Days 21, 22, and 23…Denali National Park

Days 21 through 23 (Sunday July 19 to Tuesday July 21) were devoted to Denali National Park.

Sunday we drove the 128 miles from Fairbanks to Denali Park AK which is just outside the entrance to the park. Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses over 6 million acres of which 4.7 million are federally owned for the park and another 1.3 million acres in the preserve. They are located in south central Alaska and contain mostly completely undeveloped wilderness…along with the peak in the Alaskan Range Denali or as you might know it Mount McKinley. This is the highest mountain in North America at 20,237 feet high and was given it’s name in 1896 by a gold prospector in honor of the then president. Alaska and it’s citizens do not recognize this name and call it Denali…which comes from one of two Athabascan Indian words Dinale or Denali meaning “the high one” or “the great one” respectively. There are an additional 5 names for the mountain in other indigenous Alaskan languages. It’s their mountain so I’ll just stick with Denali.

In addition to being the highest peak in North America…Denali’s approximately 18,000 feet from base to peak is the largest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level. It’s also the third most prominent peak after Everest and Aconcagua in the Argentinian Andes based on topographic prominence (the vertical distance between the peak and the lowest contour line which entirely surrounds the mountain…essentially the height above the surrounding valleys). The first verified climb was in 1913 with an Alaskan native named Walter Harper being the first to reach the summit of the taller southern summit…the slightly shorter 19,470 foot northern summit is rarely climbed.

Other than the drive…which pretty much sucked as it rained during the entire pack/move/setup sequence once we got here in site 76…with our sole exception being dinner and the show at the Cabin Night review. There was a slight mixup with this as our fearless leader David thought it was just across the street and downhill from the RV park…it used to be there but moved 9 miles away a couple of years back. He quickly scrambled around and got them to send a bus to take us over and bring us back…and they even held the show until our arrival. Dinner was OK but not anything to write home about…and the show was similar to the vaudeville type shows we’ve seen a couple of times already albeit it with a history of Denali bent.

Monday July 20 was the big scheduled event for our 2 day stay here in Denali Park…we were all booked for the 8 hour 120 mile round trip shuttle into the park for wildlife viewing and Denali viewing (weather permitting). The park doesn’t allow private vehicles into the park other than the first 14 miles of the park road…after that you have to take the shuttle which (a) cuts down on the traffic and (b) undoubtedly save many lives each year as the road is narrow, dirt, and frequently perched with drop offs of 1,000+ feet just 2 or 3 feet away from the road. Connie didn’t like it much on the way out to the visitor center…and she was sitting on the inside side of the bus on the way out. She really didn’t like it on the way back when she was perched on the outside edge and frequently lost sight of the edge of the road out her window…all she could see was air and rocks far below. Add in the fact that Lee our driver spent way too much time searching for animals with his eyes not on driving and well, let’s just say she’s glad to be back down.

Okay, enough blathering on already…let’s get to the photos…captions where they seemed right. Just be glad I didn’t let Kara write this blog or ya would be learning all about tectonic movement, the Pacific and North American plates, subduction, and granitic plutons.

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 A female grizzly bear…ya can tell because all the wimmen grizzlies are blondes.

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A different female grizzly.

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And a male grizzly…they’re mostly brown. All three of these were pretty far away with the male being probably 500 or 600 yards out…even cropped pretty close in they don’t fill the frame. 

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Neil and Connie standing in front of Denali…I promise ya it’s there but unfortunately they weather didn’t cooperate. Only about 30% of the visitors to Denali National Park actually see the mountain…we’ve got 2 more days with supposedly better weather so hopefully I’ll have something for ya later. Donald is about 30 or 35 miles away right over Neil’s right shoulder and if the darned clouds weren’t there the summit would be about 1/2 way from the top of his head to the top of the frame.

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Caribou…know what the difference between a caribou and a reindeer is? It’s a fence. The ones on the outside are caribou and the domesticated ones inside the fence are known as reindeer. Want to know another strange caribou/reindeer fact? Both sexes have antlers but only the female keeps them throughout the winter…males drop theirs in the fall right after the rut. Following this to it’s logical conclusion…it means that all of Santa’s reindeer are females. Following this to it’s logical conclusion…Rudolph is “faaabulous” and wears tights?

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Another caribou…no telling whether it’s male or female but it’s smaller than the one above so likely the first is a bull and the second a cow. Notice how the antlers are much less mature on this second photo…and also much more similar to the antlers that Santa’s reindeer are typically depicted with. In any event…it’s likely from a different herd that lives at a lower elevation and hence grows antlers and has the rut later in the year.

