Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Hiking in Denali National Park

On Friday, we took another bus ride to Eielson Visitor Center--this time for a hike.  We are not ones to hike in grizzly country, so this took considerable talking, planning, and brainwashing to convince ourselves it would be all right.

The most we've seen of Denali since we got here

Hiking in Denali is a little different than at other National Parks we’ve visited.  At most parks there are maintained trails with maps and signs and designated parking areas.  Not so in Denali.  There are a few maintained trails, especially in the front country around the Riley Creek area.

There are a few other trails scattered here and there in this 6 million acre park, but generally, the hiking here is off trail.  If the area appeals to you, it’s fine to just walk out onto the tundra and go wherever your mind, body, and soul want to wander.  There are maps of the park available and if you’re good with a topographical map, you can create for yourself a very satisfying wilderness hiking experience.

Hiking is our passion and to be in a park of this magnitude and not hike is almost torture.  However, that cute little bundle of fur called grizzly can be deadly and we have a serious respect for that creature.  Being at Eielson Center with the multitudes has eased our phobia a bit and we got the idea it would be okay to hike there, on maintained trails, within sight of hundreds of other tourists.

We got up and caught an early bus on Friday morning.  We had a two hour ride to Eielson where we got off the bus, put on our packs, and headed to the trailhead.

Our trail

There are several trails around the Center which were options for us.  There is a paved nature walk just below the “porch” and with a short connector we could make a nice loop which would get us away from the building, but still within our comfort zone.  There is also a 45 minute Ranger led hike in this area.  On the other side of the road there is a mile long hike on a maintained dirt path from the visitor center parking lot to the top of the peak.

View of Eielson Visitor Center from about half way up
This 1000 foot climb in a mile, which is pretty steep, was more appealing to us than the loop below the Visitor Center.  We were loaded down with our lunch, water, and cameras so it was easy to maintain a very slow pace.  That slow pace allowed us to enjoy the view and what a view it was.

For scale, notice the hiker in the center of the photo

There were the myriad of wildflowers, of course, but the view of the landscape was phenomenal.   The trail switch-backed up the slope, higher and higher and Eielson Center became smaller and smaller.  It was pretty windy on top, but we were able to find a nook on the back side of the peak which was sheltered from the wind--a good place for a lunch break.

The largest wild creatures we saw along the trail were the dozens of arctic ground squirrels.  There were birds in the air, mostly ravens; however, someone told us there was also a golden eagle about.  We never saw that.  We also saw a tiny pica.  These members of the rabbit family live in cold climates, especially on rocky mountain slopes. They’re always scurrying about gathering food for winter since they don’t hibernate like many of the animals of the cold climates.

View of Eielson Visitor Center from the top

Perhaps the best view of the day was Denali itself.  The native Alaskans call the tallest mountain in North America Denali--the high one.  In the 1890s the name of the mountain was changed to McKinley.  About 1975, the Alaska Geologic Board changed the name back to Denali, but that change was never adopted by the National Geologic Board.  I guess the official park name for the mountain is still McKinley even though the park itself has been renamed Denali.  But, for the most part, the mountain is known by both and more and more it is being called by its original name--Denali.

Denali rises 20,320 feet into the sky and is more often than not hidden behind cloud cover.  It is large enough to make its own weather patterns so while it may be partly cloudy or even clear in other parts of the park the mountain can still be shrouded in clouds. On this particular day, the clouds parted a little and we got a glimpse of “the high one”.

Our bus ride offered several wildlife sightings.  We saw several caribou as usual.  There was an exciting moment when we came around a curve and noticed Dall sheep not so far up the mountain.  Usually the sheep are only tiny white specks far, far up the mountain slope.  Although my photos are not very good, it was exciting to see these animals close enough to recognize them as living things.

We also saw a couple grizzly bears rooting around for their dinner.  These were also fairly close.  The several other grizzlies we’d seen were so far away the only way we could tell they were bears instead of rocks was their movement.

We enjoyed the hike.  It was good to get out and stretch those legs and give our lungs and heart muscle a workout, but it was also good to get out there in an environment we’d previously been reluctant to embrace.  We’ve now added a few other hikes to our “to do” list while we’re here.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for tagging along.

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