Strap in. Denali.
It has taken us 45 days and over 7,300 miles to get from TCPC in Crossville, TN to Denali. How can anyone come away from visiting Denali National Park and not feel… changed?
Denali is just one of those special places that you could never appreciate without visiting. This post is intended to “wet your whistle” – in some small way to encourage you to visit (or revisit) this magical place.
The Denali National Park says it best – “More than a mountain”. At 6 million acres, this national park surely is more than a mountain, but there is no denying the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
I have a sense of reverence here that is not typically in my lexicon, although it has been hard to go to a national park and not have that feeling in some way.
Visitors are drawn to see the mountain like moths to a light. Of course! At over 20,000 feet Denali is the tallest mountain in North America! The mountain is officially called Denali – no longer Mount McKinley. And it is just called Denali (The High One), which I think is truly fitting for such a wondrous mountain.
Only 52% of those who attempt the ascent of Denali make it, and I would guess a far fewer percentage of visitors to Denali actually get to see the mountain. The mountain has its own weather system. It can be clear blue skies everywhere else, but over the mountains it is likely to be hidden in the clouds as a result of colliding weather patterns coming from the north and south.
We stopped at a viewing place along the highway (South Denali View), and I took a picture of a panorama display, with the actual mountains above and behind the panorama. As you can see, at this moment all we could see were the foothills – you wouldn’t even know there was a bank of mountains behind them, much less the tallest mountain in North America!
After departing Byers Lake SP (mentioned in the last chapter) we drove up the road a short distance and found what is called the North Denali View pullout and stopped for lunch. The pullout provided views to Denali if the clouds would cooperate, so we opted to stay there for the day, and camped there that night. We had some great views of not only Denali but the surrounding mountains as well. Let me just say the surrounding mountains are nothing less than spectacular.
There is a north and south peak which depending on the whim of the cloud gods can provide spectacular views. Or you may leave having seen none of this. There are no guarantees in life.
I am dividing this post into sections: Getting Around the Park, Things that Breathe, Things that Kinda Look Like Mountains, Things that Typically Run in a River Bed, and (drum roll)… Things that Look and Act Like People.
Getting Around the Park. We were allowed to drive up to Mile 29 to the Teklanika (pro TeklaNEEka) Campground on the park road; all other traffic is turned back at Mile 12. This campground is fabulous (dry camping only), and by camping here you save several hours on the bus. Plus, it is just freaking nice.
Getting through the park is largely about a bus ride, as much of the road is restricted access (by bus only after Mile 12). So imagine a convict bus with convicts outfitted by REI holding cameras and lattes. I was dubious about taking the bus, but it really is a good way to be able to see views and wildlife and have virtually no traffic or driving to contend with.
Let’s talk about the bus ride briefly. Our driver, Mumbles, was very helpful in helping us understand the driver protocols for passing on the park road. But he was a good guy. Whenever someone would see wildlife he would dutifully stop and allow pictures (from inside the bus) for as long as folks needed – very cool! There were plenty of opportunities for bathroom breaks (FYI a ride up to the end of the park and back is a full day excursion).
As in life, you don’t get to pick your family or your neighbors. In our case, on the ride down, we had Hyper Helium Heidi, who with her young family talked (incessantly) like she was on permanent helium. I was trying to imagine a Saturday Night Live skit that would do justice to her voice. Couldn’t.
We had the Siblings from Hell (you know, Morticia’s kids from the Addams Family) sitting right behind us. They were adorable. Not. This is (seriously) why some animals eat their young. I re-confirmed that I like mountains, rivers, animals, and telemarketers more than I like people.
But all of this is just humor and a distraction to the real story which is the park itself. Tremendous!! Oh my goodness, the wildlife, fascinating terrain, and gorgeous views, and, did I mention wildlife? Holy Crap!
Things that Breathe. Throughout this trip we have had views of wildlife that I can honestly say I have never seen in my life! I am talking about animals I have never seen in the wild, I am talking about proximity, and I am talking about some esoteric connection with nature, even in as sterile an environment as we were in, viewing these animals sitting in our truck or on a bus.
In or around the park we saw multiple sightings of bear, moose, caribou, Tparmagan, … and amazingly an arctic squirrel. We learned how certain animals fight for dominance and bragging rights.
Here are a few pictures of some of the awesome creatures we saw!
Things that Kinda Look Like Mountains. To say I have a lot of great photos of mountains (and glaciers) here in Denali would be an understatement. But what is the essence of this special place? For me personally, there are so many special moments from a pictorial standpoint that capture the moment, and only a few are of Denali itself. I hope you enjoy these photos as much as I enjoyed taking them.
Things that Typically Run in a River Bed. It is interesting to understand the nature of glacial rivers to appreciate what they do.
Glacial rivers are unlike any rivers we typically see or think about. Because of the eroding mountains, and the small rocks that crumble and become silt, these rivers change their course frequently based on the buildup of silt. As a result, some glacial rivers can be a mile wide but have multiple and changing channels. The size of the river bed is not as a result of spring runoff, but more as a result of the receding glacier.
Even within a river bed you will find waters that obviously come out of the glaciers as they are full of silt, but you will also find streams within that same river bed that are pristine clear, since they are coming from melting snows up in the mountains.
Things that Look and Act Like People. I know there is a term called the Internet of Things. I am here to talk about the Internet of Cool People.
Let me give you a couple of examples. Having done previous volunteer work for our kids’ band program, one of my band mates (Paul Newcomb) reached out to me and said, “Hey, I am from Montana, and can help you with friends and ideas if you are going to Montana and Alaska. Let me know how I can help!” Are you kidding me? Cool! Sure enough he reaches out to his network and suddenly we have a place to stay in Wasilla, AK (thank you Patty!), places to go, phone numbers to reach for ideas, and a whole support network. Is that cool – or is that cool? Way to go Paul!! We have yet to tap into that network but let me tell you when you are on the road in a strange and remote place, it is very comforting to know you have connections.
Another example: We arrived in Anchorage (as I previously posted). While camped at a campground, we met our neighbor Dave Sams, who was also camping in an Airstream (I immediately assumed he had strong moral fiber). Dave and I got to chatting – we both liked running, mountain climbing (him CLEARLY in the lead on this), and more importantly – we both favored craft beers. Add Dave into the good guy category.
Well anyway, in our discussions we shared our travel plans (not that we really had plans…) and he said that he and his wife Carol had reservations at Denali (Teklanika Campground – the most coveted of reservations) for three nights that they were not going to be able to use – would we like them? I mean, HELL YES!
Upon further discussion it turns out that Dave had previously ascended Denali! Talk about hero worship (for me, not him). He shared some of his stories and I will relay a few pictures from his ascent back in 1992, some 25 years ago; 10 days up and 2 days down, and stories for a lifetime. This was in a sorts a homecoming for him, and a very cool story for me! Who doesn’t love a cool story?
You can check out Dave’s blog for more info on his ascent (and their current travels in their Airstream) at DCAirstream (I have added his website to my Resources page as well).
Lastly, if you want to wrap your head around patriotism, then salute the National Parks and their dedicated teams! The parks are clearly one of our most valuable assets. Visit them, preserve them, and support them. And to the park rangers and teams that keep these parks going, we thank you for your service!!
Stay young – keep exploring!