It might seem like we fell off the face of the planet last week, but actually, we got the opportunity of a lifetime and jumped at it!! We left Fairbanks and headed south on the Parks Highway with the expectation that we would spend some time around Denali National Park & Preserve. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Denali, here’s the thing; for most of the time the park is open, you can only drive your own car 15 miles into the park. If you want to go any further, you have to pay for a seat on a park shuttle or a tour bus. This is meant to preserve the natural area in the park for future generations. But, if you camp at the Teklanika Campground, at mile 30, you can get a special pass, that allows you to drive all the way to the campground, giving you an extra 15 miles of drive time in the park. There are a few caveats, such as: you have to be willing to stay for 3 nights, and not drive your car once you get to your campsite; you also have to buy the “Tek Pass” ($35 per adult, kids under 15 are free) which is a bus pass that guarantees you a seat on a shuttle bus, at a time of your own choosing, for one day and then is valid as a stand-by pass for the duration of your stay in the park. This shuttle takes you round trip from Teklanika Campground all the way out to Eilson Visitor Center, at mile 66 in the park. It’s the best place to view Denali in the park, and it’s the farthest that the shuttle buses go. I’d heard that people make reservations up to a year in advance, and that summer is a crazy busy time up here, but thought I’d give it a shot anyway. So while we were driving, I jumped onto reservedenali.com and looked to see if they had anything open. Lo and behold, they did have reservations available, so we booked them!! And just like that, we left the internet behind for 4 days so we could experience what is one of the few truly wild places left in our country. The Visitor Center at the Denali Entrance Area was a great place for us to start our journey.
out into the tundra? Anyway, we were ready to go explore! We checked out a ranger program with Ranger Jasa, who helped us identify some Grizzly scat (that’s fancy science talk for poop, you know) that the kids found on the way to the amphitheater. Then, she taught us all about Pikas.
The next morning we had to be up bright and early to catch our bus to Eilson Visitor Center. Eilson is at mile 66 in the park, so 36 miles from our campground, and it’s a 2-hour bus ride there (plenty of potty stops and slow driving on that gravel road, let me just tell you.) Fortunately, you can eat on the bus! (Food is every parents friend on a road trip.) And, our driver that morning, Sheryl, has been driving Denali every summer for 15 years, so she had lots of great information and stories to share with us. She also knew all the great spots to look for wildlife!!
So, now to the part that I know you’re all dying to hear/see/know all about. Yes, we saw Grizzly bears (several!), moose (I’ll show you some pictures, but remember, I’m NO Nat Geo photographer, here!), caribou, and Dall Sheep (with some cute little lambs!). We even saw a Gyrfalcon. I’m not really sure why this is important, except that it’s name sounds super cool, and all the birders on the bus thought it was awesome, so I guess it must be. YES!! We got to see Denali! (I’ll show you some pictures, but remember…oh wait…I already said that. Well, it’s still true.) Apparently, according to the information at the Eilson Visitor Center, the Great One (that’s what Denali means in Athabascan) is only visible 49% of the time in June. We were lucky enough to see most of it on Friday (it was still lightly veiled in clouds), but on Saturday, it was totally shrouded in clouds and we could only imagine that the enormous mountain was standing silently behind them. Here’s the proof that what I just said is true:
The kids did such a great job riding the bus for 4 hours on Friday, we decided to make them do it again on Saturday. Well, how often is a person going to be in Denali National Park? Gotta take the opportunities as they come! So we bribed them with Tootsie Pops (thanks again Keeney Family…I cannot begin to tell you how invaluable your bag of goodies has been on this trip!) and headed back to Eilson the next day. Corey remembered to grab the kids’ National Park Passport books to stamp at both visitor centers we stopped at (thank goodness one of us remembers those!) This time, it wasn’t quite so cold, so we took a short 20 minute hike and enjoyed our surroundings a little more.
And, we rounded out the bus ride home with a grizzly sleeping by the side of the road, and a mama bear sleeping in the bushes while her 3 cubs played around beside her (no pictures of that…I helped the kids watch out of very busy bus windows. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it was very awe inducing.)
There’s more to tell about our stay in Denali, but I want you to stick around a little longer…so come on back and I’ll tell you the rest of the story.