Warning: this post may contain an excessive amount of superlatives because we just had the most awesome day imaginable (don’t say I didn’t warn you about the superlatives).
We have been in Denali since Monday afternoon. The weather has been absolutely amazing with record temperatures in the upper 80’s. I was happy to see this weather forecasted a few days before we left since we had a day full of outdoor activities planned for Denali that wouldn’t have been the same in rain or cold.
Instead of a tour, we decided to take advantage of the Denali Park shuttle service. There are a handful of routes taking visitors to various points within the park. You buy a ticket based on the farthest-most point you want to travel along the 92-mile long park road. The farther you go, the more you pay but all routes are reasonably priced. We picked the bus to the Eileson Visitors Center which is at mile 66. There is a ranger-led hike there that goes up Thoro Ridge Pass and chances for the best views of Mt. McKinley.
The shuttle buses are great because the drivers offer a narrated experience, like the guided tours do, but you have the freedom to jump on and off as you please. You can jump off and flag down the next bus going your way. The drivers are also on the lookout for wildlife and will stop any time a passenger yells, indicating they spotted something.
Our shuttle left at 7 am and we spotted our first wildlife before 7:30 — a little red fox. The little guy was on the opposite side of the bus so the pictures didn’t come out. But just a couple minutes later, we spotted our first bear. I had really hoped to see a bear but didn’t have very high expectations.
It started on the right-hand side of our bus then crossed the road in front of us to the other side, where we were able to snap some pictures. We not only saw the bear, but saw him (or her, I don’t know) up close. It’s pretty cool how the bears adapt to the big green buses rolling through their environment every day. There was a bus in front of us and one behind us and the bear didn’t seem to notice any of us.
Along the way to Eileson we also saw one more fox, a handful of caribou and dall sheep, which I, personally, did not see because I was on the wrong side of the bus.
The other absolutely amazing thing is that we saw Mt. McKinley, another thing I wished and hoped to see but didn’t count on. Our driver told us only 20% of visitors to Denali get to see the mountain, something I’ve heard a few times before which is why my expectations were not set too high. But we not only were in the 20% that get to see the mountain, but were also in the rare group that gets to see it against a clear blue sky, for the entire day. It was such a beautiful, memorable moment seeing her for the first time peek out from behind another mountain.
The day was just absolutely incredible. The weather truly could not have been more perfect. We traveled down the Park Road into the Polychrome Pass area where we were also able to see one of the most colorful displays in the park.
During the four-hour bus ride to Eileson we saw the most magnificent scenery I have ever witnessed. It was even more magnificent than the Dingle peninsula in Ireland which was also breathtaking. It just kept getting better and better the farther we drove in to the park.
Once we arrived at Eileson, we immediately found the ranger desk to sign up for a noon hike we planned to do with the ranger. It is limited to the first 11 people who sign up and it was already full when we got there. We had seen people hiking up a large mountain across from the Eileson Center and quickly realized that was the same route for the ranger-led hike. As the bus driver pointed out, taking the hike with a ranger gives you the opportunity to see things pointed out that you might miss, or don’t know what you’re looking at. For example, at one point during the bus ride the driver pointed out an area at the foot of a mountain that appeared to be a grassy field. He informed us it was actually the tail end of a glacier which has picked up so much natural debris it is covered with green vegetation. Unless someone told you, you’d never guess it was a glacier.
There was another ranger-led hike that was due to start an hour after the hike we wanted to take that still had room. It was a much shorter hike and stayed pretty much at the same elevation instead of up a mountain. We decided to forego the ranger-led hike and the information-gathering opportunities for a scenic hike on our own. We definitely made the right choice.
The climb felt pretty much straight up. It was challenging but we knew it’d be worth it. The sky was still blue and clear when we made it to the top and the views of Mt. McKinley from up there were absolutely breathtaking.
I could have pitched a tent up there and stayed for days breathing in the fresh air and admiring God’s creation. But, alas, we had to make the trek back down to catch a bus back to the park entrance.
About two and a half hours in to the trip back, just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, someone on the bus yelled STOP! BEAR! We all turned to look and this big bear stepped out of the brush, followed by her two cubs. Everyone oohed and ahhed, then started snapping photos. We didn’t get the best photos since the bears were on the opposite side of the bus and I had to take my photos in between other people’s heads, but it was one of those moments that pictures would not do justice anyway. The little cubs were running clumsily behind their mama trying to catch up to her. It was the cutest thing.
I told Brian that if the vacation was just that day alone, it would have been fulfilling. I think he summed it up best when he said I needed a dump truck for my bucket list today. There was nothing I could think of that I wished we’d seen or done but didn’t. It was an unbelievably memorable day. And that was just day three of this 11-day trip. I can’t imagine what else is in store.