21 – 28 July 2014
I had expected the park to work more-or-less like the many national parks I had visited last year (e.g. walk-in campgrounds) but no – everything had to be planned, registered and paid before entering the park which provided a bit of a challenge as I didn’t know the park; only that I was going to spend about a week there. My initial plan had been to bike to the end of the park road to Kantishna (mile 92 – 150k) and back, but people had told me the gravel road was in bad condition after this Summer’s massive rain (at some point people had even been airlifted out of the park because of floodings) - instead I decided to take a bus one way and bike back. Next challenge was where to camp – the campgrounds are few and expensive so I decided to mostly use the free backcountry option though it created another challenge as the park is divided into small zones with limited number of permits per zone per day – and requirements to stay at least 0.8k (0.5 miles) from the road and out of sight. With a backpack it would have been easy but having to carry my panniers in a flight bag I wanted to camp as close to the road as possible. The rangers provided advice and late afternoon I finally had my schedule in place after which I had to watch a 30 minutes video, have a ranger talk and sign some papers before I was “dismissed” with a bear canister. I understand they have to make sure that even people with no experience understand how to behave in the wilderness (the lowest denominator) but for me it was wasted time which meant I missed the late afternoon bus to Wonder Lake at mile 86 (135k)… Instead I booked a 7am bus for the next morning, deposited most of my stuff in a locker and spent the evening at Riley Creek campground by the park entrance.
I got up at 5.30 getting a drizzle while having breakfast and packing. I was in time to rearrange a few things in my locker but it didn’t work – it took 2 park people and changing to 3 different lockers (moving all my stuff every time) before one finally worked – just one of those mornings… And it continued with the bus; there are only 2 bike racks on the buses and they were both occupied because the woman booking my bus ticket had forgotten to register my bike. The bus left without me but several people were in motion to help and I finally got a ride on another bus about an hour later… Slightly annoying getting up so early for nothing but things happen for a reason and I think the delay was to get the morning clouds to clear (later I also learned that we saw much more wildlife on my bus than the one I was scheduled for). The drive to Wonder Lake was close to 6 hours with multiple photo stops for the beautiful scenery and wildlife – amongst other we saw 7 grizzly bears (one with 2 cubs), countless Dall sheep, many Caribou, a moose and a Merlin falcon. The driver had 25 years experience in the park and was better than most tour guides providing endless information about the park history, development, animal life, etc. The bus was headed for Kantishna so I was let off the main road and biked the last kilometers down to Wonder Lake. Clouds were coming in and Wonder Lake was not that amazing – the driver explained the name as 2 early explorers missing the lake when first passing it and later saying “I wonder how we could have missed that lake”. After pitching my tent I spent the afternoon talking to different people amongst other German bicyclists Jens – and late afternoon the clouds cleared shortly but long enough to get a view of Denali and the whole mountain range… The state bird – the mosquito - was well represented as was the squirrels but otherwise no wildlife…
It was an overcast/rainy morning so I stayed in the tent until 9.30am. Some people got up at 6am and I was reminded why I don’t like campgrounds – some people are so noisy and inconsiderate… When I left at noon the rain had stopped but it was still overcast so not much to see along the way. It was only a 22k (14 miles) ride and even though it was uphill the real challenge was the mud getting stuck under the mud guards… I pitched my tent off the road and hiked around the area for some hours – this part of the park is mostly wetland, so my shoes got soaking wet hiking in the juniper/moss; I saw many indications of wildlife but no animals. I met a ranger who was on his way to a nearby zone to deal with a bear that had torn apart some people’s tent and sleeping bags while they were hiking – he told me about another bear in my zone but I never found it; only a lot of bear droppings. Late afternoon I could see the rain approaching so I hurried back to my tent just in time – and as it rained continuously for the next 17 hours I skipped dinner.
