel it. We would be driving across the middle of Alaska; no towns and wide open wilderness.
This is the beauty that we saw for hundreds of miles but still no wildlife. We stopped at a restaurant just a few miles into our Denali Highway experience to get a late lunch. As we were parking I noticed a set of antlers peaking out of the back of a pick-up driving along the highway. And then we saw in the parking lot another pick-up with a caribou carcass in the truck bed. This wasn’t exactly how I envisioned my wildlife encounters to be.
We were sent away from the restaurant because they had been over-run with customers all morning and weren’t prepared to offer any more service until later in the evening. Turned away, we went back out on the road to another restaurant about 50 miles away. The number of trucks and campers along the road was much more than we expected to see. This is supposed to be open space with rarely other vehicles on the road. What was going on?
We got our answer at the next restaurant. It was opening day of caribou hunting season! Everyone was out and getting set up for a week of hunting, or less time if they killed their quarry earlier which we had already witnessed. This changed our plans for the day as we drove by hunters all along the road. They were out on their quads, rifles in hand and ready to shoot. The hunting was on both sides of the road and every open spot for camping was taken. Originally we planned to go out for a hike once we set up camp but we weren’t sure if wearing brightly colored clothes would really keep us safe from a stray bullet. We finally found an awesome little camping spot late in the evening. The spot was atop a small hill that was just steep enough to discourage most of the campers. We had the place all to ourselves and settled in for the evening. We still have yet to see any wildlife but we know it’s out there based on the number of caribou being hauled out of the area.
We drove the last forty miles of the Denali Highway then made our way to our camp site in Denali National Park. We had dinner outside the park at Denali Park Salmon Bake. We were surprised to see a Princess Hotel and other cruise line restaurants this far north from their ports. We saw many cruise line buses transporting their passengers to Denali from Anchorage. Consistent with the other cruise line port of calls we saw the familiar signs posted in a few restaurants and business announcing that they were Alaska owned and operated. The Salmon Bank restaurant was one of these Alaskan owned business and one of the better options that we’ve found in Alaska. We were not impressed with the food at the restaurants in Denali National Park. We later learned that the park service actually subcontracts their food service to Aramark, the same company that provides airline food service. This explained why the food was so bad. 😦
The next day we awoke early to catch our bus tour of the Kantishna Experience. This tour takes you all the way to the end of the park. Private cars are only allowed on the first few miles of road into the park and to go further you must take one of the park shuttles or tours. Our bus would take us 92 miles through the park, one way. Our bus driver, Sheryl Paxton, was also a certified interpretive guide and very knowledgeable about the park and its history. She had stories to fill the 15 hour day that we had with her.
While we were standing in line awaiting the bus we listened to stories from our fellow passengers about the wild life that they had seen during their travels. It seemed that all of the couples surrounding us had stories of seeing grizzlies, caribou, bald eagles, and wolves. We warned them that we had some sort of curse on us and that we haven’t seen anything but two bald eagles during our almost three weeks in Alaska. They didn’t seem fazed at all by our curse and assured us that our luck was about to change.
From the beginning of our tour the bus had mechanical issues which eventually required a replacement to be brought out for us. We waited at the Teklanika rest stop, about 30 miles into the tour, for over an hour for the replacement. We passed the time enjoying the incredible views at an overlook above a river. Most of us were out along the overlook when a grizzly ambled down the river just below us feasting on the berries growing along the banks. I was in heaven!!
Another bus showed up and now the grizzly had a packed house watching him eat. The bus driver was keeping a close eye on him and told us that if the grizzly headed into the bush just below us then we all needed to go back into the bus because he would likely be headed up into the parking lot. He just finished warning us when the bear turned toward us up the hill. The majority of us (myself included) turned tail and headed for the safety of the buses. A few stayed behind but pretty soon we saw a group running toward the buses and close behind was the bear walking just a few feet from the bus across the parking lot! He was huge! Darryl managed to get a couple of photos before the grizzly disappeared into the bush.
Our replacement bus finally arrived and we got on our way. Not 20 minutes later and we came across this family of bears tearing up the mountainside looking for squirrels. What a day so far!
When I got up the morning of the tour I had already lowered my expectations about seeing any wildlife and was ready to accept a day where we wouldn’t see anything. So I set all my hopes on seeing a glimpse of Denali. It’s rare to see Denali during the summer months and when you do get a glimpse of her you need to appreciate it because the next minute she might have covered herself up behind a thick layer of clouds. I told myself that it would be an awesome day if I could get just one glimpse of Denali. So I was ready, camera in hand, when Shirley told us to get our cameras ready because around the next bend would be our first opportunity to see if Denali wished to reveal herself today. And wow!!! What a spectacular sight awaited us! Denali was out and in full glory!!
My day could have ended right then and there but we still had many more hours ahead of us. It turned out to be an incredible day driving through Denali. Grizzlies, moose, caribou, dall sheep, pica and Denali, this was better than I had hoped for!
After our tour we went to the Salmon Bake Restaurant for dinner. We were just finishing when we noticed another couple from our tour group, Meg and Mark from New Zealand. We started talking with them about the day and before long we invited them to sit down with us as we chatted late into the evening about their travels and their life stories. Mark had an interesting take on the life that they’ve created for themselves and described it as Lifestyle Engineering. His concept is basically saying that you prioritize the things that are important to you and engineer a lifestyle (work and play) that allows you to realize a balance between these priorities. This idea resonated with Darryl and I since we have spent many hours talking about what sort of life do we want after this trip and here Mark had a fancy name for it. Over the past few months Darryl and I have spent a lot of time talking with other couples about how they have created a lifestyle that allows them to balance their passions with making a living to support their lifestyles. We expect that our lives after this trip will look very different from what they were before we started the trip.
The following day we had tickets for another bus tour through the park but after spending over 15 hours in a bus the previous day we decided to bail on that plan and gave away our tickets. We spent the day enjoying the park on foot and exploring the trails around the campground. Later in the afternoon we went to see the sled dog expedition at the Denali Headquarters. These huskies have each run over 2,000 miles through Denali’s back country during the winter months patrolling and delivering construction and other materials to sites that are inaccessible by truck. The Denali huskies were more laid back than Hugh’s racing dogs and the were much larger. They were all still very excited about their jobs but once they finished their short expedition run for the tourists they laid down and calmly waited for the park ranger to finish her presentation. Hugh’s dogs were amped from the moment Hugh started harnessing the team until the dogs were finished with their workout and returned to their dens.
Our last day in Denali was spent walking the Savage River trails. These trails are along park road at the farthest point where private cars can travel to without a special permit. It was a beautiful ending to our time in Denali. I’m sure we would have extended our stay if there were campsites available but unfortunately Denali was fully booked. We left feeling like we had really experienced Alaska and a little bit of it’s wilder side. Now to Anchorage but first a short detour to see Alaska’s most famous pop culture icon. Stay tuned!