Alaska Railroad - Anchorage to and from Denali
Denali National Park and Preserve
Tuesday July 1st
For many years, Alaska has been on my list of must see places so I was very excited for this trip. After a three-hour delay in the airport due to the airplane’s malfunctioning gas valve or something, we got to Anchorage without any problem. We arrived at the Econo Inn, which is located close to the Alaska Railroad Depot. The Econo Inn really stretches the “econo” in economical. The room was adequate, though it’s not the place I would test a blacklight on the carpet or sheets (some times not knowing is better).
Wednesday July 2nd
In the morning we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast of mini croissants, tang, and kool-aid. Hey it’s not the Ritz. The best thing about the hotel is the free shuttle that will pick you up and drop you off at the airport. We had it drop us off at the railroad station.
We checked in and picked up our “golden tickets.” The tickets were an upgrade to a train car with dining on the first level and seating on the second. The setting was enclosed in glass so it offered an almost 360 degree view. There was also an open back deck on the second level.
The train ride to Denali National Park was a great experience. The upgrade made it even better with nice comfortable seats and free beverages. We spent most of the time standing on the back deck though and watched the scenery roll by. Taking the train was a great way to see Alaska. From Anchorage to Talkeenta, there were occasional signs of civilization houses and the town of Willsa. From Talkeetna, the scenery grew more pristine as the low forest of aspens, cottonwoods, and birch gave way to forests of spruce. We could see large bright red salmon lined up along the rocky bottom of one clear river as we passed over. We went by many glacial silt-filled rivers, open marshes, ponds, and lakes all back-dropped the magnificent mountains. At some points along the ride, we could see the snowy Mount McKinley behind the mountains.
Birding from a moving train can be challenging, perhaps even more than a ferry. But we did manage to see some birds an Artic Tern circling over the open wet meadow, Trumpeter Swans and their cygnets resting in a marshy pond, and a Golden Eagle eating a rabbit on the sand bar.
Along with enjoying the spectacular scenery I was lulled by the sounds of the methodic clank of the tracks, the occasional screech of the wheels around a curve, the train whistling before each crossing, and the Doppler effect on the “ding-ding” at crossing signals. I stood out on the deck soaking it all in (but perhaps a little too much diesel fumes) enjoying the beautiful sunny day in an incredible surrounding.
After an enjoyable 8-hour ride through the countryside, we arrived at the Denali Bus Depot and Visitor Center around 4 PM. Since we weren’t familiar with the bussing system or what the park had to offer, we were stressed about finding fuel for our stove, getting our reservations squared away, and getting to the campground. We were directed to the WAC (Wilderness Access Center). By the time we collected our bags, we had missed the buses (we could have taken the Riley Creek bus or the Savage River bus) to the center, so we walked to the center, which was only 1 mile away.
We squared away our camping and bus reservations at the center and even found our fuel at the small store/gift shop at the WAC. So we were all set. All we had to do now was take the free Savage River bus out to the Savage River campground. After a short trip through the taiga and glimpses of Mt McKinley (75 miles away) past the mountains, we were dropped off at the Savage River campground located in a patch of spruce forest.
By the time we arrived at the campground most of the sites were already taken. Since people can drive into this campground, the sites were taken by RVs and cars. I think we were the only ones to walk into the campground.
After locking up our food/smelly stuff in the bear locker, we took an evening hike down the road to the Savage River Loop Trail. From the road we could see the river spread out below in the wide valley bottom. The river separated into several channels on the gravely bottom. Grassy fields and marshes extended from the gravel bars up to the taiga.
At the trailhead, there were many Willow Ptarmigans on the sandy river’s edge. The males some times gave off their calls and ran across the sand. We saw chicks of the ptarmigans staying close to their parents. Everywhere there were snowshoe hares. Though we could get pretty close to these hares they would scurry off in the last second.
We hiked up the 2 mile loop trail on Savage River. The river was gray with glacial silt and bubbled and washed over the rocky river bottom. As the trail went up the trail, the river narrowed into a deeper channel and the steep slopes of the mountains reached down close to the river. Fields of flowers grew on the banks of the river.
We returned to the campsite and set up our tent. A red squirrel came to see if we would be foolish enough to feed it. Gray Jays joined the clean up/thieving squad to check out our activities.
It was nearly midnight and the sun was still lowering itself to the horizon. It never got dark this time of the year. The sun would set, but never make it far below the horizon to allow darkness to fall.
