Returning to Denali

Denali 2Eight 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.

Denali 7To 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.

Denali 13Denali 5Earlier 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.

Denali 29Denali 4It 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.Denali 1Denali 10Denali 3Denali 43

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.

Denali 8Denali 9Out 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.

Denali 38Denali 39This month there was a rare blue moon, and we went looking for it. There was a pretty thick cloud cover, so the moon showed when it was already pretty high in the sky.

But Hector still captured some lovely images of the full moon.Denali 40

Denali 50Denali 44We 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.Denali 46

Denali 47Denali 51Dog 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.

Denali 56Denali 55During their long history in Denali, visiting the sled dogs while they are resting from their winter work has become a popular activity in the summer and a draw to the 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.Denali 57

You are going to be lead dog today

You are going to be lead dog today

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Denali 58Denali 59Denali 61And 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 🙁

Denali 53Denali 12

Cool ride with a cool trailer.

Cool ride with a cool trailer.

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.

Denali 16Denali 27But we did find moose. This area is known to be the best for sighting moose because it is part of the lowland habitat of the park, and that proved to be  true.Denali 23

Denali 20Denali 26It was our first bull moose sighting all summer! And he was a beauty. Mr. Moose had two lovely cows with him and they were all happily munching away.Denali 22

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Denali 6And we also spotted the first bull caribou, although he walked into some tall plants and all we could see were the tops of his antlers, which I nicknamed “salad servers”.

Denali 30On a few walks around campground trails, Hector went looking for little things close to the ground and found some pretty mushrooms and berries.

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Denali 42Denali 41We also got a hold of the railroad schedule (there is a train to Denali), and watched one of the trains coming across a canyon – a pretty cool sight.Denali 64Denali 63Denali 65

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.

Denali 69Denali 73This was the start of a fabulous week during which we at times felt undeserving and quite humbled.

Denali 66Denali 68On 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!Denali 71

Denali 77Hector remembered (from eight years ago!) that there is a gyrfalcon nesting site up on the next pass and we found a gyrfalcon perched on the rocks.

Denali 75Denali 78Denali 81Then came our most exciting sighting, a large caribou bull crossing two channels of the Toklat River. We first saw him in the distance walking towards us and watched him for a long time.Denali 79

Denali 82He stepped across some shallow channels and then went through a deep and fast moving section of the braided river with ease.

Denali 83Denali 84Denali 85

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Denali 94He popped out onto the road right in front of us and gave us a good stare.

Denali 95Absolutely spectacular!

Denali 99A little later, a fox ran across the road in front os us, we almost missed her.Denali 96

Then we saw a moose cow and calf. This was such a great beginning of our week!

Denali 97Denali 98Denali 74And of course, Hector never misses the little guys. Arctic ground squirrel are found all over the park, with the unfortunate but appropriate nickname, “the fast food of Denali”.

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.

Denali 28Denal, the mountaini was hiding behind clouds that afternoon. Did she reveal herself fully to us this week? Stay tuned.

~ Brenda


28 thoughts on “Returning to Denali

  1. WOW is right. How fortunate you guys were to see all these great animals in the wild. Looks like a fabulous place. Can’t wait for the next chapter. : ) Karen

  2. Wowie wowie wowie!!! And Holy 42 degrees! My mouth was open just looking at the pictures of the double rainbow and all the wildlife. I can only imagine how you folks felt being there! SPECTACULAR. Brenda-lu how can you possibly remembers all those details? And Hector, great pics always. Blue filter for the blue moon? I know, PRO photographers never tell.
    Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to more!

    • No filters … moon shot taken during the blue hour and voila! This was one of the most amazing weeks ever. Like reserving Denali National Park for a private viewing for my honey and me. Every day was different … and great. More to come!

      Miss you dude


    • It was so amazing, wait until you see the next few posts! btw, Hector doesn’t even own any colored filters.

    • Brenda and Hector,
      What beautiful images of Denali, Homer, and everywhere in between. Brenda, your writing creates images of beauty, friendship and an appreciation of everything magical in nature. “Camera and Bloody Mary…heaven”. What a great description of your joy, commitment and love for each other, Angel, wildlife, companionship and family. Miss you lots and treasure our time in Anchorage and Seward.

  3. WOW — all you wanted and more! So happy for you. And so happy to be along with you. Love and miss you both. Stay safe. xo

    • Thank you, but it’s actually a lottery where they pick at random, more luck than talent this time around. Glad you enjoyed the photos!

  4. I’ve been waiting patiently for the Denali update and it didn’t disappoint ! What a spectacular week you’ve had. Fantastic photos, fantastic wildlife sightings. I’ve had great luck, but the wolves have been elusive. Saw a lynx with 2 kits during my last visit so I’m not complaining. Can’t wait for the next installment. Thanks for taking us along!

    • Thank you! So wonderful that you saw a lynx, they are so elusive – and two kits, wow! We did not see wolves nor lynx but it was still a fantastic time – this was only the second of seven days with our permit. Thanks for coming along!

  5. I had been waiting with such anticipation for your post(s) on your days inside Denali National Park. I think you hit the jackpot with wildlife sightings, and it’s so great that you could just sit, watch those magnificent creatures and get all of the photographs you wanted. Spectacular. I’m hoping to read that the mountain showed itself for you.

  6. You two must be pinching yourselves to see if this is all real. What a way to start your Denali adventure, with a double rainbow, followed by a blue moon! Love all your wildlife shots, particularly the bear, the bull moose, and the caribou.

  7. Finally have some internet here in Dawson City so am catching up on your blog … and my own. Jealous of the rainbow, I have never witnessed one like that! Also of the bull moose, I am now out of Alaska and went all summer without seeing one.

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