We quickly learned that you don't just go hiking in Denali National Park. Once you are inside the entrance area, except at Eilson Visitor Center at mm 62 and Wonder Lake, almost the end of the road, there are no trails! WHAT? No trails? How are the geezerheikens supposed to find their way? Get on the bus and get off whenever it looks like hiking?
MM 47 is just past Polychrome Pass and the scenery is spectacular. We decided to follow this creek and see where it would take us ... figuring #1, we could always retrace our steps so we wouldn't get lost and #2, we could theoretically SEE any bears before they saw us and skedaddle back where we came from. And that's almost the way it worked out....
Except that this creek ran down into another creek ... bigger creek and despite hiking up and down the creek, none of us could figure out how to get across without getting really wet. We tried throwing stones in the water to create a rock bridge, to no avail. David & Joe had waterproof hiking boots, but the water was too deep for even hi-top hiking boots. Bummer! Next time we go hiking in Alaska, we'll bring rubber ducky boots. So we turned back to hike along the road for a bit. Since it's a dirt road, it still felt rather remote.
And the view was hard to beat ... Mt McKinley without a cloud in sight today! Was it our lucky day or what? We decided to catch the next bus and hike some of the trails around the Eilsen Visitor Center.
Hiking down down down, we were treated to a spot to sit and relax just above the stream ... when we spotted a grizzly bear meandering the far slope, enjoying his day and gulping berries by the mouthful. We watched, ate our lunches and relaxed. What a perfect spot! The tundra was starting to turn colors of fall and added to the beauty of the scene.
After enjoying the relaxing, it was time to hike back up the hill and decide what to do next. We caught another bus back to Teklanika but on the way, we saw another grizzly (no photo, too many people on the bus), some big caribou and even a coyote trotting along the road like he owned it.
Returning to base camp Teklanika, we wandered the river behind our campsite, even wading in the icy water just because we could.
So as the alpenglow begins, the geezerheikers retire to the campfire and a bit of wine to toast the day.
Saturday dawned clear and beautiful and we were off to the bus stop - the only way to see Denali, all 92 miles of park road is to ride a school bus. We're getting on at Teklanika, 30 miles in, so the "rest" of the road is "only" 60 miles. The bus was late, about 9:30 AM and we didn't get back until 7:30 PM! Luckily there are plenty of stops along the way and the day vanished in a flash.
You thought I was kidding about the school bus? Our first tour director explained that the only way to see wildlife is either to pick a spot and sit all day or ride the bus. The wilderness is so vast, when we were hiking mostly we saw no wildlife. But we saw evidence they had been there.
Luckily our first trip - the bus was half empty, so when we spotted wildlife, there weren't 100 tourists, speaking 7 different languages, stampeding to get camera lenses in place, all wrestling windows down and scaring creatures away being too noisy. We had less positive experiences later in the trip and appreciated this first bus ride even more!
Shortly after the adventure began, we saw a family of grizzly bears. They were eating berries and we found out that this time of year they're in what's called a "hyperphagic" phase -- they are so intensely gorging themselves that they don't pay attention to anything other than eating. Here in Denali, there are no salmon because the creeks are all filled with silt so the bears eat berries. As a result, bears here are only half the size of the ones we saw at Anan gorging themselves on salmon.
And then it was Polychrome Pass, some of the most beautiful scenery in the park - and the narrowish, twistiest, scariest road!
And then there were more critters ... an arctic fox, a ptarmigan, just before it turns white for the winter - the Alaska State Bird, lots of soaring golden eagles - I'd never seen a golden eagle and the critter that causes the most damage of all the animals, the arctic squirrel and then some HUGE caribou.
The caribou in late August, early fall, are not yet in large herds. They are all fattening up for the coming winter and working their way to the base of Mt McKinley where they'll form a herd for the coming winter months. Interesting factoid - caribou are the only member of the deer family where both males and females sport antlers!
