Monday, August 30, 2010

Alaska {2 of 6}: Denali

As promised, another post about our week in Denali. I started this blog process tonight by picking all of the photos to post, & I think I hit my max at three days (Tuesday 8/3, Wednesday 8/4 & Thursday 8/5). I'll have to hit the highlights from Friday 8/6 & Saturday 8/7 tomorrow!

If you missed part one of this recap, click here. Let's pick up where we left off, shall we?

We allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping in on Tuesday morning, after our long day of travel & late night at the Reflection Pond. We were pleased to see McKinley still visible when we ventured outside of our tent. Another beautiful day!
McKinley in the morning {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Good morning! View from our campsite - thanks to our sweet gorillapod! {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Over breakfast, we met some friendly Californians who had spent the previous day in hiking near Kantishna, the end of the road. For the record - Denali is HUGE. The park is over 6 million acres, & when you include the preserve, you're looking at an area the size of Massachusetts. The 91 mile park road only hits a small portion of the park. We decided that if we were going to make it all the way to mile 85 (Wonder Lake)- we might as well trek to Kantishna. Their suggestion sounded great - it involved minimal bus time (we were sick of cars/buses by then), would allow us to hike in view of McKinley, & we would get the full Denali Park Road experience!

We ventured off that morning towards Kantishna, & decided to jump on a bus if one passed us on our way. While we moseyed toward Kantishna, we picked & ate blueberries (yum! all berries in the park are edible - though not all quite as tasty at the blueberries), enjoyed little lakes & ponds along the way (isn't the Alaskan cotton in this next photo gorgeous) & warmed up for what would be a serious hike ahead of us.
Alaska cotton. Grows well in wet ground. Found near lakes/ponds {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Something else that made our Denali experience unique from any other National Park is the lack of hiking trails. There are several trails near the park entrance, but the deeper you get into the park, the fewer trails are available. So what's are you to do? Hike off-trail. The park encourages it, and it's an amazing way to explore the tundra. Our hike in Kantishna (technically, Wickersham Dome) was a bit of a hybrid, we started & ended on trails, but there was a lot of scrambling & figuring it out for ourselves in the middle portion.

When we got to the ridgeline of Wickersham Dome, we were treated to some stunning views of the Alaska range, including McKinley, which was slowly disappearing behind the clouds, the Kantishna hills on the opposite side - tundra as far as you can see, & we even spotted a caribou on this hike!
View of McKinley from Wickersham Dome {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Wonder Lake to my left; McKinley to my right, Moose Creek in the valley below {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Another challenging aspect of hiking in Denali is the tundra! Growing up in Florida, I know how difficult running/walking on the sand can be. Beach runs are killer, but nothing compares to hiking on the tundra. The elevation gain is one thing, it's an entirely different story when you add marshmallow like ground beneath your feet. Every step you sink into the spongy tundra below.
Kantishna Hills & Tundra Underfoot {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Wickersham Dome Ridgeline - Happy to be heading DOWN {Tuesday, August 3rd}
On Wednesday, we hiked the McKinley Bar trail...twice (I'll get to why we did it twice later). We were a wee bit sore after our hike at Wickersham, so the 6 mile roundtrip (starting at our campsite) hike sounded like just the ticket for a relatively relaxing day. We figured we could spend the rest of the day exploring Wonder Lake & maybe even squeeze in a nap!

The gravel river bar is at the base of the glaciers below Mount McKinley. To get to it, you hike through spruce forests & bogs -- a great opportunity to see some pretty wildflowers & tons of mushrooms (Alaska has an impressive variety of mushrooms). Once you get to the river, you're pretty much as close to the mountain as you're going to get (although, McKinley was hidden behind the clouds by Wednesday):
McKinley Bar {Wednesday, August 4th}

My favorite part of the hike were the gorgeous wildflowers, berries & mushrooms.

When we got done with the hike & back to the lake, we laid down on some benches to relax & perhaps squeeze in a nap. As I took off my Mountainsmith bag, I realized that the shoulder strap, which I had taken off earlier in the day because it was rubbing on my neck, wasn't tucked into the side pocket where I had put it. When I hike, I like to wear the bag around my waist (I know, I know...very fanny pack-esque, but it's way way more comfortable).

Frustrated, but convinced that it had to have fallen out somewhere on our hike, we turned right around & spent the rest of the afternoon hiking the entire trail, scouring for my shoulder strap. We never did find it, nor did we get that nap we were so looking forward to! So much for an easy-peasy day, 12 miles later!
Before I realized my Mountainsmith strap was gone {Wednesday, August 4th}
On Thursday, we jumped on a bus and headed back to mile 66 to the Eielson Visitor Center. It was so gorgeous when we stopped there on the way to Wonder Lake, we decided we'd explore the ridges & river bars in that region of the park.

