Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Anchorage- A Fly By Visit (07-27-14)

It would be nice if Alaska was laid out so we could visit it in a nice neat loop, but that isn’t the case.  We didn’t have time to visit the west side of the Kenai Peninsula before our visit to Denali, so we came back south through Anchorage after Denali.

Anchorage (3)We had called our friend Tony and made arrangements to get together. The weather cooperated so we headed to Flattop mountain to hike to the top, where there are stunning views of the surrounding area.
Part way up the hill, we moved into the clouds.  If you look carefully you can Paul and Tony in this picture.

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The last part of this 4 mile round trip trail is rock scrambling.

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A couple of hours later we, along with about 50 other people, had made it to the top.  This is one of the most popular trails in Alaska.

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After giving Tony a hard time about the lack of view- is Anchorage really there if we can’t see it?- the clouds parted long enough for us to see why people climb this mountain.  Beautiful!

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The view didn't last long- by the time we were headed down, we couldn't see more than about 50 feet ahead.  Still, it was a perfect day for a hike- great temperature and no rain!

We made it down the mountain in time to get to the roof of Tony’s office building to see the Thunderbirds perform during the Arctic Thunder Air Show.
Once the show was over, we headed out to dinner to replace all the calories we had used up!

After another night at our favorite Cabela’s parking spot, we hit the road early for the Kenai Peninsula.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Denali-Teklanika (07-25-14)

For the second half of our Denali visit, we moved to Teklanika Campground. Camping in this campground is more complicated and involved than usual.  There is a minimum 3 day stay, which, since we wanted to stay 4 days, is no problem.

Denali-Tek (22)Passenger cars are only allowed to travel the first 15 miles of the Denali park road.  If you want to go further into the park, you have to pay to either take a tour, or a shuttle bus. The furthest point out on the road would be an 11 hour round trip drive from the Visitor Center.

Teklanika is at mile 30 so campers are given a road pass that allows them to drive out to the campground. Once there, they can’t move again until they leave. Each camper buys a Tek Pass which allows them to ride any shuttle on a space available basis.

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Before we even made it to the campground, we were seeing more wildlife.  The bus in the background was blocking the road, making sure this caribou had plenty of room to cross.

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We saw quite a few caribou while we were staying in this part of the park.

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We saw small herds of caribou with some youngsters in the mix.  The males don’t travel with the females so it was nice to see both.

Caribou are also commonly referred to as reindeer.  This guy seemed to like posing for the camera.

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Denali-Teklanika (50)


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On our first full day at Teklanika, we snagged a riverfront site. With a great view of the riverbank and the tundra across the way, we set up the scope, hoping to sit around sipping Margaritas while we watched the wildlife stroll by.  We never saw anything from the campsite.

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The weather was reasonably nice so we took advantage and hiked around the campground area.  This is the campground as seen from a nearby hill.

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We’re staying on the Teklanika River, which is an example of what’s called a braided river.  This is as high as the water usually gets. It comes downstream in multiple streams, bringing dirt and debris. When the dirt builds up and creates resistance, the river then goes around it, so the look of the river is constantly changing.

Denali-Tek (105) Our hike took us through what I call the Enchanted Forest.  This place is beautiful! The colors were amazing.

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There’s no trail through the forest, but we did find some animal tracks to follow.  You can see how soft the moss is by how deep the moose prints are in the ground. It was slow going, but fun.

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On our second day we decided to go for the brass ring, and took the shuttle all the way to to Wonder Lake, some 4 hours away. Denali only has one road through it, and part of it was carved into the hillside.  You have to enlarge this picture to see the bus cruising along the cliff side.

Everyone on the bus is constantly on the lookout for wildlife.

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Paul was the best wildlife spotter on the bus and got a round of applause when he got off the bus.  He was the first to spot a family of Grizzly bears (no decent pictures of that group).  Many people on the bus had never seen one in the wild before so they were very appreciative!

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The views of the mountains were pretty impressive.  Some of the pictures, like this one, were taken the day we arrived at Teklanika and we took the short bus ride to the Toklat stop.

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The second bus trip was completely different. Notice in this picture that although the scenery is gorgeous, you can’t even see the top of the nearby hill.  The cloud cover was much lower that day.

Denali-Teklanika (55a)   This is as close as we got to seeing Denali.  The mountain top is painted on the window of the visitor center so you can figure out where Mt. McKinley would be seen if it wasn't cloudy.  It’s been such a rainy year, the bus driver said she has only seen it 7 times this summer.  In fact, they say the percentage of people who see a bear in Denali NP is about 95% and the percentage of people who see the mountain is about 30%.

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The cloud cover made for some interesting photos, but it also brought with it some rain.  Our intent was to do some hiking once we got deeper in the park, but we changed our minds and stayed on the bus.

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With a bus ride of 9+ hours and no food available that deep into the park, everyone on the bus has to bring everything they want to eat and drink for the day.
The bus stops every hour or so at rest areas or visitor centers along the way, so you can get out and stretch your legs.

The bus drivers are all good at stopping for a nice long time whenever wildlife is spotted. In order to get good shots, I had to pull down the window, which I sometimes forgot to do (it was pretty cold out!).

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Denali-Teklanika (84)

Denali-Tek (8)We did hit what one driver called a “grand slam”.  We saw quite a variety of wildlife- grizzly bears, fox, Golden Eagle, coyote, moose, Dall Sheep and caribou. Paul and I are pretty sure one of the coyotes was actually a wolf, but we can’t confirm.

