Monday, July 5, 2021

Denali Delivers

Post by Corrine 

I had just started accelerating downhill after cresting Thorofare Pass on my bike when I looked up to my left and HOLY S#*T, there was a grizzly bear less than 100 feet up the bank from me.  I had a nanosecond to decide what to do.  In the same moment I saw a small cub run out next to her.  Yikes!  But by then I was already past and so kept going.  I breathed a sigh of relief as my heart rate came back down to normal. Just another moment when Denali Park delivers.

I saw this bear on my way in.  Obviously no photos of the close encounter bears! 

Our son Riley and his girlfriend Sam decided to come for a visit, so I recommended a three-day trip to Wonder Lake.  It had been years since Riley had been there and Sam really wanted to see a bear so they were up for the adventure. They, along with Eric, decided to take the bus while I wanted to bike both directions. There is so much to see and do in Denali and we got to experience most of it.

Riley and Sam starting an off-trail hike on Thoro Ridge behind Eielson Visitor Center.

The green buses are a great way to see the park

High winds 

Denali delivered with high winds – more so than were forecasted.  On the first day we experienced 20 - 25 mph steady winds with 40 mph gusts.  This wasn't a big deal for Riley, Sam, and Eric on the bus.  But they were particularly challenging for biking. The wind kept pushing my bike across the road. I would have to stop and wait for the gusts to subside before continuing. Other times it would literally stop me in my tracks.  Several times, I considered giving up on my ride and getting on a bus.  But I kept going. Luckily, after Eielson the headwind changed to a tailwind that pushed me the last 20 miles to camp. 

It's hard to photograph the wind but check out the flag.  It is whipping!


We had some rain but only overnight.  So, while we had to hike through wet brush, soaking our pants and shoes, we considered ourselves lucky that we didn't have to hike in the rain or try to stay dry in our tents. We did have to pack up wet tents, but at least it was the bus that carried the extra water weight. 

High clouds sometimes threatened rain, but it held off until night.


We knew that early July was a horrible time for mosquitoes at Wonder Lake, but we decided to go anyway.  We came prepared with bug dope and head nets.  On Friday, the bugs were easily kept at bay by the high winds.  Even I appreciated that as the wind pushed me around on my bike. But by Saturday morning the wind died down and the bugs were back. They weren’t so bad as long as you kept moving. They weren’t quite worthy of head nets but almost. Sam was a little disappointed that Denali didn’t deliver her that experience, but only a little!  The rest of us were fine, since we'd all experienced vicious skeeters before.   

How badly do I need to get out of the tent to pee?

Don't stop or you will get eaten alive!


Sam really wanted to see a bear and she got her wish with three different grizzly bear sightings while on the bus. And I had my close encounter while biking! We also saw caribou, moose, and sheep, and of course, lots of ground squirrels. Plus three porcupines, including one that was chewing on the Wonder Lake Campground bus stop shelter.  Another one fled from Eric and me during a hike. It scurried up a dry river bank and into its den to get away.  Eric peered in but kept his distance. Alas, we saw no wolves.

This porcupine did a lot of damage to this structure.

This porcupine ran up the bank and into that den on the upper right.


We timed it perfectly for the wildflowers. They were everywhere.  Pinks, purples, blues, yellows and whites.  Gorgeous. I think we must have seen at least 20 different species. 


Wonder Lake is a beautiful spot to camp with amazing up-close views of Denali when it is out.  And Denali delivered. We had pretty good views the first day, but then heavy cloud cover moved in for our second day. Fortunately, most of the clouds lifted for our last day and we got some spectacular views. We were particularly glad Sam got to see such great views of the mountain. The Wonder Lake Campground has a covered area for eating and socializing and a place to store your food.  We brought our typical backpacking food and gear but were amazed that other campers brought grills and steaks, six-packs of beer, and coolers and all kinds of stuff!  Since you take the bus to get there, I guess a lot of people just treat it like car camping.  

Not a bad camping site.

Riley checks if dinner is ready.


The first night we hiked around camp and down to Wonder Lake. The second morning Eric and I hiked down to the McKinley River bar while Riley and Sam took a bus back toward Eielson Visitor Center to do a longer ridge hike.  Sam had not hiked in steep terrain much and had never gone off-trail before.  This was way out of her comfort zone, but she had a great time and was glad she did it. They got good views up high, including of the surging Muldrow Glacier.  That afternoon Eric hiked the ridge above Wonder Lake.  He ended up going through a lot of brush and even on top had to deal with tussocks and mosquitoes.  He called it "brutal" and would not recommend it to most people.  (Though he did say the first part is worth doing.)  On our last day, Riley and Sam did the popular Savage Alpine Trail while Eric stayed on the bus to go get our car. I biked out. 

After dinner hike down to Wonder Lake.

Nice trail down to the McKinley Bar.


Eric's afternoon hike - a bit brushy and not for the faint of heart.

Sam's first time off-trail side-hilling!

Savage Alpine Trail


I love biking the park road.  You really get a chance to be immersed in the environment and can stop and take photos whenever you want.  The first 15 miles is paved and then it's good gravel road the rest of the way.  Biking all the way to Wonder Lake in one go makes for a long day.  It's 85 miles with 7000 feet of elevation gain.  So much climbing, so many passes. Savage, Sanctuary, Sable, Polychrome, Highway, Thorofare.  But great views the whole way.  On our second day at Wonder Lake, I biked the last 10 miles to the end of the road and back. It was more climbing than I expected, but I was glad I did it.  Biking out on the third day was much better since I didn't have to deal with the ferocious winds. And I got to have that exciting close encounter with the bears! 


We had great views of Denali on Friday and Sunday.  They are so spectacular when the mountain is out.  Photos don’t do it justice, but we kept taking them anyway.  And we also had the chance to see the surging Muldrow Glacier that is moving 30 to 60 feet per day.

The snow and dirt in the middle of the photo is the surging Muldrow Glacier. 

This trip Denali really delivered with beauty, adventure and fun.  And it was made more special by sharing it with Riley and Sam.  If you visit, I hope that Denali delivers as much or more to you. Except maybe not the high winds and billions of mosquitoes.