This part of the trip is all about Denali and crossing our fingers that we get to see THE mountain in all its glory.
We have a very short driving day to get to our Denali campground, so we take our sweet time. Right about lunchtime we’re at the little town of Nenana (pronounced Knee + short name for Grandma). Right before we stop, I’m reading all about their claim to fame – the Nenana Ice Classic. You buy a ticket and guess the exact day and time, to the minute, that the Tanana River ice will break up at Nenana. They put a tripod on the ice connected to a clock that stops as the ice goes out. I know it sounds hokey, but the 2017 jackpot was $267,444 and they had guesses from all over the world. Thousands and thousands of guesses!
So we pays our money and takes our chances as they say. I’m putting in a ticket for my good friend Barbara and Pat is entering ours. The date range from past years is April 20th through May 22nd, so I picked Ethan’s birth date and time – 4/25 at 12:36pm. We’ll be watching that river cam in 2018! And Yes, Pat’s head is chopped off. I’ve been trying to figure out the issue with some of my pictures. Well, the ones on my cell phone seem to creatively crop themselves when I transfer them in a smaller size. Dang new phone.
A really cute town and RV friendly. We could park on the road anywhere. Took a walk around and saw the Nenana bridge over the Tanana River with the ice tripod. Also had a nice lunch at Rough Woods Cafe and shared the dining room with Earl the Burl. I tried some reindeer sausage and Pat had sourdough pancakes. Sourdough is big up here. In case you didn’t know, a burl is a deformed tree growth. They are prized up here and used to make mailbox posts and such.
Denali RV Park & Motel
Our campground was a crowded spot right off the road which is being repaved. The road crew is working 8pm to 8am with huge trucks full of asphalt driving by. And they are striping the finished sections which means they grind out a strip of new pavement, then follow with a truck spraying in reflective paint filler that looks a lot like marshmallow creme. We figure we have to listen to it all night, so may as well learn a thing or two. The road crew guys and gals are very friendly and one gave us a restaurant recommendation while we waited for the pilot car.
It is a pretty spot though. The whole area is gorgeous and we spend a morning hiking behind the campground.
This is Antler Creek and the other shot showcases the fireweed against the mountains.
The tundra makes for interesting hiking. It’s spongy and Jackson has to get used to how it feels. Like you are walking on lumpy carpeting with lichen, moss and rocks all mixed in. Some of the rocks look like marble.
And the prickly roses are everywhere. They are bigger shrubs, prefer the riverbanks, and have a very sweet, strong smell. You smell them on the trail even if you can’t see them.
Denali National Park
We opted for camping outside the park since the campgrounds inside don’t have services. They do have a great visitor’s center, Wilderness Access Center, and dog kennels for the sled dog team. The dog kennels were highly recommended, so we took the free tour.
The dogs are Alaskan huskies and aren’t recognized as an official breed since they come in all colors and sizes. Beautiful dogs. S’more struck a post for us. Happy and Cupcake, 2 year olds, enjoyed a little playtime and the ranger loves on their best lead dog who is retiring at nine years of age.
The summer training cart. I was a little disappointed that they only made one lap for us. I wanted to see more mushing! The dogs really want to run, too. They were described by the ranger as the most enthusiastic government employees you’ll ever meet.
Of course if you want to see anything much in the park, you have to take a bus tour. The road into the park is only open for the public to drive for the first 15 miles. We did that, but also took a 6 hour shuttle to mile 56. You can only go 92 miles in by road, but that is a 12 hour bus ride. Six hours was plenty in my opinion.
We picked a gorgeous day to ride in the park, but it was the middle of the day and got warm out. We hoped for a lot of animal sightings, but not so many we think because of the heat. The views were stunning, so we weren’t disappointed. But, you really can’t see Denali from many spots on the drive which surprised us.
Gorgeous Alaska Range
As for the animals, we saw a raven, two caribou – one faaaar away and one closer. Pat spotted that closer one and I hollered stop for the bus driver. Also saw a few ground squirrels, Dall Sheep from even farther away, and mew gulls on the river. They look just like sea gulls.
I was happy to see the Dall Sheep, even from so far, since they are one of the reasons that the park exists. Naturalist Charles Sheldon lobbied for lands to protect the sheep who have hooves almost like suction cups to traverse the steep rocky cliffs. Today they are up high to escape the heat and predators who are not quite as sure-footed.
