The first part of our trip was fun with a couple of hikes and water activities. Now it was time to attempt to see the highest peak in North America. It is said that only 30% of tourists see the peak of the mountain while visiting. We were about to try our luck while hiking, spotting wildlife, and camping.
While researching this part of the trip, I had trouble figuring out what we would do in Denali National Park for three days. I then stumbled across a book entitled Denali National Park – Alaska, Guide to Hiking, Photography, and Camping written by Ike Waits. I thought it would be a good investment because it talked about hiking in Denali, where there are few trails. Most of the trails are short hikes near the entrance of the park and Savage River. The book helped us enjoy parts of the park most tourists miss by not venturing off the bus.
Travel to Denali
We left Homer, AK around 5:30 am to get an early start on our drive. We saw 3 moose on the drive and one bull near Anchorage. Once we got to Anchorage, we stopped at Walmart to do grocery shopping for the rest of our trip in the park. We then went to REI to get a topo map of Denali National Park. It took us about 4 hours to get from Homer to Anchorage and pulled off at a lake to have lunch north of Anchorage.
The scenery on our drive was not as impressive as the one through Kenai. The mountains and landscape were the same for most of the drive between Anchorage and just south of the park. It was mainly spruce trees and rolling mountains.
We decided not to stop at the hostel and go straight to Denali National Park to get our camping passes for the next few nights at the Wilderness Access Center. After getting our passes, we went to check out the Visitor’s Center, which was very informational. It had lots of stuffed animals and historical information. We then decided to drive as far as you can into the park without camping passes. We drove to Savage River and saw many caribou walking down the road and grazing in the distance. We did the Savage River Loop, which was 2 miles in length. During the hike around the loop, we saw Arctic ground squirrels frolicking on the trail.
The hike was nice after our long day in the car. After stretching the legs, we headed to dinner at 49th Street Brewery in Healy. We got there around 8 pm and got a table. We all ordered beers. Dustin and I ordered burgers, which were too big to eat by holding them, so we cut it into pieces to eat the burger. Andy got bison meatloaf, which was also pretty tasty. After dinner, we headed south to the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel. The hostel was really cool with outdoor wall tents. Dustin stayed in a male dorm room, and Andy and I took the wall tent with cots and sleeping bags provided. You had to walk around outside to get to the common octagon room with restrooms and kitchen. It was one of the coolest hostels we have stayed at. We went to bed around 11 and set the alarm for 7:45 am.
Polychrome Ridge Walk
We woke up, showered, had breakfast, and then headed back to the park to wait in line at the Savage River ranger station. We saw more wildlife on the way to Savage River and got to the checkpoint early and were allowed through. It took roughly another hour to get to our campground. On our way, we were held up by a caribou trotting down the road as oncoming traffic. It got extremely close to the vehicle. We finally arrived at the Teklanika campground. We packed our day bags and set up the tent and hammock. It was time to hop on the bus around 12:20 pm with our hike for the day picked out.
In Denali National Park, the Teklanika campground is the furthest distance you can drive in a car without taking the park bus. However, one must stay at the campground for at least three nights and leave the car parked the entire time once parking at the campground. Once on the bus, we did not have a long ride to Polychrome Pass, where we would get off the bus to start our hike. The bus ride was slow going because a few people on the bus kept on pointing out plants and trees. The bus driver would then stop and talk about them. We did not care for the plant life; we just wanted to see wildlife and start our hike. We did see a brown bear and two cubs, which was our first spotting brown bears. They were only around for a minute before the disappeared behind a hill.
We got to the Polychrome overlook, where the bus only stops westward bound through the park. After walking a quarter of a mile to where the route description started, we still had roughly 4 hours and 4.5 miles. It was slow going at first because we had to do some bush whacking through low shrubs or high grass. It took me a little time to get used to walking on the spongy surface.
Polychrome Ridge Walk Hike
We gained elevation to more rocky and loose dirt mounds. We could view Polychrome mountain our across the valley over the Park Road for most of the hike. We tried to follow animal trails and walked along the ridge of a hill. What a different experience. It started to get windy because of the exposure of being up on the hills. We continued to climb until we got to the top of the ridge. We took a snack break and then started our way down by sliding down the loose gravel-like mounds. The mountains, hills, and tundra had various colors , which made this hike very beautiful and different from ones I have done in the past. The tundra colors were turning to fall, warm colors.
