The Mountain Was Calling . . . Denali National Park and Preserve, AK

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February 28, 2021 by Deborah W. Trotter

There it was, beckoning to us in Anchorage, a 20,000-foot, snow-covered invitation on the the northern horizon. Two hundred sixty-five miles away. Denali.

Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) seen from Anchorage in May 2017

Our travels included visits to other National Parks to the south and east of Anchorage first, and by the time we headed north to Denali about a week later, it was no longer visible. But we knew it was there, waiting for us.

We spent three days in the Park, and the day we took our bus tour out to the the Eielson Visitor Center, located at Mile 66 on the Denali Park Road, we had still not seen the mountain again, but we were hopeful. The previous day’s rain had stopped, the clouds were clearing, and the sun seemed to be reclaiming the sky.

A view from the Teklanika River Rest Stop on the Park Road
Our wheels for the day

Two pieces of advice regarding your bus trip into the Park: 1) try to be first in line so you can claim the front seat across from the driver and have the view and photo opportunities out the bus front windshield, and 2) be lucky and have fellow passengers who are really good at spotting wildlife outside the bus!

Along the drive, there are a few scheduled stops for comfort breaks and photos, but our driver would always stop for wildlife sightings, as well. Many of the animals we saw were at a great distance from the bus, and difficult for me to photograph sharply, even with my zoom lens, but below is a blurry gallery of some of them: mountain goats, caribou, a sleeping brown bear, and a very blurry fox.

As we continued our drive, the amazing scenery unrolled in front of us, endlessly.

View from Polychrome Overlook
Toklat River Rest Stop

Not wanting to believe that Denali would disappoint us – the mountain, not the Park, because being taken miles and miles into such grandeur and majesty was a spectacularly uplifting experience – despite the lingering clouds, we clung to hopeful scenarios until we reached the Eielson Visitor Center. By then we reluctantly accepted that we would not be seeing the mountain up close. Its cloud shroud was thick and impenetrable and not inclined to lift, even for us.

What we would have seen, if we could have seen

We heard later about the “30% Club,” made up of the lucky 3 in 10 visitors who actually do catch site of the peak while in the Park. Inside the Visitor Center the large picture window is helpfully etched with an image that would outline the top of Denali if it were visible.

Approximate location of the summit of Denali, 17,000 feet above the Eielson Visitor Center at 3,300 feet

During the return trip we had an entirely different view of everything, but the sky was darkened by gathering and lowering clouds, making the mountains less visible and less photographable. We were still coming to terms with the fact that the best view we would have of Denali was the one we had gotten from Anchorage many days earlier, when a fellow traveler spotted something that almost made up for not getting to see the mountain. Wolves! Devouring the carcass of something about a hundred yards away from the bus.

We had never seen wolves before in the wild, and here were several. Our bus driver stopped and let us gaze in wonder upon these creatures. My photos below are fuzzy, but explicit, so if you do not want see them, feel free to skip the next gallery.

The best way to see Denali is by bus, as private automobiles are infrequently allowed on the unpaved part of the Park Road beyond the Savage River Rest Stop. Check out the bus options (especially in light of uncertainties and restrictions due to Covid) and make reservations ahead of your visit. Oh, and I hear that the 30% Club is still looking for new members!

Map on the wall inside the Eielson Visitor Center

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