(This is Part 2 of the Alaska series, please CLICK HERE for Part 1.)
We are at Denali village, the gateway to the world famous Denali National Park, an American icon. The morning starts with less-than-stellar weather as we make our way to the township at the entrance to this great national park. We are heading deep into the park, and snow is forecast. In summer this place would have been chock-a-block with visitors.
From Denali village we take the access road into the national park, where the Wilderness Access Center is the starting point for excursions into the park proper, with scheduled authorised vehicles. Private vehicles like ours are parked here for the duration.
The access centre is a treasure trove of information, especially on survival tips.
Remember: “If a bear starts EATING you, fight back!” — I guess you have no choice, right?
The park buses serve various points along the solitary 92-mile road, and we have decided to go as far as Toklat River, which is 53 miles away, considering the time we have and the poor weather ahead. The end-point at Mile 89 is Kantishna.
Our green bus leaves the Wilderness Access Center on the dot and makes its way westwards into the wilderness. The paved road goes for 15 miles, and private vehicles are only allowed that far. Beyond that you have to take authorised park vehicles like this tough old schoolbus we are in now.
We soon arrive at Mile 15, a place called Savage River. The landscape is looking savage enough, and yet we are only at the park’s periphery.
There’s a gated checkpoint at Savage River, with two lovely park rangers in charge. Beyond the gate, only authorised vehicles are allowed and the road is unpaved and rough. I wonder how these nice girls are coping with the cold and desolation, but I bet they are cheerfully enjoying their jobs.
The gravel road is quite smooth at this spot as the bus trundles its way deeper into the park.
To the right, a river follows us, in a wide valley typically formed by gigantic glaciers as recently as 10,000 years ago.
The park buses are operated by a company in Philadelphia? That’s on the other side of the continent! Philly guy Nafis is grinning.
Denali National Park covers a huge area, some 25,500 km2 (that’s bigger than the state of Perak in Malaysia), with a sixth of it covered in glaciers. It was founded in 1917, the first such park in Alaska.
Denali NP is famous for its vast unspoiled wilderness, comprising glacial valleys with swift-flowing rivers, massive peaks covered in glaciers and tundra.
The bus gingerly travels along the narrow gravel road, with tall rocky cliffs on one side, and steep valleys on the other. In this part of Alaska, it snows all year round.
Suddenly we spot a flock of Willow Ptarmigans, the state bird of Alaska. Interesting creature, its plumage turns white in winter, making it virtually invisible — a potent camouflage trick.
The landscape is truly tundra in this part of the park, with shrubs dominating the terrain.
It is warm and cosy inside the heated bus as we munch our snack bars, but the outside world looks forbidding. There are no amenities inside the park except for basic toilets at specific places. Definitely no food on sale, so we have to pack our own stuff.
The vegetation is so sparse that I don’t expect too many bears and moose would want to live here.
The tundra vegetation comprises stunted plants, shrubs, ferns, mosses and lichens, virtually all endemic to this subarctic wilderness.
Another glacial valley we cross. Denali was born about 60mil years ago due to plate tectonics, as the Pacific plate dived (and is still diving) underneath the Alaska (or North American) plate
The sharpness of the massive rocky peaks gives hint to relatively new mountains, which are still growing as a result of intensely active plate tectonics. Annually about 600 earthquakes occur in this park, most of them small, but two big quakes did occur in 2002: with magnitudes 6.7 and a 7.9.
As we push further into the park, a shuttle from a lodge deep inside passes by. The tourist season is coming to an end this week, and staff inside the park are leaving to escape the coming bitter winter. They would return to reopen business in late spring next year. That’s one long annual break.
We make a brief stop at a lookout (or ‘overlook’ as the Americans call it) called Polychrome, named after some colourful rocks nearby, the aftermath of the violent volcanic past.
From the overlook, we gaze at a huge expanse of cold white desolation — craggy mountains saddled with glaciers whose melting ice feeds the rivers flowing down the valleys. It is also snowing intermittently.
It is indeed an excellent photo opportunity, but the whitewashed landscape makes metering a bit tricky.
Of course the extreme cold does not quite bother some people.
A lone nature photographer leaves our bus to go solo on his mission, by foot. He’s prepared for the trek.
Further up the dirt road, the Dall Sheep can be found aplenty. This nimble creature seems to cling to the steep cliff to forage for food. Deft and steady footwork is their hallmark. This is a male sheep, a ram. Note the curvy horns, impressive.
Soon we cross Toklat River (in the background) and arrive at our end-point. We are 53 miles away from the Denali Park entrance, and at this remote spot there are just toilets and a souvenir shop, still open. We are supposed to be able to see Denali — the Tall One here — but alas the weather says no! How unfortunate.
Our bus makes a return journey to the Wilderness Access Center and in the blizzard which suddenly started, we spot the lone photographer we left behind some time back. We pick him up.
Fresh snow covers the terrain as we slowly make our return journey along the cliffs.
Guide cum driver Craig, does a great job while giving running commentary virtually nonstop. Today is his last day on the job for this season, and he is thankful that we haven’t done anything silly that would spoil his plan to take his well-earned annual winter break as scheduled, hahaha!
The snow comes back and somebody spots a huge moose. This bugger is more than 50m away and yet he was eyeballing us intensely — very sensitive animal indeed. The only other disappointment we have today (apart from the missing Tall One) is not being able to see any bear, which is odd since Denali is synonymous with bears. Maybe most of them have gone into hibernation?
We arrive at the Savage River gate again, and the lady-ranger says good-bye to us. Thank you very much, ma’am! Cute hat, and the best-looking ranger ever.
We are soon back in our warm hotel room, but not before we had dinner at Denali village (I had a juicy wild salmon steak) and picked up the usual stuff at the shop. Nice, huh?
Several days later we actually spot Denali, the Tall One, in full glory. We are heading westwards along Route 1, on our way from Glenallen to Seward (via Anchorage). So we do make it to the lucky 30% of visitors who managed to see the peak!
(This is Part 2 of the Alaska series, please CLICK HERE for Part 3.)