Alaska - The Last Frontier! Anchorage to Denali National Park

Published: July 5th 2012
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2nd July ’12 Anchorage to Denali

After flying over ridge upon ridge of snow covered mountain peaks we landed at Ted Stevens Airport at 5am Alaskan time (3am Hawaii time!). We had an hour’s wait until the car hire place opened and desperately tried to keep ourselves awake, having once again only managed the odd 10 minutes here and there of head nodding then jolting sleep. Anyway we finally got our car for the next two weeks and headed off into Anchorage for supplies. The first thing that struck up about Anchorage was the semi-circle of rugged mountains dominating the town and straight away Howard’s eyes lit up.

Being Howard he had decided we were just going to drive the 300 miles up to Denali straight away rather than stay in Anchorage for a night to recover. So we found our way (the roads were pretty quiet at this time) to the local Walmart so we could buy in some food and drinks to see us through our 3 nights at Denali.

What an experience this Walmart was! It was like being in a different world, everything came in gigantic quantities (they did also have normal sizes I should add), sacks of cereal, huge boxes containing food for 60 assorted breakfasts, 5 litre paint cans with various beans etc in them, I was puzzled until I realised that for people living in the wilds they would need these amounts especially if the weather was bad. Howard found the hunting section while looking for a cool bag (which only came in super doper size) and said it was seriously scary.

All this made our shopping basket of 4 packs of diet coke,2 tins of stagg chilli, 1 beef stew and a loaf of bread look rather pathetic!

We decided to fuel ourselves with breakfast at the McD’s and then things got really complicated I ordered the sausage McMuffin and the guy couldn’t understand what I was saying, then when he did he asked if I wanted it with an egg and I couldn’t understand what he meant – this went on for some time until I said what do you mean by an egg (well I hadn’t had any sleep) and he said a round topped egg, I didn’t have the heart to say ‘what’s one of those’! By this point the large lady in the queue behind me was tutting and made a point of saying ‘at last’ when I slunk off.

Stocked up we set off and once we cleared the town we were straight away out in great scenery, everything is so big and so vast, there were towering mountains, vast dark green forests and the road just winding on for miles and miles.

We stopped off at the tiny village of Talkeetna which was the dead end of a road up off the main road but we had heard it was a nice place to visit. It was amazing, real old school pioneering stuff, just a collection of ramshackle buildings with a train track. It seems that everyone in this village turns there house into some sort of a shop, art gallery, restaurant or café for the brief summer season – which I guess makes sense as no one can probably get up there in the winter!

We had a good look around, walked down to the river and thanks to some friendly Americans, who insisted we used their binoculars, got a glimpse of Mt. McKinley off in the distance. We had a look at one of the original gold prospectors huts (which doubled as an information centre), found the pub that had hosted Man versus Food featuring Seaward’s Folly – The Biggest Burger in The Biggest State and had a look around the craft fair, which had lots of lovely things for sale but at humongous prices.

Then on we went again and on the fantastic scenery went, the shame was there were very few places you could actually stop to take pictures, but our camera couldn’t capture the full extent of it all anyway.

Eventually we got to Denali, which is a small area of hotels, cabins, chalets and a row of shops which are basically there to meet the needs of the visitors to the national park. Our motel was about 8 miles beyond the park road, we hadn’t been able to get anything closer, partly because of the crazy prices and partly because it was the 4th of July weekend anyway its fine for us and we gratefully let ourselves into our room and fell asleep!

Two hours later we were awake again and sat outside on the porch chatting to two guys who were originally from Hawaii and wanted to know all about everything we had seen and done there. They even asked us if we had been to Sandy Beach (of the waves and loud hailer fame) and howled at my account and said you are what we call The Stoooopid Tourists! Well they did have a valid point!

3rd July’12 Denali

It took me forever to get to sleep last night, mainly because it is light all the time!! I didn’t know where I was, the sun was still shining at midnight! I kept opening my eyes just to see if it was dark yet and it never was!! This is so strange…… the upshot was we didn’t wake up until 11am.

Today was just a sussing the park out day and seeing what we could do around the visitors centre area. You can only drive 15 miles into the park, you have to have either a special permit or book on a tour or shuttle bus to go right in and we had pre-booked the shuttle for tomorrow.

Well I must say ‘gee wizz, golly gosh, oh my and howdy doody doo’! The park rangers are just so dang sweet!! They are like parodies of
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Dogs and sled(ge)
all American, fun loving, clean living kids, only they are for real! And they really do talk like that!!

We decided to go and see the Dog Sled Demonstration and got to the chance to meet all the dogs and see 3 puppies (at this point I was wondering why I was doing this!) and then had a talk from yet another super enthusiastic cutesy park ranger girl, then they harnessed 5 dogs to a sled and she was on the back and mushed it round at track at top speed and then it was over.

Once back at the visitors centre we watched a really good short film which showed the park in all the seasons and it looked soooo beautiful. By now I have seen the numerous posters warning you about the wild life in the park, specifically moose and bears. It was very apparent that unlike when we were in the parks in America, here there really are such creatures roaming about and you can encounter them at anytime and anywhere. I was pretty jumpy at the idea of going off to do a couple of hikes, but Howard was insistent and just scoffed at the notion that we might actually see never mind encounter any of these beasts.

