We slept in until almost eight and had breakfast in our
cabin, and then we drove the small winding gravel road up to the
top of Hatcher’s Pass. We
parked near the pass and hiked up through April Bowl.
The trail zigzagged steeply up the mountainside, passing
five small kettle lakes along the way.
We continued along the top of the ridge toward the summit
of Hatch Peak. It was
another beautiful clear day, and very quiet; we heard little but
the sound of the gentle wind and the shrill warning whistles of
marmots in the rocks.
There was a semicircular stone shelter
near the top of the ridge, built as a windbreak.
We sat for a while and enjoyed the views of the mountains
in all directions, both near and far.
April Bowl lay below us with its blue-green kettle lakes,
and we could see Hatcher’s Pass Road winding like a ribbon down
through the valley. On the horizon Mt. McKinley towered above the
Cloud shadows move across the valley, seen from the ridge
on Hatch Peak.
We headed down, passing several other hikers who were
coming up the trail. We
watched as someone sailed a hang glider, riding the air currents
down the valley. We
had seen maybe half a dozen people during the three hour hike, but
that seemed crowded after five days of seclusion at Twin
Back in the car, we headed north
to Healy, near Denali National Park.
Usually a four hour drive, it ended up taking us longer
because we kept pulling off to explore side roads or photograph
scenic spots. From the
main highway we started catching glimpses of Mt. McKinley ahead of
us. Also known as
Denali, which is Athabaskan for ‘The High One,’ at 20,237 feet
this is the tallest peak in North America.
Wanting to get a better look, we stopped at Mary Carey’s
McKinley View Lodge, a rather unique combination of B&B,
restaurant and gift shop. The
proprietor let us go out on to the balcony to take some photos.
A bit further on we stopped at an overlook with an even
better view and admired the mighty mountain; it is rare to see it
so clearly - it is usually shrouded in clouds.
We walked a quarter of a mile up a gravel trail to a higher
lookout and were well rewarded for the effort.
From this loftier perspective we had a fantastic view of
Mt. McKinley, standing majestic amid the distant peaks, glowing
white in the afternoon sun, with a many-channeled glacial river in
We were nearing the entrance of Denali National Park when
suddenly a black shape darted out in front of us.
To our amazement, it was a beaver!
He crossed the road, grabbed a willow branch, and started
back across. When we
stopped the car, he dropped the branch and hurried back across the
road, his broad flat tail slapping on the pavement, and
disappeared down a path to a lake.
Wow, you don’t see that every day!
drove past the town of Healy and on to the Ridgetop Cabins, where
we were to stay for the next three nights.
This excellent B&B sits high on a ridge at the end of a
narrow gravel driveway over a mile long.
It was a much more private and peaceful option than staying
in ‘Glitter Gulch,’ as the garish commercial strip near the
Denali entrance is known. Our
cabin was surrounded by forest, with a view through the aspen
trees out over the valley.
owner, Joyce, told us that she had worked for the Park Service for
years, maintaining the trails in Denali Park.
She gave us hiking advice, and also cautioned us about
bears. She told us
that the previous summer a brown bear had eaten a photographer in
Denali. Some hikers
had discovered his remains, along with his camera; the Park
Service rangers had uploaded his photos and found close-up shots
of a grizzly bear. Very
close up. They had
been able to identify which bear it was from the pictures, and
then had shot the bear. Upon
doing a necropsy on it, they had found the remains of the
photographer in the bear’s stomach.
A sad cautionary tale highlighting the folly of taking
close-up photos of bears while hiking.
We drove back to the entrance of Denali National Park. Encompassing
more than six million acres, the park is accessed only by one
winding road 90 miles long. In
order to minimize impact to the wildlife and environment, private
vehicles are only permitted to drive the first 15 miles of the
road, and the rest is accessible only by park shuttle buses.
We drove that first section of the park road, going slowly
and looking for wildlife, but to our surprise we saw not one
animal. It was getting
dark by the time we stopped for happy hour on a hill overlooking
the Savage River, the furthest point accessible to private
vehicles. We had
cheese and crackers with wine for dinner; we definitely did not
eat as well without George. It
was 11:30 by the time we got back to the cabin, and we were ready
Driving the first 15
miles in Denali National Park
We woke to another clear sunny day – wow, five in a row!
We felt much rested after a good night’s sleep.
At breakfast, Joyce told us about how she and her husband
had homesteaded this property, some thirty years ago.
Individuals were given title to property if certain
conditions were met. On
a certain day in February, when there was three feet of snow on
the ground and it was minus thirty degrees, they had been allowed
to walk in and stake off forty acres of land.
They were required to build on it and live there within
several years. Now
they were retiring and wanted a smaller place, so the property and
the cabins were being offered for sale.
