Currently: 41 degrees, light rain, Healy, AK. Watching the replay of the VMA’s, yelling “Get off my lawn!” at these young kids.
What’d We Do?
Today was an amazing experience. We are fully drained because today we rode the 12-hour Kantishna Experience bus through Denali National Park. The bus travels the entire 92.5 mile road through Denali National Park and ends at the site of a century-old mining community that once existed in what would one day become a national park.
This morning we were able to sleep in as all buses had been put on a delay. At about 9:30 we left the Wilderness Access Center and started the drive through the park. Our driver, an ex-park ranger, gave 12 hours worth of commentary to tell the history of Denali, it’s earliest modern-day settlers and detail the wildlife we’d all hope to see throughout the day.
Cars are only able to travel the first 15 miles of the park road up to Savage River. We had driven those miles last night and taken in the scenery, but today we were treated to our first wildlife sighting before the end of the road for cars. A sow grizzly and two cubs walked amongst the trees parallel to the river and gave the bus a lot of excitement. After watching the bears for a few minutes, we crossed over the Savage River where the asphalt road ends and an inconsistently maintained gravel road begins.
On the gravel road, the bus bounced and bucked as the driver attempted to avoid as many potholes as he could. We ventured on in search of more wildlife and for a sighting of the mountain that the government renamed to “Denali” yesterday afternoon.
A few dozen miles into the trip we saw cloudy skies and falling snow burn off into clear, blue skies as we rounded a turn in the road. The view suddenly revealed the base of Mt. Denali and the smaller mountains that surround it. Clouds and fog still surrounded the top of the mountain, but as we cruised closer to the mountain, the clouds started to lift showing us even more of it’s majestic landscape.
By the time we reached the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles into the road, much more of the mountain had come into view, but the top still remained elusive. The enormity of the mountain is overwhelming, at over 20,000 ft tall it’s the tallest peak in North America.
As we continued down the road, the driver explained the story of the sourdough expedition in which area gold miners attempted to summit Mt. Denali in the early 1900’s. The miners employed the help of sled dogs to haul supplies to a base camp at 9,000 ft. From there, a select group of climbers continued to climb up to 11,000 ft where they made their final camp before attempting to summit the mountain 9,000 ft above them. Long story short, they summited Denali, but summited the wrong peak: the shorter northern peak. Due to weather and exhaustion, they were unable to continue to the true summit.
The bus continued the drive down the road and as the skies continued to clear, we picked up a ranger to talk us through the final portion of the road past Wonder Lake and onto the Kantishna mining site. Wonder Lake is a beautiful, long and serene lake that was surrounded by golden and red fall colors. We took a short walk and watched a caribou graze nearby before picking berries along the road. Denali’s mountain top still stayed elusive in the clouds, but provided for great textures with the fall colors in the foreground.
We rebounded the bus for a short drive to the end of the road to learn about the Kantishna mining site. Gold was discovered in the area at the dawn of the 20th century and a rush of prospectors came to the remote area in hopes of striking it rich. Two of the area’s most interesting characters included Joe and Fannie Quigley who ran a roadhouse for visitors to the mining area and provided hot meals and pies. Fannie Quigley seemed to be much more of a badass though as she hauled water daily to the mine, ran an elaborate garden, became a great hunter, and lived until the end of her life in Kantishna even after her husband decided to spend his later years in civilization in Seattle.
After a few quick pictures with the end of the road sign, we were headed back on the 92.4 mile journey to the park entrance. Finally the clouds started to clear and Mt. Denali finally started to show it’s face. As we rode the 30 miles back towards the Eielson Visitor Center, the clouds cleared and afforded us a great view of the mountain’s top peaks. Eventually the clouds passed enough to show us a brief view of the entire mountain at once, which is an incredibly rare sight in Denali, only about 30% of park visitors get to experience this sight.
We continued our search of wildlife on the drive back and stopped to view tons of caribou, a grizzly climbing and digging for roots on a hill near the road, a couple of ptarmigan birds, a few dall sheep grazing near the road, another sow and two cubs searching for plants to eat, a red fox running through the fields and several pairs of moose in the boreal forest.
In all, today was incredible as we not only saw plenty of wildlife closeup, but also saw Mt. Denali in it’s entirety and experienced perfectly beautiful skies that provided a backdrop to the texture of the mountains and the color of the fall leaves.
What We Ate
Turkey wraps on the bus, late night leftover meats and mac n’ cheese back in the room.
What We Learned
Denali employs a sophisticated bus system that carries visitors throughout the park to tour the scenery or drop them off for backcountry camping and hiking. This provides access to the park while keeping the area as pristine wilderness.
Wildlife We Saw
8 grizzlies including 2 sows with cubs, 4 moose, 3 dall sheep, a few dozen caribou, 2 ptarmigan and a red fox.