Alaska Camping 2008
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Days 7-10:   July 16-19, 2008
Denali National Park
Everyone who visits Denali National Park hopes to see “the mountain”.  Officially named “Mt. McKinley” but generally referred to by it original native name, “Denali”, this highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet is rarely glimpsed in mid-summer, the wet season.  Hoping for good luck, I had reserved Thursday and Friday nights at the Wonder Lake campground deep in the park directly below the mountain.  The famous photographs of Denali by Ansel Adams and others were taken at Wonder Lake.  But sadly, it was not to be.  
Wednesday morning began with leaden skies at our camp at Tangle Lakes.  We headed out west on the old Denali Highway, another gravel road that is verboten to most car rentals.  We found it was an excellent highway, very smooth and easily traveled at 40 to 45 mph.  We quickly came to Maclaren Summit at about 4000 foot elevation and hiked a short distance out along the ridge.  But the clouds were closing in and we saw little.  I took only a couple of pictures that day.  The further west we went, the lower the clouds until the mountains were completely obscured.  What is advertised as a beautiful drive along the Alaska Range was for us a long fairly boring slog in the mist and clouds.
Reaching the Parks Highway at Cantwell, we turned north towards Denali National Park. The park was bustling with activity, including the obligatory strip of motels, restaurants, and gift shops just outside the boundary.  The main campground near the entrance still had spaces left in the walk-in tent section, so we grabbed one.  After setting up camp, we took showers, washed clothes, and “splurged” on burritos at “Bubba’s Baja” for dinner (they were good).  We still had time for an evening hike on the Taiga and Rock Lake trails in the park, with a view of foreboding clouds over the Yanert Valley.
Thursday morning, we packed up and organized our gear to fit into two backpacks to take on the camper bus to Wonder Lake.  Private vehicles can only access the edge of Denali National Park.  A nearly 90 mile gravel road, open only to buses, traverses westward along the foothills of the Alaska Range deep into the park, ending at Wonder Lake (and the old mining town of Kantishna beyond it).  I had reserved seats on the bus and two nights stay at the walk-in tent campground at Wonder Lake.  
Our bus left at 2 pm and arrived at Wonder Lake about 7:30 pm.  Several stops were made at overlooks, rest areas, and the Eielson Visitor Center (at mile 60), where Denali itself reigns in full splendor.  Or at least, that’s what the visitor center photo displays show.  We saw the bases of low mountains rising up into the clouds.  We did see some wildlife on the bus ride and were entertained by commentary from the driver (who sounded like a refugee from the New York subways).  And there was always that pervasive sense of vast pristine wilderness.  It rained Thursday evening and night.  Fortunately, the campground is equipped with substantial pavilions that provide a dry place to sit and cook dinner.  It was fun to hear other campers speaking languages from around the world.
Friday was our “layover day” at Wonder Lake.  We hiked the McKinley Bar trail in light rain out to the McKinley River across meadows, bogs, and low spruce forest (5 miles round trip). At the river, we met two Alaskan families with kids who were on vacation from Fairbanks. They didn’t seem to mind the cold and rain.  Then we caught one of the shuttle buses back to Eielson Visitor Center, figuring we could at least spend the afternoon inside where it was dry and heated.  But the clouds lifted a bit, revealing fresh snow from the night before above the 5000 foot elevation, so we took a hike up the alpine ridge behind the center, where a shower dropped snowflakes on us!
Saturday morning we had time to hike a bit at Wonder Lake before taking the bus back to the park entrance.  A grizzly bear crossed the road in front of the bus and a fox trotted briefly right alongside us.  The clouds broke a bit and there was even some sun.  But never a view of Denali.
Our original plan was to make a leisurely return to Anchorage from Denali, stopping for hikes.  But the weather was coming from that direction, so we decided on a change of plans: north to Fairbanks!
2800-Clearwater Mtns from Maclaren Summit on Denali Hwy
2802-Karen on Taiga trail, Denali NP entrance area
2806-Yanert Valley from Rock Creek trail, Denali NP entrance area
2807-Prickly Rose along the trail
2809-Spruce cones, Teklanika rest stop
2812-View south from Polychrome Pass
2816-Camp at Wonder Lake
2817-Phil & Karen in the cooking pavilion at Wonder Lake
2818-View south from Wonder Lake campground to McKinley River
2823-Fresh snow above 5000 ft elevation on Mt Eielson
2826-Flowers by Eielson visitor center
2835-Karen & Phil, Eielson visitor center
2837-Flowers on Alpine trail, Eielson area
2839-Artic Ground Squirrel on Alpine trail, Eielson area
2840-Flowers on Alpine trail, Eielson area
2842-View south into Gorge Creek from Alpine trail, Eielson area
2844-Flowers on Alpine trail, Eielson area
2847-Blue Bells on Alpine trail, Eielson area
2852-Wonder Lake from outlet
2859-Karen with the bus, Eielson visitor center
2861-Grizzly Bear in Stony Hill area
2864-Red Fox along Toklat River
2867-South from Sable Pass area
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All materials Copyright Phillip Farrell.
Last revision August 10, 2008.