Mt McKinley just keeps getting more and more magnificent! As an aside, I think they should rename it Mt Denali. Denali (the name of the park) means "the high one" in the native Abathascan language.
Until, a few short minutes later, at Wonder Lake, it disappears into it's own cloud bank....
It's over there, beyond those clouds. The photos you see of Mt McKinley reflected in water are taken right here at Wonder Lake. But clearly I'm not going to get that photo! Oh well, it's still been a great day.
The bus stops to let us gather berries - blueberries, bearberries and cranberries. No bears in sight, but we're all a bit wary. The fresh wild blueberry pancakes we made with our baggies full of blueberries were so delicious that even David, who doesn't like blueberries, enjoyed more than one helping!
The End of the Road ... the park keeps having to replace this sign because the bears apparently think it's food and chew it up. But for now, it's there and our trip back has just begun.
Leave it to the "geezerheiken" crew to camp next to a drunken forest, on the edge of the Teklanika River. I didn't know there was such a thing as a "drunken" forest! Trees tilting every which way in random tilting order.
It's fairly common in the subarctic taiga spruce forests. Apparently the permafront under the topsoil has ice wedges and thaws and moves, causing trees to tilt at various angles. One of many things we learned on our adventure at Camp Teklanika.
We also learned about "Purple Mountains Majesty" ... the alpenglow on the snow covered peaks behind our campsite literally glowed at sunset nightly. Of course, sunset wasn't until after 10 PM.
There were 4 campsites right on the Teklanika River and we were lucky enough to find #15 empty. The "real" road ends at Savage River ... no private traffic allowed on the Park Road after mile marker 15. Teklanika is at mile marker 30 ... 15 miles past the end of the "real road".
15 miles doesn't sound like much (unless you're aboard Winterlude, our sailboat, in which case it's 3 hours at 5 mph), but a rough gravel and dirt road in the monsoon rain is an interesting adventure that we hadn't counted on. IMHO, Winnebagos aren't built well enough for this type of travel! We took it very slow so as not to rattle the windows out of the RV.
We arrived covered with mud and immediately took a walk-about on the "river". Our river campsite overlooked a braided, broad, shallow and silt filled glacier river. No fish can survive in the silt in the river, but within 10 minutes of exploring "our" river, we found fresh tracks for moose, caribu and wolves (YIKES!). Looking one way down the river ... WAIT - isn't that a reindeer aka caribou??? Yes, not just one, but two!
We wanted to see caribou and here they were in our own backyard! We never saw any other wildlife in this spot, but fresh tracks in the mud every morning - wolf, caribou & moose - meant the river had visitors every night.
Looking the other way "up" the river, we could see snow capped mountains.
Did I mention caribou? Regular river visitors, but none with red noses, Rudolph sightings -- caribou ARE reindeer, you know!
It's AUGUST, and somehow we hadn't counted on it being 25 degrees at night! That campfire didn't provide enough heat long enough! The crew had to abandon outside for the warm heated inside the RV! Frost on everything in the AM didn't seem right either.
I really wanted to get a good moose in the wild photo which has thus far eluded me. We've seen moose in Glacier National Park, and even in downtown Anchorage directly across the road from the airport. But no moose after 8 days in Denali. So Neydie got a moose jigsaw puzzle instead.
Hiking along the park road allowed us to explore several "Moose Ponds", but unfortunately none had a moose visiting.
But it was still a beautiful place to explore. Back on the road headed back to the campground, we found a GIANT grizzly bear print, this photo doesn't do it justice because there's no comparison to show how big it really was.
Late August is fall in Teklanika and everywhere there was evidence of the trees starting to turn brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. Finally our time is up and we have to leave our Teklanika campground....
OH WAIT! As we're driving out of the park, on our way back to Anchorage to turn in our RV, when FINALLY we see a MOOSE!
