Back in Alaska for our third straight year! There are still four Alaskan National Parks we have yet to visit but when we found camping permits available at Wonder Lake we jumped at the opportunity to experience more of Denali National Park. We last visited Denali in June of 2017 during the opening week of Denali Park road. At that time we could only go as far as the Eielson visitor center at mile 66 and we camped near the park entrance at Savage River. This trip started during the last week of August, 2019 and we camped at Wonder Lake located at Mile 85 near the end of the park road.
The window seat on the right side of the plane is a must for this trip. Starting in the Cascades we enjoyed views of Glacier Peak, Mount Baker and more.
We passed more Pacific Ranges followed by the Alaska-Yukon Range. Pictured below is Mount Saint Elias (Alaska. Front Left, 4th highest peak in North America) and Mount Logan (Yukon. Back Right, 2nd highest peak in North America).
Lastly we flew over the Chugach Mountains one of my all time favorite ranges.
It was pretty smoky when we landed in Anchorage so we had low expectations for the rest of the trip. Our only stop on our drive to Denali was to borrow a can of bear spray from our generous friend Dan in Wasilla. If you want some Alaskan and/or ultra prominent mountain inspiration look no further than @dang_ak on Instagram! Thankfully once we passed Denali State Park the heavy smoke completely cleared! It was still cloudy but we could occasionally see Denali’s south peak, Mount Foraker and other peaks in the West-Central Alaska Range.
Looking east we could see that fall had already arrived in Alaska! The tundra was turning a beautiful red color.
Our trip into the park would start the next day so that night we stayed at the Denali Crow’s Nest Cabins. It is inexpensive but very clean and nice. The low cost may be associated with the cabins being very small and built on a steep mountain side. There are a lot of stairs and slanted walk ways but that kind of made it fun. The Salmon Bake was a great spot for dinner, highly suggest the elk burger. In the morning we hoped on the 7:15am Denali Bus at the Denali Bus Depot. We purchased permits months ago but we still had to check in at the Wilderness Access Center first. Once on the bus we were worry free and ready for a weekend away from cell coverage.
It was a perfect morning! The fall colors were in full bloom and the Rangers said it happened over night. They also said it would be gone in a week. We were very grateful! Early in the morning there were really cool cloud inversions which opened up to some massive valleys, grand mountains and braided rivers.
Here’s the difference between 6/1/17 and 8/29/19:
As we approached mile 66 (Eielsen Visitor Center) we were once again greeted with a clear view of the High One! We were really lucky considering Denali is only visible 33% of the year and this was only the second clear day in over a month!
Some of the best highlights of the trip come from riding the bus. The drivers are very knowledgeable and they stop anytime we spot wildlife along with many other set locations that have inspiring views. You’ll be stuck to the window scanning the horizon for any movement. We saw 5 Bears, 3 Moose, a few Elk and a Sandhill Crane migration!
All the buses take a long break at the Eielsen Visitor Center and I’m very glad they do. You’re closer to Denali here than anywhere else along the Denali Park Road. You can also hike up Thorofare Ridge which we did our last trip or hike down from the visitor center along the Tundra Loop which we did this trip.
The visitor center itself is also wonderful! You can talk to Rangers, learn from all the great information and art on display and take in the view while eating lunch. The Denali climbing season was over so we could review the final climbing statistics from 2019. 64% of attempts summited and 1 person out of 1230 did not complete their climb. Denali’s big neighbor Foraker saw 21 attempts with only 8 summits (38%) and no deaths.
Over the next 20 miles we enjoyed new perspectives of Denali and the fiery red tundra.
Once we arrived at Wonder Lake (mile 85) we found a nice campsite, setup the tent and took a walk.
We walked to the lake shore, made friends with a porcupine and played catch next to some beautiful yellow birch trees.
We’ve brought a baseball and gloves to each Alaskan National Park we’ve been to. Something fun and unique we can say we did in these remote natural lands! We also took a Ranger program with Ranger Frank about sled dogs and his annual ride down Denali Park road in March under the northern lights! For how many parks I have visited I certainly have not taken enough of these programs. Those I have been to were incredibly fun and informative. It was a little hard to concentrate during this program since Denali was playing peek-a-boo with us.
After the ranger program we relaxed, cooked up a nice dinner and watched the long sunset. Denali went into hiding early but the surrounding mountains absolutely stole the show!
It seemed to be getting clearer so we set a 1am alarm to view the stars and a 5:30am alarm to catch sunrise from reflection pond. We enjoyed an unreal display of stars that night but it made waking up for sunrise a little tougher. When we got out of the tent Denali was still in hiding but the rest of the range was out so we ran a mile up the road for a better view. The moment the sky turned pink Denali made a grand entrance!
There wasn’t a reflection in reflection pond yet but it was amazing none the less.
From there we followed a faint path that led us half way between reflection pond and Wonder Lake. We setup our little folding chairs and relaxed for two wonderful hours. We made coffee, had breakfast, stretched and enjoyed our beautiful surroundings.
When we got back to reflection pond the reflection was pristine!
We continued walking down the Denali Park road past the ranger station, up Blueberry Hill and to the north end of Wonder Lake.
We enjoyed excellent views on our 4 mile walk back to camp although you could tell the smoke from the south was starting to make its way towards Denali.
Back at camp we had lunch, took a nap, played more catch and some card games. We took another ranger program that night, this time it was about Grizzly Bear gastronomy. Grizzlies are omnivorous, eating a mixed diet of grasses, berries, roots, fish and small mammals. It was a perfectly fun and slow day and ended with one more beautiful sunset. It was especially cool hearing wolves hollowing in the distance.
We had to wake up early the next day to catch the first bus out. It was a bit overcast that day so no big mountain views but we saw four more bears, one big moose and a few impressive caribou.
I loved a quote from Sigurd Olson that we saw at the Eielsen Visitor Center. It stated, “Wilderness…is a spiritual necessity, an antidote to the high pressure of modern life, a means of regaining serenity and equilibrium.” That certainly rang true for us! That night we drove back to Anchorage and stayed at an Airbnb. The next day was really rainy but we went out to the Hatcher Pass area in the Talkeetna Mountains and hiked the Reed Lakes trail.
We wanted to make it all the way up to Lynx Peak but by the time we arrived at lower Reed Lake it started to pour. Luckily we found a little cave to hang out in.
After an hour the rain stopped and the light became extraordinary!
It was already late in the day so we turned back from there. It was even more beautiful on the hike out.
Back in Anchorage we had the amazing Moose’s Tooth Pizza and a baked Alaska ice cream cone from Wild Scoops! We would fly back home to Seattle the next morning but not before getting breakfast at El Green-Go’s. It’s a food truck located across the street from the famous Snow City Cafe but oh so much better. Can’t wait to come back to explore more Alaskan National Parks and for another amazing breakfast burrito!