Denali National Park: A Road Through the Wilderness

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Grizzly Bear, Sable Pass

Sunday morning, August 23, we awoke in a puddle. It had rained insistently all night, and at 5:20am, our tent was cold and wet. Sean had been right. We should have just slept in the Jeep, since now we had soaked gear that we had to pack up in order to catch the 7:05am camper bus to Wonder Lake Campground.

I climbed out of the tent in the pre-dawn light. It was cold, but it had stopped raining. I lit the camp stove and started boiling water in the coffee percolator. As cold as it was, somewhere in the 30s, it didn’t approach the 27 degrees we’d woken to at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. But it was damp, and the camp stove promptly grew a layer of hoarfrost and froze to the picnic table.

We had to catch the bus at a parking lot adjacent to the visitor center complex, some ten miles east on the park road, which meant we had to be driving out of Savage River Campground no later than 6:45am. Under normal, dry circumstances, that would not have been a problem. But this morning, between how sodden everything was and the deep chill, every task seemed to take two or three times the length it should have.

Finally, at 6:30am, I said to Sean that we simply weren’t going to make it. There was no way that we would be packed up and ready to meet the bus on time. We hadn’t even had breakfast.

We decided to attempt it though. We would throw everything into the back of the Jeep and drive to the visitor center on schedule. If the bus were also on time, then we would miss it, and we would see about the possibility of taking a later bus. If the bus were running late, we’d continue to finish packing there at the parking lot, and maybe we’d be done before the bus left.

It was worth a shot.

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The problem was that we had to pack for what amounted to backpacking for two nights. Save for water, we needed to pack in all our food and gear. At Wonder Lake Campground, the bus would drop us off, and we would walk in to our site.

When we got to the visitor center, on time, there was no sign of a bus, just some other campers waiting. Good. Good. So we quickly reorganized the gear, kept the wet tent and pads as separate from the rest of the gear as possible, and got our bags packed. They were even halfway decent packing jobs. We also threw all of our snack bars into our day packs, which we would have with us on the bus. We hadn’t had time for breakfast, and the bus wouldn’t arrive at Wonder Lake until around 1pm. Six hours of kind bars would have to suffice.

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It was gloomy, but not rainy as we waited. We even had time for each of us to trot off and use the restroom near the visitor center. About 7:40am, the green camper bus pulled into the parking lot. Bus driver Thomas, bearded, barrel-chested, and wearing shorts, opened the back door, and we campers began handing our gear up to him. The final rows of seats on the camper buses had been removed in order for there to be room for gear.

Although there were already campers on board who had been picked up at Riley Creek Campground and the Wilderness Access Center, the bus was not full, and there was plenty of space for us all to spread out. Sean and I chose a bench near the rear and on the left (driver’s) side. On that side of the bus, we’d be facing south toward the central Alaska Range throughout the trip.

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Once we were loaded and settled, Thomas started the bus and pulled onto the park road. We were at mile 2, and we would be dropped off at Wonder Lake Campground at mile 85. The road itself ends a bit further on at Kantishna, mile 89.

As we passed through the heavily wooded boreal forest of the first section of the road, Thomas gave us the safety briefing and explained how the trip would work: he would stop for any major wildlife sighting and pause long enough for everyone to get a good look. Once we saw a particularly good view of a species, we may linger only briefly or bypass more distant or obstructed views of the same species. Since he needed to keep his eyes on the road, it would largely be up to us to spot wildlife. He also suggested that some of us crack our windows a bit in order to get rid of the heavy condensation on them. Sean and I situated ourselves, still somewhat surprised that we had actually made the bus. I readied my camera.

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Slowly, in the first thirteen miles of the trip (between the entrance and Savage River Campground where we’d spent the night), the boreal forest gave way to tundra, sparsely wooded with tall, thin Black Spruce.

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Savage River

At the Savage River crossing at mile 15, the paved park road ends. All private vehicles save for those going to Teklanika Campground a few miles on are barred from going further. At the checkpoint, an NPS Ranger, boarded the bus to give a brief explanatory talk about the park and its wilderness nature.

