Part 1: Tundra Tour and Braided Rivers
Our final stop on this trip was Denali National Park. We drove the 8.5 hours straight through from Homer, and arrived at our rental house in Healy around 8:00 Saturday night. We scrambled to buy some groceries and make dinner before settling in for a much needed rest.
All in all, we had four days in and around Denali. The itinerary for the first day was simple. We booked the Tundra Wilderness Tour bus, which was essentially an all day guided tour through the accessible portions of the park. While it was quite entertaining, and provided a good overview of the park, we didn’t actually see much wildlife. Our best encounter came at the very end of the day as we were nearing the visitor’s center. A bull moose was munching brush about 3 yards off the side of the park road, and gave us several great looks. Other than that, we saw a few distant caribou.
The other downer was that the smoke had settled in over the park. There were 85 reported wildfires burning across Alaska during our visit. That seemed strange, and a bit scary, for this early in the summer. The fires weren’t particularly close, but they certainly turned the skies a dull gray and took away many of the grand vistas within the park.
On our second day, we booked an early morning “transit bus”, which allows you to hop on and off at various places along the park road. It was another fairly smoky day, so we stayed down low and hiked the braided river basins. The first stop was the East Fork of the Toklat River, which is currently the farthest the buses can travel in the park due to the massive permafrost landslide that took out a big chunk of the park road about half way along it’s length. It’s fascinating watching these glacial rivers carve different paths through the soft soil in near real time.
After a few hours we hopped back on a bus and headed to the Teklanika River basin for a picnic lunch and another stroll along the river. We eventually got pinned between the river itself and the valley walls and couldn’t go any further. At that point, we decided to hike back up to the road and catch a bus back to the park entrance. Unfortunately, the bus system had other ideas in mind.
We almost immediately spotted a bus heading our way, but the driver informed us there were no open seats. We hiked down the road a bit to the Teklanika campground and waited for the next bus. Almost 2 hours later, a bus finally came by. The buses typically run on 30 minute intervals, though there are a few period during the day where they are spaced by an hour. We happened to find one of those periods, combined with a back-up of buses further up the park road. When the next bus finally came, it only had 3 open seats. Lara and Evan hopped on, while Alex and I waited it out for the next bus. Luckily it was only about 15 minutes behind. All told, we left the park about 12 hours after we entered. It was a very nice, but long day.
Part 2: Sled Dogs and Savage River
Our third day in the park was a little more low key. We started with a visit to the sled dog kennels to see the demonstration and play with the Alaskan Huskies in the kennels. It’s a brief but interesting show. These are amazing animals, capable of pulling more than 50 pounds each through some of the most extreme weather on the planet.
We ate our lunch on the patio at the visitor center, then hopped on the free Savage River shuttle to take us to some trail heads. We first tried the Savage River Loop, and found that the bridge at the far end of the trail had been washed out during the spring, so we were limited to the east side of the river. We hoped to climb the Savage Alpine trail, but by this time it was raining and getting quite cool. A steep climb up slippery rocks didn’t seem like too good of an idea.
So we donned our rain gear, stayed lower in elevation, and walked to the Savage Cabin, one of the several historic cabins built to support the construction crews that built the park road in the early 20th century. From there, we took a shot at hiking through the Mountain Vista trail, hoping for at least a glimpse of Denali mountain, but no such luck. The clouds were simply too thick and too low.
On the final day, we again took a transit bus into the wilderness for some off trail hiking. We stopped at one of the more popular places, Tattler Creek. The drainage provides a reasonably shallow slope up into the mountains and eventually leads you to the peak of Sable Mountain. We learned quickly that off-trail hiking is much more of an adventure.
After bushwhacking through brush, and climbing a couple of snow fields, we reached a place where we had to cross the creek to continue. The only options we could find involved some level of fording a fairly rapidly flowing creek. During normal summer conditions, this probably wouldn’t have bothered us, but getting wet and cold in this weather sounded liked no fun at all. We turned back toward the road, and hopped back on a bus to take one more shot at the Savage Alpine Trail.
It was still fairly breezy as we started the 1500′ climb, but the clouds were starting to part. By the time we reached the rock formation at the end of the steepest climb, it had developed into a pretty day. There were still too many clouds to see the big mountain, but we were surrounded by wildflowers with wonderful views of the Savage River valley. There were squirrels and marmots playing in the rocks nearby, but we never did see any of the park’s famous Dall’s Sheep.
We finished the 4 mile trail around 5:30, and waited back at the Mountain View bus stop for the shuttle. By this time, we had learned the rhythm pretty well, and only had a short wait for the ride back down the road. This would be our final bus ride of the trip. We packed in a lot, but still left with hopes of seeing more. The bus driver recommended coming back in September for better chances of a clear mountain view and a shot at seeing the northern lights. Sounds like a future trip is taking shape…