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Our last day we were planning on hiking Cathedral mountain, but the steady rain kept us inside playing Rummikub all day.

For future reference, here are my thoughts on Denali National Park. This park is mostly a designated wilderness, which is awesome for its preservation, but less awesome for visitors.  It seems to be geared for the Cruise Ship People- a one day bus trip pretty much shows you what there is to see away from the entrance area.

Denali-Tek (79) It’s probably awesome for backpackers, but not for hikers.  There are really no designated trails- you have to find your own way. Its less destructive to the land that way, but for us,  its hard to hike not knowing what we will find- cliffs, deep bogs or impassible rivers.
We'll file this under, been there, done that.

Denali (43) When we left Denali after our 8 day visit, the caribou were enjoying the blanket of freshly fallen snow.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Denali- Riley Creek (07-20-14)

Our venture into Denali National Park is divided into two segments.  Our first 4 days we are spending at Riley Creek Campground near the entrance to the park.  None of the campgrounds have hookup so we will be using the generator for the 8 days that we will be here. 

Denali (5)The Tall One, Denali, Mt. McKinley- all these names refer to the same mountain- the tallest peak in North America. Originally named Denali by native Alaskans, it was re-named McKinley in the late 1800s, when it was (re) discovered.

Whatever name you use, this is what people come to Denali for- to see the Tall One.  We haven’t had that opportunity yet.  Standing at over 20,000 feet, Denali is, more often than not, in the clouds.

Denali Mt Healy  Overlook (3) So, what does one do while one is waiting for Mt. McKinley to make an appearance?  Well, Paul and I hike.  Even if it’s raining, apparently.  Wildlife viewing is also quite popular, if you can find some wildlife to view.  We were lucky, within 10 minutes on our first hike, we came upon a cow moose eating lunch along the road.

Denali Mt Healy  Overlook (5)
She didn’t seem concerned by the audience, and just went about her business.

Denali Mt Healy  Overlook (2)
Our first hike was up to Mt. Healy overlook.  As you can see, it was pretty much straight up. 7 miles roundtrip and 1600 feet of elevation gain.  It took us a while to get to the top, and it started raining steadily when were about 2/3rds of the way there.  We made a mistake and didn’t put on our waterproof pants- the drizzle had sort of snuck up on us and we were wet before we realized.

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By the time we reached the top, we were soaked, and it was still raining.  Luckily it wasn’t windy!  We ate our sandwiches standing up in the rain, trying to hunch over to keep them dry.  Fun times!

We stayed at the top for a while and we could see the rain starting to clear away in some areas.

It made for an interesting picture, with the sun shining in one area and rain coming down in another.  I didn’t get too many pictures and I didn’t bring the new camera.

Denali Mt Healy  Overlook (13)

Denali Savage River trail (3)
Our second hike meant a bus ride.  There is a free shuttle that travels the first 15 miles of the main road in Denali.  We took it as far as we could so we could hike along Savage River.  This time it was raining pretty heavily when we got off the bus, so we started out with all our rain gear on.

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After our hike the previous day, we picked this one because its only 2 miles long.  Partly we just wanted to take the bus ride so we could look for wildlife.  We didn’t see any while on the bus, but we did on the hike.

Denali Savage River trail (8) On our way back to the trailhead we glanced up and saw these two guys. At first glance we thought they were moose but once we got a look at their antlers, we immediately realized that they are Caribou. 

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The antlers on this animal are amazing! I don’t know how they keep their heads up!
Anyway, about 15 minutes before the hike was over, the rain stopped for a bit.

One of the things we’ve realized is that the people in Denali, and in fact, the people in Alaska, don’t let the rain stop them from doing what they want. Raincoats are the normal daily wear, and  Its very common to see people wearing waterproof pants- most of them are much nicer than what we have- we just bought a cheap set because we won’t use them all that much. 

If we had not ignored the rain, we wouldn't have seen much of Denali so far.

So, these are the hikes that….didn't happen:

Sunday morning we were signed up to head out on a Ranger led Discovery Hike. Much of Denali is maintained as a wilderness and much of the hiking is “off trail”. The ranger takes a group on an all day off trail hike teaching them about the park.  Sounded like fun. We needed to leave the camper at 7:45 AM.  Unfortunately, it was once again raining and had rained all night- and the temperature outside was 42 degrees. We had already been told we might be crossing a stream deep enough that we could get wet up to our knees. After all that rain, we were picturing having to swim across. So, freezing and soaked again? Um, no thanks.

Denali NP (3) After bailing on that hike, we got on the shuttle to once again head to Savage River, this time to hike a 4.5 mile up to a peak.  But, when we got on the bus, we were chatting with the driver and she asked us what our plans were. So, we told her. She smiled and said “did you know that the wind is whipping and the last time I drove by, it was snowing up there?” Um, no. 

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So, we took the bus all the way out to Savage River and back, about an hour and a half, searching for wildlife along the way.  We did see this bull moose but no bears.

Denali NP (12) Once we arrived back at the Visitor Center, we hiked a short, 2 mile trail to Horseshoe Lake, where we saw yet another moose.  This was a cow, eating in the lake. Once in a while she would head to shore, then turn around and come back out.

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It turns out she was checking on her calf, who was munching away along the shore line.

Tomorrow we move to a different campground, further in the park, and I have been assured that we will have no WI-FI or cell signal while we are there.