Denali, a native name meaning “The High One” is probably the most famous among fifteen National Parks in Alaska, and is one of the few accessible by road. Park is accessible by a well maintained one lane Parks highway stretching from Anchorage to Fairbanks. From the park entrance, a narrow gravel road is travelling 90 miles into the park though visitors are only allowed to drive their own car the first 15 miles and must use one of the park’s shuttle buses to get any further unless they receive a permit in a yearly lottery that allows driving as far as the weather allows for the four days in September. Denali is known for its diverse wildlife, splendid scenery, and one of the most challenging peaks one may attempt -Mt. McKinley, attracting mountaineers from all over the world. Many attempt to reach the summit in a two-three week accent but less than half ultimately climb to the top of the highest mountain in North America. Mt. McKinley creates its own weather and its peak is often covered with clouds but the further one travels into the park and the closer to the mountain one gets, the better chance there is for a glimpse of a summit on one sunny morning.
Seven established campgrounds are spread out throughout the Park – Riley creek- the closest to the entrance and the largest one; Savage River; Sanctuary River; Teklanika River; Igloo Creek; and Wonder Lake- the furthest tent only campground located at mile 85 from the park’s entrance and a mere ~20 miles from Mt. McKinley. We planned plan is to spend two days at Wonderlake to get the best shot at seeing the summit and to enjoy one of the most scenic campgrounds in the world but we leave Anchorage an hour too late to make it in time for the last 4 pm camper bus to the campground. Once we realize we would have to miss the first night at Wonderlake we stop for lunch at a Flying Squirrel Bakery and Cafe in a town of Talkeetna, about halfway between Denali and Anchorage and check whether any other campgrounds in the park are open for the night. Unable to find any information online we decide to check with the visitor center in the park and after finishing a delicious grilled cheese with salmon sandwich, soup, and an Alaskan chai we continue the drive. We arrive shortly after 5 pm when the last bus into the park has already left and settle at the Riley Creek campground for the night. Were Riley Creek unavailable we considered going to backcountry but that required a permit that could take a while especially after the first and only bear kill in Denali in 2012 when a backcountry hiker approached a grizzly too close.
The next morning we take a 6:50 am bus to Wonderlake but not until after running late and driving after the bus to hop on it at the next stop. Usually I am never a fun of bus rides, they are slow, boring, and filled with tour groups. A ride into Denali is quite different, it is as much of an experience as the destination itself. Our bus available only for campers gathers at best 10-15 people, all of which are travelling with their gear to Wonderlake or other campsites along the way. Rules for the ride are simple – look for wildlife and yell stop whenever you want to stop for a photo or see an animal. Besides on demand stops the bus would stop every 90 minutes for a rest stop making an 85 mile ride to Wonderlake almost 5 hours long at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour on curvy narrow mountain roads with no guardrails.
A perfect weather today makes Mt. McKinley peaks visible even from the entrance creating an unparalleled view. Just a few miles from the entrance we stop for a family of ptarmigans crossing the road, an official state bird, that started to change its brown feather coat for the winter white according to its patchy outfit. Suddenly a boy with binoculars next to the window yells out “three bears! there on the ridge!.” Bears are barely visible from a distance and look more like blonde blotches on the green tapestry of the hill but upon a closer look match the contours of a sow with two cubs. Soon we come across a small herd of caribou showing off their majestic antlers against the snow covered ridge. Right after the Teklanika river bridge we stop again for a bear hanging out on the road and causing a traffic jam, another bear strolls just down the road next to the stream.
Time for the first scenic view 10 minute stop. Continuing on we see a caribou cautiously crossing the stream, hesitating in the deep water in the middle and then coming ashore on the other side. He has nothing to fear though, caribous are excellent swimmers, the best in their class, and their hollow-hair fair not only provides excellent insulation against harsh winter but also allows them to float whenever they are in the water. A couple miles up the road we see another caribou and her calf resting on the ridge top, blending in with the grass.
Eielson Visitor center at mile 66, our last stop before Wonderlake. By now, I have lost count of how many bears we have met along the way. Eielson offers a daily alpine hike with a ranger program as well as several exhibits of skulls and furs of resident wildlife- lynx fur is amazingly soft! During this almost 40 minute stop we first watch a movie about Denali mountaineers and then take a short hike to the valley below where an arctic ground squirrel poses for a portrait right in front of me. Only 20 miles to Wonderlake.
Wonderlake is as beautiful as I expected, there are no bad spots at this small campground overlooking an alpine meadow and several small ponds. We quickly pick a site, put on head nets to ward off noisy mosquitoes abundant in the area -though June and July are reportedly a lot worse mosquito wise than the end of summer – and after setting up the tent hike to Wonder lake. Relatively young glacial lake, it is hardly a hot fishing spot but more of a place to sit by, have a picnic, and watch the clouds’ reflection in the lake’s crystal clear waters.
It starts getting cloudy by the evening but the rain stops soon after it started and we get outside to join an evening ranger program. The topic of the day is porcupines- where do they live, how do they mate only once a year and how do fisher cats developed a strategy to turn the porcupine over and eat its belly meat. Before it gets dark we take another hike on the alpine bar trail traversing open meadows full of blueberry bushes with plenty of ripe berries on them.
The next morning we get up early, pack up our gear and wait at the bus stop to catch a shuttle back to the park entrance. The 8:30 am bus comes a few minutes late after and first continues on to an old mining town of Katishna at the very end of the park road, picks up a few more passengers, attending a music festival the previous night, and starts a long 90 mile drive back.
The weather is the opposite from yesterday, rainy and cold, and our bus group has little expectation to see any wildlife. But the rain subsides as we move along and we see a patch of blue sky ahead. Soon we notice a caribou resting in the meadow below, then a bear grazing on berries with its fur completely soaked from the rain, then another bear, two dall sheep on top of the cliff, a herd of caribou hasting into the bushes just a few meters away, a fox sitting on the edge of the road looking out for a ground squirrel, and then we stop again.
The driver urges everyone to keep quiet and a moments after a large blonde sow with two cubs emerges into the road less than a meter away from our bus windows, crosses the road in front of the bus, and slowly ascends up the hill on the other side with cubs closely following behind. Of course that is exactly when both of my DSLR camera refuse to work though Gilad catches a brief video of her. The driver later tells us that once a bear broke a bus windshield and let’s just say as amazing as it is to see a bear mama so close she might have reacted quite differently were we outside the vehicle at that distance.
6 hours later we are back to the park entrance where we pick up the car, stop by the Riley mercantile to take a shower, and drive north on Parks highway to our next stop in Fairbanks.