Alaska: Part One - Denali National Park

So remember when I said the Grand Tetons were the most beautiful place on Earth I'd ever seen? Well, I lied.

Sunday afternoon, following a very fun two days in Minneapolis for the wedding of two friend's of mine from college swimming, I left for Anchorage, Alaska to start another two weeks on the road, driving, hiking, and camping all over the southern part of the state. One of my good friends from Northwestern, Meghan, is from Anchorage, and back in February when I initially had the crazy idea to quit my job for a year away from a steady paycheck and a real home, me and a couple of other friends from college planned a trip up here to spend some time in Denali National Park and other parts of Alaska. Denali, one of the oldest Nat'l Parks in the U.S. and home to the tallest peak in North America, Mount McKinley, is rumored to be heaven on Earth, an oasis of mountainous beauty nestled way up in the northern reaches of the continent. It sounded like a place I wanted to visit, especially considering my main goal during my year of traveling: see as many beautiful places on this planet as possible. Without much convincing, it became the easiest $600 plane ticket I've ever purchased.

Mountain Tops as you fly over top of Alaska peaking through the clouds

I arrived Sunday afternoon and was greeted by my friends who took me back to their house for dinner. Our plan was to leave early Monday morning for Denali, a short (in relation to the total size of the state) five hour drive north, roughly halfway between Fairbanks and Anchorage. We enjoyed an awesome BBQ dinner followed by an 11:45 p.m. sunset due to the fact that it's summer solstice, providing Alaska with 18-20 hours or more of daylight depending on where in the state you are located. One of my bucket list items for the past five years was to see the sunset on summer solstice in Alaska, so I'm happy to say that I have now checked that one off my list. It's an amazing thing to see a sunset at 11:45 at night, and an evening more amazing thing to realize firsthand that it really never gets dark in Alaska in the summer. Once the sun sets, it simply skims the surface of the horizon, littering twilight all throughout the sundown period to ultimately rise again at 3:30 in the morning again. Even at 1 a.m, the sky is still relatively bright, but nothing compared to what Denali, situated farther north in Alaska, would bring.

We left early Monday morning for Denali and arrived in the park around one in the afternoon. After organizing our camping situation for the next three days by purchasing our campsite passes, we got our bus tickets in order to enter the park. One great thing about Denali is that unlike many other national parks, they have a designated protected wilderness area among the six million plus acres of land it covers. This means that not only are you not allowed to drive a privately owned vehicle into the park past the 15 mile marker (buses only beyond there), you are also entering one of the largest untouched, protected wilderness areas in the entire world. The minimal amount of human impact here really helps put into perspective the type of damage we've done as a society to Earth. Once you experience putting yourself fully back into the hands of Mother Nature, there's a weird connection that comes out of it which you can't explain. 

After loading the bus, we settled in for another five hours of sitting and waiting before finally getting to our first campsite of the week. As we entered the park, though, we soon realized that our good luck thus far was running low, as not only were there numerous thunder and rain storms in the area, but due to a higher-than-usual number of lighting strikes and a very dry winter and spring, we found out that there were over 70 wildfires blazing throughout the park, causing a hefty amount of haze and smoke to blanket the entire area. Because of this, a lot of the views of the mountains in the distance were masked behind a thick, smokey cloud.

Despite the smoke, views are still impressively unimaginable in the park, as it's hard to escape the nearby sheering cliffs, rock abutments, and steep drop offs next to the winding road through the park which drop straight down to the braided riverbeds below. Though we weren't able to see the tops of most of the high peaks in the park - namely Denali (aka Mt. McKinley) - we couldn't complain. Alaska, even in smokey haze, is an unbelievably stunning place. 

Because we got to our campsite so late, we only had time to quickly make dinner, set up our campsite, and go to bed. On the 22nd of June in Denali, sunset isn't until 12:15 p.m. so there really is no darkness through the day. Because of this, it's easy to loose track of when you are within a certain day as there is no indicator to the beginning or end end of a day lie usual, especially since the haze hides the sun for much of the times it's in the sky.

Wonder Lake

On Tuesday we woke up fairly early and complete a short five mile hike on a relatively flat surface. Our of our campsite at Wonder Lake, we wandered a short way down from the road and picked up the trail head for the McKinley Bar Trail, a winding dirt and rock path through the woods and across two small creeks that wound us down to the McKinley River, sourced up in the glaciers within Mt. McKinley. A relatively low-stress walk, we were out and back in under two hours. Once back, we made our way down to Wonder Lake and took in the views from the south end of the two-mile long lake. Though the picturesque views more common to Denali were hidden, we still found the somewhat mysterious nature of the lake captivating. Almost as if we were blanketed in a mist, it had a very eery yet calm nature to it like something out of a movie. 

