Long before we arrived in Fairbanks, we had been keeping an eye on the weather for our trip to Denali National Park. Of course we knew the forecasts were too far out to be of any consequence, but we watched them nonetheless. We also knew that Denali makes it's own weather, so even if the day is sunny, the mountain might still be obscured. There is an oft-cited statistic that says only 30 percent of visitors to Alaska actually see a portion of the mountain and only 20 percent see it unobstructed. Each day we looked at the forecast and without fail it appeared we were in for a full week of rain. Ugh.
As you can see from the above and subsequent photos, we did not have a week of rain. Over our entire week-long stay, in our estimation, we had probably 75 percent brilliant sunshine and long, warm days. It was amazing that we managed the perfect week in the park, but really more so that we were in a position to take advantage of that. Together we rode the bus to Eielson Visitors Center on a spectaular sunny day, and Steven returned the next two days as well. You can count him among the lucky 20 percent who have seen Denali in all her glory not once, but on multiple occassions. Stunning!
Denali National Park & Preserve is unlike any other national park I've visited. It's huge, like six million acres, but access to the park by motorized vehicle is extremely limited. You can actually go anywhere you want as long as you walk/hike. In the winter, you can ski, snowshoe or dogsled. So like I said, pretty limited access. There is one dirt road in that goes to Kantishna at Mile 92.4, and you must return on the same road. But, you cannot actually drive to Kantishna, in fact, you cannot drive your personal vehicle past Mile 15. Denali NP is all about riding the bus. (Except in winter, when there are no buses running.)
The bus system basically takes visitors on a round-trip to one of four stops: Toklat River at Mile 53.5 (6-1/2 hours), Eielson Visitors Center at Mile 66 (8 hours), Wonder Lake at Mile 84.4 (11 hours), or Kantishna at Mile 92.4 (12 hours). The cost for adults ranges from $26.50 to $51.00 depending on your destination. If you want to get off the bus at any point and go for a hike, you can just yell "STOP!" and the driver will drop you off. Then after your hike you can flag down another bus and if they have room, which most do, they will stop and pick you up and take you wherever you want to go next. You can also tent camp anywhere you like as long as you're not visible from the road. Pretty neat system, actually. If you see wildlife while on the bus, again, just yell "STOP!" and the driver will pull over at the first opportunity. Did I mention that the buses are similar to school buses, only the seats are slightly more padded? Yeah, so there's that.
As far as vehicle access, there are a few exceptions to the rules. One of them is Teklanika Campground at Mile 29. There are several reasons why camping at Teklanika is a fantastic idea. First, you get to drive your vehicle twice as far into the park as anyone else other than your fellow campers. Kinda neat, right? Second, you can purchase the "Tek" pass which allows you to hitch a ride on any park bus heading west to any stops beyond Mile 29, in other words, all of them. The Tek pass costs $30 and is good for your entire stay - at Teklanika there is a 3-day minimum stay, and we stayed a full week. So if you utilize your pass and ride into the park multiple days, it's an absolute steal. And third, Teklanika is big rig friendly. So guess where we are camping?
As with anything that can be categorized as a "steal", there are some downsides. First, Toadie Hopper is not allowed in. I know, right? Poor Toadie is all alone at the Visitor Centers overnight/long-term parking. The only vehicles allowed to drive to Teklanika are those essential to camping. So what that really means is one motor, whatever form that takes. No tow vehicles for motorhomes, but trucks pulling trailers are allowed. The only exception we saw was a motorhome with a tow car which was necessary because one of the campers was disabled and her scooter traveled in their tow car. Makes sense.
The second "downside" to Teklanika is the weird fact that you cannot travel west toward the entrance of the park where the Main Visitors Center is. In other words, the Tek Pass is good for multiple trips between Mile 29 and Mile 92, but is not allowed for travel between Mile 29 and Mile 0. In fact, say you decide to go spend some time at the Main Visitors Center. If you hop on a bus to go there, the only way you can get back to Teklanika is to purchase another Tek Pass. Crazy, huh?
I can't really figure that one out, except maybe they don't want to give up seats on the buses for Tek campers that might otherwise be filled with paying customers. (Cynical, I know.) There was a German couple in the park who didn't understand all the restrictions and failed to even purchase a Tek Pass. They were simply stuck at the campground and limited to hikes with no way in or out until their time was up, but decided it was worth the extra cost to ride a bus back to the entrance and pay again to get their passes. Of course you can leave early, but once you do, there is no returning. You get one trip in, and one trip out.
In spite of all the restrictions, camping at Teklanika has been fantastic. The campground is right on the Teklanika River, which is a great hike along the wide rocky river bed. I was on high alert for bears when we went down to explore the river. Moose tracks were everywhere, but we never saw one.
The park rangers give a talk every evening at 7:30 pm. It was here we met Christine and Bryce, a fellow fulltiming couple from Montana who hit the road in 2013. They travel with their dog, Gus, a German Shorthair, who is 75 pounds of pure muscle. We agreed to take him for a walk while Christine and Bryce were on a bus trip to Wonder Lake, but really, it was Gus who took Steven for a drag. That dog is STRONG! We look forward to catching up with them next month once we get to the Kenai. They will be in Soldotna starting in mid-July as lead builders on a Habitat for Humanity project.
The National Park Service is celebrating it's 100th anniversary this year with a campaign called "Find Your Park". My park is Yellowstone and it has been since I was a child living in Cody, WY. While it's unfair to compare, if I were a hiker or a backcountry camper, Denali might be my favorite place ever. But then there's that whole grizzly bear thing. From the minute you enter the park, the education begins: How to Avoid Being Eaten By A Bear. Before every ranger talk, they go through the details. The newsletter is full of information on avoidance. Curious, I asked a ranger how many grizzly bears were estimated to live in Denali National Park and she said, "Three hundred." Whaaaaaaat? That's it? Only a measley 300 grizzly bears in SIX MILLION acres? I did the math. That's one grizzly every 20,000 acres. What are the odds? And yet, you don't want to be "that guy" who got chomped up by a grizz, right? So we dutifully carried our bear spray everywhere we went.
And speaking of bears and wildlife in general, I know I didn't talk about that much in this post, but rest assured, it's coming. Your intrepid blog photographer captured stunning photos of all that is Denali National Park, which he will share with you in our next blog post. You won't be disappointed.