After joining up with friends, Joe & Neydie, and renting an RV for base camp in Denali National Park, we chose the Mount Healy Overlook Trail for our first day as an introduction to the fabled park. The entrance area trail is a strenuous hike for geezerheikers: 4.5 miles round trip, with 1,700 feet of elevation change and up to a 25 percent grade.
The trail starts innocently enough on a 24" wide "highway" of packed gravel and after the first mile deteriorates into some steep switchbacks and a bit of rock scrambling, climbing another mile and 1,200 feet to the overlook high above. Highlights include dramatic views of the park, snow capped peaks, the Visitors Center area, and "Glitter Gulch" the small tourist development outside of the park entrance.
Ascending quickly above the treeline, the views might become better, except then we were above the clouds. Hopefully the clouds will clear higher up (and the rain could go away as well!)
Yep, the trail description was accurate, quickly deteriorating from that trail "highway" into the switchbacks & rock scrambling part. Until now, we were laughing at the "strenuous" description...
I put the camera away on the hike up after the steeper parts started, but kept it out on the way down, this gives you some idea. Actually one of the easier trails we hiked during this trip, but the last mile had me huffing & puffing.
WooHoo! End of the "maintained" trail, except it looked like a great spot for lunch a bit farther up...
Neydie checked it out for us - the wind had come up and the top was a bit chilly, but we could sit on the side of the rock formation in front of Neydie and the wind was blocked, affording magnificent views to enjoy during lunch with no windchill! Gotta love that!
The view back toward "Glitter Gulch", into the wind from our lunch perch.
And another successful "geezerheiken" concludes back at the RV enjoying a cold one with local hometown friend, Monty, who just happens to be a summer guide for the park - our own personal source of the best information, for hiking & also some great music when he treated us to a private concert, bringing his guitar the next night!
And yes, we are in a "trailer park", and Riley Creek Campground at the park entrance is "inside" the park, but near the mercantile, with such civilities as showers, flush toilets, etc. Our next camp, at Teklanika 30 miles in on the park road where no private vehicles are allowed, is more private, but the amenities were nice for a couple of nights. :) Let you worry that our "trailer park" is a parking lot with trailer next to trailer, let me show you us at Riley Creek.
Not nearly as claustrophobic as I had feared a "trailer park" RV experience might be! Life is good!
A hike to the top of the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, gives a sense of what much of Alaska was like during the ice age. The Harding Icefield seems to go on forever, currently covering more than 700 square miles of Alaska's Kenai Mountains in ice.
"The trail climbs or falls approximately 1000 feet of elevation per mile for 8.2 miles roundtrip, with several rocky sections which require rock scrambling. Spectacular views along the way make it one of the most worthwhile hikes we've ever done, well worth the effort."
Although the trail begins innocently enough, make no mistake, this is no picnic! Along the way, you'll be hiking alongside the side of Exit Glacier, a receding valley glacier ending in a braided river. Being one of two active glaciers within day trip driving distance of Anchorage, it gets a lot of visitors and also atmospheric city dirt, disguising the dramatic blue hues of the ice.
Despite the "dirt" the glacier is still magnificent, a 4 mile stretch of icy "road" to the valley below, exiting the Harding Icefield, thus aptly named.
After the first mile, the hike becomes still challenging, but less rocky and scrambling in most places, allowing us to enjoy more of the scenery. Be sure to dress in layers while doing this hike - despite the ranger warning us against hypothermia, I was much more concerned about heat exhaustion. When we started the hike, it was raining, so we both had on waterproof jackets and pants over our layers, YIKES! We had to stop after the first few hundred feet and shed layers to keep from overheating.
Looking away from the spectacle of the glacier, the mountains are covered in splashing waterfalls and lush green valleys filled with wildflowers, even this late in the year (August).
This wildflower stumped even the two rangers. Later we discovered it is a Broad Petal Gentian, just prior to opening.
Fireweed nearing the top of it's bloom shows that winter is not far off, despite the lush green valleys.