A fabulous day for views in the park, but bust as far as large animal spotting goes. No bear – black or grizzly, and particularly no moose. But, we have a surprise on Saturday night. I read that the local Catholic priest holds Mass at the Wildlife Access Center on Saturday evenings and we figure that’s a cool place to worship. Right before Mass was to begin, the former Park Ranger turned Catholic priest waves us over to the back porch.
It’s mama moose munching on a tree! To the left you can see the stilts under the building. We’re up that high and almost eye level with this big gal. They weigh almost 1800 pounds! This time of year they have calves and are all around this area. Finally get the close view and we’re probably only 30 feet away. I told the priest it was the best Mass ever. He says this place is heaven on earth.
Denali State Park.
We’d read that people thought the state park was even better than the national park. After visiting both, we totally agree. Of course the national park has Denali, but what good is that if you can’t really SEE it! The statistic you always hear is that only 30% of visitors ever see the entire mountain. We were afraid we’d be in that sad 70%, but our weather luck came through and we basked in the mountain views from K’esugi Ken Campground in the state park. A brand new park, opened less than a month before our arrival, with truly spectacular views of the Alaska Range and Denali.
Jackson was tired when we arrived, so Pat sat at the campsite while I took a quick walk to an overlook. Oh my gosh! I couldn’t believe how beautiful Denali is. At first a cloud blocked the peak, so I sat on a rock and waited. In less than 30 minutes I was rewarded with this shot, and these….
A spiritual experience. I had a hard time sitting in the presence of the mountain and kept standing back up. Just majestic, spectacular, stunning and any other grandiose adjective you can think of. I just read a quote from Robert Service poetry that describes it perfectly. “It’s the beauty that fills me with wonder, It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.”
We had lunch two days in a row at McKinley View Lodge just down the road. Fantastic fresh grilled halibut sandwiches and baked goods. We learned from the first day that you need to purchase your brownies, cookies, cinnamon rolls, 7-layer bars, etc. right away. If not, a tour bus or two will pull in and wipe them out. I missed out on a giant cinnamon roll the first day, but we scored on day two.
This spot was the homestead of Mary Carey. She came to Alaska to teach and write after her husband died. She said that the National Park was in the wrong place, and the best views to be had were here. No doubt! The view off her side deck is spectacular as is the one from the campground and formerly part of her homestead property. Her daughter regaled us with tales from her mom and convinced me I needed to read Mary’s book – “Alaska – NOT for a Woman”. I’m working on it now.
K’esugi Ridge Trail
One of the best hiking trails in Alaska and should be on everyone’s “life list” says a website review we read. We only completed 6.2 miles of this trail, but it was a fabulous 6.2.
This shot was taken by a kind hiker passing by. We’re not even to the top yet, but have a grand panorama of the Chulitna River, Ruth Glacier and of course, Denali, which is the Tanaina Indian word for ‘the high one’.
Denali is the 20,320 ft peak to the right. Mt. Hunter at 14,573 to the left, and Ruth Glacier flowing in a curve between the two. The Chulitna River “braids” its way through the valley.
We hiked down the other side of the ridge to Lake 1787, named for its elevation. There was a huge beaver dam to the left. A completely unspoiled, undeveloped lake.
The Tokosha Mountains in front of Denali caught our eye. Like giant teeth rising out of the bowl of snow.
Another favorite of mine. Looks like a floating mountain in the sky. One of the reasons people have a hard time seeing the peak is because Denali is tall enough to generate its own weather. The park information boards describe it as playing hide and seek with the clouds.
The Day With No View
Of the 3 days in the state park, two of them were stunning. The other was socked in completely and it drizzled all day. Days like that don’t bother us, and it gives us a good excuse to get some chores done. I made a bunch of cards since I have a few special friends with birthdays in July. Pat read one of his favorite Jim Butcher novels.
We also managed to get some things done on the days with views. I used gorilla tape to completely seal out the light from the bedroom windows. Since then I’ve had some marvelous sleep! Pat on the other hand picked 40-50 bees out of the radiator and installed protective mesh. He also lubed the slideouts, added water to the batteries and fixed a broken tab on the sewer cap.
If you made it this far I applaud your fortitude. Long post, but I just couldn’t leave anything out. Next up is Talkeetna and what to do about bears and moose. See you on the way!