As the four of us left anchorage in the pouring rain in route to our cabin just north of the entrance to Denali national park, we all wondered how much extra time would be spent stopping to see the beautiful scenery or wildlife. We were finally on our own with no other tourists aboard a cruise ship or train, so we had the luxury of being on our own time. There probably were majestic mountains and wildlife but they could not be seen through the downpour we were driving through. Turns out there would only be two stops made, one was to use the restroom. The other was an emergency pit stop. There we were driving along when a sign appeared on the side of the road that read “49th State Brewery”, so you can imagine the urgency to pull in and explore. To those of you who know craft beer and know us, we had found the Lagunitas of Alaska, yes we had struck gold! We enjoyed some of their tasty brew and food, and thought it was probably good that our cabin was not too close to this establishment. Inside was very cozy, with a fireplace that you could sit around and enjoy. Outside, there were games and horseshoe pits as well as the bus from the movie “Into The Wild”. This must be a locals favorite in the winter during a snowstorm. Finally, five hours after we left anchorage, we arrived at the driveway to Ridge Top Cabins where we would continue up the mile or more dirt road that winds up the hill from highway 3 to the top of a beautiful ridge full of aspens, birch, and spruce trees. Our cabin (number 6) was a nice little two bedroom, surrounded by a lot of trees, many of which were marked up by the resident bull moose who seemed to evade our searching eyes. This was base camp for the next three nights as we would explore one of the most magnificent pieces of land in the world.
We had all seen Denali National Park in movies and magazines, but as with most things, pictures or video don’t do justice to a place of such grand stature. On the first day, we went for it and entered the heart of the park on one of the famous green shuttle buses that takes you from the park entrance to as far as ninety plus miles to the end of the only road that runs through the park. The end of that road would not be seen by our eyes though, as we traveled sixty six miles to the visitors center at Eielson. On our round trip from the wilderness access center, we encountered three female grizzlies each with a set of cubs, two male grizzlies, a female moose with a calf, a coyote, a golden eagle, a few ground squirrels, several ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird) pronounced tar-ma-gen, some Dahl sheep dots way up on the mountainside and somewhere around thirty caribou, but we saw enough of those that the bus driver would only stop if they were very close to the road. In fact after we stopped for one near the road, we had to wait because it had walked up on the road and continued down the middle passed another bus and only after he got off on his exit were we able to continue on. We would not join the thirty percent of visitors to see “The Mountain” on this day as clouds would hang low in the valley in front of Denali.
We would return the next day to watch a sled dog demonstration and learn about their history in the park which is quite interesting because to this day they still patrol the park in winter without machines and only raw paw power. After the demonstration we headed back into the park with hopes of spotting more wildlife, but this time we drove the car in the fourteen miles that cars are permitted. We were not disappointed as we spotted two bull moose on the way in and one on the way out, all were feeding close to the road as if they were planted there by the park so that visitors would get enticed to enter and see what lie inside the park.
As we drove south toward Anchorage on our final day, we all were amazed at how people journeyed so far into the unknown on foot to explore this rugged and unforgiving land, knowing there was a chance they may not return. We however, would return in the luxury of a vehicle traveling much faster than they would have and it still felt like it was taking forever. It may have been the season we were traveling in that was making the trip longer than it should have. You see, there are three seasons in Alaska, spring, winter, and construction. We were in the latter. But on this day, we would join those thirty percent who come to Alaska and see the mountain known as “Denali”. We were able to see it from two different vistas along highway 3 thanks to the research Simone had done finding which mile markers you could see it from. Denali is an amazing mountain with an equally amazing park that lies beneath it’s snow capped peaks. We are so thankful to those that came before us and took note of this paradise, and fought to preserve it for future generations. Let’s hope that this fight continues for those that come after us.