Today we took a trip through Denali National Park. The Denali Wilderness Tour took us approximately 50 miles into the park to the Toklat River. The tour took approximately seven hours to complete because of the difficult terrain. We started at approximately 1600 feet at the park entrance and peaked at 3950 feet (1000 meters) 6 miles east of the turnaround point at the Toklat River. We went through some narrow passes with steep drops at the side of the road (a lot of people closed their eyes and tightened the seat belts at these points). The park's only road goes about 90 miles west into the park and only the first 15 miles are paved and open to the public without special permits. Permits are provided to campers who use some of the more isolated western campgrounds. The most common way for people to travel on the park road is with shuttle busses that run the length of the road. Hikers can get off or get picked up anywhere on the road.

The tour had its pluses and minuses. The plus was the scenery... ever changing vistas. The minuses were wildlife viewing and Mount McKinley. The scenery was outstanding, as you will see from the pictures below. With the changing light you could stand on one spot and see the same scene differently. Wildlife was not as abundant as people had expected. The reasons for limited wildlife viewing is that the northern environment can only support a few large animals in a given area. This contrasts with the expectation of people who thought they would see large herds of caribou and bears feeding alongside the road and Dall Sheep and Mountain Goats on every mountainside. The reality disappointed a lot of people on the bus.

The other disappointment was our inability to catch more than a glimpse of the northern face of Mount McKinley. McKinley, at more than 20,000 feet, is the highest mountain in North America. It and its neighboring mountains are frequently obscured by clouds. Our guide advised us that in the summer the mountain is only visible 20% of the time. The best viewing time is on clear winter days. Unfortunately we didn't want to wait for 40 below zero (F) to get the view. As a point of reference, the mountains shown in most of the pictures are less than half the height of Mount McKinley.

Denali Scenes
click for video

Several hundred foot drop at the edge of the road - no guardrails
Patterns created in the snow fields as they melted and concentrated surface dust
The Raven is associated with creation myths by several native groups. Nature (or the Raven Spirit, if you choose to believe) showed us that it can also make a picture of the Raven by using cloud shadows on a mountain.
Most of the rivers in the park drain glaciers and are loaded with rock flour. Rock flour is created by the wearing away of the mountains by the glaciers. The flour as well as rocks are deposited on the river bottom and cause the river to have braided channels as shown on Teklanika River, left. On the right is the Toklat River. You can see how shallow and widespread the river bottom is. According to the tour guide, the river never covers the bottom from bank to bank.


We didn't see too many animals on the tour. Those that we did see were far away and even the 300mm lens we carried could not capture their images well. We saw a number of Grizzly Bears including one sow with triplet cubs. They were so far away that even cropping the picture would only yield a blond spot (the sow) and three smaller brown spots (the cubs). Some caribou were close to the road and still difficult to see because of the vegetation.
Caribou Cow staring down a bus... the caribou won, the bus stopped
Caribou cow caught the attention of a bull and they wandered off
This caribou bull was right off the road but the vegetation made him hard to see
The Gypsies at Denali National Park