Would we see it? Only 1/3 of all visitors do. Does it really matter? We tried, with limited success, to tell ourselves that it didn’t. After all, there’s so much more to the park than the big mountain. On the other hand, it’s the tallest mountain in North America – a major disappointment if we missed it.
So let’s just start there. We got lucky!
It’s just SOOOO big! This photo was taken in the Wonder Lake area around 9 p.m. in the evening. Sadly, my phone didn’t capture Denali the way my eyes experienced it. Enter Darren Crone, a new friend from our Denali visit, who had a better camera, knew how to use it, and graciously allowed me to use a few of his photos for this blog post. Thank you, Darren!
Although Denali is the most visited national park in Alaska (~600,000 visitors a year pre-COVID), it didn’t feel crowded. One reason? The park is huge – about the size of Vermont. But more importantly, it’s just not that easy to explore once you arrive.
There is a single dirt road inside the park, and it ends at mile marker 92.5. And you can’t drive yourself there. Private vehicles are only allowed for the first 15 miles. For points beyond, the options are a shuttle bus or your own two feet.
If you’re planning to visit Denali (and you’re not backpacking or staying at one of the six campgrounds inside the park), be aware that your experience will mostly be limited to what you see from the inside of a shuttle bus or tour bus, perhaps augmented by a short hike and/or flight-seeing excursion. Unless, of course, you make arrangements many months in advance to stay at one of a handful of lodges located inside the park.
With sheer persistence and a bit of luck, we were able to snag a reservation for a three-night stay at Kantishna Roadhouse at mile marker 92 inside Denali National Park – only a half mile before the end of the road. A little expensive, and worth every penny.
I’ll walk you through day-by-day highlights.
Day 1 – Travel from Fairbanks to Denali
The four hour train ride from Fairbanks to Denali was delightful. We had paid a little extra for upgraded seats – good decision.
The weather was cool and rainy at the park entrance, where we met the bus that would transport us to the lodge – a journey that took around six hours but was a highlight for us.
Our first stop was the Teklanika River rest area, with pretty views and the nicest non-flush toilets I’ve ever seen. 😎
This is a shot from the inside. Spic and span, with a sturdy and bear-proof lock on the door!
Moving on, our next stop was at beautiful Polychrome Overlook, where we had a chance to stretch our legs. At 3,711 feet elevation, we were in tundra country where the trees don’t grow.
The Polychrome area has a chronic landslide problem that caused the National Park Service to close the road on August 24th for the rest of the season until they figure out what to do. Fortunately, we were out of Denali before that – otherwise, our visit to Kantishna would have been cancelled. You can see a jaw-dropping time-lapse video of the slide and read about it if you click here.
We continued onward, with our next rest stop at mile 53 – the Toklat River. We enjoyed the views and had a little fun with caribou antlers.
Our final stop was at the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66) for yet more expansive views. Stunning scenery, even though we couldn’t see Denali, which no doubt would have been spectacular.
Muldrow Glacier made headlines this year because it began “surging” in the spring at a rate of 30-60 feet per day, or more than 100 times faster than usual. The huge pile of dark-colored debris (mostly ice and rocks) in the photo had accumulated just since March. Here’s a slightly better photo:
Scientists don’t know how long the surge will continue. Click this link to learn more and get an update on current status.
Finally, we were on the home stretch of our trip to Kantishna. No more stops, except for a quick pause at Reflection Pond (mile 85) to see what we could see. If you look closely at the photo below, there’s a hint of Denali just barely visible behind the upper layer of clouds. If only . . . !
We arrived at the lodge at 7:30 pm, just in time to get settled, enjoy a light dinner and call it a night. Our visit to Denali was off to a great start.
If you’re wondering about wildlife, here’s the thing. We saw Dall sheep, caribou and grizzly bears on our trip in. Close enough to see them with binoculars (and our driver was really good about stopping whenever a large animal was sighted), but too far away for pictures. Even those with real cameras and big zooms didn’t have much luck. Fun to see the animals, though!
Day 2 – Wonder Lake
One advantage of staying at the Roadhouse was the range of activities available to guests, including guided hikes with varying degrees of difficulty, fly fishing, mountain biking and evening programs. There was an option for a guided hike at Wonder Lake (about three miles up the road), but we thought it would be fun to explore on our own.
So we hitched a ride on the shuttle van with the hiking group, then wandered around for a couple of hours before heading back (downhill) to the lodge. A fun day!
First we did a short uphill hike at Heather Hill to get a birds-eye view of the surrounding area. There was, in theory, a trail to follow, but the thick shrubbery made it tough to find. Nonetheless, nice views at the top.
Next, we did the short Blueberry Hill loop hike closer to the lake.
From there, we took off on a spur trail just to see where it might lead. And that’s when this amazing creature appeared.
He was spectacular! The hiking group from Kantishna happened to be in the area also, and Darren snapped a beautiful photo. Mr. Caribou then meandered through the meadow and eventually disappeared over a ridge.
A few more snapshots from our visit to Wonder Lake:
Once again, the wildflowers provided a feast for the eyes.
After a delicious dinner back at the lodge and an interesting presentation on the bears at Denali, we took the evening shuttle back to Wonder Lake. That’s when Darren took the photo I shared at the top of this post. My phone wasn’t really up to the task (or perhaps I don’t know how to use it?), but I do like this one with the reflections in the lake.
Day 3 – Hike to McKinley River Bar
Six other guests and I were out the door early the next morning for a guided group hike to the McKinley River Bar – about five miles roundtrip. Here’s a photo of our friendly and spirited group.
Alex, our knowledgeable and patient guide, pointed out various points of interest along the way.
The nearly flat trail passes through wet meadows and a boreal spruce forest on its way to the McKinley River. It features “great views (on clear days) of the Alaska Range and Denali” (www.hikingproject.com). But not on the day we were there.
The wetlands section was picturesque.
We stopped for lunch at the gravel bar before heading back to the trailhead.
It appears rather uninspiring in the photo, but there’s more there than meets the eye. First of all, the river bar (roughly synonymous with the river bed) is over a mile wide! And even though the river channels are fairly narrow, the water runs fast and deep. “This is a large, glacier-fed river, and it is extremely difficult to cross for most of the summer, even in sections where it is heavily braided.” (www.nps.org).
Vegetation along the trail was abundant and colorful. Here are a couple of specimens we hadn’t seen at Wonder Lake the day before.
We returned to the lodge around 2:30 in the afternoon – time to take a look around the grounds.
We were treated to a spectacular dinner that evening, courtesy of Chef Jimbo and his capable staff.
We had visited the greenhouse earlier in the day. After years of neglect, Jimbo is working to reclaim it for the intended use – a work in process.
Day 4 – Retracing Our Steps to the Park Entrance
And in the blink of an eye, it was time to leave. Back on the bus for an uber-early departure back to the park entrance, where we hooked up with our motor coach for the ride back to Anchorage.
Some wildlife along the way!
And more scenery . . .
We had the same shuttle bus driver both going out to Kantishna and coming back. I feel like we won the lottery, because she was an outstanding tour guide. Plus she’s an accomplished photographer. So here’s a shout out to Kirsta Knittel, along with a link to her Denali photos.
If you take a look, you can see all the beautiful views we missed because of the clouds. When you visit Denali, perhaps you will score a clear day and see those magnificent views in person!
I titled this post ‘The Denali Grand Finale,’ and it truly was a spectacular end to our five-week adventure in Alaska. On a scale of 1-10, I score it a 9.5. Half a point deduction for the wasps in the cabins.
But that’s a story for another time . . . .