Thursday July 3rd
We awoke to full daylight (of course), broke camp, stored our gear in the bear locker, and set out on a morning hike. A flock of White-winged Crossbills flew in to the spruces briefly, before taking flight to another set of trees. It was a nice beautiful day. We could see Mt McKinley in the distance with only a few clouds hanging over it. We walked down to the gravel bars of Savage River. There were tracks indicating a large bull moose was probably grazing in the area, but we could not see one. In the willow thickets along the river, American Tree Sparrows sang. We also got good looks at a male Blackpoll Warbler as he sang from the treetops.
We wandered around the area for a while before packing up and waiting for the 11 AM bus to Wonder Lake. Since we were traveling with large backpacks, we had to take the camper bus, which was the same as the other park service buses except the last few rows were missing so there was room for bags. I think the drivers of the green buses or the “destination” buses/non-tour buses had most of the same information about the park as the tour (tan) buses, but they didn’t have the tour guide persona. It was just a matter of unlocking the information by asking the right questions assuming you knew what to ask.
The bus ride deeper into the park was scenic and awe-inspiring. After Savage we traveled through more taiga. Past the Savage River at the 15-mile marker, only buses are allowed beyond that point. From there the road narrows and turns to gravel. We started gaining more elevation and soon we were driving through the open tundra framed mountains in every direction. In some parts, the park seemed plagued by snowshoe hares large swats of brushes were evenly mowed down and defoliated.
We saw Dall’s sheep with their blazing white coats on the mountaintops. And we saw caribou standing out in the snow patches. We were later told on return trip that the caribou were plagued by nose flies that lay eggs on the nose. The eggs hatch and the larvae crawl into the nose to the throat and live there until the next spring. The poor caribou are also plagued by a different fly that lays eggs in the hallow hairs on its fur. Those larvae crawl down the tube and burrow into the skin they aren’t small either. When they hatch out of the skin they are about the size of a deer fly. Ouch!
The bus stopped at Polychrome Pass (named for its beautiful multi-colored rocks). I heard the pass nicknamed Poison Pass because one drop will kill you. The pass was on the side of the mountain the narrow dirt road was boxed in by a cliff side up and a steep drop below. From the pass we could see Polychrome glacier stretching down toward the east fork of the Toklat River from the snow-capped mountains across from the valley before us. As we loaded onto the bus, a large male caribou made it way up the road toward us. It continued walking up the road past our bus and past all the people standing in at the rest stop.
Further up the road between Toklat and Eielson, we saw 6 grizzly bear adults and 5 grizzly cubs. The large bears took no interest in the buses, a very good sign. I admired the way the park handled the way it minimizes human and wildlife impact and how it educates people to be responsible not only for themselves but for the interest of wildlife. Even from the dirt road on the bus, it seemed very wild out here.
Close the Eielson, Mt McKinley dominated the skyline. We were a lot closer to the mountain now. And its full splendor towered down on us. We lucked out again with another clear and beautiful day; only a few clouds covered the mountain but it was still an impressive site. We stopped at the Eielson visitor center, where we took in the view and stretched our legs.
Back on the bus it was only a short ride to our final destination Wonder Lake. The road dropped down back into the taiga there were several ponds that were good places for a moose wanting to escape the heat. From the road we could see wind sweeping dust off the sandbars in the river. It was unusually windy (and sunny) for July. We arrived at the campground around 4 PM. At the campground, we rushed to find an open campsite with a view of Mt McKinley. We got really lucky with an open site that was not on the main path. The majority of the campsites are in a brushy meadow with a clear view of the mountain. Half of the meadow campsites did not directly face McKinley and the mountain was obstructed by spruce and cottonwood trees. There were also a few campsites were located on a hill without a view.
We have heard the joke about mosquitoes being the state bird of Alaska, but the windy day kept the mosquitoes at bay at least for then. After setting up camp, we ate dinner in the food shelter. Then we went for a walk down to the lake and up the road a bit.
The rest of the evening we relax at the campsite and took in the sight of the immense mountain across the McKinley Valley. When we decided to tuck in the wind died down and as I drifted off to sleep I could hear the mosquitoes throwing themselves against the tent.
Friday July 4th
I woke up to the sound of the site next to us packing up and their kid whining and crying. I don’t know if he was just tired or complaining about the mosquitoes, but the later was something to cry about. With the wind gone, the mosquitoes had come out. And some of the mosquitoes were quite impressive in size.