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Denali National Park is an old Park in the system. It will turn 100 in 2017. It harkens to the same era that saw elaborate lodges built on the rims of canyons, and it existed through two great eras of visitor services development in the National Parks, during the 1920s and 1930s and then again from 1956 to 1966. These were eras of roads, lodges, and hotels. And Denali also had a hotel (now vanished) near the park’s train depot. But the Park’s remoteness and severe winters saved it from the over-development that plagues Yosemite Valley and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Still, in the mid-1950s, the Mission 66 initiative (to modernize visitor services in advance of the Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966) called for widening and paving the gravel road in the Park. Along the road, the Park Service proposed a visitor center, hotel, gas station, lodges, etc.

Naturalist Adolph Murie (1899-1974), long connected to the Park, led the protest against the plans for the road, arguing, ultimately successfully, that a paved, developed road would slice the Denali wilderness in half. Eventually, development of the road was stopped at mile 15, and the remainder of the road remains a narrow gravel line through millions of acres of wilderness.

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Autumn tundra

Shortly after crossing Savage River, we encountered our first charismatic megafauna (large mammals) in the form of Caribou.

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Caribou

Both male and female caribou grow antlers, and at this time of year in late august the antlers had developed, but they were still covered with a layer of blood-rich velvet, which they would eventually shed in advance of mating season in late September and October.

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Caribou

Here is Adolph Murie on Denali’s Caribou:

The caribou is a circumpolar deer adapted to life in the Arctic. In this streamlined age, I suppose its rounded hooves and long-muzzled, square nosed face are black marks against it—technically. But come face to face with a fine old bull in his fresh autumn uniform!

The caribou are gregarious; the herds sometimes number in the thousands, but a few hundred is the more usual number. On the move much of the time, the herds make extensive migrations which may involve hundreds of miles of travel. The movements follow general route patterns over a period of years, but may have minor variations and sometimes rather drastic local changes. This migratory habit, along with the shifting of ranges, is highly beneficial to the vegetation, in that it tends to spread the use widely and thus lighten the grazing over the entire range. This situation is especially beneficial to lichens, the favorite caribou food, whose recovery is extremely slow when overgrazed.

From A Naturalist in Alaska, 1961

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Caribou

Throughout Alaska, care is taken to separate the Caribou herds from mixing with their domesticated version, the Reindeer.

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Teklanika River

About 8:40am, we stopped at the rest stop at Teklanika River, like Savage River one of the many glacier-fed braided rivers flowing north out of the Alaska Range.

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Teklanika River Rest Area

The rest area was a model of efficiency, moving the many visitors on the various buses (tour buses, camper buses, lodge-chartered buses) through speedily.

The main tour buses and camper buses, including ours, are run by the primary Denali National Park concessionaire, Doyon Aramark. Our experiences in Denali were, on the whole, shaped by three main organizations or corporations, the National Park Service (obviously), Doyon Aramark, and Alaska Geographic, the major non-profit partner of Alaska’s public lands. Together, each focusing on its strength, these three entities provided the architecture within which we experienced this place.

Even so, the place itself was the overarching, commanding presence. Its vastness, its general trail-lessness, its human presence confined to a ribbon of road were all very different than what we had become accustomed to experiencing at National Parks.

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Teklanika River

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Teklanika River

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Backpackers being dropped off at Teklanika River. While most of us on the camper bus were heading to the park’s established campgrounds, some riders were heading out into the park’s backcountry at certain spots along the road.

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Dall Sheep

Near Teklanika, almost as we were crossing the bridge over the river, we spotted our first Dall Sheep, the world’s only wild white sheep. A herd was resting and grazing high up on the ridges beneath Igloo Mountain.

In migrating along ridges where there are cliffs, the sheep move leisurely, frequently stopping in places for a day or longer to feed. Sometimes they may remain on a mountain along the way for a week or more. A band of about a hundred ewes and lambs fed on Igloo Mountain for a week before continuing their migration. They moved slowly around the mountain in their feeding, some days going only three hundred or four hundred yards. Sometimes a band will retrace its steps half a mile or so before going forward again. The movements in spring and fall are similar, although the fall migration may at times be hurried a little by snow. However, the sheep usually begin their fall movements before the coming of heavy snows.

The causes of migration are difficult to determine…We may assume that migratory habits had a beginning in the early history of a species…The factors that originally caused the movements of sheep may have disappeared, and the animals may now be migratory largely because of habit which has no present-day use.

