30 October 2011

Day 7: Denali National Park

Denali National Park, as I said in the previous summary, is one of the biggest national parks in the US (third largest, according to Wikipedia). It's centered around Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, which is also called Denali ("the high one" in the native Athabascan language). Alaskans tend to refer to the mountain as Denali, while those of us in the lower 48 call it Mt. McKinley. There's apparently a pitched battle over the name of the mountain, with Alaskans trying to get the official name changed to Denali, while congressmen from Ohio (McKinley's home district) try to keep it as Mt. McKinley.

Although the park itself is quite large, it's also very difficult to access. As I mentioned earlier, the park is about 5 hours from Anchorage (and considerably longer if you try to enjoy the ample scenery). The park itself has exactly one road through it, which becomes closed to normal traffic about 20 miles into the park. After that point, it becomes a narrow, gravel road that winds through the mountains to the tiny city of Kantishna. You could see McKinley from almost anywhere in the park, but it's incredibly difficult to do so -- the mountain is only visible through the clouds very rarely. Fortunately for us, the sky was completely clear when we arrived in the park, and we were greated with this view:

After that, our trip to Denali started with a hike around the Savage River area. Savage River is the last place that non-ranger traffic can stop in the park (in fact, the turn-around point is a bridge over Savage River). As such, it's a ways into the park, and doesn't see as much traffic as other hiking paths closer to the visitor center. The river is fantastic, but not quite as savage as we were expecting. We had hoped to see ample wildlife, but we didn't really see anything bigger than a ground squirrel.

Once that was finished, we set of deeper into the park. There are two ways you can do this. The first way is to purchase a shuttle pass and head into the park on your own. This would be pretty exciting, but it was a bit more adventurous than we wanted to do, particularly in the very rainy and somewhat chilly Alaskan interior (with bears!). Instead, we signed up for a "Tundra Wilderness Tour", which is a bus tour through the park. The bus goes from the visitor's center to a place deep in the park with a particularly good view of Mt. McKinley (if it's visible at all). Along the way, the tour frequently stops for animal sightings.

This tour was absolutely amazing. We saw all sorts of animals, from Bears to Caribou, Moose to Pika, we saw nearly everything that the park has available. Unfortunately, we were only allowed to leave the bus a few times -- a few scheduled stops, and then once when we found some Dall's Sheep on the road -- but the overwhelming scenery and wildlife was amazing. We highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour for seeing Denali.

More photos are available in my Picasa: Denali and Savage River.

16 October 2011

Anchorage Zoo and Drive to Denali (Day 6)

Our sixth day in Alaska was mostly consumed by the drive to the Denali National Park, which is about five hours from Anchorage. In the morning, however, we were able to take some time to stop by the Anchorage Zoo. We were initially hesitant about going to the zoo, but our guidebook recommended it as a good way to see Alaskan wildlife without going to Denali. We figured that even though we were going to Denali, it wouldn't hurt to see the animals in the zoo anyways.

The Zoo focuses primarily on animals that are native to Alaska and similar climates. Several of the animals were ones we either weren't likely to see in the wild (e.g. Snow Leopard) or ones we'd really rather not see up close and personal (e.g. Wolverine, Bald Eagle). Still, a very nice zoo, and since we hadn't seen very many land animals yet, it was nice to see some "wildlife." Like the rest of Anchorage, the zoo also had some great flowers and mushrooms.

After the zoo, we left Anchorage to head towards Denali. We stopped several places along the way, including a quirky place called Talkeetna. On a good day, you can see Mount McKinley (also called Denali) from Talkeetna. However, we weren't there on a good day (all we saw were clouds), so we just wandered around a bit and hopped back in the car. Later on, we stopped in Denali State Park (not to be confused with the national variety) and there we saw a tiny sliver of Mt. McKinley:

We also learned that McKinley is only completely visible through the clouds about five days per year. Naturally, that wasn't our day, but (fortunately) the next day was one of the rare days where it was completely clear.

The drive to Denali was gorgeous, however. Not quite like the drive to Whittier or Seward, but the road takes you through dramatic mountains and valleys. Later in the trip (on our way home), it was raining on this road, and it was just amazing. The road is also a narrow, two-lane variety, and the cars are infrequent enough for you to feel really alone in the wilderness. The lighting, the mountains, the solitude -- this was Alaska.

More pictures available in my Picasa.