We first hit up Thorofare Ridge, a short but steep hike from the Visitors Center. You gain about 1,000 feet in only 1 mile, but it's worth the quick climb. Below us on either side of the Ridge, we enjoyed views of the gorgeous glaciers, mountains & tundra.
View from Thorofare Ridge {Thursday, August 5th}
The other side of Thorofare Ridge {Thursday, August 5th}
Walking along the ridgeline - more spongy tundra {Thursday, August 5th}
My husband, the adventurer, determined to get the best view. {Thursday, August 5th}
Playing it safe while Matt's living on the edge (literally). One of us had to tell this story! {Thursday, August 5th}
My handsome, scruffy, hubby .... pondering life, or how freezing & windy it is! {Thursday, August 5th}
 On our way down, the threatening rain finally started to fall & we quickly found ourselves soaked. We couldn't have chosen a better spot for a rainy day: Eielson is the only true "shelter" past the park entrance, we hung out in the warm visitor center, dried off & waited for the rain to pass. It never really did clear up, so we ventured out again, this time opting to stay closer & explore the area around the river basin. We ran into a few furry creatures ...only ground squirrels! We would run into a much bigger furry fella the next morning at that very same spot, but you'll have to check the blog tomorrow to hear more about that encounter!
No ground squirrels were fed or harmed in the taking of this photograph {Thursday, August 5th}

Some of you might be wondering about camping details. Let's call this next little section Camp & Hike FAQs:

Do you do any backcountry camping? Nope. Not because we wouldn't be up for the challenge, but because it requires a whole slew of gear we don't have & probably wouldn't use enough to justify investing in. Day hiking has never really limited what we've been able to see & experience. We've hiked 25 miles in a single day, without having to carry 40-50lbs on our back. Works for us! 

Do you have running water/amenities at your campsite? Sort of, though every campground is different. At each place we camped, we were spoiled with running water & flush toilets (hallelujah!). However, showers weren't typically part of the deal. Only one campground we stayed at (in 2 weeks) had showers. You just have to prepare yourself to be stinky (or to sleep next to someone stinky)....

How do you stay safe from bears?! We were really mindful of this, especially after the attacks out west that happened shortly before we left:
  • If you're car camping, you keep anything with any sort of scent in your car. That means food (obviously), toiletries, water bottles, clothing you wore while cooking, stoves, etc. At Wonder Lake, bear closets/lockers were provided where campers could store these items in a locked space far away from sleeping areas.
  • Also, everywhere we hiked, we carried bells. It got uber-annoying, but the key is not to surprise a bear (or moose). Making lots of noise is the best way to let them know you're there, & talking for 2 weeks straight with Matt is impractical, so we resorted to bells.
  • We also carried bear spray, which is basically pepper spray on steroids that you can use in the event that you were to run into an aggressive bear. Theoretically, even if we ran into a bear, the spray wouldn't be necessary. You are supposed to make yourself look large & very human (waving your hands above your head) & speaking calmly but firmly e.g. "Go away bear." The #1 rule is not to run & in some cases (depending on the bear), not to fight back! Since I'm not sure I'd have to presence of mind to act calmly/rationally in a bear encounter, we carried the bear spray. Thankfully, we didn't have to use it (probably because of the bells), but it did give us peace of mind!
What do you eat? We have a little stove, so we always ate hot meals for breakfast & dinner. For breakfast we're pretty boring: oatmeal & craisins, coffee for me & hot chocolate for Matt, every single day. Lunches were usually trail mix, granola/cliff bars, tortillas & peanut butter &/or applesauce. For dinners, we ate lots of pasta, rice, beans, canned vegetables, mac&cheese (my fave), soup (Bear Creek makes some awesome dried soups), instant potatoes, etc. There's enough variety to keep it different from night-to-night, but fresh food sure tastes good after 2 weeks of that!

Any favorite gear? After a week in mosquito-land, we loved our headnets. They looked nerdy, but no one wants a mosquito to bite your face. Those darn things bit through my socks.... vicious creatures! I also fell in love with my Buff. It's in almost every single photo of me over our 2 weeks (the red thing on my neck or hair). It's basically a glorified bandana: super quick drying, has UV protection, can be worn as a bandana (without having to tie & adjust all of the time - something I appreciated as a long-time bandana gal), or about 19 other ways ... I used it as a scarf when it got chilly!

What's the best/worst part of camping?
  • Best: Waking up to the gorgeous landscape.  Not worrying about make-up or checking emails or watching the morning news. Living simply.
  • Worst: Putting up or taking down a tent in the rain. We did both in Alaska... does not make for happy campers.
"Veiled" - Wearing our favorite head nets! Saved us from the killer mosquitos at Wonder Lake! {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Wonder Lake Campground  {Thursday, August 5th}
Yum! Enjoying some warm chili! Camp food isn't all that bad! {Tuesday, August 3rd}
Until tomorrow....


  1. nothing ever tastes bad if Suz had a hand in it! Love to hear about your adventures. Especially the part about talking to Matt for 2 straight weeks :) Miss you!

  2. haha, thanks! i was just racking my brain trying to figure out who "william" is - i'm guessing that's you nicole, taking over (william) carson's gmail! miss you guys!


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