After our visit to the lake, we slowly made our way back to our campsite, packed up our things, and hopped back on the bus to make our way to our second campsite of the week, Igloo Creek. Our trip back was quite a bit shorter than the first, last just three hours. We passed through ravine after ravine,and spotted a few caribou resting grizzly bears on our way. We had spotted one grizzly the day before, grazing for berries and tubers in the woods. I've not seen a grizzly bear (or any bear) in real life before, so seeing it, despite its distance from us, was still a very chilling experience. Witnessing this 600 lb. (small compared to most coastal bears who grow upwards of 1500 lbs.) animal who at any second, if given the chance, could rip you to shreds is a humbling experience even for the bravest of folks. Seeing them in the wild makes you respect and appreciate them that much more. 

Overlooking the valley and river below, about halfway up our first hike.

Upon exiting the bus, we entered into a downpour of rain, causing our tent construction setup to be a bit damp. Within minutes of setting everything up, now significantly wet from the rain, the skies cleared up and we realized that waiting another fifteen minutes would have given us a much drier remainder of the night. It's fitting that a bunch of former swimmers would spend at least one night in the back country soaking wet given that we spent eighteen years of our lives under water. 

On Wednesday we made plans for it to be our "long hiking day", hoping to get in six to eight hours on the mountain if possible. We started the day early, rising significantly after the sun, but many hours earlier than all of the other campers at Igloo Creek. We left our site early and began walking down the road toward what we thought looked to be a potentially good hike. I am by no means an expert, or well experienced hiker and climber, but I will pretty much try anything as I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie. There are certainly a number of places in the park that would require much more significant gear than any of us has, but around Igloo Creek most stuff is doable. 

After a mile of walking up the road, we found a nice ridge line that looked challenging, but scalable. Once above the brush and tree line there isn't much worry for bears, but the first 500 feet or so of elevation we took every precaution. Our ascent took about two hours and covered roughly two-and-a-half miles and 3000 or so feet of elevation. It was exhausting, but so worth it once we reached the peak and the end of our first climb. Our views were stunning, and across the valley below us we spotted a family of seven to ten doll sheep, watching us intently as we approached and then overtook their elevation. Though we'd seen many other animals from the bus, this was the first time we'd seen wildlife in person, sharing their home with them. After a few (several) pictures at the top and countless selfies, we began our descent, stopping along the way to snack, hydrate, and scope out our second hike for the day. 

Peak of our first ridge hike

Once descended, we found a nice spot to sit along the river next to the road an enjoyed our packaged tuna, cheese, and trail mix we brought along from camp. After refueling, we made our way back up a second ridge we found, a bit flatter than the first, but still one we felt confident would give us nice views from the top, roughly 2500 feet up from the road. For the second time that day, we were ascending through haze and an encroaching rainstorm, but we still took in the views at the top which were everything we hope for. After another descent, a long walk back to camp, and an evening of relaxing followed by a Mac-n-Cheese dinner, all of us were ready for bed and one final sleep before our last half day of hiking in Denali. As nighttime approached immediately after dinner, two hail storms greeted us and made for an exciting end to an exciting day. Thankfully we had our tents to protect us, and, for the most part, our tents were waterproof. Just another reason to invest in a good tent.

Thursday, our last day in the park, we woke up early, had breakfast, and made our way toward one last hike in Denali. We didn't have a ton of time so we found a shorter, yet steeper, hike to do which would have us out of the park by early afternoon. Once again, views upon views and more doll sheep awaited us at the top, capping an already awesome trip into the park. We descended, packed up camp, and got on the bus back to the park entrance before getting in the car and heading back south toward anchorage.

We stopped for the night in Talkeetna, AK, a small town nestled between Anchorage and Denali where we enjoyed some burgers and beers, something I've been craving since Sunday night. We'll be heading further south from here, making our way to Hope, AK and ultimately Homer for the weekend before Beth and Ellen, the other two non-Alaskan natives, head back to the Lower 48. I'm logging another week and a half up here before heading back south, and I'm excited for what the coming days in Alaska will bring. 

Pictures really can't do Denali justice