Once Upon A Time In The Wild
Denali National Park
A piece of heaven.
When we planned our trip to Alaska, Denali was the number one thing to see on our list.
Imagine a National Park the size of the state of Massachussetts, dominated by the highest mountain in the Northern hemisphere, Mount McKinley (also called Mount Denali) and inhabited by hundreds of moose, caribou, bears, wolves, eagles and sheep.
We couldn't even imagine how it would be to live amongst those wonderful creatures in their natural habitat for a while and being able to explore the pure wilderness of this majestic park.
I bow my head
with the windflowers.
For their white petals
tinged with blue-gray,
for their stems
curving in unison
toward the earth.
Like a symphony
for this place.
(Linda Schandelmeier, Writer-in-residence in Denali, 2012)
Our journey to Denali started 360 miles south of the park in Seward, where we spent the first part of our 10 day trip and before heading up north into wilderness.
We rented a RV to be able to get into the very heart of Denali and enjoy an unfiltered experience of the park and its residents while keeping a bit of comfort. The nights got cold even in August and we couldn't shower for nearly a week. But hiking through the endless tundra and getting face time with Grizzlies and the rest of the Big 5, was more than worth it.
Spotting Denali's Big 5 was what we hoped for and we got lucky and could watch wolves, bears, caribou, dall sheep and moose in their natural habitat. A true highlight was watching a family of wolves with their pups. Momma and Daddy wolf had to leave the pups to take care of a grizzly who was lurking around and watching the babies. The little furry ones started growling for their parents until they finally came back and were greeted with wolf kisses and excitement. We couldn't take good pictures unfortunately as the scene was too far away, so we watched them with binoculars.
We also had incredible luck with the weather on our first day in the park and got an unobstructed view of the mighty mountain rising up above Wonder Lake. Mount Denali usually likes to hide in clouds on 4 out of 5 days but this was a clear and sunny day with only a few decorative clouds enhancing the sheer grandness of the mountain.
The picture in the page header and also in the album below was taken from the camper bus when we stopped and a bus full of people was stunned by this unreal view on the mountain.
One quite unique thing to know about Denali is that you can't drive on your own. There is one street going into the park and ending at Wonder Lake. And the same one goes back out. Cars can drive up only 15 of the 92 miles into the park - but not further. Visitors travel the park with the bus system, either a tour bus or the hop on hop off camper busses which have a few stops within the park and also take on lonely hikers who stop it on the way.
The entire roundtrip from the park entrance to and back from Wonder Lake takes about 11 hours. The bus stops every time you spot animals and you're allowed to watch them and take photos, but only from inside the bus. The bus drivers are quite knowledgable about the animals and nature and can tell great stories. But they can also get quite grumpy if you start yelling at the bears or get any body part out of the bus windows.
Where to stay
There are a few pricey lodges located at Wonder Lake in the very middle of the park. These can only be reached by bus, as cars are not allowed in Denali at all. It's a 4-5 hour drive each way.
Besides the lodges there are a few campgrounds available and which can be reserved in advance. Depending on the location and the site, some can be reached by car, a few lie behind the car border and can only be reached by bus. The biggest one, which also has a food store, RV dumping station and other signs of civilization, is located outside the park borders.
We stayed at Teklanika campground which is the only one accessible for both tents and RV's that lies behind the car border. However, if you have a reservation, you are allowed to drive there, park your car and do not move it again until you leave. It has about 36 campsites, all secluded by trees and bushes and equipped with a fire ring and picnic table. It only got a chemical toilet and no outlets for RV's but you are allowed to use your generator for a few hours in the morning and late afternoon.
We had a wonderful time there, getting up early in the morning to get on the first bus into the park, hiking around wild caribou and moose and enjoying a couple of burgers from the BBQ and some s'mores over the campfire with an ice cold Alaskan IPA.
Where to eat
BYOF - as there is no food in the park. Not a single granola bar. If you come in without enough food for your stay, you're lost. So bring food unless you stay at the lodge. The lodges don't offer a restaurant for non guests and you won't find any vending machines or whatsoever in the entire 6 million acres of this huge park.
Why? Because of the animals. Hunting was never allowed in the park and they managed to keep humans and animals in a balanced co-existence by not crossing borders. So storing any kind of food and exposing it to the animals might disturb this fragile concept. You'll hear a lot about protecting the wildlife and storing your food disposals appropriately.
Best photography spots
Denali is heaven for wildlife and landscape photographers. The scenery is often times just unreal and the amount of times you spot bears is incredible. After 3 days in the park and riding the camper bus we started to not even look up if it was "just" a bear (ok, that's not true, every single encounter was documented by camera and sealed up forever in our hearts).
We had not much control over when and where to shoot so we just went with it each day, dropped off and on here and there and just took what was given to us. On the first day, we made the full drive up to Wonder Lake and hiked up to Reflection lake, located a bit above the big lake, to shoot the mountain reflection in the waters.
We did a hike through a dried out river bed starting from Eielson visitor center and followed a caribou male and female. They were not afraid of us and just continued to eat a few yards away from us.
Most of our pictures were actually taken from the bus as the drivers have a great system in place to let each other know where to spot animals so they will stop and give everyone a chance to take a picture. We thought about getting off the bus more often and walking around on our own. But after a terrifying nearly face-to-face encounter with a moose, we rather sticked to the bus. Moose are amongst the most dangerous animals to get facetime with in the park, especially females with their young ones. Bears come only second on the list of potential life threats to risk-seeking humans.