7/25/2014 – 123 mi – Moto AK Denali National Park
The sun was mostly out when we reached our campsite in Denali, and got to set up in the dry (and not too cold) between light showers. I guess we got lucky to be able to get a campsite; we had not reserved one, but there was a walk in site available. Not ideal, as the bikes were parked over ¼ mi from our campsite, and we had to shuttle stuff back and forth, but the campground itself was really nice. We also bought bus tickets for tomorrow to ride in and see the park (vehicles are only allowed in the first 15 mi or so of the 90 mile unpaved park road, you have to take a park bus to go any further).
7/26/2014 – 0 mi by moto, 180 miles on the Denali National Park road by school bus
There are three types of buses that go into Denali. The regular tour bus, the shuttle bus, and the camper bus that takes the back country backpackers into wherever they would like to be dropped off. The regular tour bus is the most expensive, and was also full, and did not fit the schedule were looking for. For reasons I don’t think I should explain to a wide internet audience, we wanted to go all the way to the end of the road and back in one day (the bus takes 6 hours one way) on Saturday. This is a bit nuts. To make this work, we talked our way onto the camper bus, which also happens to be the cheapest, even though we weren’t staying overnight. This ended up being awesome. We were not looking forward to the crowded tour bus, but the camper bus half full of backpackers was a blast (more our tribe I guess). The first camper bus in the morning left Riley Creek Campground at the park entrance at 6:55 am. The last bus leaving arrived back at Riley Creek at 11:30 at night. It was a long day, but ultimately very neat.
The park itself is of course gorgeous, although the clouds never cleared enough to see the top of Denali/Mt. McKinley. The view from the bus:
Herd of caribou.
Both of our bus drivers were absolute characters. I guess I should probably withhold names, but our driver in the morning had a very deadpan delivery for his required instructions, and the occasional joke. He made threats about throwing people off the bus, which Kevin and I thought was hilarious, as it wasn’t entirely obvious that he was joking. The driver in the afternoon told all kinds of stories about our morning driver, and how the personality we saw was the “new and improved” cheerful version, which Kevin and I are still laughing about. Our morning driver apparently used to generate a lot of complaints.
The camper bus is interesting; it slowly drops people and their packs off along the way, but also picks people up along the road. The way it works is that any backpacker can just wave down any of the green camper buses at any time to get a ride back or to another part of the park. The ride outbound took extra time because we kept stopping to take pictures of wildlife, pick people up, and then perhaps drop them off somewhere else to catch a different bus. The schedule also requires stopping for a period of time at every official stop along the way. The upside is getting to hear the stories from all the campers. Two German guys had been out in Denali back country for 5 days, and told us about a bear sniffing directly around their tent one night, and about a herd of caribou that came through another night.
We basically had the afternoon bus to ourselves. By that time (it leaves Kantishna at 6), most people had landed for the night, and weren’t looking for a ride. One couple rode partway back with us, and after that it was just us and the driver. After churning the rumor mill about other drivers, and telling us about working in the park, we enjoyed stories about his time in Alaska. I think my favorite part was learning about a new-to-me winter activity, where you cross country ski with one of your sled dogs strapped to you and partially pulling you along. That sounds amazingly fun, and could convince me to try cross country skiing, which otherwise sounds like a bunch of work.
11:30 pm was the end of a really long day. 13 total hours by noisy, bouncy school bus over an unpaved road, plus almost 4 hours in Kantishna. This is not the recommended way to see Denali, although we did get to see the entire 90 mile road. No trouble sleeping tonight.
7/27/2014 – 0 miles, Denali National Park
The butane fairy came in the morning. The park keeps a close eye on the food/bear lockers, and cleans out anything that sits for too long. Still hanging around camp when the locker was being cleaned meant we got offered a partial can of fuel, and some paper towels. Plus one free supplies.
I know it doesn’t look like it in the photos, but we actually had a pretty nice day for a hike. We hiked some trails within walking distance of the campground. The top of the Mt. Healy overlook trail was a bit of a steep scramble, and definitely provided an opportunity to point out any lack of physical condition. Hiking up the trail had us removing layers down to a t-shirt, but standing around up top in the cold wind had us putting both layers back on. The view was definitely worth it.
On the way down we diverted to the Rock Creek (or some such, I’m not sure of the exact name) trail that travels through pretty Aspen forest to the sled dog kennels. You can’t come to Alaska without seeing something involving sled dogs, so we watched the short demonstration. We had to hustle a little bit to get there on time to see it, but it was fun to see the dogs pull the sled (which was on wheels for the summer). The 5 dog team pulled away pretty quickly, and moved faster than I was expecting. Denali is the only national park with its own sled dog teams, which they keep trained and actually use for various purposes to access parts of the park in the winter.
7/28/2014 – 47 mi, 15 net total miles
What a waste of a day. We knew the rain was coming, so we packed up in the dry, and headed outside the park entrance for breakfast at the Black Bear coffee house (‘twas delicious and predictably a bit overpriced, and nice and dry while the rain came in). We debated riding the Denali Highway today, but the weather is supposed to be nice tomorrow, and we needed showers and internet again. So, it made sense that we’d stay inside and work, blog, read, etc. today, and ride tomorrow. The logic went that everything near the park entrance is overpriced corporate lodging owned by the cruise lines (and also completely full), so we’d ride 30 miles down the road to Cantwell and then look for a place to stay. Big mistake. We rode in the cold rain to 2 separate places in Cantwell, only to find them full. So, we went to the Café so we could continue the search via phone in the dry and warm. We decided we didn’t want to ride all the way to Talkeetna, just to backtrack 130 mi to ride the Denali highway. Naturally, the wi-fi at the cafe didn’t work, and it took over 3 hours (with lunch) and phone calls to 20 some-odd places in an ever widening radius of distance and price before we found a room in a cabin at The Perch 15 mi back up the road, and only because we got lucky. I called the place next door, and they were full, but somehow knew their neighbor had just had a cancellation. I booked that cancellation spot within 30 minutes of the room being free. It was 3 pm when we got to the room, and of course the wi-fi didn’t work well in the cabin. It worked great in the lounge/restaurant however, but by that time, I hadn’t really started working until 4pm. We did not manage our time well today at all, and the vacancy problem probably should have been anticipated? Maybe? I guess 30 mi from Alaska’s biggest attraction still isn’t far enough to escape the crowds. We had no idea, and were pretty frustrated at not being able to find a place to go inside and work in an area with so much infrastructure (The Denali area has many, many places to stay). At least we’re not cold and wet, and can take that much needed shower. Also, you can walk a nice short wooded path past the creek from our cabin to a pizzeria with excellent pizza and beer. All is not lost. Pics are from the next morning when the sun came out.