We donned our mosquito head nets and began to pack up our gear. As silly as the head nets looked, they really work in keeping the mosquitoes away. We packed quickly and kept moving so the mosquitoes won’t have a place to settle. We ate breakfast at the food shelter where it was harder to avoid the swarms of mosquitoes. Before this point we had been using lemon eucalyptus to ward of mosquitoes, but this time we had to break out the DEET.
After hanging up our packs and storing our food we hiked down the road to the McKinley Bar Trail. It was a short hike (3 miles one way) through taiga, flooded meadows, and over trickling streams. The mosquitoes followed us the entire way or at least there were rotations of mosquitoes that trailed us. Whenever we stopped they would swarm around us looking for any unprotected spot. The trail ended at the McKinley River. A large gravel bar stretched out and thick stands of willow grew on the rivers edge.
We wandered around the river’s edge though there was no clear path through the willows. The only “easy” path was on the gravel bars, but we did not feel like forded the cold river water. We headed back toward the campground. On the return trip we saw many people heading out to the bar, including one large tour group from one of the lodges in Kantishna, the old mining community in the “heart of Denali.” Perhaps it was the arrival of new “meat” but the mosquitoes on the return trip seemed to have diminished.
Crossing one of the meadows, we got a good look at a lemming in the bushes. The cute little rodent was trying to gather food, but our presence made it nervous and it would pop in and out of its hole and run from bush to bush.
The few birds I saw along the trail were Savannah and White-crowned Sparrows, which were abundant everywhere we went. Birding in Denali was challenging. Either I wasn’t see the birds or they weren’t there or they were hunkered down. There just didn’t seem to be many visible birds. I know I didn’t spend a lot of time in one place, but still whenever we went hiking there was a noticeable lack of bird activity. It may have been the time of year if the birds are feeding their young or incubating eggs. On the trip, I did see some new birds for me, but still a somewhat disappointing lack of variety. Moving around each day (and on a bus) might be the reason why we weren’t seeing birds; I would have liked to spent more time in one spot.
Back at the campground, we wandered up the service road, killing time before the camper bus would come in the afternoon. At 1:30 PM we loaded into the camper bus (apparently the only type of bus that would take us back with our packs). We had a congenial driver, who acted grumpy, but was humorous and informative at the same time. We learned more from this driver than our driver on the ride into the park.
The bus continued on to Kantishna at the end of the road and turn around point for the bus. The old mining town was turned into a place for resorts expensive ones at that running $400 per night per person. I’m glad we didn’t stay there because though it is located in the “heart” of Denali, there isn’t much there. Once you get there, there’s no easy way to get back into the park. Plus, Wonder Lake has the best easily accessible view of Mt McKinley, while Kantishna had none.
The bus picked up a family that had taken a plane ride from Glitter Gulch (another horrible resort town on the outskirts of the park entrance) over Mt McKinley to Kantishna. As we passed by Wonder Lake, a female moose was spotted standing in a pond munching on pondweeds. We watched the big cow munch away without paying any attention to the large bus full of goofy tourist on the road.
Along the way back, we made a stop at Eielson again before continuing on. We spotted only 2 adult grizzlies and 1 cub during this pass. However, we got a closer view of one of the grizzles, which was feeding in some bushes down a steep embankment from the road. As we climbed Polychrome Pass again, several buses were stopped as a male caribou (probably the one we saw the day before) walking up the road. The buses followed the caribou and one got by when the caribou started feeding by the side of the road. We trailed the caribou up to the pass. It walked past the rest stop where many people were milling about. The caribou finally pulled out and started feeding along side the road as we passed it.
Further down the road we spotted a couple of herds of Dall’s sheep both of them had recently crossed down and over the valley to the next mountains. The first group we saw at the east fork of the Toklat River and the second we saw at Igloo Mountains. Both groups were ewes with their young.
The rest of the ride, I started to drift off due to lack of sleep and sheer tiredness. It had been difficult to get to bed at a reasonable hour with the 24 hours of light. It was finally taking a toll on me.
We reached Riley Creek Campground where we’d be spending the night. The next morning we had a train to catch back to Anchorage so we couldn’t stay at the other campgrounds, because the buses would have made it a thigh squeeze on the timing. We walked to the “tent only walk in campsite.” When we originally made reservations, we went with the RV sites, but when we got to the WAC we switched to the tent sites. We should have stuck with the RV sites. The tent sites were crowded together. And since the sites are first come first serve, we were stuck with the last available site, which was on the campground road. Being close to the road and hence vehicles defeated the purpose of tent camping. The RV sites were larger and at least some of them had more privacy. The only thing we need from the tent campsites was the food lockers (which was only to protect your food from squirrels since I don’t think bears would be any where near this area).
