Denali National Park and Preserve protects over 6 million acres in interior Alaska, including 2.1 million acres of wilderness. It’s prime habitat for wildlife including grizzly and black bears, Dall sheep, moose, caribou, wolves and eagles. Denali is also home to Mt. McKinley (also known as Denali, “The High One”) the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet elevation.
Even though Denali National Park is massive–the size of three Yellowstones–there is only a single 90-mile road from the east edge to the center of the park. Private vehicles are typically not allowed on Park Road past Mile 15, so to venture further into the park, tourists must either do a multi-day backpack hike or take one of dozens of buses that make the trip along Park Road daily. Bus ticket prices are relatively expensive, ranging from $30-$50 per person per day. You can get off the bus anywhere along the way to hike, and when you are through, you can hitch a ride back to the park entrance from any bus with available seating. Weather permitting, the views from the bus along the way are stunning. Around each turn in the road is a new range of beautiful mountains.
We camped in the Teklanika (“Tek”) Campground, which is aptly named because it sits next to the Teklanika River. One advantage to camping there is you are already a third of the way into the park. This saves about 3 hours round trip on the daily bus ride. Another nice benefit is you can purchase a single “Tek Pass” that allows you to ride the bus multiple times into the park for one (relatively) low price. Our RV is on the upper left of the Tek campground in the photo above. We were fortunate to get a terrific spot along the river, or as the friendly camp host called it, “Riverfront Property.”
On our first full day in the park, we went hiking at the beautiful Polychrome Pass. Unfortunately, this was the most miserable hike of our trip. It poured rain for over an hour in 40-degree weather. Theresa tried to put on a happy face, but it was not a lot of fun. When the bus driver picked us up for a much-welcomed trip back to our campground, he said, “You two look like drowned rats.” We were soaked down to our skin, and even our waterproof jackets had failed by this point.
There was a collection of elk antlers on display at the Toklat Rest Stop.
This is a photo from the bus as we were crossing over the Teklanika River. Teklanika is a native Athabascan word meaning, “much river bed, little river.” Like many of the glacier-fed rivers in Denali National Park, the Teklanika is a “braided river” that meanders over a wide river bed. The glaciers upstream grind rocks into a fine silt, which is carried down the river until it piles up and clogs the current path, causing the river to shift course. Unlike most rivers that cut down into a canyon, a glacier-fed river builds up a wide, braided bed over time.
We saw this cute fox at the Eielson Visitor Center. The ranger said that foxes don’t mind hanging out near humans, and it often benefits them. The area around the Visitor Center is full of squirrels that pick up human food scraps, and foxes love to eat squirrels. Also, the fox’s predators such as eagles and bears tend to avoid human areas, so this is a relatively safe haven for foxes.
Wonder Lake is a pretty 4-mile-long lake near the end of Park Road, about as deep as you can go into the park on the bus. The lake got its name from prospectors during the Kantishna gold rush. The story goes that on a return trip to the area, the prospectors were surprised to discover this lake and said, “I wonder how we missed this before.” So they named it “I Wonder Lake,” but a cartographer thought the “I” was a mistake and labeled it simply “Wonder Lake.”
We got off the bus and hiked on Thoro Ridge above Eielson Visitor Center. We had terrific views of the wide Gorge Creek below and the foliage-covered Muldrow Glacier. Theresa spotted a golden eagle just below the ridge where she’s standing in this photo. We watched him through the binoculars as he took off and soared into the distance.
Our bus stopped to watch this impressive grizzly bear feeding in a field near the road. All of a sudden, the bear noticed two hikers walking along the road, stood up on its hind legs, then started running toward them. Fortunately the hikers escaped to safety on a bus ahead of us, so the bear crossed the road and went on his way.
We hiked from our campground through dense tundra to the Teklanika Foothills. It was a wet, cold slog though spongy soil with heavy brush. It wasn’t as bad as our hike a few days earlier because this time only the lower half of our bodies got soaked to the skin. But by the end of this hike, we were cold, wet and exhausted. Here you can see Theresa working her way through the dense brush.
Theresa likes to joke, “Denali is great if you love cold, rain and clouds.” See those little blue patches in the photo above? That was about the extent of sunny weather on our visit to Denali. The sun peaked out for a few minutes each day, otherwise it was cloudy and cold most of the time, and rained at least half of each day. But on our second day we managed to enjoy a rain-free bus ride out to Wonder Lake, and even got a couple-hour hike in before the sky opened up and the rain dumped just as we reached cover at the Eielson Visitor Center. Here we are enjoying the view at Polychrome Pass.