When we first decided to visit Alaska, Denali easily came to the top of the to-see list. But where to begin? It is a huge park and visiting for a few days wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface. Containing the highest mountain in North America, it is a preserve that is larger than the state of New Hampshire with a wide range of habitats and wildlife. It was of paramount importance to us that we didn’t simply experience it from a bus or car, as we get to know places when the barriers come down and we can wander about. Despite backpacking in Washington for nearly five years, I feel like I have barely begun to understand my home state. How were we supposed to absorb all that this amazing park had to offer?
It opened up when we decided to look at this as our first trip to Denali National Park. We don’t need to see it all, because I plan on returning again and again. Rather, we just need to see a sliver of what it looked like in June, on a sunny day when you still couldn’t see the mountain, in 2018. June, when baby animals abound and wildlife is so easy to spot. Traveling to Denali was its own trip, via side trips to Talkeetna, spending the night in Denali State Park, seeing moose while in Anchorage city limits. Keep reading to see how we structured our visit, and what we saw along the way.
This post covers the second leg of our 9-day trip, 5 days in Denali and Anchorage. The previous post covers the first leg of our 9-day trip, 4 days on the Kenai Peninsula.
Some Alaska themed music to get you in the zone…
Day 4: Denali State Park
Rain beat against the top of the pop-tent, dismissing our hopes for a dry morning in camp. We had enjoyed a brief respite from the rain the night before, but it was not to last. So, we packed our things as quickly as possible and set off on the road, windshield wipers blazing. We were partway down the Kenai Peninsula, needed to swing by REI in Anchorage for gear, then make it as close to Denali National Park as possible, to snag backpacking permits the following day. We were following the sun, and Wednesday was supposed to be clear skies–perfect for backpacking. There was a long day of driving ahead of us.
We made our way north towards Anchorage, the Turnagain Arm still soaked. After shoveling granola bars in our mouths this morning as we attempted to stay dry while dismantling camp, we were ready for some real breakfast. We stopped at the Girdwood Picnic Club for excellent breakfast and a latte, which I cherished. Then, off to REI and Fred Meyer to stock up on stove fuel, bear spray and rations. Unsurprisingly, everything took longer than it should, but eventually we made it back to the highway. We drove for a few hours before reaching Talkeetna, where we hoped to spend the night.
Ready to stretch our legs after hours of driving, we found a little trail behind one of the campgrounds. It led to the edge of the Susitna River, which was running high and fast. We bushwacked along the riverside, watching jet boats swirl in the current before reaching a meadow and easy road to walk back on.
Bushwacking alongside rivers works up an appetite, so we snagged an outdoor booth at Mountain High Pizza Pie. Reindeer pizza, veggie-filled salad and some delicious beers hit the spot. Dinner finished, it was time to find a place to spend the night. Though there were several campgrounds in the area, they were mostly RV parks that felt a bit like a parking lot. Thanks to the everlasting daylight in Alaska, we chose to drive for an hour or so more to sleep in the Denali State Park, at a hopefully more scenic spot.
It turned out to be an excellent idea! We made it to K’esugi Ken campground, found the walk-in tent only loop and snagged one of the available sites. There were also cabins that I was hoping were free (a real bed!), but they were all booked up. Nonetheless, our site was lovely and we were able to test the tent in the rain before taking it backpacking. Rumor has it that if it is not rainy and overcast, there are incredible views of Denali. For us, the best part of the night came around 10 pm when one of our fellow campers pulled out his banjo and started playing. Beer, campfire and a banjo? Does it get better?
Day 5: Denali National Park
The next morning we packed up camp and hit the road, excited to know we would be in Denali National Park soon! Sure enough, we rolled into the park around 12. We immediately went to the ranger to snag a backpacking permit. Luckily, it seemed we were still well within shoulder season and managed to snag one of our top choices. We watched the backpacking safety video, borrowed a bear can and picked up our bus tickets.
