Saturday, August 12, 2017

Alaska - Denali National Park

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One good thing about our group is we all preferred to get up early to get on the road. We had about a two hour trip up The Parks Highway to the enterance of Denali National Park. The ride went by quickly for Dave because he spent a lot of the time arguing with AT&T over data usage. No way in heck did he run up 6GB overnight on Day 1 of his monthly contract. Rather than give in by paying money for an unlimited plan he decided to remain throttled for the next 30 days.

The 2 hour drive was uneventful with the exception of a few rain drizzles. We took obligatory photos at the first National Park sign we found before heading into the visitor center. This particular center was rather large and had many displays and taxidermed animals to look at. We watched the film presentation in the auditorium. It did nothing to educate us - it was a little artsy in a film school intern kind of way. We worked with the rangers to develop a short outing for the day - a walk around nearby Horseshoe Lake.  Our lunch was from the visitor center's cafeteria.

Facebook Followers were a little jealous of our good weather and fortune so we needed to take one rainy picture

The Horseshoe Lake Trail starts with a steep walk down a fairly long hill. We were not looking forward to the return trip. The trail and stair system was in decent shape and we saw folks of all ages and abilities out-and-about. We did feel sorry for the folks who had to deal with strollers.

About 15 minutes into our hike we found ourselves watching a moose with her calves across the shoreline. To make the show even better mama moose went for a bath in the middle of the lake. At the speed she was moving we thought she was going for a family with loud children. Fortunately for everyone she just hung out.

Once we had enough we continued our walk and encountered a busy beaver working on his dam.

Hey we can see our hotel from here!
A little further down the trail we had a close encounter with another moose. She was maybe twenty - thirty feet off the path in the heavy foliage. Apparently we have to be on our guard out here (foreshadowing for a future post). No other wildlife was encountered other than a hare and a squirrel. The beavers really did a number on the trees in this area evidenced by the all the dams and half-gnawed trees. We wondered how many beavers it took to build the elaborate dams.

Found another park sign
After another sign stop we went up the long switchback-filled road up to The Grand Denali Lodge. We chose this hotel over the nearby Princess Hotel for the dramatic views and so we wouldn't get "Princessed-out" since we still had a week long cruise coming up. The Lodge's main building had a bar with expansive patio, lounge area, full-service restaurant, and coffee bar. All the guest rooms were in separate buildings. The nearby sister hotel had an ice cream shop and BBQ restaurant. After checking in we needed a snack and some beer. We headed back down the hill to town (a collection of your typical tourist stores and eateries) and spent some time in The Salmon Bake. It was like walking into a fun house - not one bit of flooring was level.

Diner-style placemats allowed us to study our Alaska facts. We thought this would be handy for the cruise and trivia nights.

We browsed many of the shops (same stuff different building) before heading to Prospector's Pizza for dinner. This place was awesome. They had a huge tap selection with an appropriate mix of beer types and the pizzas were creative and tasty. It's the most popular place in town so we had about a half hour wait for a table.

Upon returning to the lodge the rest of our party turned in while we kept the bartender company and enjoyed the patio view. At almost 11pm it's still light out.


It's hard to go to sleep while it is still light out. Early mornings like this one are a little rough. We made our way to the Wildreness Access Center early to ensure prime seats on our Denali Park tour bus. Our 93 mile one-way trip departed at 7:30AM. This was going to be a L-O-N-G day.

Round trip from Wilderness Access Center to Kantishna

The coach was a modified school bus with no bathroom. We'd get breaks about every thirty miles. Our bus driver gave us facts and insights into Alaskan life along the way. Most of our wildlife sightings were from a distance. The Dall sheep only made one appearance and a 600mm lens would not have helped photograph them. The park was very scenic and with this being a round-trip you got to see everything twice. In hindsight we should have looked into the drive-in/fly-out tour since that would have freed up time for another visit to Prospector's Pizza.

Our ride
Mile 30 Teklanika Rest Stop:

Along the way:

Moose off in the distance running for some reason
Toklat River Rest Stop:

Along the way:

Around Mile 85 a ranger (Pete) boarded the bus and took over the tour. We disembarked for a short walk along a trail and heard stories about how the area was settled during the gold rush. We were able to get another view of Mount Denali including it's elusive lower north peak (they say only 30% of visitors get to see Denali at all due to weather so we were truly lucky with all our sightings).

Back on the bus for a short mile or two. We exited at the end of the line so we could take another short walk to the cabin of Frannie Quigley, a rough-and-tumble pioneer lady. We fought the mosquitos as we stood in front of the cabin to hear some drawn-out story about a blueberry pie recipe. The airstrip was only a three minute walk away..... if only there was a plane ready to fly us back.

On the way back we made the same bathroom breaks but now had time to tour the Eielson Center at mile 66.

In the distance and wrong side of the road

Antics at Mile 56

Artic ground squirrel

Volunteers walk the park's sled dogs

Another sign

We all felt the same way about this tour: we were glad we did it, but it was too long. Almost all our animal sightings were in the front half of the park. Maybe a shorter tour would have sufficed?
We got back to the hotel around 8pm. Although we had lunch and snacks provided on the tour, we were starving. We headed to the bar/lounge and enjoyed some sandwiches. We headed out to the deck for a few minutes to take in our last overlook views of the area. We had another early departure planned for the next day with a 360+ mile drive to the town of Seward in the south.

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