Alaska 2016: Denali National Park and Preserve

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

To travel into Denali NPP by vehicle, visitors may be taken on a tour on a refitted school bus with a tour guide who provides a narrative throughout. (This was part of our cruise + land tour package from the cruise line.)

There are shuttle buses, also, but they do not have narration. You can get on and off the shuttles at designated stops, and they are cheaper than the tour buses.

Downloaded from Google Images*

*Original web site

The buses are operated by a private company, not by the National Park Service. There is only one road into the park and while we were on this tour, most of the other vehicles we saw on the road were revamped school buses like ours. Cars are not allowed into the park beyond the first 15 miles.  Our bus took us about 60 miles in (which was an 8-hour tour round trip), although the entire road is 92 miles.

Whether by shuttle or guided tour, these bus tours only run May through September.

Every seat on our bus had a snack box.  On the bottom of the box was a map that I used for reference for awhile.

denali-npp-road-mapI didn’t plan to open the box for several hours and besides, we had leftover pizza to eat for lunch – we’d brought it because we’d been advised that only a “snack” would be provided and we should bring lunch if we wanted more.

Our guide today introduced herself as Becky.  She told us about her life five months of the year in Alaska – no running water or electricity!  The rest of the year, she and her husband live in Oregon, where all the modern conveniences seem like a luxury – and perhaps they are; we just take them for granted.  How many people in the world have none of the amenities we have and must work constantly to meet their basic needs?

The first wildlife we saw were Dall sheep – moving white dots on a mountainside.

You are lucky if you see Dall sheep up this close!*

*Downloaded from Google Images; original web site

Denali NPP owes its existence to the Dall sheep.  Charles Sheldon lobbied Congress to provide an area in which this declining species would be protected.  In 1916, Denali National Preserve was created, which protected more than just the sheep.  In 1917, the year after the National Park Service was created, the preserve was expanded to its present size and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve.

Downloaded from Google Images*

*Web site

The reason the highest mountain in North America was called Mt. McKinley had to do with Alaska’s gold rush history. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were strong gold mining interests.  McKinley was running for president on the Republican ticket, and a major issue was whether the U.S. should have the gold standard or the silver standard.  McKinley was in favor of the gold standard and so to curry favor with the GOP candidate, the Alaskans decided to name the highest mountain after him.  In fact, during his 1 ½ terms as president (he was assassinated in the middle of his 2nd term), McKinley never visited Alaska or saw the majestic mountain that bore his name.

The nearly deserted road winds its way into the park, closer to Denali (mountain on right).

The name stuck, in spite of having been known as Denali for centuries before that, the Athabascan word meaning “High One”, and was not officially changed until last year.  In 2015, Pres. Obama signed an executive order changing the official name back to Denali.  You still see a lot of maps and exhibits labeling the mountain as Mt. McKinley.

Becky told us to yell “stop” if we spotted wildlife.  But she wanted us to be very quiet once we’d stopped and were observing the animal.

First someone saw some caribou in the distance.  Becky stopped the bus and people with telephoto lenses (including me) took pictures of them.

Caribou closer up
Our first glimpse of caribou

The next time we saw a caribou, it was walking on the road ahead of us!  Becky said that caribou will often choose to walk on the road because packed gravel is easier to walk on than the spongy soil and scrub of the tundra.  The caribou didn’t seem to be particularly perturbed by our presence.  After all, we were just a couple of immobile buses full of humans who were mostly quiet.  She ambled past us as camera shutters clicked.  I got a good close up of her.  There was also a mother caribou and her baby on the road.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Here is something interesting about caribou:  Caribou and reindeer are the same species, except that reindeer are domesticated and caribou are wild.  Both male and female grow antlers, but the male sheds his antlers in the fall and grows new ones in the spring.  Female caribou retain their antlers through the winter, so we can deduce that all of Santa’s reindeer are female, because they are always pictured with antlers!

At one of the rest stops, Dale and I picked up a rack of caribou antlers, attempting to put them on our heads to take silly pictures – I found that I couldn’t lift it high enough, because it is so heavy! I can only imagine what it must be like to carry that around on one’s head, all through the winter!

Besides caribou – and we saw several – we also stopped for a light brown grizzly bear who was foraging for berries (Becky said they were probably soapberries) in an open are far off the road.  I took several pictures, good ones!

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Although we hoped to see moose, we didn’t.  it’s a bit late for moose, Becky said.  It’s rutting season for them now.  Moose who are competing for females have no interest in posing for humans!

Another species we did see was the state bird, the ptarmigan. A group of them were pecking near the edge of the road.

KODAK Digital Still CameraBecky told us a story not about ptarmigan, per se, but about Chicken, Alaska!  There was a small community that was looking for a name for their hamlet.  They thought of naming it after the state bird, but it was hard to say and harder to spell (well, confusing), so they came up with the name Chicken! They were set on using a bird name, I guess.

Besides wildlife, we of course saw spectacular scenery, often dominated by Denali in the distance, towering over the lesser mountains of the Alaska Range, and splashes of color from the aspens, whose leaves have turned bright yellow, and different colors in the rocks.

A stand of yellow aspen in the midst of green spruce

KODAK Digital Still Camera

There is even a place called Polychrome Point, where we stopped for awhile to climb up to trailheads and add to our collection of photographs.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

KODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still Camera

Deposits of glacial silt coat this river bed, and the river meanders around them. This is typical of Alaskan rivers and they change a little each day.

KODAK Digital Still CameraI found I often duplicated photos because the view looked even more spectacular each time I looked at it!  Photos cannot capture the majesty of this place, but we keep trying to take the perfect picture.

KODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still CameraKODAK Digital Still Camera

We got within 36 miles of Denali, then turned around.  We saw the grizzly again, who was still foraging, and caribou off in the distance crossing a river.

We got back to the resort at about 5:00 pm, with an hour to rest before attending a salmon dinner and show at the Gold Nugget Saloon, only a short walk from our lodgings. This was an excursion which we booked and paid for before the cruise. I recommend it to others who might be taking a similar trip with Holland America Line.

6 thoughts on “Alaska 2016: Denali National Park and Preserve

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