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Denali National Park
The snowy peak of Denali is the highest point in North America, reaching 20,320 feet. Because clouds accumulate against the lofty sides, hiding it from view, most tourists who visit Denali National Park come away without actually seeing the mountain.
On our morning drive from Talkeetna to the park, we couldn’t believe our luck when we rounded a curve and there, rising above the trees, was the crisp shape of Denali:
As our road twisted and turned, the mountain disappeared behind the trees. We kept our eyes glued forward, searching for the white shape whenever there was an open gap, and shouting, “There it is! There it is!” when it popped into view again.
We were mesmerized.
Alas, in the short time that it took for us to reach the “official” viewing spot on the road, the clouds had almost completely obscured Denali, leaving just a tiny bit of the bright white top, as well as some of the side slopes, peeking out from behind the gray:
And that was the last that we would see of the top during our three days at Denali National Park.
The mountain range that includes Denali is called the Alaska Range, and there were other stunning peaks nearby.
A single road extended into Denali National Park. We stopped at the Visitor’s Center to pick up a booklet for Genevieve to earn a Jr. Ranger badge by completing various activities, questions, and puzzles.
Genevieve, in front of the Visitor’s Center:
Alaska is known for its big and tenacious mosquitoes. We have often wondered on our camping trips what “benefit” these blood-sucking, disease-carrying insects provide within an ecosystem; and the Visitor’s Center had a display with some answers! Here is Genevieve beside the large mosquito models, with a plaque that let us know that mosquitoes are (1) an important food source for many birds and (2) pollinators of many berry-producing plants that bears rely upon for food.
Sebastian was excited to show me some drawers that he had pulled out, which contained slices of trees of varying ages. The smaller slice of tree on top was actually much older than the larger slice on the bottom because it was from an area that had a very short growing season due to long, freezing winters.
Sebastian also had a fun time putting together a moose puzzle, which taught how the Native Alaskans used every single part of a moose—e.g., for food, storing things, or even as thread for sewing:
We stayed in the park at Savage River Campground, about 12 miles down the paved road. We never saw any bear or moose in our camping area, but we did have a visit from a small snowshoe hare (which turns solid white in the winter):
Sebastian also helped build a roaring campfire each night:
With campfires, of course, come marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers. We made lots of smores, and even came up with a new “recipe” by introducing a thick swipe of peanut butter into the mix. Yum.
Genevieve was a happy camper:
Private vehicles are only allowed on the first 15 miles into the park. After that, the road is unpaved, and visitors must purchase tickets to ride shuttle buses that can take them to various points along the road to spot wildlife and get closer to the mountain of Denali. We chose to go on an 8-hour round-trip bus ride that carried us to mile 66, where a second visitor’s center (called Eielson) was located.
As you can see from the above photo, our bus got quite muddy due to the accompanying rain.
The road was mud and gravel, sometimes snaking along the side of a mountain:
The mud from the wet road sprayed onto our windows, making it hard to see any wildlife that might be out in the fields. With every stop, however, we took advantage of the opportunity to use the available squeegees and paper towels:
We had a fantastic bus driver, named Wendy, and her good eye helped us locate quite a few animals during our ride.
After about 2 ½ hours, we spied our first wildlife--some caribou, prancing around in the rain:
Later, we saw four grizzly bears, including a mother with two large cubs digging in the tundra:
We were also fortunate to find a fox trotting along the side of the road:
When the bus crept too close, however, the fox darted across the road and disappeared into the low bushes on the other side.
A herd of caribou were down in a valley:
We used our binoculars to get a closer look at the tiny white specks against green grass high on a mountainside—they were dall sheep!
On a clear day at the Eielson Visitor’s Center, one can get an amazing view of Denali—rising high in front. Today, as we expected, we just saw a mass of clouds. We knew it was there, however. Just imagine the grandeur of Denali sitting in the background, to the right, behind Genevieve:
Eielson had some nice exhibits, including artwork by some of the park’s artists-in-residence. One of my favorites was a beautiful fabric quilt by Linda Beach called “Threading Through the Gravel Bars – East Fork Toklat River:”
Even without the sight of Danali, we still found plenty of beauty in the park during the long bus ride:
Another activity that we enjoyed during our time at the park was a sled dog presentation by Ranger Jack, which took place at the park kennels.
Denali National Park is the only national park that has sled dog kennels, and sled dogs are a part of the park’s cultural history. The dogs here are put to work during the winter months when the road is closed and supplies need to reach the outback cabins.
Ranger Jack and the kennel staff harnessed the dogs to a sled that had wheels, and then she went for a spin to show how the dogs work together to pull the sled.
Finishing the run:
After the presentation, Genevieve and Sebastian got a chance to stand on the back of the sled, like mushers:
We also walked through the kennel area and met many of the sled dogs. Here are the kids with “Muddy”:
One of our favorite experiences at the park took place while we were hiking along Horseshoe Lake Trail. The entrance started uphill, across some train tracks:
We started the hike by waving to the engineer on a passing train:
Being so close to the thundering train engines was quite exciting, but the best part of the hike was yet to come.
At the end of the trail, almost a mile in length, we saw a beaver dam stretching across the lake:
While admiring the dam, a beaver swam towards us, pulling a long branch with her teeth:
When she reached a small dam that was blocking the stream, she climbed onto the land beside the dam, clutching the branch in her teeth; then she waddled past the dam and re-entered the water:
We followed, keeping a respectful distance.
When she reached another dam, up and over she went, carefully tugging her branch across.
(Notice the bite chunk taken out of her tail.)
A third, and final, dam to cross!
Waiting for her on the other side of this dam was a smaller beaver, perhaps her child, who began nibbling leaves off the back of the branch as they both swam to a beaver lodge across the lake.
The kids and I had never before seen a beaver, and we were all completely smitten by this hard-working (and charming) creature.
The lodge, across the lake:
As we continued hiking, we saw fresh evidence of how busy the beavers had been:
It is astonishing that they cut those trees down with their teeth!
We hiked around the lake to reach the lodge. Here are Ben and the kids at the water’s edge:
Behind the lodge:
Several beavers eventually poked their heads out, including this curious one who seemed to check us out thoroughly before diving back underwater:
On the way back up the trail, Genevieve stopped to look at the bulbous growths on some of the trees.
She later talked to a ranger who told her that the growths are burls that are caused by a type of fungus.
A distant view of Horseshoe Lake:
On the morning that we left Denali National Park, Genevieve and I took an early morning hike near our campsite, hoping to see the peak of Denali against the blue sky. Far in the distance, the white mound was unmistakable:
While the sides were visible, the peak was covered in clouds. Genevieve took this photo:
It was a special time with just the two of us, surrounded by beauty and the still silence of the morning.
Denali remained elusive. Still, we had been presented with many gifts during our visit here. And I was grateful for every single one.
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