When the rain finally stopped it was 10am, so it was a late breakfast – delayed further by 2 bull moose coming so close, I had to turn off the stove and wait 30 minutes before I could resume my cooking; what a beautiful experience. I biked the short distance to Eielson Visitor Center and since it was still overcast/rainy and dense fog there was no point in either continuing or hiking the area, so I spent the afternoon charging my batteries, having lunch and talking to rangers; it was no surprise the temperature said 5C (40F). Late afternoon - between showers – I rode a few more kilometers down the road (passing a group of caribou) and hiked into the backcountry to pitch my tent between some hills. I had to cross a creek a couple of times but since my shoes and socks were still soaking wet from the previous days it didn’t really matter. I got my tent up as the rain began again and since I was wet and cold I had some bread/cheese for dinner instead of pasta/soup that would have taken a long time to make…. really happy to have good equipment especially getting warm quickly in my sleeping bag.
It rained – and even snowed (though it melted as it hit the ground) - all night and until late morning so I stayed in the tent until 10am…. feeling a bit of a back ache from carrying my stuff. Too windy and cold to make breakfast so I packed up and headed towards the main road where I could see a bit of blue sky… crazy weather this morning changing every 5 minutes from overcast/rain to blue sky/sunshine. I rode some kilometers and waited for a heavy shower to pass by riding right behind it to avoid the next shower coming in – it worked and I only got a little rain and fairly nice views. Downhill towards Toklat I almost hit a bear coming around a corner - it was walking down the road only 25 meters (75 feet) in front of me… According to the rules I was supposed to bike back up the road to a safety distance of 300 yards (275 meters) but after studying me a couple of times the bear seemed uninterested so I stayed and watched it slowly walking down the road and into the bushes waiting some minutes before I continued. In Toklat I dried my wet stuff in the cold wind while having lunch and studying some Dall sheep on a nearby hill. Late afternoon the rain took off and I biked 13k (8 miles) down the road where I camped high on a hillside expecting gorgeous views when the weather (according to forecast) would improve the next day.
Well it didn’t happen – the next morning it was still overcast but at least it didn’t rain. I hiked a bit around the area before breakfast but encountered no wildlife but a lot of pretty flowers and big fungus; and then during breakfast 6-7 caribou passed by very close not seeing me – not being ready I didn’t get a picture before they were almost over a hill. I was to camp in this zone two days so I moved the tent higher up the slope to get away from the road noise (only park buses are allowed to drive here but there are quite a lot of them especially early morning and late afternoon) and hopefully get better views. The weather was decent but instead of hiking where I had had no luck with wildlife I decided to bike up and down the road to cover a larger area… I saw some caribou and got okay views from Polychrome Overlook where I spent some hours hiking and watching the changes between the quietness and then the hassle whenever a bus pulled up…. Back in camp I had a late lunch/early dinner before I took shelter in the tent at 7pm when I began raining.
Like the days before the forecast said sunshine and it did happen briefly around 6am but it was too early to get up – and when I did get up at 9.30 it was overcast. After breakfast I rode to Iglo Creek campground taking my time scouting for wildlife; however I only saw some caribou and some eagles… As it wasn’t raining I would have preferred continuing to the entrance but I had to stay since I had already paid. Not much to do so I spent some hours sorting pictures and finishing a book – and talking to an interesting local guy Walker this year working for the park but other years’ digging for gold.
I got up at 9am just in time to pack my stuff before it rained during breakfast. The sky was dark and with no immediate chance of change I headed out in the pouring rain. It was 60k (36 miles) to entrance of which the last 23k (15 miles) was on paved road…. Again it was tough riding in the mud and nothing to see along the way… I stopped by the park HQ to borrow a foot pump and they were friendly to also provide a cup of coffee while I warmed up… At the park entrance I spent some time copying pictures intending to head out of the park and camp off the road to Fairbanks. However, when I repacked all my stuff from the locker I missed my adaptor and since Lost & Found was closed I had to wait until the morning. I met 2 German guys Vince and Rafael that I had talked to several times in the park and they were kind to let me camp at their spot at Riley Creek.
By spending a week in Denali I thought I had improved my chances of a great experience, however the bad weather 6 out of 7 days prevented that. It was still an experience but not the one I had hoped for - besides eliminating the views, the low hanging clouds and much downpour limited my hiking especially in the mornings and evenings which are the best times for encountering wildlife. But at least I got to see the mountains and some wildlife – most people only being there one day experienced nothing….