Although our second day inside Denali was magical, it was also exhausting. We were up at 4 a.m., spent over 15 hours on the road and were not back to bed until 1 a.m. So this morning instead of heading out at 5 a.m., we left a little after 6 a.m. The weather forecast was for a rare second sunny day in a row, but we knew there would be a change in weather sooner or later.
As we drove out, once again beating the first bus, the sky was completely clear and blue. The mountains around Polychrome Pass stood out brightly against the bright blue sky, so different from the foggy morning the day before.
We did not see a lot of wildlife, and so we continued driving on eagerly anticipating the view of the mountain.
We stopped at the Toklat River Contact Station, an information center and small bookstore right by the Toklat River. This is one of the major stops for buses, and it is a lovely place to walk along the river with expansive views. But this early in the morning there was no one there.
There are wolves in the area, but they are pretty elusive. Still, hope springs eternal.
There are several huge antlers on a bench by the entrance and anytime we stopped there, Angel had to sniff the antlers. Something about them just fascinated her.
We left before the first buses arrived, stopping at the Stony Point overview. And there she was, Denali, completely out, a massive crystal clear mountain, out for the second day in a row. Another rare treat, and more good fortune.
We were curious about the relative lack of wildlife, and Hector asked one of the rangers about that. She confirmed that the wildlife is not as active during times like these, when the sun shines brightly and makes it warmer than normal (warmer being a relative concept in these parts).
Then Ranger Ali said a very funny thing:
“When the weather is crappy, the wildlife is happy.”
At this point, we chose to turn around and not make the longer trek out to Wonder Lake.
We reached the campground, and realized that since we wanted to go for another drive that evening and again early the following morning, we would have to get gas. Something we had not considered in our excitement about the permit.
And if there was only one person in the car, it had to be Hector. So he drove back out of the park for gas, a total of 60 miles roundtrip, while I rested a bit and prepared for our evening drive.
There was one highlight during Hector’s outing, he found a moose cow walking in front of one of the buses and she gave him a very flirtatious look.
Shortly after he returned, we headed out again. With four passes to cross and stops for photography, a few miles takes an awfully long time.
And we saw more willow ptarmigan, still in their summer colors. These interesting birds have feathered toes which become fluffy white snowshoes in winter. And they provide a tasty treat for the gyrfalcon, oh my.
We saw more caribou. At this time of year, the caribou’s antlers are full grown, but they are still covered with velvet (fur). Sometime in the fall before the rutting (mating) season, they will shed the velvet, and their antlers become weapons.
The males also produce more testosterone in the fall, which makes their necks much larger. All of that prepares them for fighting with other males and establishing control over the space where they will mate.
That evening we turned around at Sable Pass, the first pass after our campground, enjoying the clear evening on our way back. A short drive. But not including Hector’s two-hour drive for gas, we were on and around the road for over 11 hours.
On this day, we planned to go only as far as Eilson Visitor Center, and we took a little time there to check out their displays. They have lots of information on the mountain, its history, routes established by famous climbers and more.
One display is a visibility chart that shows average days that the mountain is totally visible each month during the tourist season: June – 4 days, July – 2 days, August – 4 days and September – 5 days. The chart also shows average days the mountain is partially visible and not visible. She is visible less than 50 percent of the time, reminding us again of how fortunate we were.
Back on the road, we spotted a caribou bull sitting peacefully amongst some high shrubs. Some buses also stopped to admire it. But a bus from the other direction did not see it and sped right next to the shrubs where the caribou was resting and spooked him.
We watched him run across the road up a rise, over to the other side and across the tundra. Caribou hoofs are large and concave and spread widely to provide good support for them when they run in snow and tundra. It is so interesting to see how lightly they can run across that boggy tundra.
I told Hector that he was probably headed back to the cozy looking little spot that he came from. And lo and behold he trotted right down to the same spot and bedded down, showing only his “salad servers” above the shrubs.
We had been watching storm clouds in the distance, and as we watched another caribou, something that sounded like an explosion startled us, then we saw a lightning bolt over the mountains and realized that the sound had been thunder.
Just as quickly as it began, the rain stopped, but we could see storms all around us above the mountains.
Watching the bears was proving to be quite entertaining.
It was now mid-afternoon, a time that normally gets pretty busy around the park, but suddenly it was very quiet and serene. We had not seen anyone in quite some time. Hector asked: Where did all the buses go? I thought maybe some tours were cancelled because of the rain and storms.
Then we saw another car that looked like they were stopped to look at wildlife. And they were; another grizzly bear was walking around and feeding near some fireweed not too far from the road.
We stopped a little ways behind the car and Hector got out and set up his tripod. When bears are close, he sets up behind the car with the door open. We watched the bear as he walked away from us, then back towards us while munching on berries.
Then the bear stopped feeding and began to walk purposely towards the road. He walked onto the road right behind the car in front of us, turning and continuing to walk towards us. Hector quickly got his gear and himself into the car.
The bear walked right next to our car without giving us another glance. We could have reached out and touched him, it was a bit unnerving. Grizzly bears are very intelligent creatures, and I think he was letting us know he knew we were there. It all happened so fast that Hector didn’t have time to change from his long lens to his regular lens to take a photo of him walking by the car. And just like that, he was gone.
As we slowly drove out, we chatted with the folks in the other car, turned out they were park employees.
The woman driving the car asked if we knew about the mudslide. And that is how we found out that the storm caused a mudslide on our side of the Toklat River. Meaning we could not get back to the campground. They said it would take about three hours to clear.
Well, that explained why we had not seen any buses and why we had the park to ourselves.
So we turned back heading away from our campground and then ran into a ranger who confirmed the information. He said workers had been working for about an hour, and it would take another two hours or so. He also mentioned that the last mudslide took about three days to clear. We were so glad we had Angel with us.
We were now watching storm clouds completely covering the mountain views.
We stopped at Stony Point, normally full of buses at this time but empty now, to watch all of the weather around us. Another car drove up, the couple had arrived the day before. She was with the artist-in-residence program and was going to be there for ten days. We let them know about the mudslide and since they could not get back, they too turned around to explore some more.
When we reached Eilson Visitor Center, we found lots of the buses (others were stuck on the other side of the mudslide).
It was getting pretty late in the evening, so we drove back purposefully.