July 10, 2015 – Fairbanks to Denali National Park – A nice hike in Denali National Park along a river with a couple of nice bridges. Turned around after seeing a couple bear prints in the mud and hiked a while with a young man who didn’t speak much English. Found a spot along the highway for the night outside the park and back the next morning to check out the visitor’s center. An encounter with a young family who were part of the T@B clan. Later this afternoon will be the bus trip, but that’s the next post.
Today was intended as a travel day. The very different view and experience driving to Denali underscored the wisdom of taking the train trip. I recognized Nenana as I passed through, but would never have known about the ice classic. The road doesn’t seem nearly as scenic, but I like to drive, so it was nice to be on the open road again.
The highway passes along the eastern most end of the park. The park extends about 150 miles to the west and a bit south. The 90 odd mile long Park Road begins at the highway and winds just over half of the way through this very large park. Denali isn’t visible from here because of all those mountains in between, and even from far into the park the weather often keeps it from being seen. Your best bet is to view it from the south, near Talkeetna on the road here from Anchorage. Weather appears to be rainy inside the park as the summer arrives, so check into this as you plan your visit.
The main visitor center is here at the east end, close to the highway, but transportation deeper into the park is only by concession operated buses. There are buses that are just transportation for hikers and campers, and there are tour buses with an interpretive guide as the driver. My first, and mandatory stop today will be the Wilderness Access Center where I will book a tour for tomorrow afternoon. This facility has plenty of parking and is closer to the highway than the others. It is a primary place to pick up buses. Having settled on a Tundra Wilderness Tour in the afternoon tomorrow I can now head to other activities. So next stop the Visitor’s Center.
There are a lot of trails radiating out from the Visitor Center area, and a late afternoon hike seemed the thing to do. I overheard a ranger describing a hike to a suspension bridge not far away. I sort of got the directions, and headed out to the south per what I had heard second hand. I figured that as long as I was aware of the trail and took good note of where I was going that a short day hike would be fine without a map. Not only was it getting late, but I really needed the adventure factor and the ambiguity added this for me.
The trail was mostly quite well maintained, and plenty of signs at the intersections. The first part being more heavily traveled. While gravel this part was an easy grade, wide and barrier free. It wound pleasantly through open forest as a wide lane, the meandering being much more aesthetically pleasing than a straight path. The path then heads down to Hines Creek and across, giving a nice view from the foot bridge of the Alaska Railroad tracks crossing the stream atop a trestle. The foot bridge was arrow straight and fairly long for such a bridge. It had a thick wooden deck and weather gray wooden railings, positioned at a comfortable height to lean upon and contemplate the clear stream below. From time to time I passed a few people, initiating a greeting and exchange of smiles. One or two folks stopped to talk for a moment, mostly about what lay ahead on our respective trails.
After crossing Hines creek the trail follows Riley creek upstream for a while. Here the trail is a narrower path but well maintained with a recently refreshed gravel bed. The mossy and open under-story is dotted with a variety of wildflowers. A soft breeze wafts along with the nearby stream, fresh as the bright clear water below it is cool and keeps the dappled sun in check. The whole gives the impression of some great garden path tended by some forest dwelling creatures.
Soon the trail comes to another crossing, this time it is the suspension foot bridge described by the ranger. It is a much more serious bridge than the previous one, a pleasure from its engineering and fun to walk upon as it bounces and sways to the rhythm of your step. Having arrived at the bridge I was watching the sun and figured I comfortably had another ten or fifteen minutes before I should head back. I’ve got plenty of light sources, but you don’t get to see so much in the dark. So about ten minutes further along I came to a point where the trail comes close to the riverside. Near the river I found some mud. I decided I should look for some tracks. I figured a deer or some such, but I found a fairly clear bear track.
The bear track was in some fresh mud which suggested it was pretty recent. The tracks were fresher than most of the boot tracks I saw. The bear was heading in the same direction as I was, so he was ahead of me going upstream. The wind was coming down the river, so my scent wasn’t heading his way. But that just meant I was more likely to come up behind and surprise him. Not so good. I stopped to take a photo and then moved up a bit watching for more tracks in the mud. I found a couple of rotten bits of wood and rocks that had been turned up to expose the earth below and a few other minor disturbances, and then another track in the mud. My first couple of shots of the tracks were blurred because of the light that had started to fade a little. So as I worked the camera settings I was focused closely on the camera. That is when I noticed a quick movement not ten feet away.
