Wildlife encounters, majestic mountains, vast valleys and a mystic atmosphere is what we encountered in Denali National Park. If you were ever curious to see the grizzly bear in its natural habitat, the caribou, the moose and the dall ship, as well as to explore endless valleys, hikes, and get lost in the large fields of tundra, blueberries, bearberries and spruce vegetation, Denali is the place to be.
The name “Denali” was given by the Athabascan, the indigenous population that lived on these territories for thousands of years. In their language, Denali means 'The Great One', making reference to the highest mountain in North America, located inside Denali National Park limits.
The mountain, which was until recently named 'Mount McKinley', has 6190m height. For the most adventurous and professional hikers, reaching Denali's peak is a real challenge and accomplishment. Very few managed to conquer it due to its year round harsh and unpredictable weather. The routes to the top involve high crevassed glaciers, snow and ice climbing.
The name change from Mont McKinley to Denali happened during the Obama administration, returning the name of the mountain to the Athabascan as it was in their culture for generations.
Whilst we expect 'The Great One' to remain named as Denali, the current president Trump promised during his campaign to change it back to McKinley. I guess we will have to wait and hope it will not change once again.
Our visit to Denali was much anticipated. We had great expectations for the park, and also to finally meet Alaska's top predator: the Grizzly bear. We knew if there is one place guaranteed to see grizzlies it is in Denali. JP could not wait.
However, at the time we departed from Fairbanks towards Denali we were already very tired from our previous adventure to the Arctic via the (in)famous Dalton Highway. Driving 1600km on a mixture of gravel and bad tarmac was consuming. As a result, we were physically and mentally exhausted when we reached Denali. So to recover our energy we decided to take some resting time at the beginning of the Stampede Trail, which is located a few KM to the park entrance. It was on the very same trailhead from where Chris McCandless or 'Alexander Supertramp' started his journey into the wild Denali and to his 'Magic Bus' camp, which later inspired Jon Krakauer's 1996 nonfiction bestseller book and the later 2007 Sean Penn movie “Into the Wild”.
So we parked at Stampede's trailhead and stayed inside our truck hibernating for two days. We turned on our Webasto diesel heather and rested, getting out only for short walks around the nearby valley. It is always nice to walk on the fluffy tundra when not too wet. While my feet were soaked in a second and started to freeze JP enjoyed the soft experience with his waterproof shoes. The valley was full of blueberries, no wonder why this is the country of the grizzly with such an abundance of wild berries.
Two days spent here in this serene and solitude atmosphere were enough to get ready for the experience into Denali National Park. On our departure day we met some locals ready to explore Stampede trail with their fancy amphibians. They were going for three weeks into the wild for caribou hunting. An expedition with amphibians looks like the perfect adventure in the vast territories of Denali.
Arriving at Denali's Visitor Center we encountered a large and well established tourist center offering information about camping, shuttle buses to explore the park, various activities available such as hiking, wildlife watching, and information about the flora and fauna of the park. There is also a movie about the adventure and challenges involved in climbing the Denali Mountain.
Denali park stretches over 6 million acres (24,500 squared km) and has a very interesting visiting model organized to protect the fauna and the flora. One cannot freely drive everywhere inside the park. It is possible to drive in for only about 15 miles. Within these initial 15 miles there are a few trails and camping sites. To go further inside the park there are options of shuttle bus rides. These vary from 4 to 12 hours and the furthest into the park you go, the more expensive it is.
All the information needed about which type of bus, trip, stop and trail is available at the Wilderness Access Center.
We chose the shuttle bus to the Eielson Visitor Center, which was about an 8h return trip. The cost was 34$/person plus 10$ park entrance fee.
