Visiting Denali National Park was a big reason we wanted to visit Alaska when the idea hatched years ago. Now we were on its doorstep and eager to explore. With one road into the park, and that road restricted to tour buses and shuttles after Mile 15, we had to decide whether to book a bus tour, settle on the shuttles, and if we wanted to go past Mile 15 at all.
What better way to decide than drive what we could on our own? If we were left wanting more, we could book a day-long tour or decide on a shuttle. Truthfully, neither option appealed to us. We’d spent an entire day staring out the train windows on the Hurricane Turn route from Talkeetna, and just weren’t in the mood for sharing the air with a busload of chatty, often discourteous strangers for five or ten hours. We’ve seen plenty of bus tours — they stop at designated spots where everyone (you could be talking 80 or more people) pour out and crowd to the best viewing areas, take turns photographing the same spot, mill around — the smokers trying to get a quick one before having to re-board — before being herded like sheep back into the bus for the next stop.
Maybe someday we’ll need to travel that way — illness or other reasons could cause us to rely on someone else to do the driving. But for now, no amount of “you see more of the park than you can on your own, including more bears and moose and wolves and other wildlife” could convince us it was a good idea.
The scenery was stunning (of course) and we were surprised at how few other vehicles were on the road. It gave us a chance to get out at the pull-outs, take our time looking around, and moving on when we felt like it.
Good thing, too. Because, there ahead of us….
…was The Great One! We were lucky to see Denali’s peaks — only about about 30% of park visitors get to see the mountain, and it was quite a sight. At 20,320 feet it was covered in heavy snow, even in early August.
At the Savage River (Mile 15, as far as we could go in our private vehicle), we parked and picked a hike a long the river.
We rested a bit, glad to be able to finally hike mosquito-net free 🙂
But the best part of the hike? Not just wildlife, but Alaskan wildlife:
The description of this hike had said to watch for caribou along the river banks, and we’d harbored a hope we’d see them, but we’d driven across numerous caribou migration paths without the hint of an antler. We thought — because it was August — we weren’t going to see this largest of the deer family.
So we were grateful this solo male had decided to linger when the rest of its herd had wandered on. Whatever his story, he was comfortable in his spot, sitting his big caribou butt down for a rest while those of us who passed by zoomed in with our cameras, clicking, clicking, clicking.
Bob snaps a photo while hikers along the other side of the river try to get a peek. The caribou is sitting on the left side just where the gray stony bank gives way to green underbrush.
A few days later we returned to Denali NP to make another hike, this one also at the Savage River trailhead area. Instead of following the river, we opted to hike up one of the hillsides.
Up, up, up we went, taking our time. Turning back, we could barely make out the parking lots on each side of the river. You can see where the shuttle and tour-bus only road leads farther into the park from the stem of the “Y” in the upper left.
The trail we followed is tiny but visible on this side of the green. Sometimes on a hike like this, the climb is gradual enough that we don’t realize how high we’ve gotten until we turn around.
Of course, hiking made us hungry 🙂 Denali Village, near where the Parks Highway meets the Denali National Park entrance, is a cluster of restaurants, shops, and guide businesses (if you want to fly, float, or fish, among other activities, you’ll find someone to take you out from here):
While finishing our ice cream cones on the bench outside a glacier-landing tour office, a young man who worked there wandered out to the porch to say hello. I couldn’t help asking him what he thought about landing planes on glaciers when those glaciers are under so much environmental stress already. He started his shtick, saying many glaciers are doing just fine, snow building layers on them every year and then — “I’m sorry. I hear the phone. Gotta go,” he said, and back in the shop he went. What did I expect him to say? “I’m with you on this, but hey — gotta make a living and tourists are the only way to do it here?” Silly me.
We tried the famous Salmon Bake and though we weren’t impressed with the food, we loved their Wild Blueberry Pie, and ordered a full pie to pick up before we left the area ($30 for a pie and well worth it). There are benefits to traveling with your own refrigerator!
And we’d heard Prospector’s Pizza was good, but our server was insulted when we asked her to write down what we were ordering (we’re pretty particular about our pizza, but aren’t a lot of people?) and even then she got it wrong. As we were eating, we saw her hanging on to one of the other servers… Clearly her focus was more on her co-workers than her customers. Later our suspicions were confirmed: the area employes mostly 20-30 year olds who want to spend time in the area and customer service is at way at the bottom of their priority list while having a good time (with the opposite sex and illegal substances) is at the top.
Black Bear Cafe was ranked pretty high on TripAdvisor, but the menu was sparse, tables hadn’t been cleaned (though they had plenty of help behind the counter) and we decided the vibe wasn’t good. We stopped in another place that was recommended, but dogs running around the property turned us off.
So where did we eat when Bob wasn’t making our meals? Rose’s Cafe in Healy. It’s what’d I’d call an “Alaska-style” building — made for practicality rather than for beauty — and the food was outstanding. We ordered the Salmon Stew every time it was on the menu: not a cream-based soup, but a brothy stew with big chunks of salmon, this soup was excellent. Their ice cream shakes were hard to resist too.
We met local residents at Rose’s, including a man whose photos adorn the walls. He gave us some copies he happened to have and told us where he’d spotted a moose sow and her two calves up a side road. He’d also been early on the scene when a truck ran into problems along the Parks highway between Healy and Denali. We had gotten caught in that long line of traffic…
…and learned it was caused by a tractor-trailer rig. “His brakes were smoking,” the man at Rose’s told us. The man alerted the driver, knew what to do and whom to call. Lucky trucker to have had a helpful local on the scene!
We’d been monitoring wildfire activity and air quality toward Fairbanks and Tok, and with some rain that came in the smoke was reduced around Fairbanks but still bad around Tok. We decided we’d head out and hope for the best, stopping when it seemed a good idea. We prepped the RV and hooked up the truck, tricky to do with our fingers crossed the whole time.