Hey there Adventurers! This is part two of my recent trip to Alaska! In part one I recount the beginnings of the trip in Fairbanks and Chena Hot Springs, and provided some general FYI of traveling throughout the interior of Alaska.
Now, it was off to Denali! This makes my second visit to this park, and it joins The Everglades, and Rocky Mountain, as big parks I have made a return visit. Denali is one of those ginormous parks that is vast, totally undeveloped, and mostly wilderness. There is one road through the park and private vehicles are only able to access about 13 miles of it at any given time. Buses will take a person the full 90 or so mile length of the road, most of which is unpaved and is spectacular! At least they used to. Unfortunately, the road features a spectacular vista which crosses a continual landslide that as of a year or two ago has now become unpassable. There actually is a lodge and resort at the end of that road, but you must fly in now to get there. Anyway, I came in and wanted to first check out the Denali sled dog kennels that I missed my first time there! After stopping at the Visitor Center for the requisite stamp entry into my passport book, it was off to see the dogs!
The kennels were certainly a neat experience! It is very educational, you can meet the dogs, and there is a live demo of the pups. These dogs are a very vital and iconic part of life in Alaska, and have been for thousands of years. In fact, in Denali, law requires that travel through the wilderness of the park must be done with sled dogs in the winter! They are working dogs for sure, and then after about 7 or 8 years, they are retired and adopted! Heads up, if you are a passport stamp collector, there is a specific kennel stamp there as well!
After the kennels it was back to the cabin to get settled in. Shout out to Lynx Pizza, a delicious pizza by the slice joint that I stopped at briefly before heading back to the cabin. Dinner that evening was back in the Denali canyon area, the touristy spot, mostly operated by Aramark and Princess Cruises. The spot selected was a restaurant called Moose-AKa’s. The name is a play on the eastern european dish, moussaka. This restaurant is absolutely delicious and is actually listed as one of the top restaurants not only in the US but worldwide! Afterward, it was back into the park to get a preview of the next day’s hike, some more pictures, and a bull moose sighting! On the way back to the cabin I stopped at the brewery and then it was time to sleep a bit. But I was waking up often to try and catch a glimpse of the aurora and for a brief minute or two I did see something that looked weird and then was definitely the aurora! It was very brief, but SUCCESS!
The Savage Alpine Trail is one of the best rated trails in Denali and was on the list of many things to do in Denali on my first trip, but didn’t happen. The next morning I set out to do this one. The trail is rated hard, 4 miles point to point, and has about a 1500 feet elevation gain. One end of the trail is at the Savage River and this spot is very steep and rocky traversing through the tundra. This is also the spot that is the farthest a private vehicle can drive into the park and there is a small parking lot there. The other end is more gradual, goes through the forest, and also has a parking lot. All trails reviewers suggest doing the steep part at the end and bussing back to the car…I totally disagree with that strategy. This is a difficult trail. That steeper “half” is about 1500 feet of elevation gain in 1.5 miles and the section a half mile to the parking lot is about 700 feet of it! The thought of doing that going down is not cool to me, so I would suggest knocking that out right away, then it’s another mile to so up another 7 or 800 feet, then a gradual descent for 2 miles. This is a very exposed trail, easy to follow, but exposed and very windy. If the weather is clear you can get spectacular views of the beautiful Alaskan Range, including Denali from about 40 miles or so away. If it’s not, you get killer views of the surrounding valley, and you hope for peeks, like I got, of Denali. After finishing the trail it was back to the Denali Village area for lunch and then back for a needed nap!
Later that evening I found a sweet Thai food truck, and then spent some time hanging with the pal living up the road from my cabin! Like the previous night, I was on northern lights watch. When I got out of the vehicle and started looking up into the sky, mother nature definitely started giving a show! The lights are awesome to experience! Protip: I am not entirely sure why, but locals had mentioned this as well, taking a video of the lights does not work, but taking a picture, or even just watching them through the camera, makes them look awesome!