During the trip, it is possible to leave the bus and explore the park on foot or by bike at any moment. Since there is plenty of wildlife expect to encounter caribou, moose, wolfs and grizzlies along the way! JP wanted to explore on foot but I was afraid of spontaneous bear encounters. So as it was very cold and humid we decided to wait inside the shuttle until our arrival to the Eielson Visitor Center where we explored hiking the Alpine Trail 🙂
With our sandwiches, fruits, coffee and water supplies prepared for a long day, we were very excited and anxious in the same time to meet for the first time, the grizzly bear.
Advancing into the park with the bus we started to get the feeling that we were passing slowly into another world, the land of the wild animals, of pure nature and harmony. The expectation did not disappoint. When we least expected on the hill across us we saw the first caribous stepping like two kings of the valley with their royal looking white collars.There was a perfect silence and elegance in their appearance. We entered moments of wonder.
Not long after, just next to the road, very close to my window a huge moose was looking for food on the side road. Its antlers were peeling off and I couldn’t stop observing the bloody antlers that were changing the velvet cover. The moose was so close, black and big. I couldn’t believe the proximity to such a beauty. It seemed to be a spontaneous exhibition of wildlife. Soon after, a pack of three wolfs were crossing the valley coming with their full bellies from the kill. They seemed to act like a team, covering each other’s back as they would advance confidently through the valley until they were unseen.
It felt like a movie and we were waiting for the climax, to finally see what you came for, the king of valley, the grizzly bear.
The much dreamt moment came. On the right side of the road, about 200m up the hill, the grizzly bear was eating its blueberries and bearberries in its own rithm. We were simply amazed. He was in front of us and didn’t feel threatened at all. It almost seemed domestic. The bear continued eating its berries as we didn’t even exist. It was really an amazing feeling to see such a huge animal so close for the first time.
When we arrived at Eielson Visit Center we departed to hike the Alpine Trail to the top of the surrounding mountains.
The view from the top will be hard to forget and hard to understand its reach. We thought we’ve seen the valleys and the mountains, but as soon as we got up there we’ve seen something else, other valleys, other mountains and openings that seemed endless. It gave you the feeling of a secret spot, a place that only the Athabaskan, the grizzly, the caribou, the moose and dall sheep knew. It’s their area, their untouched home. It was simply breathtaking.
On our way back from the Eielson Visitor Center we were blessed. We saw two mama grizzly bears with their cubs and another male eating peacefully its berries. In total I think we saw about eight grizzlies that day, couple of more moose and caribou. It was a show of nature and all of it for us. I think returning by dusk helped to see more wildlife as the animals were exploring the last meal of the day.
That evening we camped inside the park, at one of Denali's campgrounds. It was a primitive site, with no hookups but with clean toilets. After all it was a good choice made earlier in the day. We knew we would return late and exhausted from our day trip inside the park.
The following day we decided to drive the 15 miles inside the park to hike a couple trails next to the Savage River. The weather was cold and windy.
First we hiked around the river, then decided to climb up the mountain. It was a beautiful trek observing the changing vegetation on the hills in spectacular bright colors of yellow, orange and red, watching the dancing movement of the clouds threatening anytime with a cold shower.
The time spent in Denali National Park and the proximity to the wildlife taught us that the animals live in harmony and perfect integration with the nature. All what they want is to eat, rest and mate. They are not looking for trouble, to hunt men or harm people. We can harm them more than they can harm us. It is amazing how animals feel relaxed when they know they are in a reservation area where men cannot harm them. I wonder how it would be if everywhere would be the same, if we had more respect for the mother nature. It was fascinating to see them free in their habitat. I thought it could be a scary experience. I was nervous about encountering the Grizzly yet it was one of the most beautiful and elevating feelings we had. I felt relieved.
Denali National Park is hard to describe in words. While I was looking at these vast territories I was fantasizing how the natives were living thousands of years ago, free, into the wild, by the valleys, by the rivers, camping, eating salmon, hunting for caribou and moose. It was a unique and elevating feeling, Denali captured us with its majestic, mystic and pure nature.
We learnt that we are just a small part of mother nature and we need to respect it and protect it.