Day 55: Wildlife but no mountain view

Day 55: Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Our search for wildlife continued as we boarded our bus at 9:40 am. The 120 mile round trip to Kantishna and back took us all day. Our bus driver and tour guide Wayne kept us informed about each area we went through. The weather was overcast and rainy all day.

Our first two wildlife sightings were Grizzly bears. The first was close to the road, the second farther away.

Next, we saw two different herds of Caribou before stopping at the Toklat River rest area. There we saw Dall Sheep on two different mountains. The Dall Sheep look like white dots on the mountain without binoculars or a telephoto lens. The pictures aren’t too good but you can tell they are sheep.

There were Caribou grazing on top of a ridge before we stopped at the Eileson Visitor’s Center for a stroll in the rain on the Tundra Loop Trail.

And then there were moose.

The Denali Park Road ends in Kantishna where several gold mines once operated. One of the mines was owned by the Quigleys. When the couple got divorced, Fannie Quigley built a cabin and lived there alone. When the national park expanded its boundaries the several privately owned lodges located there were allowed to continue to stay open.

As we began our return trip we stopped at Wonder Lake where on a clear day there is a view of Mt. McKinley. In Denali National Park the chance of seeing Mt. McKinley is only 30% and the chance of seeing a bear is 90%.

Other than stopping to watch some Dall Sheep far off on the side of a mountain we didn’t make many stops to view wildlife on the return trip.

Total wildlife count for the day: 13 Caribou, 12 Dall Sheep, 2 Grizzly Bears, several Arctic Ground Squirrels, and a Ptarmigan (the state bird of Alaska) flying low to the ground by the bus. A great day!

Day 54: Into the Denali Wilderness

Day 54: Monday, July 8, 2013. Denali RV Park and Motel to Teklanika River Campground, Denali National Park, Site 27. About 40 miles driven.

Denali Park Road is the only road in Denali National Park and Preserve. Private vehicles can drive the first 15 miles. Within those first 15 miles are the Visitor’s Center, the sled dog kennels, a campground, a science and learning center, scenic turnouts, and many hiking trails.

Travel beyond the first 15 miles is limited to the park buses and private vehicles going to and from Teklanika River Campground at mile marker 29.1. The campground has about 50 sites and a few of them are quite large. There is a three night minimum stay required and once we set up in our campsite we could not move our vehicle until the day we left. When we checked into the campground we received a camping pass along with a vehicle pass which we showed a park ranger at the Savage Creek checkpoint at the end of the 15 miles. She asked if we had filled our fresh water tank and had food. When we replied yes we were on our way into the wilderness area of Denali National Park.

The first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road is paved. The rest is dirt. The 90 mile road has several rest areas and scenic turnouts for the buses.

The wilderness area of Denali is just that.  Congress designated Denali to remain a mostly primitive area. There are no maintained trails except for around the Eielson visitor’s center. Hikers can hike wherever they want. There are a few campgrounds for tent camping that can only be reached by riding the bus. Bicycles are allowed and we saw a few cyclists.

After setting up camp we walked to the bus stop to wait for a bus so we could see some of the Denali Wilderness. The buses start near the entrance to the park where visitors can board for a tour. The 20 people waiting for the bus at our campground were all hoping to get the next bus. Sometimes the bus is full and riders have to wait for the next one. Most of the riders are hoping to see wildlife and the protocol is to shout “STOP” if anything is spotted. The driver will stop the bus and, if possible, position the bus so there is a good view of the wildlife. Our bus had scheduled stops at Teklanika River rest area, Polychrome overlook, Toklat River rest area, and Eielson Visitor’s Center. The rest areas have pit toilets and the Eielson visitor’s center has rest rooms. At each stop the driver announces when he will depart. Riders can stay longer at any location and catch another bus later. Hikers can catch a ride on a bus by standing on the side of the road and waving their arms.

We rode the bus as far as the Eielson Visitor’s Center. Our two objectives were to see wildlife and hopefully Mt. McKinley. On a clear day the mountain can be seen from the Eielson visitor’s center. Unfortunately, it was not a clear day. We struck out pretty much on the wildlife sightings, too. There were several Caribou sightings and Dall sheep so high on the mountain they looked like white dots. No bears at all.

The rain started coming down as we returned to the campground. Our campsite was at the end of a row with trees and wildflowers surrounding us. The site next to us was empty and we felt like the only people there.

Day 51: Denali at last

Day 51: Friday, July 5, 2013. North Pole, Alaska to Denali. Denali RV Park and Motel, Site 5. 194 miles traveled.

With all our chores and shopping in Fairbanks completed it was time to continue our Alaskan adventure. We left North Pole behind and traveled the Parks Highway to our RV park 8 miles outside the entrance of Denali National Park. Our reservations at Teklanika River Camp inside the national park aren’t until Monday so we will be exploring different areas of the park until then.

We made it!
Denali at last

As soon as we were set up in our campsite we drove to Denali National Park. A quick stop at the Visitor’s Center to get our National Park Passport stamped and to purchase my Senior Pass or Geezer Pass as it is often called. I officially became a senior when I turned 62 a couple of weeks ago. The National Park Service offers a Senior Pass to those of us who have reached that ripe old age. For $10 you receive a lifetime pass which gets you into any national park or monument for free and a discount for camping in many of the federal campgrounds.

With that chore completed, we stopped at the bookstore to search for a guide book to the plants and animals of Denali so we’ll know what we are looking at.

It was finally time to go explore the park. In Denali, private vehicles are only allowed on the first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road. To travel beyond that point everyone must travel on a shuttle or tour bus. The only exception is campers going to Teklanika River Camp where we will be going on Monday. More about that later.

As we traveled along the highway marveling at the beauty around us we had to stop a few times when a shuttle bus in front of us stopped. If the shuttle bus stops there must be something good to see.

At the 15 mile mark we stopped at the Savage River overlook to enjoy the view and then turned around to make our way back to the park entrance. We were hoping to get a glimpse of Mt. McKinley. Like most days, clouds were covering the peaks. At one of the overlooks we got out binoculars and searched along with a couple from Texas and a couple from Toronto. Henry spotted the peaks above the clouds first. As he pointed out where to look the excitement grew among the crowd. One by one we heard “I see it!”.

On our way back out of the park, we stopped again as the shuttle bus in front of us stopped. A moose was right beside the road not bothered by us at all.

Mt. McKinley and two moose on our first visit to Denali! What a great introduction to the park!

We stopped at the Wilderness Access Area to find out information about what to do when we check in on Monday. The lady helping us was from Georgia. She told us we could go ahead and check in so we did. With all the necessary parking and shuttle passes in hand we headed back to our campground.

I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to make some crab stew with some of our Dungeness Crab from Haines. The weather here is windy and cold and it was a perfect night for stew. Out of this world delicious if I do say so myself.