I instinctively jerked my head up and looked in the direction of the movement, not sure what I would do if it was the bear. Happily my racing heart calmed a bit as a hiker came moving quickly along the trail. He saw me about the same time I saw him. That I was standing still was as much a shock to him as his sudden movement was to me. We smiled at the mutual surprise and I said hello. He offered a greeting and then with a few halted words seemed to be trying to ask a more complicated question. I worked with him patiently and smiled a lot. I had already decided it was time to turn around and head back, so I offered to walk with him. He was a college age young man, I believe from China, alas again I’m re-writing this a year later and my original notes are gone, so I don’t have his name or other details.
He had been hiking for most of the day by himself and was hoping to arrive at the visitor’s center and find a ride back to his hotel. He had done a pretty good job finding the right trail without a map, and was in fact headed in the right direction. But had underestimated the distance. I later figured he must have put in at least a 15 mile day. We talked a bit more and he explained that he was studying at a school in the lower 48 and was on a vacation now for a couple of weeks seeing the sights. I think he had been on a cruise prior. I showed him some photos of my trailer and adventure on my phone and hoped he would check out the blog, but this was before I had my business cards made up. We took turns taking photos of each other at the two bridges as I retraced my route with him. We parted company where the trail forked to head straight up the hill or wind through woods a bit and a more leisurely climb. The young man was looking for the shorter distance, the old man looking for a nice walk in the woods.
Back at the Visitor Center it was late afternoon, and things were closed up. There are a couple of campgrounds in the park but advance planning is in order to secure a reservation. Not really a last minute place especially for a trailer. So I headed back out to the main highway and south along the highway. I found a nice pull out by the river about a half hour along. I cooked up a little dinner, got a good night’s sleep and was up early to head back to the park the next morning. When I awoke there were two other vehicles sharing my rather large pull out area.
July 11, 2015 – The Denali National Park Visitor Center area is a nice set of buildings in a forested setting with nice paved paths running between them. In this immediate area were the Visitor’s Center proper, the Denali Bookstore store selling books, memorabilia and the like, The Morino Grill serving food, and a separate restroom building. I parked near the Visitor’s center, right up front with the trailer just visible as you return to the lot.
As I was walking up the path an eager young boy probably about five came skipping along ahead of his family, rounded the corner in the path and stopped in his tracks. He turned around and started racing back shouting at the top of his lungs “It’s a Tab! It’s a Tab!”. The mother and father were pushing an occupied stroller and accompanied by another youngster a year or two younger than the oldest who was reporting this discovery. I smiled as they all rounded the corner and paused to ask how he recognized the T@B trailer? He excitedly told me that they had one just like it but yellow. I struck up a short conversation with the parents and they said they had a 2007 model and I gathered were on an extended vacation of sorts. Five folks in a T@B seems like it would be pretty cozy, but probably an easy step up from a tent. We wished each other well, they started on their way again, and the young boy raced out ahead.
In front of the visitor’s center is a large bronze sculpture of a bear lying down. Lots of photo opportunities here, especially for the youngsters who love climbing over it. Inside the visitor center is a very nicely staged set of exhibits, with a lot of rock and wood and other natural materials making it feel more like outdoors. Tall ceilings have skylights which helped that feeling. The exhibits were engaging, many with things that invited you to touch, like drawers to open and such. More photos of the Visitor’s center below.
Just inside the door is the information counter, and from time to time a ranger would ask for everyone’s attention and recognize a youth or two who had finished a set of age appropriate learning experiences and joined the ranks of the “Junior Rangers”. A round of applause and a photo or two and that’s a memory. Among the family friendly options a notable thing they offered was the Denali Family Discovery Pack, which included binoculars and hand magnifiers, guides and many other tools for exploration.
Well, my tour bus departure is coming soon, so back down to the Wilderness Access Center, which I will cover in my next post.