Denali National Park

We awoke early the next day, not only because we were excited about touring Denali National Park but we knew that the amount of park we would be able to see was based on the time we reached the Wilderness Access Center at the Park’s entrance.

We grabbed a quick, but exceptional and complimentary, bite to eat at the Main Lodge and headed to the Park.

Quick check list of must have items to pack for a day in Denali National Park

  • Jacket – preferably a windbreaker
  • Hiking boots or shoes
  • Water
  • Snacks / Lunch
  • Camera (extra batteries and memory)
  • Map / Bus Schedule
  • Compass

(My brother would also like to note that a tripod doubles as a great walking stick.)

Things to Know about Getting Around Denali

There is only one road, 92 miles in length, in Denali National Park. Typically, one may only drive fifteen miles up that road into the Park to the Savage River Check Station. This station is where you will catch one of many types of buses to take you the remainder of the way through the park. We chose to take one of the shuttle buses.

These buses will pick you up and let you off anywhere along the road as you travel through the park. You do not have to return on the bus you originally started. They also stop at each of the visitor’s centers located along the way: Toklat River, Eilson, Wonder Lake and Katishna. The earlier you arrive to catch a bus, the further into the park you can go.

You want to make sure that you arrive at your final destination before the last bus of the day leaves there to return to the entrance so that you aren’t stuck on an impromptu camping adventure.

One other important thing to note is that there is no food or beverage available along the route. It is IMPERATIVE that you bring both of these items with you, you will need them. There are gift shops at both the Toklat and the Eilson stop, but they have no food items available for purchase, not even a token Denali candy bar. There is a shop at the Wilderness Access Center so if you make it into the Park without food or drink, you can purchase these items there.

We did find a wild blueberry patch however at the Wonder Lake stop, a very nice treat after a lunch of granola bars and cheese crackers.

Our Denali Experience

We found ourselves discussing how nice it would be to reside in Alaska as we drove through Denali. The view was again remarkable, brilliant, beautiful. I believe we saw approximately one hundred thousand twenty-two wild hares along the side of the road, a good year for them. We also saw a mother bear and her cub drinking at the river, a bear viewing us from road side and a bear scratching his shoulder on the back of the bus as he crossed the road behind us. We saw moose, wolves, Dall sheep, did I mention hares?

Our stop at the Polychrome Overlook was probably most impressive to me. Before us lay multicolored mountaintops, flowered fields and the East Fork River.

We decided on the return trip that we would get off the bus at the Toklat River rest stop and hike up the road on our own for awhile. The light was perfect, we crossed a shallow river on foot and we just enjoyed the serenity and quiet of our surroundings. We spent an hour, just Ryan and I, along the main road. We even found a location where glacier melt met the river, the contrast was amazing.

Just the trip to Wonder Lake and back is 11 hours. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the Park early enough to get the trip out to Katishna, I guess we have a reason to return.

Moose Cow and Calf in Denali

Moose Cow and Calf in Denali

From Seward to Anchorage and Denali National Park

Pier in Anchorage

A morning mist floats around the pier in Anchorage

After a full day at sea, it was good to know we would be disembarking today. We feel we truly picked the best length cruise for us, 7 days was just right. Our next option would have been the 14 day cruise, but we really wanted to get on land and have a chance to explore for ourselves. We were planning on spending the next two days in Denali National Park and couldn’t wait to get there. Holland America made leaving the ship quite simple, we left our bags out for pick-up the evening before and had nothing to do but eat breakfast, grab our carry-ons and leave the boat.

Seward Pier Building

Seward Pier Building

Best lesson I can stress regarding disembarkation, LISTEN to your Travel Agent. The staff on your ship will do their best to make sure you and your luggage get to the right place, but they may not be aware of special arrangements regarding the rest of your vacation. We unfortunately didn’t understand we weren’t to follow the mass of people boarding a bus to Anchorage, we were supposed to have picked up our rental car there in Seward. A few good things came from the mistake however and we did ultimately arrive at our day’s destination, albeit a few hours later than we had planned.