We were still a little early to check into our campsite at Riley Creek, so we decided to visit the sled-dogs. Denali National Park is the only park in the National Park Service with a sled-dog team, which has been in place since the park’s infancy. Primarily utilized in the winter months, the Alaskan husky mixes pull sleds to transport park rangers and heavy equipment. The park has an informative and beautiful video about the sled dogs on their website.
During the summer months, the dogs spend time at their kennel, perform sled demonstrations and make themselves available for many pets. We enjoyed wandering around the kennel, meeting the dogs sunning themselves on top of their houses, petting the few that the park allows visitors to interact with. I was amazed at how thick their fur is. The small cabin next to the kennels included the nameplates of all the previous dogs, I took many pictures for dog name inspiration.
The sled dogs of Denali have been important to the park for so long that they have become a part of the resource, and a cultural tradition worthy of protection. The dogs, and the kennels where they live, represent important pieces of the American story. They have cultural significance, representing both the Native Alaskan and the pioneer experience in the far north; and have a role in the history of Alaska’s first national park.
After getting our fill of adorable dogs, it was time to check into our campsite at Riley Creek Campground for that night. We circled the campgrounds, trying to find the perfect spot when through the trees I spotted a moose and her calf. We considered it to be a good luck sign and picked a nearby campsite, after she moved on of her own accord.
At last, it was time for a shower. Our first shower since arriving 5 days ago. Smelling pretty fresh after living in a wet tent the entire trip. Although, I did enjoy the dirtbag life and didn’t even finish my allotted shower time…
We went back to the campground, snacked a little and then I started to get antsy. Yes, we were leaving for the backpacking trip around 6am the next morning, but we had hours before we had to go to sleep, and it was most certainly not getting dark anytime soon. I couldn’t be in Denali National Park and simply sit at a campground. So we decided to drive the first 15 miles of the road, the section open to personal vehicles.
At the end of the road, we reluctantly turned around to get some sleep and prepare for the next two days in the backcountry.
Day 6 & 7: Backpacking in Denali
6:00am came bright and early as we quickly ate breakfast, packed up, and headed to the bus stop. The camping bus came along, took our packs and we found a seat and settled in for the ride.
We repeated the first portion of the route we had driven on the night before, then turned onto the gravel road that marked the end of the public road. It felt like we were finally beginning to see the Denali National Park. Spruce trees faded away and we saw increasingly open spaces, sharp peaks of the Alaska Range and wide braided rivers.
After about 2.5 hours of driving, the bus opened its doors, we hopped out and it drove away. We were left on the road, an expanse of wilderness above the treeline stood before us. No trails, no established campsites, no maintenance crews had walked through to ensure the area was safe. We shouldered our packs and began our way down I Scream Gulch, an ominous beginning to our backpacking trip
The backpacking trip was immense and wonderful, worthy of its own post, so I will not go into the details here. Suffice to say, it was beautiful, we saw a ton of wildlife, did not get lost and it was a most incredible experience.
Our permit was for two nights and three days, but after unexpectedly doing significantly more mileage than we had planned on the first night, we opted to go out on the second day. Rather than arriving to the bus around noon on Friday, and rushing back to Anchorage, we made it back to the road around 3:30 on Thursday. This meant that we had enough time to tour a little more of the park. So we hopped on a green bus that was heading to Eilson, rather than back to the park entrance and prepared to see what lay beyond where we hiked.
While being in the backcountry was incredible, I have no regrets in leaving early, because seeing more of the park was some of the trip’s highlights. The bus slowly ambled up the road, stopping to view the many caribou that were gathered on the side of the road. Lastly, we arrived at the Eilson visitor’s center and wandered about, enjoying the displays. Clouds covered the summit of Denali, but the view of the valleys and glaciers were lovely in their own right.
We climbed on the bus for the trip back to the park’s entrance, exhausted by the long day. I nodded off a few times, while desperately trying to stay awake and soak in the sights. On our way out we saw a golden eagle, three more grizzly bears, so many caribou and a red fox. I was quite excited about the fox, as it was the last species on our list that I was hoping to see in Denali.