The tundra was thicker on this part of the hike. I was slower than the boys, but I continued to be loud and talked to them to let the wildlife know we were around to avoid spooking them. However, we had yet to see wildlife on the hike. We had to go up and down over the rolling hills to get down to the braided riverbed and finally made it to the riverbed, where we were able make up some time from the slow-going tundra parts. We then saw two caribou standing in the riverbed. We walked really close to them and were taking pictures. We got about 35 yards away from them with them barely moving.
We did not have to do any water crossing, which was good because it was fast moving water. We made it up the side to avoid crossing and then got back to the riverbed, under the Park Road bridge and up the side to wait for a bus headed eastbound back to the campground. We finished the hike around 6:30 pm. We let one bus pass because they only had one seat left. The second bus came through and only had one seat as well. We let Dustin take it. We then waited. We saw some people walking down the road towards up. They stopped and waited for us. It was a family of 5. We talked to them for a little. A third bus came and had enough room for all of us. On the way back, the bus was pretty crowded. We did get to see a female moose cross in front of the bus. I was amazed by how long their legs are. All the moose we had seen before were in the grass, so we could not tell how tall they actually were. It disappeared extremely fast because they are very shy animals.
Dustin was waiting for us to start our Ramen noodle dinner because he could not find the camp stove. We all made dinner and wen to bed around 10 pm because we were exhausted. Andy slept in his hammock, while Dustin and I shared the tent. I wrote in my journal a little, then we talked before falling asleep.
We woke up around 6 am in hopes to catch the 7:10 am shuttle for our hike. We ate breakfast and were the 2nd group at the bus stop. The first bus passed us because it was full. The next bus was pretty empty, but the driver would not let us on because Andy did not bring his bus ticket. The driver was not nice about it either, so Andy had to go and find it in the garbage because he threw it away. The next bus came and had room for us. The next bus came and let us on without asking for our tickets. Andy was furious.
We made our way through the park further than the day before. We stopped at the rest stops. We got to see a coyote on the road that just trotting in front of the bus for a little. It then jumped over the bank. I got a few good pictures.
We got to see some glimpses of Denali. There was a few clouds in front of it, but still a decent view. We talked to the bus driver about letting us off at Stoney Creek bridge. He agreed. We saw some bear in the distance on the bus as well before getting off. We then got off the bus. The people on the bus looked at us like we were crazy for getting off to do hiking. We started walking on the riverbed to get to Hill 5014. After crossing the riverbed to get to the valleys to Hill 5014, we saw a bear digging across the way. It was probably roughly 200 to 300 yards away. We did not get too many pictures and decided to continue on our way to get away from it.
The colors around us were nice. We did not have to bush whack like yesterday, so I did prefer this hike to Polychrome Ridege Walk. We climbed up rocky hill faces to get to the top. We had views of snow capped mountains and red clay hills. The 360 degree views were amazing. During the hike, I had to rest my heels by pushing into the loose gravel-like ground because we had to go down some steep slopes. This was actually not too bad because I was getting the hang of it. We did get to see some lone flowers and plant life on the rocky alpine and followed some game trails, which also made the hike a little more enjoyable.
Hill 5014 Hike
The way down was a little scary because it looked like it completely dropped off. It was hard on my knees too. The guys did not seem to have as much pain. The end of the hike took us to another stream, where we saw a spruce grouse. We actually heard it before seeing it because it was camouflaged. We walked along the stream for a little before going up to the riverbank for softer walking. This was not too bad because the tundra was not thick and too high. We got to Park Road at around 3:15 pm, which meant the hike only took us 3.5 hours for a 5.5 mile hike. The route guide said it would take roughly 6 hours and was a moderate hike. We did not find it to be a hard hike at all.
We decided since it was early, we could go to Eielson Visitor Center to check it out. We caught the next bus there and hung out. Dustin talked to the rangers. I found a cool feature there where the floor was marked with height. I stood at my height and saw two white peaks on the window. Since there is a low chance of seeing Denali (or Mount McKinley) due to cloud coverage, this feature allowed people to see where the top of the highest mountain in North America would be if it were a clear day. I also found two pieces of abstract artwork, which were cool. As I got closer, I realized they were quilted images of Denali Park. After spending our time at the visitor’s center, we caught our bus back our of the park towards the campground.
We really like the driver on this bus. He was nice and very informative. He continued to teach us about the park as opposed to just pointing out wildlife and plants like the other drivers we have had. On our way back. we saw two sets of momma bears with their cubs. They were in different areas but actually close to each other. We stopped and watched. One group was near Stoney Creek, where we started our hike earlier. Andy got a good picture of the baby bear rolling around in the grass. Both these bear sightings were far from the bus, so I was not able to get a good picture.
