This weekend we headed south on the Richardson Highway for Valdez, Alaska. Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe this drive. So today I will let pictures do most of the talking. But I will note that we saw three mountain ranges, lots of wildlife (moose, caribou, bald eagles, and a wolverine), tons of snow, rushing rivers flanked by ice and snow, waterfalls, a canyon, and ended at the Valdez Arm which opens into the Prince William Sound, and eventually the Gulf of Alaska. In the course of our seven hour drive we had sun, rain, snow, and sun again. The day offered a little bit of everything, and I wouldn’t change a moment of it!Moose, Black Rapids Pipeline, Alaska Range Thompson Pass, Chugach Mountains Thompson Pass, Chugach Mountains Caribou Horsetail Falls, Keystone Canyon Small Boat Harbor, Valdez Alaska Range
Lucas and I have been vigilantly monitoring the snow plowing progress at Denali National Park for the last few weeks, and this weekend, we got our break. On Saturday, the park road was opened to the public up to mile 29 for the first time since the fall. Saying we were excited is perhaps an understatement.
Denali has quickly become one of my favorite places in Alaska. I could happily explore this massive park every weekend and never get tired of it. There is just so much to see.
For this excursion, we decided to drive the road out to mile 29, Teklanika, and then continue to hike deeper into the park via the road. Less than five minutes into our drive, we were chatting, and looking out at the snow covered peaks wishing to see a moose. And bam. A moose, snacking a few yards off the road in the woods. It was a good sign for the day ahead.
The drive itself is always beautiful. Denali is one of those places you can never quite capture in a picture because it surrounds you. Full mountain immersion. It is like being lifted into another world, quiet, still snowy-white at this time of year. The peaks look like they have been draped in yards and yards of white silk. And these kind of views stretch in every direction.
We also got super lucky on Saturday. The clear-sky day revealed the mountain. Denali (McKinley). It peaked out early, within ten miles of the winter visitor center, and we craned our necks to watch it as it appeared and disappeared behind corners all the way out to Teklanika. I am always amazed at how huge it is. It stands in the sky like a giant, even when it is hundreds of miles away.
After a leisurely drive, taking pictures, getting out to walk a little on the hard-packed, wind-swept snow, we made it to the “road closed” sign and continued on foot. The next section of the road, out to Igloo Mountain, is sandwiched by mountains and crosses a few rivers, little and big. The first river, the biggest we crossed, had several open patches of water. The deep blue water appeared from under the snow and ice, swept across the riverbed rocks, and disappeared just as quickly under more ice. Signs of spring.
At Igloo Mountain we decided to hike, off the road, into the snow a little bit. A side trip. At first the snow was hard-packed and wind-swept like what we had walked on earlier. But at the top of the first rise we found ourselves on the tundra, covered in thick patches of icy, wet snow, and we started to sink. First to our ankles, then knees, and then up to our thighs. We struggled to move forward. It was like walking in silly putty. I even spent some time crawling across the snow to help distribute my weight. I wish we had a video. It was comically ridiculous. We gave up less than a half mile from the road. We were missing the snow shoes we left in our car. But we both like a little adventure, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day.
On the way back, the light was beautiful. Soft against the blue sky, and the Denali, the mountain, continued to dance along the horizon. And the icing on the cake, we saw another moose, laying down in the snow, on our way out. Back to back moose sightings. Oh, Denali. I am already dreaming about our trip back this summer.
We have been watching for Mt. McKinley, also known by its native Athabascan name, Denali “the great one,” since our arrival in Alaska. We have seen it several times through openings in the clouds and each time I am amazed at just how tall it really is. Standing at 20,320 feet Denali is often referred to as “the rooftop of the world.” It is the tallest mountain in North America. In some way it seems to stand for Alaska, the impressive height, the isolation, the cold. It is wilderness at its wildest.
On our way back from Girdwood this weekend, we were rewarded with clear skies and unobstructed views of the mountain. The stark white of the peak against the crayon-blue colored sky almost seemed fake. To pretty to be real. We watched Denali rise in the distance from the highway, poking up on the horizon then disappearing, only to materialize again when we crested the next hill. It was like a game of hide and seek. We were rushing for the south view point, so we could stop, take pictures, and just look. We were not disappointed.
Alaska’s Turnagain Arm is part of the Cook Inlet and boasts the second largest tidal range in North America, up to 38 feet. At low tide, large mud flats are visible. It is also one of the few places you can see a bore tide, which is a rush of seawater into a narrow inlet. Bore tide waves can be 6-10 feet tall and rush at speeds of 10 to 15 miles per hour. There are about 60 bore tides around the world, but Turnagain Arm is the farthest north and the only one surrounded by mountains. We did not personally see a bore tide, although the local newspaper had a picture of surfers riding a bore tide wave from the week before, but we did get to see the drastic tide changes in this area. One of my favorite vantage points for viewing Turnagain Arm last weekend was our Bird Ridge hike.
