There are several opportunities to see Denali, the high one, from the road that runs across Denali National Park and Preserve. As the road rises from forest and woodland habitat in the lowlands to the subalpine meadow and open woodland, the mountain can sometimes be seen just peeking behind a closer mountain range.
Then, as the first two of four passes rise up to and down from the alpine area of low tundra, there are two places that offer a full view of the mountain (when she wants to be seen): Stony Creek and the Eilson Visitor Center.
We set out at 5:00 A.M. in order to catch the beautiful morning light and also to be ahead of the first morning buses. Since we began our drive at mile 29 by the Teklanika River where our campground was located, we had a large head start on the park buses that leave from the visitor center at mile 1. We saw almost no-one early in the mornings, only the very occasional other car (park employees and service vehicles). It was truly special to be the only ones out on the road. Absolute solitude.
We took Angel with us on all of the morning drives, as we never knew how long we were going to be out. National Parks do not allow dogs outside of the roads, visitor centers, turnoffs and other developed areas so it was a bit restrictive but we made it work.
That morning we encountered a dense fog as we went over the first pass, Sable Pass. Weather changes quickly in this area so we were a bit concerned about whether Denali was going to be visible.
The fog continued as we drove on, covering the landscape. Usually when the “mountain is out” as they say around here, she is first visible up close from the Stony Point overlook.
Then, the sun had burned off the fog and as we drove up to the next rise just before the Eilson Visitor Center there she was in full view. Brilliant white against a deep blue sky. A formidable beauty.
It was the Athabascans that gave the mountain the name Denali, meaning the high one, or the great one for the Tanaina Indians. Other Native Americans gave her other names, several of which translate to big mountain. During the Russian ownership of Alaska, the Russians named her Bolshaya Gora (also meaning big mountain).
In 1896, a gold prospector named her McKinley in a show of support for the presidential candidate who was a strong proponent of the gold standard. President McKinley was elected, but never visited Alaska.There have been several movements to change her name back to Denali, and the Alaska Historical Commission succeeded in doing so.
But the U.S. Board on Geographic Names cannot change her name as long as legislation relating to the name is pending. And an Ohio Congressman (President McKinley was born in Ohio) continually introduces bills to ensure that there is pending legislation.
At 20, 237 feet above sea level, she is the highest mountain in all of North America. What is even more impressive is that her base is only about 2,000 feet above sea level, so her base to peak measurement, 18,000 feet makes her the largest of any mountain entirely above sea level.
Five glaciers flow from the mountain. The Wickersham Wall, on one side of the mountain, is one of the largest continuous walls in the world at 14,900 feet long.
She was like no other mountain we had ever seen. Seeing her so fully exposed was a spiritual experience.
Hector and I took turns walking down a small trail in front of the visitor center, one of three defined trails.
We met one of the other photographers and his passenger at the visitor center (the permits allow one passenger in the car). Although there are supposedly five permits per week, we only saw these two, plus one other that entire week.
Although the area between Eilson Visitor Center and Wonder Lake is not known for as much wildlife as other areas of the park, the drive is beautiful.
One side is framed by a view of the Alaska Range, with beautiful meadows on both sides of the road. Kettle ponds, formed when blocks of glacial ice melted leaving holes that were then filled with water, dot the meadows.
This area of the road also has less traffic, as a number of buses turn around at the Eilson Visitor Center.
So we continued on our solitary drive. And we saw more caribou, this time running along the valley. We are just loving the caribou.
We were eager to see Reflection Pond, where a reflection of Denali can be seen when its water is perfectly still and the mountain is out. It is an iconic photograph but hard to get. Hector wanted to make his version, but it was getting a bit late at just past 9:00 so we were concerned that we were too late.
We continued our drive towards Wonder Lake and had a nice walk by the lake with Angel. And saw yet another beautiful reflection of the mountain. This area near the end of the park road is called Kantishna and gold was mined here at one time.
The light was beginning to get a bit harsh, so we began to head back. By now we were seeing more buses.But there was not a lot of wildlife on this day, apparently because it was a bit too warm with the sun shining so brightly.
Back at the campground, we met talented photographer, blogger and fulltimer Bob McQuade. Bob arrived in Alaska quite a bit earlier than we did, and has captured lots of beautiful images. Bob had been riding the bus a few days, and managed to capture some stunning shots of the park. You can see his images on his blog, McQuade Travels.
Since the weather was still so nice, we decided to head back out to Wonder Lake in the evening when the light began to get pretty again. This is a very long trip and potentially meant driving on the passes in the dark, but we decided to risk it.
Then he turned over to scratch himself.
He gave himself a good scratch, then sat up and turned back to his eating. It is amazing to me how these fierce animals can look so harmless with their comical expressions and behavior. Hector laughed so hard I thought the bear was going to run over and pounce on him.
Then, to add drama to the scene, a couple of young caribou walked up. We looked at each other, held our breath and watched. The bear continued munching. The caribou stopped, clearly studying the bear before proceeding, looking more curious than frightened. Then a crazy thing happened, the caribou walked across the meadow right in front of the bear.
The bear glanced up briefly and then continued his munching. We asked a ranger about this and he told us that even young caribou, if they are healthy can outrun bears and the bears know it. Wow!
Meanwhile, Denali donned her evening scarf, but was still beautifully visible. We heard that it is very rare for the mountain to be fully visible an entire day so we wondered if our plan to drive back to Wonder Lake was flawed but we pressed ahead since she was still out.
As we reached reflection pond, Denali was still quite visible and absolutely lovely. As was her reflection in the pond and the lake. To capture a perfect reflection twice in one day must be very rare indeed.
Never forgetting the little plants and animals, Hector took photos of our first snowshoe hare. He too, like the ptarmigan. will be pure white in the winter. Nature is so amazing!
As the sun sank lower in the sky, the Alaska Range began to have a rosy glow, alpenglow, which is always so beautiful. The top of Denali was also in alpenglow which grew deeper as the night progressed.
We reached the campground at midnight under the glow of the beautiful moon. Our hearts were grateful for this incredible day full of unending good fortune.