Eight years ago, when we made an all too brief stop at Denali National Park and Preserve, Denali, the mountain never revealed herself to us. That was a sign that we would have to return someday. Returning to Denali was one of the first things we planned for our trip to Alaska this summer. And our experience in the park has been much richer than we ever imagined possible.
To preserve the wilderness in 1972, the 92 mile park road was closed to automobile traffic at mile 15 and a bus shuttle system was instituted. There was much controversy around this but the restriction has remained with some very limited exceptions.
Earlier this year when we planned our stay in Denali, I discovered that professional photographers have an opportunity to enter a lottery for a one-week permit to drive into the restricted area of the park.
Hector entered the photographers’ lottery, and about a month later found out that he won one of the permits. This type of access to the park is extremely rare, and we were flabbergasted and ecstatic.
Denali and the surrounding area were inhabited by Athabascans more than 11,000 years ago. Because of its remoteness, only a few Europeans came to the area; a few prospectors around 1898, climbers who began attempts to climb the mountain in 1903, then game hunters.
It was a hunter-naturalist, Charles Sheldon, who, after developing an interest in the study and preservation of mountain sheep came to the conclusion that the area would make an ideal park and game preserve. Because of his wealth and political connections he was able to mobilize others to advocate for this idea. After much controversy those efforts led to the introduction of a park bill in Congress.
Mount McKinley National Park was ultimately established in 1917 to protect 1.6 million acres. Then, in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was signed by President Jimmy Carter and expanded park boundaries to 6 million acres, with the original park area upgraded to wilderness status. The expanded park was renamed Denali National Park & Preserve.
We arrived in Denali a few days before our permit was in effect and camped near the entrance in Riley Creek Campground, read my review here.
During our time in this area, we immersed ourselves in learning more about park history beginning with checking out the Riley Creek Visitor Center. The center has three stories of displays about the history, geology and wildlife of the area.
Interpretive programs take place in the form of ranger presentations at the visitor center theatre (as well as campgrounds). We attended an excellent one about the animals’ winter adaptations.
And last but not least, there are regular showings of The Heartbeats of Denali, a visually stunning film showing the four seasons of Denali at the Visitor Center theatre.
Out on the park road, the clearing weather after a couple of days of rain brought some great clouds. And then a stunning double rainbow welcomed us to the park. It was one of the brightest rainbows we have ever seen, and it lasted a really long time.
We knew that a visit to the dog kennels was a must, and made that our next stop. The park’s first ranger, Harry Karstens, who was previously a dog musher, introduced dogs to the park in 1921 to help control poaching. Mr. Karstens knew that teams of sled dogs would make travel throughout the park much easier.
Dog teams were later expanded and additional duties such as hauling supplies were assigned to the dogs. Around the 1940s and 1950s mechanized snow machines were introduced, but mechanical difficulties were encountered with some.
In 1980, motorized vehicles and mechanized travel were prohibited in the original park which had just been designated as a wilderness area. Use of sled dogs allowed rangers to continue their work in the original park during winter while maintaining its wildness, increasing dog “rangers” once again. These are the only sled dogs in the United Stated that help protect a national park.
The sledding demonstration is fascinating. The dogs are strong and athletic and bundles of energy. When they realize that the demonstration is about to begin, they start barking and howling and jumping up and down at their respective dog houses, they get SO excited. These dogs love their work.
And when the actual brief demonstration happens it is over almost before it began. The sled takes off like a rocket with only five dogs. In the winter they use larger teams and lighter sleds. Impressive.
The dogs are also extremely well socialized and it was a lot of fun to walk around petting different dogs. There are some puppies at the kennels, but they are protected so you can see but not really touch them, although there are times when they are brought out for socializing. Unfortunately, our visit was not one of those times 🙁
We met a few folks in the campground, but were there so briefly that they were just passing meetings. One of the ladies, Carla, with the American Hiking Society, was there with others maintaining trails. Doing some great work. Carla also gave us some food they had leftover from their group activities, very sweet.
There is a lot more to do in the first fifteen miles of the park. There are twelve trails (after the first fifteen miles, there are only three formal trails), ranger-guided hikes, and lots of wildlife.
There is a wolf den, but the area where it is located is protected, so you cannot get out of your car and/or hike there. And we did not see any wolves from the car.
After a few days, we continued to our next campground. Teklanika River Campground, “Tek”, 29 miles inside the restricted area of the park, the furthest campground that accepts RVs. Once you drive the RV there campers are still required to use the bus network. The park normally requires that you leave your tow vehicle by the Visitor Center, but since we had the “golden pass” as Hector calls it, we towed our car in. Read my review of Tek here.
On our afternoon drive as we crossed the first pass in the park, Sable Pass, we saw our first grizzly bears, possibly a sow and cub since bears don’t normally hang out together. But it sure was a big cub!
Then we saw a moose cow and calf. This was such a great beginning of our week!
And ptarmigan are the state bird of Alaska. These fascinating birds’ feathers change to all white in the winter, including long feathers on their feet.
All of this wildlife was such an incredible beginning of our week, but it did not overshadow the beauty and splendor of the park itself. Multi-colored mountains, the stunning Alaska range, and the centerpiece of the range, Denali.