Tom & Charlene's Excellent Adventures travel blog

Braided River in Denali

Polychrome Mountains in the background

Mama Caribou & calf

Just moosing around

Denali is over our left shoulder, you just can't see it!

Monday, July 21, 2014 – Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Awoke to our coolest morning on this trip, 46⁰. There was a warning on last night’s forecast to protect delicate plants because of the cool weather. It was another quiet night at the Walmart Campground. Only about 30 of us there for the night.

We spent the morning getting the RV checked out by a mechanic. We have a mysterious bump sound that appeared since we went over “Top of the World Highway”.

All they could come up with was that the ball joints needed greased. The sound disappeared for awhile but returned sometime when we went over particularly bumpy spots – and there were plenty of them on the Parks Highway! After a while Tom figured out that the compartment he installed under the RV for the new sewage hose had loosened on our rough ride.

The George Parks Highway runs from Fairbanks down to Wasilla where it meet up with the Glenn Highway that leads into Anchorage. There are many small towns and along the highway and the main destination of travelers is Denali National Park. The usual two hour trip from Fairbanks took us 3½ hours! There were at least 4 areas we were stopped for over 15 each before we could proceed. We then were slowly led through the 3-5 mile construction area by a safety vehicle. The construction season lasts less than 4 months in Alaska so they work on several projects in the same area concurrently. They are doing some major reconstruction along the Parks! Our poor buggy was once again a muddy mess.

An area of hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and adventure trips has sprung up near the Denali entrance. The main adventure trips were rafting on the Nenana River or flight-seeing around Denali. Many new storefronts have appeared since our visit six years ago. There was not a whole lot of improvement in the restaurant category. We wanted to go back north to Healy to try new restaurants but did not want to go back through the construction mess.

Once again we saw Norma & Les Monnin. This time we were in a gift shop at Denali. They were wandering around the tourist area waiting for the Celebrity bus to take them to their hotel.

We checked at the Denali Park Wilderness Access Center (WAC) for a campsite but all sites were taken in the six campgrounds. Three campgrounds can accommodate RVs, the other three are for tents only. We made reservations for the 7:30 AM bus to Eielson Center, 66 miles into the park. Last trip we rode the bus to Wonder Lake, about 80 miles in. We were eaten by mosquitos at Wonder Lake – we decided the 8 hour trip was long enough this time. We then drove the 12 miles of Park road opened to the public. Denali National Park is a designated wilderness area and only Park vehicles are allowed beyond the 12 mile limit.

Checked into the Denali Grizzly Bear Campground for 2 nights. We dry camped the first night and had electric & water the 2nd so we could recharge all the batteries, fill the water tank and dump the gray and black tanks. It is a really nice park with cabins, hotel-type rooms and camping spots. The first night we were in a wooded spot nestled among the pines. The 2nd we were out in the open but it was further from the highway and a lot quieter. Our neighbor the 2nd night was a couple from Texas who are camping in a “bug” (teardrop) trailer. When my sisters & I were young our family camped in a “bug”. This trailer had a few improvements in the rear kitchen compartment but the rest was unchanged after more than 50 years. Brought back many good memories. Our Dad would love to have taken this trip with us through Alaska.

5:30 came pretty early Tuesday morning! It was another jeans & jacket day. The cloudy skies left little hope to see Denali on this trip. Denali (Mt. McKinley) is so high that it make its own weather. It may appear and within 15 minutes disappear in suddenly forming clouds. This is what happened on our first trip. Only about 30% of those visiting Denali are privileged to see the Mountain.

Arrived at the WAC to find our trip was sold out, it was going to be a full bus. The National Park Service runs five different shuttle buses and 6 “tours” throughout Denali. Each runs several times a day and most are sold out each day. The shortest trip is 17 miles (5 hrs.) into Denali and the longest is to Kantinisha (13 hrs.), a former mining town about 90 miles from the Park entrance. The difference between the shuttles and the tours is that on the tours you get a snack or lunch and more commentary. On the shuttle buses the drivers main objective is to have the passengers see the wildlife and give you “some” info about the Park. We hit the jackpot with our driver. His name was Bear and it should have been Teddy Bear. He was certainly a “bear” of a guy with the long hair and a wooly beard. He had a great sense of humor and kept up a steady stream of information on the trip out to Eielson. Bear was great at locating wildlife. We saw more than a dozen caribou and at least 6 bears. After a while we lost track of the count. Unfortunately on most pictures the wildlife show up as specks, but we still got the thrill of seeing them. We were hoping by the time we arrive at Eielson the skies would clear and we would see Denali. It was not to be. The trip back to the WAC was very quiet. The sun finally came out and combined with the rhythm of the bus the early morning wakeup caught up with most of us. When we were a few miles from Eielson Bear had us look backwards and we could vaguely see the summit of the north peak through the clouds – it lasted about 2 minutes and then disappeared again. That energized us for a few minutes, then quiet again.

When we returned to the main area we disembarked to watch the dog sled demonstration. To our surprise “Dave & Kathy from Delaware” were in the parking lot. It was fun to reconnect with them. They were headed for 6 days at the Denali Teklanika Campground, 38 miles into the Park. Once you park at Tek you cannot move your vehicle until ready to leave. The Park runs a great shuttle service for the campers between the campgrounds, the Visitors Center and the WAC. Also campers can jump on any of the other shuttle buses and get a ride to the trailheads deep in the Park.

We only have praise for the National Park Service in Alaska and Parks Canada in Canada. All the programs we have encountered have been outstanding. The rangers and other employees all seem to really enjoy their jobs and bend over backwards to see that you have a received all the information you need. Their pride is seeing that you enjoy the services of each park. They certainly have enhanced our adventure.

After the dog sled demo we caught a shuttle to the visitors center and then another to the WAC to pick up the RV.

We ate across from our campground at a hotel filled with people on a pre-cruise tour with Celebrity (but not Norma & Les). This hotel knows how to cater to their clientele. There was a small complex of log buildings with a restaurant, general store, and small museum. In the center of the complex there were three lit fire rings with chairs placed around inviting guests to sit and enjoy Nenana River. We enjoyed visiting with two couples from Philadelphia who were on the tour. Seems we are always finding people to talk to!

We slept well this night.

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