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Neil saw these two and was immediately reminded of the story about the meanest animal in the jungle…the wild African Duwalley.

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Denali’s northern (left) and southern (right) summits. They’re there…honest. The etchings on the window show you where the peaks would be if the weather wasn’t so darned cloudy. As to the eerily similar set of outlines on the lower left that are not being pointed to by the conveniently located black arrow……those aren’t the outlines you’re looking for. You have to stand in a different place in the visitor center and be 4’6” for those to look right. There are places to stand inside the lobby of the center that are marked by your height and each has a set of outlines that outline where the summits would be if you were that height. The arrowed ones are for Neil’s 5’9” height.

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This looks strangely like a glacier…but it isn’t. This is a series of valleys that serve as washes during the spring thaw…they’re filled with gravel and silt that washed down from the mountain over the millennia. For scale…this was taken at a pretty hefty zoom with Neil’s bird lens and the V-shaped wash in the middle is about 6 or 7 miles away…the gravel/silt filled legs of the V are probably 200 or 300 yards wide each. From the top of the frame to the bottom is probably 1,500 feet vertical distance.

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And another female grizzly…this one still has some of her winter coat left after coming out of hibernation. As compared to the first 3 bear shots above…no zoom really necessary for this one…she’s about 30 yards in front of our bus.

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Connie’s version of the shot of the same bear as above.

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Another of the same specimen after she crossed the road. Why did the grizzly bear cross the road? To get to the berries of course…she’s chowing down on chokeberries and…at least according to our bus driver Lee…a bear will eat 200,000 chokeberries in a day. Of course…he also said that the entire park only has 300 or so bears. We saw 6 of them today so the odds that we saw 2% of the entire bear population in the entire 8 million acre or 12,500 square mile park during our 120 or so miles or road travel is essentially zero. I don’t know how many bears the park has in it…but then the Park Service doesn’t know either…but it’s gotta be many thousands.

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And still another female…this one is probably only 2 years old max as she was much smaller than the other ones we saw. She was pretty skittish so the bus couldn’t get very close.

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A view through the mountain pass of Denali…again you can’t actually see the mountain but the first shot with Neil and Connie was looking pretty much due south and this one was taken a couple hours later and 40 miles to the east so it’s looking pretty much due west. Still no mountain though…although Denali rises in the background about halfway from the top of the snow capped peaks you can see to the top of the frame.

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A slightly closer up view of the same peak/pass as above but a couple miles later on the road so the view here is more southwest than west.

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The view from the road at the top of one of those steep cliffs that Connie was skeered of. It’s a long way down, ain’t it.

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Looking at one of those cliffs from the side…this was one of the less steep ones. The road is just visible at the top of this drop-off…the road was literally blasted out of the side of the mountain. It’s like 2 feet from the road to the cliff and although it doesn’t look like it in the photo you would not be able to climb down this even on hands and knees…and it’s probably over 1,000 feet to the bottom.

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These on the other hand…are glaciers on the flanks of Denali…both of them are probably a mile wide and 300 feet thick at the lower edge.

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Since we missed seeing Denali Neil checked with the RV park desk and the guy in there said that driving 11 miles into the park would get us to a nice viewpoint assuming the weather cooperated…which it was supposed to on Tuesday. With that in mind…he said to get up early in the morning and look over the mountains across the road to the west and if we could see blue sky down to the tops of the mountains the Denali viewpoint should be clear as well…but to go earlier in the day vice later. He also gave us a couple of places we’ll stop by and look at on the way down to Talkeetna AK tomorrow…again assuming the weather cooperates as it’s currently forecast to do.

So…Day 21 (Tuesday July 21) we got up about 0600 and took a look…blue sky abounded to the west so we grabbed a cup of coffee and a couple of granola bars, our cameras, and headed out. Driving into the park the weather was in the high 30s so we bundled up a bit and drove westward on a beautiful early morning day. Sure enough…11 miles in we got to the viewpoint and discovered this wonderful sight. The first shot is zoomed in a bit to show you the details and the second one was taken with Connie’s “normal” lens so it’s essentially the same field of view and magnification as the naked eye. Denali…in case you’re not sure…is the snow capped mountain in the distance and it is 73 miles from the point where we were standing. Pretty impressive that you can see as much detail as this from that distance.

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A few more shots from our morning…some of Denali plus others.

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A pano shot of the entire tundra area we were overlooking for the above shots…about 150 degrees field of view in this shot and Denali is at right center. This pano doesn’t do the actual “with the eyeball” view justice because of the extremely wide field of view, to the naked eye the second shot above is pretty much the way it looked…pretty magnificent.