We did the routine stops and picked up passengers along the way. We got to Teklanika rest stop, where a large amount of tourists were standing at the overlook. We found out that there was a momma bear with three cubs below the overlook. I got some pictures with the changing tree leaves.
We got back to the campground around 6:30 pm. We hurried with dinner and made coffee. We then headed to the Ranger talk about lynx and wolves. The talk was decent with some parts being acted out by the audience to appeal to the kids in the audience. After the program, we decided to go to bed early because the bugs were getting annoying. Plus we would have a long day of riding the bus to Wonder Lake to the end of Park Road tomorrow. Dustin and I talked for awhile before heading to bed.
We woke up early again. This time we were the fourth group there. Many buses passed without stopping today. We finally got on one that went to Wonder Lake that was pretty full. I sat next to a guy that looked like Fred Flintstone. He had the window, so whenever we saw wildlife, I jumped to the back of the bus where there were little seats to try to get a picture. Andy had the same strategy.
We saw a momma bear and her cubs on the riverbank just before they decided to take a swim across the Toklat River. This was really cool because we just watched them for about ten minutes. This was one of the closer sighting we had of the bears. Andy got some great pictures. I got decent ones.
We then stopped at the rest stop. We got off the bus and stretched out a little. The views here were decent and showed the typical braided rivers that are throughout the park. We actually asked the one bus driver if they are always like this. He said in the spring when all the snow melts, they are completely full and this past year was the highest levels he had seen in awhile.
Today was a clear and beautiful day. We got great views of Denali fully (Mt McKinley). Since we were not hiking today, Andy brought his tripod in hopes that I could use it for a possible time lapse. Before getting to the Eielson’s Visitor’s Center, I got a few good shots at some overlooks of Denali with the tundra in the foreground. We contemplated doing the hike to the basin in front of the Visitor’s Center while our bus waited to continue to Wonder Lake. At this point of the trip, we really wanted to see a bull moose, wolf, and lynx in the park.
Once we got to the Visitor’s Center, we walked around separately to take some more pictures of the massive mountain. We then realized the small hike we wanted to do was closed. There was a male bear in front of the Visitor’s Center. We have mainly seen female bears with cubs. Also, this bear actually had a dark brown coat without the blond layer the others had. I got a few pictures with Andy’s long lens. It was fun to watch and point out to tourists that did not even realize he was there.
We then got on the bus and continued to Wonder Lake. This bus trip with the stops for rest areas and wildlife took about 6 hours. The bus driver told us he would let us our at the fork that goes to Wonder Lake and Kantishna Lodge. He told us that we could walk to Reflection Pond from there, which was about .25 miles from where he would let us off. We got off, along with 4 others. We decided to go off the road and bush whack once again. This was VERY thick tundra and hard to maneuver through. We finally found the pond though. Unfortunately, the clouds started to roll over Denali, and it was windy. None of us got a decent picture, but at least we tried. We didn’t see the other people at the pond. I think they gave up once they realized there wasn’t a trail to it.
We headed back to the road and started walking down it waiting for a bus to pick us up along the way. The first bus only had room for one. They boys said we would try the next one. Without talking to them, I decided to take that spot because I really had to go to the bathroom and there was not enough coverage to go in the open. I waited for awhile until they got to the campground. We decided it was not worth going down to Wonder Lake, so we stayed at the campground for lunch at a picnic shelter.
We were tired of being on the bus, so we decided to relax at the campground. I took a 2 hour time lapse of the clouds moving over Denali while the boys napped on the picnic benches. I finished my time lapse when my battery died.
Time Lapse of Denali Cloud Movement
After I finished the time lapse, we packed up the camera gear and headed back to the bus stop where lots of people were waiting. We actually got on a decently empty bus that took us to Eielson Visitor Center once again. On our way to the Visitor’s Center, we finally got to see our bull moose far into the distance. I got a few pictures, but they were far away. The tundra was thick where he was that you could only see his body and rack. I am actually the one on the bus that spotted him. This would be a shorter stop, but we decided to try to get on a bus that was leaving earlier.