-Adolph Murie, from A Naturalist in Alaska, 1961

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The road began rising toward Sable Pass, the first of four major mountain passes along the route. Sable Pass is a restricted area where visitors may not leave the safety of vehicles because it is an unusually popular area of the Park for Grizzly Bears, particularly for sows with cubs.

We were not disappointed at Sable Pass. Almost immediately, we spotted a lone Grizzly walking along and feeding on the slope opposite the road. (This bear’s photograph is the post’s opening image at the top. He (there’s a reasonable chance he was a male, all of us on the bus assumed so) also opens the video below.) Ultimately, we spotted seven Grizzlies along the road. But the closest and most thrilling was a sow with her spring cubs, which would have been born this year.

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Grizzly Bear sow, Sable Pass

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Grizzly Bear cubs, Sable Pass

The sow was walking rapidly and feeding along the slope opposite the road. Occasionally she would turn and make sure her cubs were in view. The cubs lagged behind their mother, exploring and playing.

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Grizzly Bear sow and cub, Sable Pass

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Grizzly Cam, Image: Sean M. Santos

She allowed both cubs to catch up completely before crossing a talus slope with no vegetation.

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Grizzly Bear sow, Sable Pass

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Grizzly Bear cubs, Sable Pass

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Grizzly Bear sow and cubs, Sable Pass

Her destination was a brushy area of alder and willow lower on the slope. There she slowed down to feed on berries in earnest, and the cubs joined her. Eventually, they were lost from view in the brush, and Thomas started the bus, and we continued on.

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Grizzly Bear sow and cub, Sable Pass

We saw other Grizzlies, but the sow and cubs were the best, closest view we had.

The north side of the Alaska Range is grizzly country. Old bruin may be found from the partially wooded terrain along the north boundary of the park to the glaciers at the heads of the many parallel river valleys. The entire country is his home, and one may meet bears anywhere from the river bars to the ridge tops…

There is probably considerable individual and sexual variation in the home range of grizzlies, and females with cubs probably behave differently from those without. Some of the variations would be due to the lay of the land and the distribution and abundance of food plants. The range in spring, when roots are the chief food, is somewhat different from what it is later in the summer, when the diet has shifted to grass or berries. But the changes due to diet would usually be rather local. My impression is that in the spring, when bears emerge from winter quarters, they travel more widely than later. A male probably wanders far during the mating season in search of a mateable female.

The females with cubs often confine their movements for most of the summer to an area less than a dozen miles in diameter. At Sable Pass we have seen females with cubs at short intervals for weeks in an area only six or seven miles across. Sometimes a bear will feed for several days in an area and then climb over a high ridge to feed in another valley for a time.

-Adolph Murie, from A Naturalist in Alaska, 1961

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Grizzly Bear, Sable Pass

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Dall Sheep

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Polychrome Pass

After Sable Pass, the road passed the East Fork of the Toklat River, then began climbing up steep and winding Polychrome Pass beneath Polychrome Mountain. As Thomas maneuvered the turns of the wet gravel road (without a guard rail) I had to move to a seat on the right hand side of the bus and at times pull my cap down over my eyes.

The Park Road was carved primarily through the Outer Range, the lower, older portion of the Alaska Range north of the central Alaska Range, a wall of snow-covered peaks to the south. Although we had been passing the Alaska Range throughout the ride, Polychrome Pass provided the first truly expansive view of the sweep of mountains, tundra lowlands, and glacial rivers. The moodiness of the thick cloud cover above the snow line on the Alaska Range opposite added drama to the view.

Thomas stopped the bus at Polychrome Overlook so that we could stretch our legs and absorb it all.

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Polychrome Pass

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Polychrome Pass

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Toklat River, Polychrome Pass

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Toklat River, Polychrome Pass

Even had the sky been clear, from this vantage point, The Mountain would not have been visible.

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Polychrome Pass, Image: Sean M. Santos

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Polychrome Pass

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Polychrome Pass

The freshness of the snow in the Alaska Range and the leaves of the tundra foliage turning red and gold were indicators that although it was only the third week of August, autumn had already arrived in Denali.