We reached the visitors center, slightly horrified to discover that we were getting off one stop earlier than the rest of the bus, which required walking our huge backpacking packs down a very narrow aisle, attempting to not poke anyone’s eyes out. Our fellow travelers got into the spirit of things and cheered when I reached the door, with a supportive “you go girl!” yelled from the back. I left the bus feeling triumphant and proud of our overnight in the backcountry of Denali.
We hurried to our campground, only to discover the showers had just closed. So we would not be showering for another two days. Stumbling into camp, we set up the tent and fell deeply asleep.
Day 8: Travel to Anchorage
The next day, a momma moose and her twin babies bid us farewell as we packed up our gear. Followed by a trip to the visitor center to return the bear can and get lattes and off to the highway, headed to Eklutna Lake, our campsite for the night.
But first, another stop at Talkeetna for lunch. When we stopped on the way in, all of the food looked so good I was determined to come back and eat more. It was proven to be the right choice when we sat down at the Wildflower Cafe and they told me the special was a halibut sandwich with a king crab topper. This seafood-loving girl was very happy.
After finishing lunch, we went to the Talkeetna Historical Society. It was very thorough, with awesome examples of Talkeetna in recent history as well as the history of mountaineering in Denali. Then we picked up rations at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, dinner and dessert for the evening and breakfast for the morning after. Everything looked so delicious it was hard to narrow it down. We left with a few hand pies, rhubarb raspberry pie, a nut roll and strawberry rhubarb pastry.
Then it was back on the road. After a few hours, we reached the turn-off to Eklutna Lake. I started to get a little nervous as it was 1) pouring down rain again and 2) 5 pm on a Friday night and we were trying to get to a popular, no reservations campground. And it turns out I was correct to be nervous because we soon found out there were no open campsites. Not at Eklutna, or the three neighboring campgrounds.
After calling around, we found that Centennial Park Campground in Anchorage had availability. Spending our last night camping in town, across from a convenience store, where we could see the freeway from our tent is not what my Alaska Pinterest board included. But, as most vacations do, there is a point where you no longer care about once in a lifetime, incredible travel moments and instead just want a place to sleep that us easy and doesn’t require any more driving. So we found a nice little spot in a fairly crowded campground. We met a neighbor that helped us chop wood for our fire and told us stories about his trip across the U.S. and Canada. We spent over an hour organizing and packing everything for the following morning when we needed to return the car.
As we were preparing to go to bed, a momma moose and her twin babies wandered through the portion of camp closed due to bear activity. Our boring, city campground was immediately turned into a forest wonderland as the giant animals moved around a dumpster. What proves to be commonplace in Alaska was simply too much for us lowly tourists and we gawked, even as our moose sightings climbed to double digits.
Day 9: Anchorage
We woke the next morning and returned the pop-tent. Alaska Adventure Rentals was kind enough to give us a rental car to take around the city for our 24 hours in Anchorage. We hopped on the highway and headed to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, for one last day spent enjoying Alaska’s wildlife. We saw all sorts of fun creatures, including wood bison, including babies, a brand new baby elk, and a charismatic grizzly bear.
The highlight was seeing the wolves–the only one of the big 5 that we didn’t see in Denali (the others being moose, caribou, grizzly and Dall’s sheep). We arrived during enrichment time, and the staff led the wolves in a rousing howl-off then tossed them frozen rats. It was interesting to watch the different dynamics of the pack when they negotiated the food.
After visiting all of the animals, it was finally late enough to check into our hotel. Which meant we would be able to shower for the first time since before backpacking! After showering and wearing semi-clean clothes, we walked over to the Moose’s Tooth pizzeria, at the recommendation of many friends. We got a flight of beers–there were enough browns, porters and stouts that I had a six-glass flight and still didn’t try them all. The pizza was insanely delicious. Exhausted from the trip, we spent the last night in Alaska watching TV in the hotel room.
Then, in the morning, we headed to the airport and flew back home to Seattle. We arrived downtown to discover it was pride weekend, a wonderful welcome back to the city.