June 24, 2008


The best way to describe Denali National Park is a single 90 mile long dead end road stretched through six million acres of untouched wilderness!
Add to that several visitor centers, a bus depot, and a few campgrounds near the entrance and there you have it. Access to the park’s interior with your own vehicle is restricted to the first fifteen miles (you can ride a bike or hike in further on your own). Park buses provide shuttles & tours of the “deep interior” daily, with many stops at various points of interest and “primitive” camps along the way. Overnight camping is by permit only, whereas day hikes require only a day or bus pass.

We finally arrive at the Park only to find that all that tourist traffic we've been missing was here, that's why we haven't seen any! Yes, every rv camping spot, tour, tent camping spot, interior back woods camping, shuttle....everything booked for the next three days! BUT late yesterday we checked ticket status and, we got lucky and did get on the twelve hour shuttle that runs all the way to Wonder Lake.
We had tried parking at the overflow lot in the Park, but were run off by a ranger at about 9PM, so we joined a small group of boondockers back out on the highway. Turns out, we had this beautiful view of the roaring Nenana River right outside our doorstep....pretty nice!

This morning started out quite cold & rainey, and to worsen matters, our bus driver ("RJ") had "mechanical problems" and was about 30 minutes late. But, I will say that he made it for it by working hard all day to stop & position the bus whenever he could to spot the birds & animals. His efforts paid off because by the end of the day we had managed to find the “Denali Big 5” (Grizzly, Moose, Caribou, Dall Sheep & Wolf) and an excellent summary of the history of the Park. With a small group onboard, some sharp eyes spotting things that were way, way out there, we really didn't have too much luck going in (to Wonder Lake).
We did manage to see a nesting site of a great horned owl. The mom was there and one of the fledglings. The rest had "flown the coop", so to speak.... and I never was able to get a good pix of mom. It didn't take us long to realize that this scenery beat the Dempster (Highway...up to Artic Circle) that we have been bragging about so much. The immense valleys, with multi-shaded greens, golds & browns set against a spectacular backdrop of snow-edged mountains was a sight to behold, even in the clouds & rain.
We saw both moose and caribou on the way in, our first two of the Big 5. And, when we got to Wonder Lake, we saw many of the most vicious, angry, attacking creatures in all of Alaska.....yep, you guessed it, the notorious Alaskan mosquito! The planned 20 minute stop lasted all of 5 minutes... glad we didn't get a pass to camp here overnite.

As we headed back towards civilization, the rain began to break, and our luck improved. At one of the "view" stops, a lady in front of us, with eagle eyes, spotted this grizzly sow and here cud, way, way out there...hey, but it counts!

Shortly after, we found a nice group of the Dall sheep with a couple of large rams within....turns out that this was to be the first group of several seen on our way out.

The ride out was highlighted with a long stop at the Eilson Visitor Center. The stop here provided this magnificent view of the glacial valley which stretches most of the entire length of the park road.

Just outside, was a recently found pair of moose antlers, locked together from a battle of mortal combat, a scene which is frequently observed here on the tundra during the rut. We walked out to a small point below the Center, and discovered a myriad of tiny wildflowers.

Back in the Center we found a stunning example of quilt art, showing us what the view outside would be like on a clear day!

Kim and I have been determined to see the Gyrofalcon, but after spending many hours “in the right places” and passing right by this active nest twice during the bus drive, we have yet to see this unique bird of prey. I guess we can say that we did get a picture of the nest…so, ok ABA birders, does that count as a lifer?

We stopped at a known wolf den for some time without seeing anything. Then, Kim’s new Nikon binocs really paid off as she noticed the alpha female lying far below in a small path. We also saw one of the pups, but not long enough to get the lens on it. But, hey we had now “scored” the entire Big 5 on what most said was a poor day for viewing. Our only regret was not being able to see Denali (Mt McKinley), but I guess we’ll save it for another day.

The driver could only stop at a couple of "viewpoints" on the return, but I did manage to get a few shots to help convey the feel of Denali!