Road Trip To Denali, AK
After our long drive of the Dalton Highway through the Alaskan wilderness, we felt back to civilization in a sense and returned our Jeep to Arctic Outfitters trading it for a “normal” rental car and headed south to Denali National Park. We chose to visit Alaska in September for a few different reasons…avoidance of the crowds and flies associated with summer travel and a chance to spy the Northern Lights.
Note that Denali’s summer bus service stops the second week after Labor Day each year. Thus, our visit was the final day of the busy service. Once the bus service ends for the season, cars are only permitted to drive the road up to 30 miles and then must turn around. The exception to this is the Road Lottery, an event wherein winners of a lottery system may buy a permit to drive the entire road (if weather allows) on the second weekend after Labor Day. Once significant snowfall accumulates, the park road frequently can’t be driven further than Mile 3, Park Headquarters.
From Fairbanks To Denali
This is a relativity uneventful drive getting to Denali. The scenery is still beautiful and vast. It really starts to take shape arriving to the Denali park. Be sure to stop and view the crystal blue waters along the highway.
We chose the transit bus which is a non narrated bus that travels into Denali’s interior as far as Wonder Lake, 85 miles from the start of the park and about a 5 hour bus ride. These are green buses that you can hop on or hop off throughout the day for one set fee of ~$60. Because we traveled on the last day of the park’s summer bus schedule, it was crowd free AND a surprise 8 inches of snow made for a different Denali than most people experience. While the snow blanketed everything in a beautiful white; unfortunately, it completed obscured any chance of actually seeing Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley). Cloud cover commonly obscures Denali and statistics say that only 1 in 3 visitors see an unobstructed view. However, we witnessed many moose and saw a glorious grizzly bear happily rolling in the snow as well as a herd of Dall sheep. Wonder Lake, if the weather is perfect, affords amazing views of Denali which can be seen in reflection in the blue waters of the lake. Also, at the end of the bus route is the McKinley Bar Trail.
This trail takes you from the Wonder Lake Campground to the McKinley River gravel bar. It’s an easy flat out and back with acres of spruce trees. As it was the last day of the season, we cut it much closer than we should have to catch not only the last bus of the day, but of the entire season..we had to run that last mile and caught the bus as it was pulling away. Close call. This bus is pretty no frills, so bring whatever you’ll need for the day (food, drinks, clothing layers, etc). We hopped on/off with zero waits, though in the summer, the bus is first come, first serve, so you may have to wait until a bus has free seats in the direction you are heading (either into or out of the park).
Savage Alpine Trail
Our second day in Denali, we drove in to Mile 13-15 and parked our car at the trailhead for the Savage Alpine Trail. This trail is four miles, and connects the Savage River area with Savage River Campground. In the summer season, you can use the Savage River Shuttle to travel back to your starting point if you need to pick up a car, or use it to return to the park entrance if you have no vehicle..given the time of year, we walked about two miles along the park road back to our car. This hike has a bit of a vertical ascent at the start and likely has beautiful views, but all that snow made staying on the trail difficult and marred the views quite a bit. When hiking in Alaska, I would strongly suggest bear spray. We bought ours at Fred Meyer, which sells just about everything you could possibly imagine…food, clothes, bear spray, and they’ll even make you a sandwich. Definitely stop here to stock up. Fortunately, we never had to use that bear spray! though I worriedly carried mine in a little holster on my hip the whole time.
49th State Brewing Company
Our lodging in the Denali area was at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. We chose this lodge as it was less than a mile from the park’s entrance, it is located on the banks of the Nenana River, and they have a charming log cabin atmosphere with decks that jut out over the river. They do have on site dining options, but we chose a couple of local establishments. A word of caution though, like the bus tours, this lodge closes September 16th and so do many of the surrounding eateries. The Black Bear is a cafe/coffeehouse that is worth a stop..I can personally recommend a delicious homemade apple cake. We also dined at the The Denali Park Salmon Bake which gets great reviews, though we only experienced late night snacks at the bar. In my opinion though, the can’t miss local restaurant is the 49th State Brewing Company located 8 miles from Denali. They have an award winning brew, an outdoor beer garden and you can even see a replica of the bus that Alex McCandless from the novel, Into The Wild, called home. They have a sophisticated pub menu and welcoming atmosphere and you can buy some cool merchandise.
From Denali, we made a pit stop at Talkeetna en route to Anchorage. Talkeetna is small town Alaska at it’s finest. There is only one paved road, Main St, lined with clapboard stores, funky local galleries, and a brewery. There is way more to do in Talkeetna than our brief lunch stop permitted. Flightseeing tours of Denali leave from the local airstrip and it’s a jumping off point for Denali climbers. One of the best pullouts to see Denali is just before driving into Talkeetna. We dined at the Denali Brew Pub (see pics!) where my husband had an amazing beer infused with coffee and I had a spiked root beer.
We concluded this leg of our journey with a short stay in Anchorage which consisted of an overnight stay at the Hotel Captain Cook. We scored a corner room and ironically, miles from Denali National Park, here we had our first view of Denali! Despite being hundreds of miles away, the towering mountain reached into the clouds and was still impressive in its size. We also saw a very brief but bright display of the Northern Lights that shone through the light pollution of Anchorage. After a long day of driving, we stretched our legs on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail which is an 11 mile trail that you can pick up at various points in the city and walk as much as you’d like and glimpse Denali from a distance. Dining here in Anchorage was at the Glacier Brewhouse a short walk from our hotel which is known for Alaskan seafood and roasted meats and has a warm ambiance and crackling fires.
Denali did not disappoint. Granted, we did not see the mountain from the park, but a grizzly rolling in the snow surpassed our expectations and gave a chance to see a side of the park that few experience. Furthermore, our favorite parts of Alaska were still to come!