Boarding the tour bus in Seward allowed us to take in the wealth of knowledge our driver had. He didn’t stop talking for a moment, giving us every piece of information he could about the Alaskan frontier, culture, history… little known facts and random stories included. It was actually quite enjoyable, as was the scenery. Traveling up Highway 1, along the Cook Inlet, was remarkable. We even spotted a few whales in the inlet.

We arrived at the convention center in Anchorage within a few hours of leaving the ship. After realizing our error and acquiring a new rental car, we stopped for a bite to eat at Platinum Jaxx . Again we made a great choice, it was priced a little high for a quick lunch but the food was unique and well prepared. I had the Halibut burger and would definitely order it again.

So after lunch, we cabbed to the airport to pick up our rental and get back on the highway. We really wanted to get to Denali as soon as possible, even though we knew at this point we wouldn’t get into the park that day, we wanted to get there during daylight hours for our first view of the great mountain.

Panorama Roadside Trees

Panorama of Roadside Trees - Click to Enlarge

Roadside Portrait of Amy

Roadside Portrait of Amy

Our first siting of Mount McKinley was from a scenic stop / rest stop on Highway 3, about 45 minutes south of the park. It was our first and only chance to see it’s highest peak, making us part of the 15% of travelers that actually get a clear shot of the mountain top. The highest point of Mount McKinley, also called “Denali; the Great One” is usually under cloud cover.

We made it to our hotel by 5:00, tired and hungry but completely excited by everything we had seen on our drive. We were staying at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and had a park’s view from our room. A gorgeous hotel, all the amenities, yet it fit so well into its surroundings. We walked through the grounds, checked out the artwork in the main lodge and opted to head across the street to have dinner at the Overlook Bar and Grill at the Crow’s Nest. We just couldn’t go wrong with our dining choices on this trip. We had some local draft beers, watched Michael Phelps pull out his seventh gold medal and enjoyed an evening out on the deck. Great food, great view; Lonely Planet had it right when they named the Overlook “the best bar in the Greater Denali area”.

It was No Northwest Passage: Hubbard Glacier

Disenchantment Bay Ice Jam

Soon chunks of ice obscured the water

We spent the next day at sea, no ports on the itinerary and we were scheduled to disembark in Seward the following day, docking before dawn. It was a day to relax, enjoy the ship’s amenities and cruise the Yukatat Bay. We had whale watching and glacier viewing on our agenda.

After breakfast and gathering all of our camera equipment, we headed out to the deck to grab some seating. It was probably our chilliest day at sea, quite windy. The ship proceeded through Yukatat Bay and proceeded into Disenchantment Bay, named thusly as an 18th century explorer was once disappointed to find that it was in fact NOT the entrance to the mythical Northwest Passage. He found himself surrounded by ice chunks and blocked by the face of the Hubbard Glacier, similar to the situation in which the ms Veendam now was.

Approaching Hubbard Glacier

Approaching Hubbard Glacier, another cruise ship gives us a sense of scale through the fog

The captain continued to warn us that we may not be able to get as close to the glacier as desired due to the ice blockages in the passage but eventually we had a great view of the entrance to the Hubbard Glacier, a 76 mile long glacier which stretched both through Alaska and into the Yukon Territory of Canada.

Just as the bay had choked up with ice, it quickly relented its grip and we found ourselves in calm, open water. The captain remarked that in his 20 years of experience he’s never been able to get this close to the glacier. This doubled the excitement in the air, like we were privy to a secret or getting away with playing a trick on mother nature herself.

It was remarkable, the ‘foot’ of the glacier being 8 miles wide. The calves we saw sliding off in chunks off the face were actually the size of 10-story tall buildings, the sound the calving made was impressive. Again we could see the crystallized bright blue across the face of the ice, beautiful.

Crystal Blue Face of Hubbard Glacier

Crystal Blue Face of Hubbard Glacier

At the face of the glacier, most of the ice is actually below the waterline, so our captain explained we had to be careful not to get too close to the shore as calving also took place below the water. Calves could shoot up from below at any moment. He also informed us that the ice we were seeing could possibly be over 400 years old, as it would take that long for the ice to travel the length of a glacier this size.

Hubbard Glacier: very humbling, very powerful.