We had booked a day excursion to the national park through our accommodation hosts at McKinley Creek Cottages. The assembly point for the trip was at a nearby hotel and we drove to the meeting point around 6am when it was still dark. There were a few hitches though before we could head off into the national park. First there was some confusion over picking people up from the various meeting places and then owing to a misunderstanding between the tour operators and bus driver/tour guide (nothing to do with us!) we found ourselves on the wrong bus before having to pile out again. Finally we boarded the correct bus – it turned out to be an old converted school bus, which did not have the greatest suspension!
It was a very long day out (14 hours in total) and the weather was as dreary and misty as the previous few days had been. Despite the misty weather, we still managed to take many photos and learnt so much about the park, its wildlife and history.
The park and preservation area covers 6 million acres of wilderness land in the heart of Alaska’s interior. The land comprises woodland and forests at the lower levels, followed by tundra and high plateaus before rising to the glaciers and snow-topped mountains of the high alpine areas. The centrepiece (on a clear day) is the 20,310 feet (6,190 metres) high Denali, North America’s highest peak (formerly known as Mount McKinley). Unfortunately visibility was much too poor on our day trip to have any chance of seeing the mountain at all let alone the summit.
There is only one rather narrow road that runs through the park area and you need a permit to enter (all formalities were organised by our tour leader and guide, the bus driver). Private cars are not allowed – you have to take one of the park buses or do a private tour like we did. The roads are not for the fainthearted – at various points it is best to look away if you don’t like heights!
The park is home to wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep. During the warmer months popular activities include biking, hiking, walking and, for the more intrepid, mountaineering.
Our main focus was trying to spot wildlife from the bus.To give everyone the best chance to capture photos, if you spotted anything you had to quickly shout out port (left side) or starboard (right side) and the clock position for example 10am or 2pm. The bus would then come to a halt for photos and we would hopefully all be looking in the right direction. However, apart from a few Dall sheep, which looked like tiny specks up the mountain-side, the first part of the day was not conducive to seeing any of the local wildlife. No doubt they were sensibly seeking shelter from the elements! At last, however, came the highlight of the morning when someone spotted a mother grizzly bear and her cub in the bushes near the road.
It was very hard to take photos and I’ve just got a few of the mum – the driver reckoned her cub (or cubs) were very close by. We were of course safely on the bus at this point! At this time of year (late summer) the bears are busy eating as much as possible to stock up for the winter. These bushes would have had a plentiful supply of berries, which are apparently a bear treat. Mother Bear munched her way along the clearing for some time, apparently unfazed by our presence nearby, then sauntered off up the hillside.
There are a couple of official stopping-off points along the way including the Eielson Visitor Centre, (which I’ll cover more in the next post). These are a few of the photos I took on the outbound journey in the morning – clearly it was not a great day for photography but it does capture the atmosphere and the feeling of isolation you get in this part of the world.
We reached the midway point of our trip just in time for lunch – a very welcome break after a few hours bobbing along in the school bus!
The Denali Backcountry Lodge, the end of the Denali Park Road, is situated in the tiny settlement of Kantishna and offers a wilderness escape with private cabins, warm hospitality and the chance to get out into nature during the day (you can read more here). For anyone arriving on the Alaska Rail Road they organise a shuttle bus to and from the station at the settlement of Denali Park.
We weren’t staying overnight of course but had full use of the communal facilities. The lodge provided us with a hearty buffet lunch – very welcome as breakfast seemed a long time ago!
The settlement of Kantishna was originally an old gold-panning outpost and the lodge is adjacent to the rushing waters of Moose Creek, once a spot where prospectors searched for the coveted metal in the icy waters. We had the chance to pan for gold ourselves as it was one of the optional activities organised by the tour. However we decided instead to go for a stroll over the rather rickety-looking wooden bridge and head towards the lookout point on the opposite bank of the creek.
There was a word of warning beforehand though. We thought we just had to be worried about the possible presence of bears but apparently a couple of weeks earlier a young child (a 7 year old boy from memory) was crossing the bridge with his parents. Suddenly a local ranger noticed something behind the boy (not his mum or dad) and to her horror realised it was a lynx (see here for more information on lynxes from the Denali Visitor Centre)! It was a very rare sighting – the ranger could hardly remember seeing one in the park especially so close to the lodge. Fortunately by some miracle they managed to signal to the boy to stop dead still so the lynx would be less likely to pounce and after a short time the lynx turned around and strolled off in the opposite direction. Phew! It must have been an extremely unsettling experience to say the least.
We set off feeling a bit like the Billy Goats Gruff trying to cross the bridge without disturbing the troll – somewhat hesitantly! Fortunately we made it across the bridge without any lynx sightings, which was a good start.
It probably took fifteen minutes or so to get to the lookout point though I wasn’t really counting. In fact most of the way we were looking at the ground trying to detect any recent animal footprints (which was the advice we had been given). By the time we arrived the rain had set in again but despite the slight worry of being watched by a hungry lynx (or bear for that matter) it was lovely being out in the pure fresh air and listening to the waters of the creek gushing below us.
On this occasion we were very glad to return safely to the lodge without any wildlife sightings. We repaired to the warmth of the lounge to enjoy some refreshments in front of the roaring log fire before it was time to set off back home along the Denali Park Road, (Part 2 to follow).
I’m linking this post to Restless Jo’s Monday Walk – she’s tirelessly curated this series of walks round the world for several years now (certainly since I started this blog in 2014). She’s talking about taking a well-earned break soon – hopefully there will be more walks to come but in the meantime many thanks to Jo for her wonderful contribution and blogosphere camaraderie!
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