The viewpoint from "Top of the Mountain" was spectacular and we wanted to continue to the icefield itself, but unfortunately the hike takes 6-8 hours and we only had 4 until we had to meet our bus to get to the train station on time. :( Next time, we'd definitely allocate an entire day to this trail and enjoy every minute and view, plus some "just sit and contemplate" time overlooking the icefield. But we had to head down...
Down is harder on our knees, but always goes quicker and soon we were alongside Exit Glacier again.
In the photo below, look closely in the ice crevice just below us. You'll see tiny people hiking and ice rappelling on the glacier itself. We wanted to do this with a company called Exit Glacier Guides, but decided on the Harding Icefield Hike instead - we only had part of one day available. Next time, we'd stay another day or two in Seward and take in more of this magnificent area of Alaska.
Next, back to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad and then on to Denali National Park!
Despite the amazing scenery we relished on our Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic ride, nothing prepared us for the treat we were about to experience when we chose the Northwest Fjord Glacier trip in the Kenai Fjord National Park. The Northwest Fjord Glacier has only recently been available to view because of too many icebergs and other dangerous conditions. A good friend of ours always says "Life is in the timing" and our timing was definitely right ... despite the fact that when we boarded the boat, it was pouring rain and the visibility made us wonder if we'd even be able to SEE the glacier, let alone any wildlife...
The first glacier we passed, we could barely see.
Luckily there was some closer scenery to admire.
Our first view of wildlife wasn't so wild, in fact the locals call these harbor seals "harbor sausages" because they look like stuffed sausages and are pretty boring... oh well, 8 1/2 more hours in this trip, maybe it will get better....
Oh wait! WHO is THIS roaring at us? It's "Bubba" a Steller Sea Lion who commands the action and there's lots of action. Hard to tell here that these sea lions are an endangered species. Bubba slid (walked?) down this rock before diving not so gracefully into the sea below where smaller sea lions were playing in the water.
Not sure who this dignified sea lion is, but obviously she thinks she's special!
They're EVERYWHERE! How can they possibly be endangered? :) And they're quite active, sunning on the rocks during the day and feeding on fish at night. Wish we could have seen one actually climb this rock, I'm pretty sure I couldn't do it from the water!
It's still pouring rain as we approach our destination, Northwest Fjord, the deepest and most in-depth glacier tour offered in Kenai Fjords National Park. As you can see, visibility is still "eh"... :(
As we draw closer, tiny icebergs appear and the closer we get, the larger they get. Our captain reassures us ... "the Titanic was made of steel, our boat is fiberglass, so no problem with icebergs"...
As we drew closer, we could see the deep blue crevasses of the glaciers despite the overhanging glum mist. All was quiet ... until BANG, it wasn't....
As the boat drifted with the engines idle closer to the glacier than any other boat goes, we first saw and then heard giant explosions of ice falling into the water. Amazingly, often it appeared to be more like avalanches than glaciers calving, but we did see a couple of BIG chunks fall off into the icy waters below.
Sometimes photos say it much better than words....
Watching was mesmerizing, no sound except the glacier's grunts, groans, snap crackle pop and BANGS! Even those on the boat were unnaturally quiet in the face of the grandeur of the glacier.
After an hour drifting silently except for the sounds of the glacier, we reluctantly had to leave the glacier and resume our adventure, stopping in Cascades Cove where literally everywhere we looked were waterfalls cascading from the upper reaches of the glaciers.
Dall's Porpoise swam erratically in our bow waves, zigzagging rapidly making them difficult to photograph (and I thought caribbean dolphins were hard to photograph!). Then we saw humpback whales, but no breaching only air spouts and tails which was still a great treat!
At last, we saw puffins! Puffins, resting on cliffs, puffins in the water, puffins flying ... puffins everywhere! Too bad I couldn't get any really good clear photos, but here are a couple of examples...
