Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Denali National Park and Preserve


Words and pictures don't even come close to the experience of being in Alaska. It feels to me like being in a different country, maybe on a different planet. Time is stretched here. Sunsets meet sunrises. Darkness is reserved only for the winter months. Seeing the local wildlife, quite literally, takes my breath away. If I had a gigantic lens that zoomed out till I became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared, there would still be the Alaskan landscape, sprawling and infinite.

I realize I'm seeing this great state in its most ideal season. Days have been hovering around the mid 70s, nights are chilly but not freezing. The evenings are endless. While preparing for this trip, I was a little afraid that the long days would mess with my sleep rhythm. They haven't. Winter, of course, is full of darkness and snow. Challenges abound and it's a lot more solitary. Part of me wants to have that experience in Alaska but the other half just chickens out at the mere thought.

One of the most anticipated places on our itinerary, for me, was Denali National Park and Preserve. I knew the experience would be unique on many levels. Unlike any other park I've been to, access is quite limited for vehicles. Once I got used to how the bus system works, it was easy. It's actually nice to explore the park this way and not encounter hundreds of cars clogging up the road.

The Teklanika River was just a short walk from our campsite.

The Teklanika River early in the morning. The first rest stop on our bus.

Our first wildlife sighting during our bus trip. How exciting!!

The bus drivers are all different and they wield a lot of power. What I mean is that they can influence the experience of your day. The road inside the park is well maintained but it still takes hours to get to each destination. In essence, most of my day was spent on the actual bus just getting to where I wanted to go and then deal with another long trip home. If the bus driver is full of information about our surroundings and is willing to stop anytime an animal is seen, it can be a fun day. For the most part, the drivers I rode with were quite accommodating but I did encounter at least one who thought the road home was a racetrack and remained silent the whole time (except to tell us that we had 5 minutes at a particular stop, no exceptions).

Buses lined up at the Eielson Visitors Center to take passengers to various locations.

Take a closer look and you’ll see one of the buses against the scale of the mountains at Polychrome Pass.

People find a good vantage point for photographs at the Polychrome Overlook.

Riding the bus was always an adrenaline rush. It reminded me of seeing bear jams in Yellowstone. Someone would yell "Stop!!" and the bus would screech to a halt. We would look around for wildlife. For the split second before it was announced, I would think is it a bear, a moose, a sheep, a wolf....a squirrel?? Then someone says "Bear!". Tablets, phones, compact cameras, big DSLRS all point out the window, everyone clamoring for a view. I thought the bus might keel over! Mostly these larger animals were quite far away, say a quarter to a half mile distance. Still, it was thrilling to see them. It's a distinctly different feeling than viewing animals behind bars in a zoo.

The closest I got to the wildlife of Denali. Here is a mother bear with her yearling.

A family of Dall sheep travese a hilltop.

Caribou crossing the mountain reminded me of ants or camels on their way across the desert.

A Willow Ptarmigan sporting summer plummage. They are completely white in the winter.

Caribou just chillin’, wondering what all the fuss is about as a hundred cameras point his way.

Arctic ground squirrel.

The landscape is indescribably beautiful. Aside from the mountain itself, my favorite range inside the park is Polychrome (many colors). That now familiar feeling of insignificance is at its height in this park. The valley floors are vast and the mountains touch the clouds. It had a feeling of spirituality for me. It made me glad to be alive, grateful for those moments. 

The Polychrome mountain range.

And what of Denali itself? There was a good chance it wouldn't be visible during our stay. A week beforehand, the weather forecast was for rain the entire time. Thankfully, the sun shone for three straight days and the mountain flaunted its magnificence. 

One man and his mountain, as seen from my hike down to the Toklat River.

The first day we rode the bus, there was a particular part of the journey where all of Denali comes into view. Every passenger says "Wow!" at the same time like one collective voice. Pictures don't do it justice. You think you know what to expect but it never holds up to the real thing and feeling the scale of it all.

The view from Eielson Visitors Center.

One of the first views of Denali on the bus to Eielson Visitors Center.

A campground at Wonder Lake with a drop-dead gorgeous view.

I can attest to that having spent a week at Denali National Park.

The day we left Denali was the beginning of rain for a couple more days. There were people heading into the park as we were leaving. I felt sorry for them because they probably wouldn't see Denali during their stay. At the same time, it made me think that my experience really had been a rare privilege and that made me smile.

On day three of my trips to see Denali, I finally had a little cloud drama!

Although I can now strike it from my bucket list, I will write a note that says "come again" because I'm already looking forward to my next encounter with "the Great One."


  1. Sorry, Kelly... due to a double posting we had to delete your comment but I'm including it here: "Amazing pics, as always, as we have come to expect from you! I hope we get to see such great views of The Great One when we go."
    Thank you! We hope you do too.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you! Denali NP is a dream to photograph. I'd love to shoot year round if I could :)

  3. All I can say is THANK YOU !! I know it is not enough , but thank you . From Boise Id.

    1. Thank you is always enough! I'm glad you are following along and enjoying our travels.

  4. I love hearing your excitement & reliving my own. Fabulous pics as usual.

    1. Thanks Connie. It seems like so long ago when we were in Borrego Springs talking to you about Denali!

  5. Gteat pictures! We did not get to see any bears while we were in the park.

    1. Thank you! I think part of my "luck" was going out on the bus every day but you just can't tell with wildlife. They are on their own schedule.

  6. Wow. Just absolutely amazing spectacular WOW. Great photographs, great writing. Love the quote "Wilderness is one of the permanent homes of the human spirit." I hope when we get there we have a good bus driver.....

    1. Thanks Laurel, I appreciate it. It's funny how a few words, strung together in the right order, can evoke such depth and scale. That quote really spoke to did the entire experience of Denali.

  7. I finally sat down today and took the time to catch up on your blog, reading the last 4 posts. Linda I love your sense of humor and your attention to detail in telling us everything you are seeing and doing. But I can always tell when the narrator changes to Steven, even without saying so, and the story becomes introspective. It's fun to see the journey through both your eyes. Loved your comment about wanting to stay through the winter but chickening out. I had those same thoughts but as you know, the same result. Alaska is truly our greatest treasure.

    1. Thank you, Jo, for your considered response. We always toy with the idea of doing something crazy like spending a winter in Alaska. It's still on the table so who knows? I'm glad you are enjoying the posts. I know that Alaska is particularly close to your heart.

  8. I loved the animal shots, in particular the grizzlies. I appreciate the detail on the bus rides as we are only there for an overnight and I am really on the fence about whether to bother or not. 300 grizzlies in all those anchors. Wow thanks for that piece of info.

    1. If you arrive early enough to take the bus, I would highly recommend it. It's worth it for the epic views of the mountains and the vastness of the park. Seeing Denali, of course, is not guaranteed but will just take your breath away if it's a clear day. I think if you don't do it, the campground itself will just feel like you could be anywhere in the US.

  9. How did I almost miss this post?? So much wow - especially the bears. And the mountains. And, well the whole post is amazing. Great pic of Steve - you captured such a feeling of awe in that Linda.