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From Polychrome Pass, we descended to a crossing over the Toklat River and a stop at the Toklat River Ranger Station to use the facilities.

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Toklat River

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Toklat River

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Toklat River

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Toklat River

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The clouds were thickening in the mountains west of the Toklat, the direction of our route, dropping new snow at lofty elevations.

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Toklat River Ranger Station

From Toklat River, the bus climbed into the highest elevations of the road, through Highway Pass, winding up Stony Hill, and then through Thoroughfare Pass. The temperature dropped as we ascended into the cloud cover, and it began sleeting.

One of our companions on the bus was a professional wildlife photographer who was also on his way to Wonder Lake. He was invaluable at spotting wildlife. He observed that this weather was not good, and that it was supposed to get increasingly cold in Denali over the next few days. His visible concern, as someone who had been to the Park many times, amplified the effects of the sleet and caused me to begin to wonder if I’d brought enough layers with me, particularly if it began to snow at Wonder Lake. I wasn’t so much worried about daytime, but didn’t relish courting hypothermia overnight. I resolved that when we got to Eielson Visitor Center I would purchase a Denali National Park fleece or some such to have an additional layer just in case.

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Eielson Visitor Center

Eielson Visitor Center is a new LEED-certified structure built into the slope of a mountain beneath the park road. It features many snazzy green elements like rain capture and solar power. It has great interpretive displays about mountaineering on Denali, it boasts viewing windows of The Mountain itself (when it’s visible, which it decidedly wasn’t), and it has an art gallery displaying works made by the Park’s artists-in-residence.

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Eielson Visitor Center

What Eielson Visitor Center does not have is a gift shop. So much for my plan to acquire an extra layer.

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Moose antlers locked together. After this happened during a mating season fight, the bulls starved to death. Eielson Visitor Center

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Eielson Visitor Center

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It was cold, and it was sleeting. As a safeguard, I spoke to the bus dispatcher (Eielson is the main dispatch control center ensuring that there isn’t a glut of vehicles on the road). He assured me that the final bus would depart Wonder Lake at 4pm that afternoon. So if we got there and it was dangerously cold (I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that our tent was sodden when we stowed it that morning), we could at least abort and catch that bus back to civilization.

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Eielson Visitor Center

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Bearberry

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The bus departed Eielson at 11:35am. Next stop: Wonder Lake Campground in about an hour. From Eielson Visitor Center at roughly 3,700 feet, the road descended again to the lowlands long the McKinley River. Ultimately we’d descend about 1,700 feet out of the sleet. Wonder Lake is roughly at 2,000 feet. As we descended, it got considerably warmer, and my fears abated somewhat.

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Caribou

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North of the road, we spotted a Moose cow and her calf in the willow and alder thickets. She kept an eye on us while the bus was stopped, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to browse.

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Moose cow and calf

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Moose cow

A bit farther on we were treated to, by far, our closest and most dramatic Caribou encounter: two bulls, one of whom was just shedding the velvet from his antlers. He was rubbing them vigorously against some brush to get rid of the final bits hanging from the prongs of his brand-new, still-blood-stained rack.

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Caribou

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Caribou Cam, Image: Sean M. Santos

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Caribou urinating

Meanwhile, his companion fed and then peed.

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Caribou, McKinley River

We spotted a few more Caribou in the final miles before Wonder Lake. As dramatic as experiencing their normal behaviors at close range was, there was also something about the fullness of the scene and the surroundings (which I attempted to capture in the images above and below). Here were these large migratory mammals with millions and millions of acres to roam in, still in a fully intact ecosystem. The expanse and grandeur were profound.

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Caribou, McKinley River

In the image above, were the clouds not so heavy, Denali would complete the scene. It’s right there. But even with The Mountain hidden, the wildness of the place, its position as one of the great monuments to the idea of wilderness, is palpable.

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Soon, around 12:30pm, we arrived at Wonder Lake Campground, where Thomas helped the majority of us (a few were continuing on the handfull of miles to Kantishna) unload our gear. The next adventure, two nights in the shadow of The Mountain, was about to begin.

Further Reading:

Adolph Murie, A Naturalist in Alaska, The University of Arizona Press, 1961.

4 thoughts on “Denali National Park: A Road Through the Wilderness

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