I found the homesteading program fascinating, like
something out of the old west – I had no idea it still existed
as recently as the 1980s.
went back to Denali and drove the first 15 miles of the park road
again. There were a
few animals out this morning; some Dall sheep grazed high up,
white dots against the mountainside, and a moose browsed on a far
ridge. From a bend in
the road we could see Mt. McKinley in the distance.
We stopped on the hill above Savage River, near where
we’d had happy hour the night before, and scanned the flats
below. To our delight,
there was a lynx walking along beside the riverbed; we could see
his signature tufted ears and short tail through the binoculars.
We watched this elusive cat until he was out of sight.
We parked at the ranger station
and hiked the Savage River loop, a pleasant easy hike of about two
miles, one of the few maintained trails in the park.
We followed the path along the river, which was not much
more than a creek in the dry season but no doubt a raging torrent
during spring snowmelt. We
watched as some park workmen, repairing a footbridge, attempted to
move a large rock with a winch.
A ground squirrel, perky and cute, played hide and seek
among the rocks.
Hiking Savage River.
We had a reservation to go horseback riding in Healy with a
girl named Ivana, so we left the park midday.
Following her rather vague directions and driving up and
down the road searching, we finally found her corral and horses
(the quality of which did not inspire confidence).
But no Ivana. We
waited for over an hour but she never showed up.
Cross at having wasted several hours of our precious
vacation time, we headed back to Denali.
We decided to hike up Mt. Healy.
We considered starting from Bison’s Gulch as we had on
our previous trip to Alaska - on which occasion we had lost the
trail and ended up scrambling up the creekbed to the top - but we
thought going from the park instead we would have a better
maintained path. Boy
was that true! The
first section of the trail was like a road, and workmen were
laying tundra sod in erosion ditches along the edges, using
powered wheelbarrows with tracks like a tank.
Not exactly the peace and quiet we had hoped for.
We walked up the wide track which climbed steadily through
the trees, meeting other hikers often.
There were benches along the way, with people sitting on
most of them. We
regretted not going from Bison’s Gulch after all.
Looking down from Mt. Healy.
But presently the trail narrowed and climbed more steeply,
and we trudged on upward through the woods.
As the going became harder, there were fewer other people
on the path. Our legs
were really tired, partly from the steep climb, but mainly it was
cumulative fatigue from our ambitious hiking over the last five
days. Finally we
reached a big rock outcropping, high on the side of the mountain,
where we could look out through the trees and down over the
valley. We watched a
train on the railroad tracks, far below, winding its way along the
river. We lingered on
the ledge a while and then headed back down.
Enchanted evening in Denali.
The sun was low in the sky by the time we got back to our
car. We once again
drove the first 15 miles of the park road, to see what we could
find. It was a
remarkable evening, with slanting rays of late sunshine
illuminating the mountains in majestic splendor.
The wildlife was out in force.
There were moose everywhere tonight; we counted a dozen at
various spots in the distance, though we wished for some close to
the road. About twenty
Dall sheep grazed on a high slope.
We watched a beaver swimming in a lake.
We encountered a flock of willow ptarmigans near Savage
River, ten of them, right by the road; they posed for us, showing
off their mottled brown and white plumage and their heavily
There were quite a few people out driving the park road,
most of them keen animal watchers or avid photographers.
Often we would see someone out beside their car with
binoculars or a telephoto lens, and follow the direction of their
gaze to spot a moose or a caribou.
But not everyone was in their element; one man stopped by
when we were taking some scenery photos and scanned the low
mountains in front of us. “So,
which one is Denali?” he asked.
“You guys are watching, like, wilderness, right?”
The light was just beginning to fade when we came upon
three moose, two huge bulls and a cow, grazing placidly beside the
road. We parked the
car on the shoulder among several other vehicles, and got out to
watch and photograph the moose.
From where we stood they were less than a hundred feet
away, and totally unconcerned by our presence.
A majestic bull moose.
More cars came by and stopped, and several park buses
arrived on the scene. Soon
there was a veritable traffic jam, known in Denali as a ‘moosejam.’
The three moose meandered along, browsing, and we followed
them on foot along the road. By
now there were quite a few people trailing after them, many of
them photographers with tripods and huge lenses.
I considered getting out my tripod for better photos in the
fading light, but the moose were moving too fast.
moose came nearer - now they were right by the road, not fifty
feet from us. The two
bulls had huge paddles; it was hard to imagine how they could even
raise their heads under the weight of those antlers.
They hesitated at the side of the road before hurrying
warily across, eyeing the crowd of photographers, then they made
their way down to a pond and waded in.
A park ranger came along and broke up the moosejam, sending
everyone back to their cars; we had come about a quarter of a mile
It was 9:30 by the time we left the park, and we were
hungry. We stopped at
Glitter Gulch to pick up some Chinese takeout, and took it back to
our cabin to eat. Staying
out at the Ridgetop Cabins was great from the standpoint of
privacy, but the extra 20 minutes’ drive each way did make the
days longer. It was
starting to rain; after five beautiful days it was inevitable.