Saturday, August 2, 2014

Denali National Park

The final stop on our Alaska cruise-tour was Denali National Park. This was our fourth visit here. After our first brief visit we liked it so much that we returned for an extended stay in Camp Denali in Kantishna, 90 miles inside the Park. That time we slept in a little cabin that lacked electricity and running water. We stoked a small potbelly stove to break the morning chill, but were on our way exploring before the place even warmed up. Every day we had an unobstructed view of Denali (Mount McKinley) through the heart-shaped window in our outhouse door.  The two subsequent visits were like this one, much less active, with family and luxurious hotel accommodations. 

On our first visit, some 20 years ago, we took a short bus tour and encountered this very sad sight along the road. A Brown Bear evidenced an encounter with a Porcupine. Its face was covered with quills that had penetrated deeply. We wondered whether it ever survived. I scanned this photo of the poor creature.


This time we did take the 8-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour which penetrates 63 miles into the heart of the Park. We rode in a modified school bus, leading me to expect an uncomfortable and jarring experience. 

Denali NP Tour Bus 20140622

Quite honestly, I do not remember being aware of any discomfort the entire time! The rainy weather that greeted us as we set out from Talkeetna early in the day took a 180 degree turn, so that by the time we reached Denali National Park the skies were blue. Vistas opened up as we moved along Savage River, a braided glacial stream.

 Braided glacial stream 2-20140622

We saw our first Caribou along the river.

Caribou bull 20140622

At Mile 15 the park road crosses the Savage River. Beyond this point private vehicles are restricted. Mew Gulls nested on the many islands created by the meandering river.

Mew Gull on nest 20140622

We caught our first view of Denali (Mount McKinley),  20,237 feet (6,168 meters) above sea level, the highest peak in North America. Measuring from base to summit, it is taller than Mount Everest, which rises only 12,000 feet (3,700 meters) from its base, which is at 17,000 feet (5,200 meters), while Denali rises vertically about 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) from its base. The mountain creates its own weather and we found it partly shrouded by clouds.

Mount McKinley - Denali 4-20140622

In the distance, we spied a Brown Bear sow with two yearling cubs. This species is known as Grizzly Bear in the lower 48 states. Brown Bears range widely into Europe and Asia as well as North America. Those on Alaska's Kodiak Island are much larger, with males weighing 800-1400 lbs (360 -635 kg) as opposed to the mainland individuals, which average  400–790 lbs (180–360 kg).  While the Kodiak Bears are genetically isolated, their greater weight may largely be attributable to their much better diet. Those in zoos may attain weights of up to 2400 lbs (1080 kg).

Brown Bears 20140622

Brown Bears 2-20140622

We encountered large herds of Caribou on the mountain slopes. Many lounged on residual snow drifts. Several grazed just off the road.

Caribou bull 2-20140622

Caribou cows 20140622

Caribou cows 2-20140622

The highest point before we turned around was at Polychrome Pass. This is Polychrome Peak, so named for its colorful rock formations. The road over this mountain is very narrow and carved out of the side of its cliffs. Guides say it is also known as "Poison Peak," because "one drop will kill you." 

Polychrome Peak 20140622

Same-sex flocks of Dall Sheep roamed the heights. This group consisted entirely of ewes and lambs. 

Dall Sheep - Ewes and lambs 20140622

Most were out of camera range. These are recognizable as rams. interestingly, there are no Mountain Goats, which occupy southeastern Alaska.

Dall Sheep - Rams 20140622

Robust Arctic Ground Squirrels often watched as the bus passed by. This species hibernates most of the year, from late August into April. Remarkably, while hibernating their body temperature may drop to 27 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 degrees C).

Arctic Ground Squirrel 20140622

We were on the alert for Golden Eagles, as they feed on ground squirrels and were said to be fairly common in this area of Polychrome Mountain. One of the participants suddenly spotted one. I must admit that I had earlier seen it and passed it off as a rock!

Golden Eagle 20140622

Few other birds were present. There was a group of fly-by rosyfinches and several White-crowned Sparrows. I must draw upon my archives from our visit to this area three years ago to illustrate the latter species.

White-crowned Sparrow 20110619

At that time I also obtained better shots of Dark-eyed Juncos which also eluded my camera during this visit.

Dark-eyed Junco 20110619

The Mew Gulls were courting on the bridge and nesting close by in June, 2011 and strutted in front of me at the Savage River crossing.

Mew Gulls (Larus canus) 2-20110619

Mew Gull 20110619

On our way back we saw that the clouds had cleared, giving us a stupendous view of Denali.

Mount McKinley - Denali 3-20140622

Next day, we journey back to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad.

Visit these links to view the entire series of blogs on this Alaska trip:

Cruising to Ketchikan, Alaska

Cruising to Alaska's Icy Strait and Hoonah

Visiting Juneau and Skagway

Hubbard Glacier and Seward, Alaska

Denali National Park

Riding the rails from Denali to Anchorage


  1. Wonderful post, I love seeing the critters from Alaska and the birds. Have a happy weekend!

  2. i can imagine it is worth returning to as often as possible. these sightings are wonderful.

  3. It's so beautiful out there: gorgeous landscapes and wonderful wildlife. Well worth visiting many times!

  4. A fascinating place and very interesting animals.

  5. Really beautiful. Those mew gulls are very pretty. Also enamored with the white-crowned sparrow.

  6. OK, I'm packing my bags! What a great place.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  7. I've enjoyed this cruise of yours and the scenery and wildlife along the way; and the juncos and gulls too

  8. Such an incredible journey you've taken us all on through Alaska.
    Beautiful scenery...awesome 4 legged animals...and the birds...oh the birds. I loved the mew gulls.

    Thank you for linking up at I'd Rather B Birdin' this weekend. Always appreciated!!

  9. This post is WONDERFUL! Love the brown bears (grizzlies) and caribou! How I would love to take this tour! Maybe one day! Lots of amazing wildlife to enjoy. Felt so sorry for the bear with the porcupine quills...a moment of real nature one rarely sees, though. Gorgeous shots!

  10. Superb scenery and an interesting mixture of wildlife ... I can understand why you made a return visit.

  11. What a wonderful post, full of gorgeous scenery and spectacular wildlife.

  12. What an epic trip!!! This is a park I so want to visit! Great finds!

  13. Majestic place, beautiful scenery. Hopefully I'll be able to visit one day. How fortunate for you!

  14. Great trip and what a good idea to take the bus tour to experience the glory of the wilderness and wild life.

  15. We took a green bus clear up to Kaneshta -- we camped at Telkanita, the furthest campground where you can drive your own car. The only bad part of the bus trip was not being able to be on both sides at once. The next day we took the bus up to the visitor center at Eliason. But you got better views of the mountain. Lucky you! I think we saw the same bears.


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