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The view from the Savage Creek parking lot…this is as far as personal vehicles can go at 15 miles into the park. Yesterday we went an additional 48 to the Eielson Visitor Center on the shuttle before turning around…and there are an additional two tours that go past Eielson to Wonder Lake and Kantishna Lodge…our trip was 8 hours to Eielson but the latter two are 11 and 13 hours respectively…and you have to carry all your food and water with you as the only services provided are pit toilets every hour and a half or so. Savage Creek is the water in this shot and it runs left to right (westward). The shuttle crosses a bridge just to the right and out of view in this shot then climbs over the ridge at the top right then continues westward towards Eielson and beyond.

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Climbing down from the Savage Creek to get a shot downstream from the gravel bed.

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A couple of what Connie called artsy-fartsy shots…she wanted to capture the sun flare coming from behind the rocks (these were taken 180 degrees from the Savage Creek shot 2 photos back). Her original shots were way underexposed (naturally) due to looking into the sun with the camera but since they were shot in RAW mode instead of jpg mode on the camera he was able to duplicate the image, adjust the exposure in one to get the rocks to have a little detail, then layered them together in Photoshop for the finished shot. The first one has better lens flare but the second one has better composition since it doesn’t have the parking lot and cars in it.

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Savage Creek looking upstream.

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The Nanana River which runs on the park boundary and is about a half mile from the campground…in this shot if Neil had rotated the camera about 30 degrees to the right you could see the hotel/tourist trap district here in Denali Village.

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Here’s the Grande Denali Lodge and Hotel…Connie rotated the said 30 degrees to the right from the above area and got this one. The RV park is just out of sight to the lower left in this shot…we’re walking over to the tourist trap area in a bit and we’ll get some shots of it and our site in the park and add them before I post this.

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Ok, 2 more Denali shots for ya before I stop for today…since we actually saw the mountain the second photo is justified. As you recall from above here are Connie and Neil standing on the patio at Eielson Visitor Center.

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Here’s a photo taken in 2010 by our friends Bill and Linda from pretty much the identical spot…except it was clear the day they were there. From here Denail is 33 miles away…and I was careful to pick a shot with about the same field of view as the one of Neil and Connie.

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 As promised…here are the campground and tourist area shots…they’re iPhone shots though as Neil was too lazy to carry the camera back down there when we went on our walk.

Our site 76…a little cramped when there are rigs parked next door but not the most cramped we’ve ever been in or even the most cramped we’ve been in on the Alaska trip…that would be Pioneer RV in Whitehorse YT so far where we had to park nose to tail with the adjacent rigs for access to the utility connections…and we also needed to make sure that our sides wouldn’t conflict when they were extended. We do have woods behind us…but both the site and the roads are gravel and full of pothole but then this _is_ Alaska so such things are to be expected. It’s not what you would call an “it factor” campground by any means…but again this is Alaska and mostly the RV park is a place to park.

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The RV park entrance between the two halves of the shopping/tourist trap area. Neil tried to get Connie to do the whole Vanna White thing and wave her hand at it…but she’s a party pooper so declined (to be fully honest though she did wave but Neil wasn’t able to get the phone up fast enough to catch it and she said “you snooze, you lose” when he told her to do it again).

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The tourist area in front of the RV park. Denali Park consists of a single row of hotels, restaurants, gift shops and the like about a block deep on each side of the highway (AK-3) and extending for about 3/4 of a mile tops. We did walk over to the Prospector Pizzeria and Ale House for dinner last night with Bill and Linda…all was good. MacNCheese for Connie and Cheddar Ale soup and an Elk Meatball Sandwich for Neil…both with leftovers we had for lunch today. Brews were McKinley Stout then a Chiula Stout for Neil (first was more chocolate with hints of coffee and the second was the other way around…both were good but theMcKinley was superior)…and Dolly Varden Nut Brown Ale and a Smoked Porter for Connie, the porter was smokey but was more like a brown ale in color rather than a porter which is typically very dark like a stout and thick.

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Tomorrow we’re off to Willow AK which is about 150 miles south then after parking we’re carpooling 22 miles back northward to visit Talkeetna AK…which for those of you who watched the Railroad Alaska TV show on Destination America (a Discovery channel) is a prime spot seen in the show. Then Thursday we’ll be off to Anchorage.

That’s it for now…hopefully we’ll get some more Denali photos on the way south tomorrow as the forecast has changed and is supposed to be great.


About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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