But we were stuck with this campground that was crowded and over run with people, a stark contrast from the Wonder Lake campground and much worse than Savage River campground. Even though the other two campgrounds had people, it had nature and scenery to go to balance it out. The people there seemed respectful and considerate of nature. Riley Creek campground only seemed to exist to satisfy the needs of the mega-bus-campers who weren’t allowed into the park. And we had to be lumped in with them for one night.
We walked around one of the many trails back to the visitor center and train depot in the evening before going to bed.
Saturday July 5th
Trying to catch up on sleep, we didn’t get up until 8 AM. We packed up our camp and caught the bus over to the train depot. We checked in our bags at the bag storage and wandered around the bookstore. Since the train depot was not open yet, we walked up Rock Creek/Meadow View/Road Side trails to soak in the last bit of Denali NP before we started our long journey back.
After checking in at the train depot (got our golden tickets), we had lunch at the Morino Grill the park services’ cafeteria. The food was mediocre and expensive, but I couldn’t expect anything more than that. While we were sitting outside eating, a red squirrel stole a French fry of another woman’s plate and ate it within only a few feet of the crime scene. Aggressive little bugger.
Still having a little time before the train arrived, we wandered through the visitor center. Tor stopped at the counter to make a couple of suggestions hopefully with the idea they will improve themselves. One complaint was about Riley Creek campground (tent campers get cheated) and the other about fuel disposal/reuse.
Since we had bought fuel at the beginning of the trip, we still had a lot left. However the park doesn’t have a reusing/drop off fuel program. And since its considered hazardous waste, we can’t take it on the train (let alone the airplane). Instead its stuck as a perfectly useful item (that we could have used if someone offered it to us at the beginning of the trip) that has no where to go. So backpackers have to buy fuel, use a little bit of it then do who knows what with it at the end of the trip - very wasteful and unnecessary.
I wandered around the visitor center and was impressed by their displays. I’ve been in many visitor centers, but I think this was one of my favorites. If felt like there was a good amount of information without being overwhelmed. The displays of animals were not taxidermy rather they were plastic. However, they were realistic, captivating, and accurate (the ram had balls, the caribou carcass was bloody and boney).
We left the visitor center when we heard the train pull in. Back on the gold car, we were stuck with a tour group from a cruise ship package. I found them rather annoying, perhaps it was their great interest in getting their next drink or maybe it was their tour guide who was a little too enthusiastic. It wasn’t my crowd. We got put in their car because I wanted to sit on the other side of the train (they originally put us on the same side as when we rode up), so they had to move us into the cruise ship car. The good thing was most of them weren’t interested in standing in the back deck and they were only riding to Talkeetna.
So for most of the train ride back, we hung out on the back deck drinking free hot chocolate and apple juice. Tor spotted a mother moose and her two young red calves walking away. When we got closer to Anchorage, more moose were spotted along the tracks. Most of them didn’t seem concerned about the train. Only the mother moose was the one to react from the train.
They were redoing the tracks on one of the sections. This caused a massive dusting of the entire train. It became difficult to breathe. Luckily it didn’t last too long, but the air filters needed to be shaken out so the air could be turned on again.
We had dinner on the train and like our lunch on the way to Denali, the food was OK and lacked anything special. The food didn’t seem particularly fresh and was a little bland. And of course was overpriced for what it was. But Alaska is expensive in general and there’s not much one can do about it.
Near the Matanuska River, we saw an Artic Tern circling over the water. We saw several more circling above the saltwater marshes near arm of the Cook Inlet.
Around 8 PM we pulled into Anchorage. After claiming our bags, we took a taxi to the airport. It was still too early to check into our 12:30 flight so we had to wait around.
After checking in, there was still more waiting around. Thankfully our flight was on time and was smooth ride back to Seattle. I conked out during take off.
The Alaska trip was exciting, beautiful, but too short. I could have easily spent more time here, especially to stay in one place and get better acquainted with the environment and the birds. I hope to one day return to the beautiful state. It seems vast and still full of pristine environments to explore.
Common Loon - AR
AR = Alaska Railroad: Anchorage to and from Denali