We got onto a very empty bus at the visitor’s center, which was good because we all got our own seats. Everyone was on the one side of the bus except for me. I thought I would do my part by looking on the other side for wildlife and would jump to the other side if the wildlife was on the other side. We got close to a few bears on the bus this time, along with some caribou, which we were getting sick of seeing because we saw so many the first couple of days.
As we were pulling into Toklat rest area, we saw a bear very close to the bus. We all started taking pictures. I finally got decent pictures with my lens of a bear! We were permitted to get off the bus to use the restroom if needed, but they did not want too many people walking around so close to the bear. Everyone stayed on the bus and we continued on our way across the Toklat bridge to see some more bear down near the riverbed. These were off in the distance, so we did not stop long. Most everyone on the bus were tired from being on buses all day.
We finally got to the campground. We made dinner and ate. We then packed for our departure the next morning. We decided to explore down near the Teklanika River. We played in the riverbed and then decided to walk up the one bank. The sun was setting behind the mountains, so we got some good pictures of the red colors from the sun. We got back to the campground and chatted with a man walking two labs. We talked to him for awhile. Him and his wife retired and have been driving a camper all over the USA and Canada and were from Florida. It sounded like an awesome experience. They were considering being campground hosts for a week or two since they had no further plans. I told him about the hiking book we were using in case they wanted to explore off Park Road.
We finished packing the car and went to bed around 11. I tried to catch up writing in my journal. Dustin and I talked for awhile about traveling and camping. I gave him some advice on how to travel wisely. He seemed pretty interested on tagging along with Andy and I in the future. We set our alarms and went to bed.
Travel from Denali to Anchorage
We woke up early, had breakfast, and then started our two hour drive out of the park. We decided to stop at the main entrance area to return one of the souvenirs Dustin purchased and to grab some coffee. We then headed south towards Anchorage. We stopped at an overlook, where we could see Denali. It was not as clear as the day before, but we got to see it from another angle.
We then turned off our route for a minor detour to Telkeetna. This was a touristy little town that offered many heli-tours that got people close to Denali. We parked the car and followed signs. We made it to the end of the one road town to the river. Over the river on the horizon was another view of the Denali Mountain Range. It was a little hazy, but we were still able to see it miles away. It was massive. I doubt I could ever be tired of looking at such a spectacular snow capped moutnain! I took some pictures.
View of Denali from Telkeetna
We then decided to grab lunch. We wanted to have a quick lunch, so we found a general store that sold burritos. After eat the burritos, we had some homemade ice cream before heading to the car. It was a gorgeous day and in the high 60s.
We continued to Anchorage to our hostel. We decided to check into Arctic Adventure Hostel Lodging. We emptied the car and took much needed showers after not showering during our stay in Denali. We then relaxed a little. I wrote in my journal while Dustin watched TV and Andy spent time on his tablet.
We then decided to have dinner at Moose’s Tooth Brewery. We put our name on the list and waited. Once seated, the boys ordered beer samplers while I ordered a pint. We all ordered a pizza each to share. We definitely over ordered but had snacks for the morning. Since it was our last night in Alaska, we decided we had to explore a little more.
We then headed the Potter Marsh to see if we could spot any birds. We did not have too much success, but the marsh was pretty in itself with the mountainous background. The sun started to set, so we decided to head to Beluga Point off of the Seward Highway to watch the sun set and see if we could spot any whales. We did not spot any whales because I think it was late in the season, but we did get to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the water behind the mountains.
After the sunset, we headed to see a snow plow type train engine that was on display to plow the railroads. It was pretty cool. There was not much to see at the stop though. After our little excursions, we decided to head back to the hostel to repack for the flights home.
A Little More Anchorage
We woke up, ate our leftover pizza, and checked out of the hostel. We then headed to the airport. We decided to stop at Earthquake Park on our way to the airport. We parked the car and saw a baby moose in the parking lot. We actually got pretty close to it and took pictures. We then headed down the paved path through the park. We then made it to the part that sunk, where we could finally see a little of the damage from the earthquake. We could see the Anchorage skyline across the water, so I took a picture of the small city. We then headed to the airport and stopped to watch the planes land to waste a little more time.
We then returned the rental car, checked into our flights, and met up. The boys were flying American Airlines; I was flying United. We met up in the airport for some coffee. I then said my goodbyes to Andy and Dustin in case I missed them in Seattle.
This ended our adventure to the 49th State.
More in this series:
- Alaska Itinerary
- Kenai Peninsula
- Kenai Fjords National Park
- Kenai Peninsula Homer Fishing
- Tips for Planning a Visit to Denali National Park