The trail is accessible right off of the Seward Highway, which runs the length of Turnagain Arm. It is a steep climb but worth the views. The trail swings back and forth from one side of the ridge to the other, allowing us to see deeper into the Arm and back towards Cook Inlet and Anchorage. It was a really clear day, so when looking back to the Cook Inlet we could see the Alaskan Range on the far horizon. Looking out from the top of the trail, I was sure this would be the perfect place to have a pirate ship. The Arm has that feeling, like it could be a hiding place or the launching point for a surprise attack.
This weekend we took an 8 hour road trip to Girdwood, AK so my husband could attend a Physical Therapy Conference. The conference was at the Alyeska Resort, one of the few ski resorts in Alaska. The ski season doesn’t open until November, but there is still lots to do in this area. The drive to Girdwood, past Denali, through central Alaska, past Anchorage to the Turnagain Arm (a branch of the Cook Inlet), is beautiful. We saw the sunset over the mountains on our way down. Turnagain Arm is a unique body of water with huge mudflats, home to Beluga whales, and surrounded by mountains on three sides. The Alyeska Resort is set back off this body of water in Glacier Valley. The resort was very nice. During our Alaskan adventure, we have become more used to tents than hotel rooms, but I have to say we enjoyed our one night in a fancy hotel.
Our room faced a series of snow capped mountains and the huge king bed had lots of pillows (one of my favorite things about hotels!). The resort has just about everything you could ask for: several restaurants, a ski shop, an outdoor pond (used for ice skating in the winter), a salt water swimming pool, a hot tub, a great room with a fireplace (moose head above) and chairs looking out big windows to the mountains (this was one of my favorite spots for the weekend), and on and on. It had a little something for everyone. Lucas was at the conference from 8 a.m. – 5 or 6 p.m. each day so I was on my own to explore the area. As I mentioned, I spent time in the great room reading and looking at the mountains, and I of course went hiking. How could I not with a mountain in my backyard!
On Saturday afternoon, I decided to hike up the north face of Alyeska Peak. The trail reached the upper bowl of the mountain where the resort has a little restaurant, museum (which was closed), look out, and chair lifts. A tram can take you from the hotel up or you can hike the steep three mile trail, which is what I decided to do. The trail starts out in spruce and aspen woods following along Winner Creek. Then it takes a sharp turn and heads up. You are above the treeline fast with views of North Star Mountain to the north, out to the Turnagain Arm, and across at a series of mountains. It is pretty in every direction. Near the top the trail transitions to snow/ice. It has a series of switchbacks that makes you feel like you are zigzagging to the top rather than just getting to it. But from the snow covered upper bowl you have great views. Everything here is pretty. At the restaurant/cafeteria I had a hot bowl of seafood chowder and looked out at the mountains. I am head over heals for Alaskan Mountains. After a half an hour, I decided it was time to head back. As a hiker, I could ride the tram down for free so I took that option, although I think the views were better from the trail!
It was a great way to spend the afternoon. But it did feel a little strange to hike alone. I missed having someone to share all the beauty with, so instead I took tons of pictures. More on our Girdwood adventure tomorrow.
At this point it seems pretty obvious that I am in love with Denali National Park. This past weekend was our third visit (not including our trip to Denali State Park) and every time I see the mountains on the horizon I start bouncing around in the car like a little kid on the way to an amusement park. Denali feels so Alaska. Mountains on all sides, big rivers, wildlife. Each time we go back the snow has crept a little further down the sides of the mountains, and the air is a little crisper. Winter is on the way.
Mount Healy is a beautiful hike. Unlike all of the other hiking we have done in Denali, this trail is right near the visitor center. It is the only trail so close to the park entrance that offers mountain views and a steady elevation climb. The park road is now closed for the season, so hiking near the entrance was the option, and Healy did not disappoint. The trail starts out following a small creek through spruce and aspen. The trail is wide in the beginning and feels like a stroll in the woods. Less than a mile in, the trail begins a steady climb to the summit of Mount Healy. The first look out is well below tree line and gives you an idea of what is coming: a view of the snow capped Alaskan range and the river valley below it. The trail continues to climb into alders and then finally, above the tree line. The trail changes over from roots to rocks and skirts the edge of the mountain. At each switchback the views are sweeping.
But my favorite part was when we got up to the final crest before the summit. The wind picked up, snow was speckled across the rocks, and the park road looked like a thin line of string below us. My friends were little dots up ahead and behind me. Perfect.
We ran out of time to reach the official summit but the views were still spectacular. Oh, Denali, how I love you.
Last weekend we also spent two days backpacking in Denali State Park which is on the southeast border of the National Park. The park includes over 325,000 acres. We hiked part of the Kesugi Ridge, a 33 mile-long alpine trail. The ridge runs parallel to the Alaskan Range and offers spectacular views of Denali (Mt. McKinley), when it isn’t hiding behind clouds. It was a once in a lifetime kind of weekend.
