Denali stands above the rest

By Sarah Reynolds | Jun 14, 2016
Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds Viewed from Denali State Park, 41 miles to the south, Denali is visible as two peaks in the center of the photo, behind the darker mountains in front. The south peak, on the left, is more than 20,000 feet, the north peak exceeds 19,000.

Denali National Park, Alaska — I'm glad to say I haven't fallen off the edge of the earth; I've just been without a cell signal for a while. I'm back with a giant blog post about our drive to Denali, our stay in the park, and the day we left.

Friday, June 10

We drove from Fairbanks to Denali National Park. It was a short drive, compared to many other days on this trip, only two and half to three hours' driving time. Of course, we had to make various stops for gas, bodily needs, both canine and human, and scenery viewing.

For the scenery was quite lovely. If I thought I was running out of superlatives in the Canadian Rockies, as we approached Denali, the same problem applied, only more so. The beauty and grandeur of the scenery here is really awe-inspiring. To top it off, despite a forecast for rain, the day was sunny, with beautiful white clouds in the sky.

After checking in and getting the necessary camping permit and our tickets to ride the buses in the park, we drove the 30 miles along the park road to Teklanika Campground, where we were to camp for three nights. About the first 15 miles of the road is paved, then it's packed dirt. But we weren't in a hurry; we were taking our time, taking in the scenery, with mountains, valleys and lakes unfolding before our eyes like a grand tapestry.

We arrived in time to have a choice of campsites – it's first come, first served – and cooked a supper of grilled chicken and steamed green beans, which we ate al fresco before the mosquitoes ate us.

People staying in the park get one reserved seat on a park bus, and ours was to be Saturday morning. We would ride further into the park and see the Eielson Visitor Center.

Saturday, June 11

Of all the scenery we've seen on this trip, that in Denali National Park is the grandest. Kluane National Park in the Yukon was beautiful; so were the terrain around Banff and in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. The Icefields Parkway was also impressive.

But Denali really does stand out, and we didn't even get to see the eponymous mountain. We were picked up by a bus near our campground in the morning, and were driven another 30-some miles into the park along a dirt road that was narrow, sometimes very winding and, in one spectacular stretch across Polychrome Mountain, skirts a 700-foot drop on one side. This made for breathtaking views, and since the bus driver seemed quite competent, did not cost me any anxiety.

We saw a large number of caribou – the driver told us they are the only animals of their kind where the female grows antlers – some Dall sheep, way up high on the mountainsides, and some people said they had a glimpse of a bear.

The bus went at a top speed of 35 miles per hour, slower if it was passing another bus, a cyclist or hiker, and made stops now and then to watch wildlife, for passengers to take pictures or take care of biological necessities, so the trip took about three hours. The landscape was stunning, with varicolored volcanic rocks – that's how Polychrome Mountain got its name, rivers in valleys far below and glaciers visible among snowy peaks.

The other passengers on the bus were a mixed bunch, including three couples on the other side of the aisle from us who were speaking what sounded to me like it might be Dutch, and a couple in front of us with a toddler who was good as gold and never cried once.

We had a half-hour stop at Eielson Visitor Center, where, on a clear day, Denali is visible. Although our day was partly sunny, the continent's highest peak was not to be seen. Many other mountains in the Alaska Range could be seen, however, making for an overwhelming panorama.

In the evening, we decided that, since the only way to see more of the park was to ride the bus again for an even longer time, we would leave a day early and head to Denali State Park, which is also supposed to have a good view of Denali. If the weather is favorable, we might even get ahead of our schedule, which could allow us to eliminate a very long day of driving later in the return trip.

So far, the battery seems to be doing OK. Knock on wood.

Sunday, June 12

After a night of broken sleep, thanks to the inconsideration of some noisy fellow campers in the site next to ours, I was glad to head out of Denali a day early.

On our way out of the park, we spent a little time in the visitor's center, which had a 3-D map of the park and interesting exhibits on its history, the animals that live there, the Athabascan people who populated the area before the advent of white people, and the Alaskan gold rush.

We headed out of the park with the mountains shrouded in mist, which made them look mysterious and exotic. After stopping for a late breakfast, we continued on our way to the state park. I had been able to get a cell signal at the visitor's center, and so had directions from Google Maps, which said it was about 130 miles away.

As we drew near, we saw a sign for “Denali View North View Point” on the right. Maureen missed it, and had to find a place to turn around. When we pulled in, there was a registration station for campers, which consisted of a sign describing the registration procedure and a metal box with envelopes in which to enclose your payment. Fine.

But where was the campground?

We saw a parking lot, some of the nicer type of outhouse, and people walking around, but nothing we recognized as a place to camp – even though we were not expecting hookups for water, sewer or electricity.

Google said the state park was still 12 miles off, so I suggested we keep going and maybe we'd find the park headquarters and be able to get information. Maureen was not best pleased by this idea, but adopted it anyway. When Google said, “You have arrived,” all we saw was trees on either side of the road. No state park headquarters. No entrance road of any kind. Bummer!

We kept going and found something we did recognize as a nice, wooded campground. But it was on the wrong side of the road to have any chance of a view of Mount Denali (besides being in dense woods), which was the reason we had planned to stay in the state park in the first place.

We another moment of cell signal, and Maureen found “Denali View South,” a further 11 miles away. We headed for it. And, finding it, found the same set-up as at Denali View North, with the registration station and a parking lot, but nothing that looked like a campground. As we were wondering what was going on, the cavalry showed up, in the form of a park employee. He explained that camping was allowed in the large RV parking spaces separated from the car parking lot by a median of sorts. He took our payment and chatted pleasantly for a while. Seems he lived in the Conway, N.H., area for a while.

Now he cleans the restrooms at park areas along a 30-mile stretch and offers help to visitors as he can.

Mystery solved, we chose a parking spot, leveled the camper and settled in. There was a sort of platform from which to view the mountains, with a map showing the named ones, along with the elevations of the unnamed ones. The day had become partly sunny by then, but there were still clouds to the north, so we were not sure whether Denali was visible or not. It was a very pretty spot, though, for a parking lot.

Our next stop on the way south is Glenallen, Alaska.

A mountainside on the way from Fairbanks to Denali. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Approaching Denali National Park from the north. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
The country near Denali is beautiful. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
The view from Eielson Visitor Center. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Denali is full of wildflowers. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Standing by the campground sign before boarding the bus in the morning. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
The Denali Park Road has its ups... (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
... and downs. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
The Toklat River. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
A glacier lies in the valley below mountains of the Alaska Range in Denali National Park. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Many caribou live in the park. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Young ravens sit in their nest under a bridge in Denali. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
A small section of Polychrome Mountain is visible in the lower left corner, as our bus makes its way through Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Even in clouds, the mountains of the Alaska Range are beautiful. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
On the way to Denali State Park. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
(Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
Looking towards Mount Denali from the state park. (Photo by: Sarah E. Reynolds)
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