The next day, Thursday, was the rainy day. As such, I made that the day to drive down to Talkeetna, for a return visit! A little outside of town is where you can find the Denali Brewing Company, home of some damn fine beer and some awesome pizza (at this location!) I stopped downtown for a bit to stroll and walk down memory lane, so to speak. The weather was pretty terrible which was a shame because Talkeetna is a very pretty town with some good walking stops, and if the weather is good, some killer views of Denali. But, such was the way it was! There is another Denali Brewing location in the town proper. I highly suggest making a stop at both locations! The in town tasting room had a totally different menu that was pretty damn killer. Protip: the vegan nachos are to die for (and I am a meat eater!) I left Talkeetna and headed further south. I had planned to go up a mountain/mining road, the same road that I had traveled earlier this year and was stopped by a snow covered closed area through the pass…this time I came at it from the other side and actually did drive to the top of the pass.
The top of the pass is like the rest, pretty and covered in that fiery red and yellow tundra. There is an active gold mining operation going on near the end of the pass and on the other side of the pass is the old historic mine that was the end of my earlier trip. If you are ever driving this road, do not let anyone spook you! It is dirt, and has some big holes…but I drove this thing even in slight drizzle at this point, and it was totally fine. I understand the rental agencies prohibit it, but my Turo host was fine with it. Since it’s not gravel, it was actually just fine to drive, by me! There are a handful of switchbacks, but nothing crazy, and not a whole lot of steep grades either. Make sure you are mindful of what happens if you have car problems though. I think I saw two other cars driving the road, and of course, no cell signal! The road was already closed for the season the week after I did this drive!
This next part is probably not interesting unless you are really thinking of visiting and driving in Alaska. By the time I started driving back on the Parks Highway I was anticipating getting back to Healy right around sunset. This road is downright treacherous in not ideal weather conditions. The grooves on the road from all the traffic mean that the water literally pools without running off, just about the entire length of the road. Hydroplaning was a concern (and a bit of a reality) almost the entire drive! To make matters worse, because of the overcast skies, and also these 6 and 7000 foot mountains towering along the road, it started getting dark far earlier that I anticipated. The last 30 minutes or so of this drive was not an experience I ever want to repeat. The only vehicles on the road were me and the semi trucks, often pulling two trailers, flying toward me. Trying to navigate the wet road is one thing, doing it while these massive trucks are hurtling toward you is another, and doing it when you can barely even see the road, or the lines, is an entirely unpleasant experience! There are no reflectors on this road. There are no lights of any kind. And it is DARK. In a nutshell, do not drive this road in the dark! The locals don’t even like doing it! I will note that I *almost* saw Denali. There is also a state park called Denali State Park that I drove into and for a fleeting moment the weather was starting to allow some views into the Alaska Range and Denali was teasing! Then the weather and the light got in the way again!
So that pretty much wraps things up! The next morning, Friday, I started back toward Fairbanks for the early Saturday 2 AM flight. I did make a stop at Latitude 65 Brewery. It is delicious beer and a really neat spot. And I also stopped at a highly regarded restaurant called the Pump House. It is an old western saloon style place set in an historic pump house on the Chena River. If in Fairbanks, I highly recommend both!
And that is a wrap! At the time of this post, this is looking like my last trip of the year (we’ll see!). I am really thankful for the opportunities that have come to me for sure! About this time last year I was fully anticipating two trips to Alaska and nothing more. What I really got was those two trips, plus a Maui trip, and a Utah trip! It was an awesome travel year for sure, and there might still be at least something else to two coming as well! Stay tuned!
Overall Impressions: Pros: It’s Alaska. Denali in the fall colors was spectacular. Fairbanks had some nice spots for sure and Chena Hot Springs is definitely a must do if you are up there. Seeing the Northern Lights was amazing and I cannot wait to see them again! Cons: None that are worth elaborating on: Far away, expensive, and weather. Noticeable? Yes. A detractor? Not for me!
The Adventurer Final Word: