After my disappointing experience with the Arctic Parks, Mike and I headed to the crown jewel of Alaska; Denali National Park. We arrived late morning, so we grabbed my Junior Ranger booklet, talked to the rangers, and made a game plan.We’ve been walking the fine line of spontaneity and still getting tickets/reservations/etc. Sometimes it bites us in the butt, but we got veryyyy lucky and were able to reserve the very last campsite for the following evening at Wonder Lake Campground. In Denali, cars are limited to the first 15 miles of the 93 mile road. To go further, you have to buy a bus ticket to the furthest spot you want to go to. Then you can hop on any bus back to the entrance. So, we bought a bus ticket for me, while Mike was going to bike to the campground. (It’s fine, he likes to bike, I didn’t make him do it)
That evening, we stuck around the entrance area and hiked the Roadside Trail to the Sled Dog Kennels. When we first go there, I thought it was a little sad because all the dogs were just laying around and looked sad. It reminded me of an animal shelter, where they’re all just waiting to be adopted. The dogs were adorable and we even got to pet a couple of the semi-retired dogs; Cupcake and Venture.
While we waited for the sled dog demonstration, we wandered through the very interesting exhibits about the history of sled dogs and the adventures of the past few winters. Denali is the only National Park with their own sled dogs, and these puppers are crucial for some of the bridges, facilities, and research that all summer visitors get to enjoy. Once the demonstration began, I realized that the dogs weren’t unhappy at all; they were just resting. As soon as the dogs saw the demo beginning, they all started yipping and howling with excitement. Nepal the dog was the best; he was SO pumped to get to run and do the job he was born for. Mike even teared up a bit at the pure innocent joy.
After the demonstration, we hiked back, ate dinner and packed our bags for the next day. Since we didn’t have a campground for that evening, we drove about 10 minutes south of the park, right past the Denali Cabins and slept at a nice little BLM area that I highly recommend.
We woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed the next morning, and I jumped on the first bus of the day, while Mike started off on his bike. You can choose a narrated bus or just a camper bus like I was on. The bus drivers for the camper busses still know their history, welcome questions, and know where to look for wildlife too. We saw lots of caribou and a few bears in the distances. It was decent weather, and we stopped at all the main stops and I hiked around a bit. Polychrome Pass was absolutely stunning.
After a few hours, we made it to Wonder Lake, and it started to drizzle. I set up camp, put our food away in the storage area (and got a bulk bag of trail mix left in the free section!), napped a little and worked on my booklet in the tent since it was raining and foggy. It paused for a little bit so I hiked around to Wonder Lake, and when Mike made it to the campsite, we hiked up to McKinley Bar Trailhead and picked blueberries! I probably made some bears angry at taking their food, but it makes boring, good-for-you, oatmeal taste so much better.
One of my favorite things about staying at Park campgrounds are the evening campground programs led by the Rangers. Ranger Frank gave a great talk about mushing in Denali and had lots of fun props for us to touch and try on. He decided I have what it takes to go on a mushing adventure someday (okay, he said that to everyone, but he was looking at me the most).
After a gourmet dinner of ramen noodles mixed with instant mashed potatoes (Don’t judge it until you try it. It’s way better than you think, and it’s super lightweight for backpacking), we went to bed since it was still raining. I was a little bit pouty since it was such gross weather and we hadn’t seen Denali or anything else more than a half mile away.
However, I woke up to the sunshine and the Denali summit was peaking out a little above some of the clouds! Hooray! After our breakfast with the local, organic blueberries, Mike and I got on the bus and headed back in. We stopped at Kitishna where we learned about Fannie Quigley, a badass woman who lived in Denali and made it the tourist destination we know and love. We also got to see a moose, bighorn sheep, and a honey colored grizzly about 20 yards away!
When we made it back to Eilison Visitor Center (around mile 60 on the drive and it’s the first place you can see Denali when you are driving from the entrance) the sun was still out and we could see most of the mountain! I got my junior ranger badge there from Ranger Mariah who was amazing. She’s from Maine, and went to Southern California to teach and during her summers she would volunteer with the NPS. She also let me put her hat on, which I always super appreciate 🙂
I had talked about the intimidating factor of backcountry camping and hiking in the Arctic. There are also very few developed trails in Denali, but now that we’ve seen it, we regret not bringing our hiking boots with us. It is a very do-able park in terms of backcountry hiking; it’s made easy by the rangers and the bus drivers. We were on the bus with a couple guys that told the bus driver what they were looking for in a day hike, and he was like “oh yeah, I’ll drop you off around mile 46. The last bus comes back by at 4:30.” Unlike the thick brush of Gates of the Arctic, you can walk through a nice tundra in Denali and see your destination for the most part.
Overall, I see why this park is one of the most visited in Alaska. It’s accessible, beautiful, and big enough to not feel too crowded. We are definitely making plans to come back and explore it more. And Mike wants to climb Denali… of course.
- Plan ahead for your camping or lodging. I might be biased, but I recommend Wonder Lake campground. It’s near the end of the road, which means with your bus pass, you can travel all over and explore very easily.
- Even if you don’t camp there, I would still recommend buying a bus ticket to the end of the road. That way you can hike anything that your heart desires. You can only change your bus ticket once, and for a fee, so you might as well just get it all on the first purchase.
- Backcountry hike! My biggest regret for this park is not getting to do that because we didn’t think we’d be able to navigate. Talk to a Ranger or the bus driver. You CAN do it as long as you pack your bag for safety and unexpected situations.
- Pack/wear layers. It went from sunny and hot in the morning to slightly windy to full on storms in one day.