And with that, our amazing 9 hour day was over and we were back at the dock in Seward, Alaska. But tomorrow is another day and we're hoping to hike at least part of the "strenuous" Harding Icefield Trail up the side of Exit Glacier from the Kenai Fjords National Parks visitor center.
Every day new amazing scenery and wonders. We are so thankful we're lucky enough to be experiencing this bucket list adventure!
The Alaska Railroad claims that the very best way to see Alaska is on the Railroad! Originating in 1903 in Seward, Alaska, the railroad now connects Seward with Anchorage and on to Fairbanks, winding through some of the most rugged snow capped mountains, flowing blue glaciers, sparkling rivers and scenery in the US, if not the world.
At the uncivilized hour of 5:45 AM, we boarded the Alaska Railway "Coastal Classic" from Anchorage south to Seward. Later we were told it's the most scenic of all the Alaska Railroad routes. As soon as we boarded, we knew it was the right decision to pay the extra money for the dome car view. Unbelievable to have a 360 degree view and an open air viewing platform for photos! The spectacle unfolded for the next 4 hours, keeping us captivated and me running back & forth from the open air car until it got too chilly and I had to come inside to warm up.
Just out of Anchorage we spotted several Dall Sheep native only to Alaska on a ridge. Unfortunately Dall Sheep don't hang out close enough for even my 120-400 lens to get a clear shot ... And especially not at the speeds the train was rumbling along the track, hurrying into the day.
Low tide and sunrise gave us interesting views of the mud flats along Turnagain Arm, an inlet off Cook Bay named when Capt Cook discovered it wasn't the passage to the Indian Ocean that he was seeking and he had to "turn again". The name stuck!
Then the views set in for hours... 5 tunnels winding among countless glaciers grinding slowly toward the sea, or receding as global warming, or perhaps their normal evolution continues regardless of human intervention.
Glacier creeks full of glacier flour (silt) that no fish can survive in, countless waterfalls, including the Snow White Falls so named for the 7 falls representing the 7 dwarfs more glaciers and snow capped mountain peaks passed outside far too quickly.
The best photos are only preserved in my mind ... The moose swimming across a lake - how he swam with that full rack of antlers is beyond comprehension. All we could do was watch fascinated, no time to grab my camera and run for the outside platform. Same on the way back when a huge bull moose was munching his favorite delicacy, a willow tree not far from the train track.
The highlight of the return trip was without question the sunset and our first glimpses of Mt McKinley over 200 miles away reflected in the sunset. Take my breath away amazing!
If your bucket list includes a ride on the original Alaska Railroad, we highly recommend the Coastal Classic route to Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park with its amazing scenery, glaciers calving and stellar sea lions playing king of the rock among other amazing sights, more on that to come in the next photo essay on Kenai Fjords National Park.
We made it! We're 30% Club members! Only 30% of visitors to Denali actually SEE "the mountain". We not only saw it, but saw it multiple times! Great experience, can't wait to post several more photo blogs starting with our Alaska train trip to Kenai Fjords National Park and beyond! More soon!
Geezerheiken (geezer hiking) to the Top of Mt Healy, Denali National Park! We made it, despite the rain! 1700 ft elevation, 2.2 miles to the top.
Only 30% of visitors to Alaska ever see Mt McKinley. We've seen it from the train, but that doesn't really count! We need a close-up now that we're camping in the park! BTW, 35 degrees tonight!
We're moving base camp tomorrow to a higher elevation that got a dusting of SNOW last night!!! And no 3G cell connection so we're truly off "Into The Wild".
More photo essays to follow, from our Alaska Railroad "Coastal Classic" adventures onward ... too much fun, no time to write or bandwidth to post fun photo essays!
Picking up our "land yacht" later this morning & off to explore Denali National Park with friends, Joe & Neydie. As usual, together this group usually end up hiking to places on top of the world! I already told them we are NOT climbing Mt McKinley. More