We started our hike at the Little Coal Creek Trailhead. This 3.3 mile trail follows the valley created by the creek and ascends into the alpine where it connects to the Kesugi Ridge trail. The first mile of the trail gradually climbs through spruce and aspen crossing small streams and marsh areas (moose habitat). Less than a mile up you come to the first view point, a clear sweeping scene of the Alaskan Range including Eldridge Glacier and the Chulitna River valley. We had great visibility and could see almost a 100 miles in each direction. From here the trail gets steeper. It continues to climb through tall alders with switch backs until you get above the treeline. This is where the trail gets grueling. The switchbacks disappear and you pretty much walk straight up hill for the last 2.5 miles. But the views. Wow. During breaks to breathe, you looked out at one of the most impressive mountain ranges I have ever seen. The low alpine landscape is beautiful in and of itself as well: spongy lichen, gray rocks, spots of red and brown grass. As we got closer to the ridge, we had to cross over the Little Coal Creek. The trail crosses at a boulder field that has actually covered the creek. So we scampered across rocks with the river buried beneath us. It was pretty, but tricky to cross with a thirty pound pack and slippery rocks. Once across, we made the final push to the ridge. The ridge is relatively flat and easy to hike. Again, it is all about the views! Breathtaking.
As we hiked on the ridge, we could see dark rain/snow clouds moving in behind us so we decided to set up camp. We camped below the ridge with our tent door facing Denali, hoping for a break in the clouds to catch a glimpse of the illusive mountain. After we set up the tent, we just sat looking at the mountain, and it paid off. The clouds parted and we could see the north summit of the mountain (which is slightly lower than the south summit.) It was exciting, our first good view of the mountain since our arrival in Alaska. Then it started to hail so we jumped in the tent. The hail finally let up but then it snowed. Oh, Alaska. Fortunately, we could open the door of the tent and watch the mountains even while it snowed…so pretty. Sunset over the Alaskan Range.
But our best view came the following morning. As soon as we woke up, we opened the door and got a clear, sunlit view of both summits! Picture me, still tucked in my sleeping bag, telling Lucas, “Get your camera, get your camera!” As he fumbled with the sleeping bag zipper and his gloves trying to get the camera battery back in so he could take a world class picture. It lasted about 20 minutes, and now we can check off one more Alaska goal: Denali has been spotted and documented.
One of the magical things about this trip, and most of our Alaskan experiences, is that we had the whole park, every view and moment, to ourselves. It is amazing to be surrounded by so much beauty without the snap of another camera or the noise of cars or people. I am not sure how we will go back to sharing our wild places someday.
This weekend we went back to Denali National Park to see how things change in late fall. It was a whole new experience. As of mid-September everything closes for the season: no gas, no food, no shops, and the park buses don’t run. The park road is open for private vehicles to drive out to Teklanika River at mile 29. This is the only time of year when private vehicles can drive past mile 15. Driving on your own offers a sense of leisure and privacy that riding on a bus can’t. We pulled over to look when we wanted, chatted, and took way to many pictures. It gave the whole park a new sense of intimacy. But we did miss the height of the bus for looking out, the freedom of no one having to watch the road, and the advantage of many sets of eyes looking for wildlife. There are trade-offs for both times of year. But this trip was certainly beautiful.
The landscape has drastically changed. All the leaves are off the trees and most of the mountains are snow capped. There are less people and most of the animals are beginning to hide away for winter. It was moose rutting season, and we did spot one large bull while driving. I am still impressed every time we see a moose. They are just so big! The drive provided sweeping views of the front half of the park. But my favorite part of the day was our hike up Primrose Ridge.
Denali National Park has very few trails, most of the wilderness requires you to find your own route. Hiking up Primrose Ridge we followed a social trail. Social trails develop in places that have dense foliage and usually follow the easiest path in the general direction most people want to go, in this case up the mountain. The social trail was helpful because the first part of the hike climbs up through tall, thick brush. Once we were above the tree line the hiking was steep but easier to follow. The views were excellent. Across from us you could see Cathedral and Double Mountain with the Alaskan Range stretching out behind them. Mountains with snow on them always seem more dramatic.
Reaching Primrose Ridge, although very pretty, was not the final destination. Rising further above us was the snow covered western side of Mount Margaret (the summit was to the east and further up), and it was worth the extra climb. The ridge, covered in low, wet alpine continued until it met the rocky edges of Margaret. As we neared the rocks, light snow was scattered in patches across the ridge. We scampered up the east side of the rocks. At the top, we could see 360 degrees, mountains in every direction! The top had several inches of snow and strong, cold winds. We wandered around among the rock outcroppings enjoying the views. The wind was so strong ice was frozen in bent lines off the rocks and on the ground. This was Alaska at its finest. We stayed on top as long as we could before we started to get cold. Our pictures can’t even capture how impressive this hike was, but they give you an idea. Alaska is one big, beautiful place.