So we drove up to the 13 mile mark to do the easy short mountain vista walk. There was only 1 other car in the parking area and no sign of any other people – it was about 4pm by now, so we set off and all the time I kept repeating ‘ if it’s a moose run, if it’s a bear back off slowly, wave your arms above your head and talk in a loud but low voice’ – like that would ever happen, I just kept remembering Debbie and the Dingo! So I decided the best thing to do was walk as fast as I could and keep looking from side to side. We did actually meet 3 people on the way round but I was going too fast to stop and constantly jumping at every twitch in a bush or rock that might have been a bear in disguise. As a result of this behaviour Howard didn’t bother with the second hike! We just went to the Outback Centre to pick up our tickets for the shuttle bus trip instead.

4th July ’12 Denali Natioanl Park

Well I think this opening your eyes to see if it’s dark yet is going to be the pattern for our stay in Alaska as I did it again for ages last night and had the same result all the time – no, it’s still light!

We arrived at the Outback Centre in plenty of time to get our shuttle so had a look around and I found the perfect top for Howard, it said ‘The Mountains are Calling… and so I must go’ on it, (it was a quote) unfortunately it was a strange orange colour so he refused to buy it.

The queue was forming for our shuttle so we got in line behind about 30 Germans and waited for the bus that was going to take us 66 miles out into the park to the Eielson Visitors Centre, where we would hopefully have spectacular views of the Mt. McKinley range. Mt. McKinley has two peaks of over 20,000 feet! The round trip was estimated to take about 8 hours – gulp.

The shuttle bus pulled up and we all piled on, all the Germans in the front (of course), us, 3 French people who spoke loudly and a few assorted Americans and Canadians. The driver was a lovely lad called Manuel Santos and spoke with a strong Spanish accent – but I won’t try to do the accent when I quote him! So the league of nations was assembled for the trip. Manuel explained the bus was green so it would blend in and not frighten the wild life, which made me chuckle as it made a right racket. He also said we would have a couple of stops on the way up to Eielson and you could get off and get a different bus back if you wished and similarly we would pick up different people when we had room. We were also instructed to yell out STOP if we saw any animals and then be as quiet as possible, the Germans just muttered amongst themselves so I guess they couldn’t understand the Spanish/English.

Off we went and as we wound our way deeper into the park the massive mountain ranges got closer, the valleys deeper and the glacial melt water streams wider. It really was impressive scenery, the stuff of poets and artists. You could picture people just wandering off into the solitude never to be heard of again.

The first STOP was when someone spotted the famous Dall Sheep, now I know it was due to these sheep that the park was first created but the bottom line is they are sheep! They may be elusive, have long curly horns and roam up high on the slopes but they are bloody sheep. Such a fuss was made of seeing them, even though they were dots in the distance, Howard said he wished he had leaflets for the North York Moors to hand out!!

By now he is even more convinced that the bears will actually just be people dressed in furry suits, until that is the next STOP….. Manuel, bless his heart, spotted grizzlies at 3 o’clock! But these grizzlies at 3 were actually just off the road side and turned out to be a mother and two cubs. Now I know I say I don’t do animals and I know I was terrified of encountering bears yesterday, but this was really something SPECIAL! They were so close, you could see them so clearly! The Germans were pressed to the windows clicking away and talking really loudly, the rest of us were trying to get them to be quiet and eventually they got the message….luckily they didn’t scare the bears. In fact this little bear family didn’t seem fazed at all by the green bus (maybe Manuel was right about the colour) and they came up on the road, walked right alongside the bus before crossing in front and ambling up the slope on our side of the bus, so everyone got the chance to take good pictures. They looked so sweet!! After they sauntered off we drove off again and Manuel was so excited about the experience and we all clapped and cheered! It was really heartening to be with someone who clearly loved his job and despite having done this journey a billion times and seeing the bears numerous times he was as excited as we all were.

After this we just kept on seeing bears! None came anywhere near as close as the first group, most were on the other side of the valley but you could still see them, several mums with cubs and a few solitary male bears who occasionally stood up on their hind legs and looked like they were scenting the air. We also saw caribou, ground squirrels and even an eagle.

The mountain scenery continued to get more dramatic the closer we got to it but when we got to Eielson the clouds were covering Mt. McKinnley which was a real shame. It was also bitingly cold despite wearing several layers. We had a 30 minute stop there before starting the journey back.

On the way back we continued to see bears, I suspect they were probably the same ones we saw on the way up and also we got very clear views of Mt. McKinnley’s two peaks as the cloud cover had broken up and by the time we were nearly at the end of the trip the sun was shining out there, this time we had the side with the good views so we got some good shots and ticked off the Germans!

It was a great day out and despite spending so long on a bus it was well worth it and I would recommend it to anyone who is heading to Alaksa. The scenery is so breath taking that the time just dissolved away and I
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Ground squirrel
loved seeing the bears close up but am so glad I was in a bus and not out hiking at the time!!

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


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Denali National Park

Mt. McKinley's two peaks
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Railway bridge

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