The Denali Hwy was beautiful, but we were very glad to make it to Denali National Park, and our room at McKinley Lodge. As anxious as we were to get to our room, we did stop a couple of times though, taking advantage of the good light to get some pictures. Since rain was called for the next day, I knew we had to grab those moments when we could.
We also got delayed a little because Lee was fascinated by this huge raven and fed it crackers. They are really smart but at this point I was pretty pooped.
Finally we made it to McKinley Lodge, and I have to say I thought it was very nice. Lee is pretty particular about hotel rooms and he was less impressed, but I thought for where it was it was pretty good. It did cost $221 for the night, which is crazy I know, but I was willing to pay that much to get a known quantity and didn’t really regret it. I will say though there were tons of empty rooms in the lodge and I would have probably been better off waiting until the day of and then booking a room. I have never been great at planning trips that way though (too much ambiguity), so I don’t regret locking it in.
So the hotel was nice, but dinner was a mixed bag. Part of the cost we knew would be eating meals out since there was no kitchen in the hotel and we certainly could have picked a cheaper option, but decided to splurge and eat at their steakhouse. The meal was $95 before tip and although it had its high points (the crab bisque was the best I have ever had), Lee’s $50 steak dinner was extremely mediocre. Needless to say, he was not pleased.
We ate early and then watched a documentary about Alaska that was running on a loop on the TV in our hotel, then we crashed hard. The next morning we were up bright and early though, and skipped buying a big breakfast to recoup some of the money from the previous night. I did grab a bagel though, and off we went into the park. We like to get up and going early, but this was early even for us. I was hoping that the early entrance might garner us an animal sighting, but that was not to be.
The thing about Denali is only 21 miles are open for the public to drive, and beyond that you have to use their bus system. These bus rides range from 6 – 11 hours and are on slightly upgraded school buses. Almost all the people I have talked to had at least one bear sighting, but since I saw bears up close and personal in Glacier, neither one of us really wanted to sacrifice an entire day for that. I’m not saying don’t do it, just don’t do it lightly, and know your limits. There are also bus tours that go deep in the park from outside companies and many people say those tours are actually better. Either way, we wanted to drive what we could, hit the Visitors Center and then be on our way.
My expectation set was already pretty low because I knew you could barely drive into the park and we also knew it was all about seeing Mt. Denali (formerly McKinley). It is only visible two out of three days in the summer and we knew with the forecast it was extremely unlikely we would see it. We didn’t expect the tons of active construction at 6am. We were stopped three times and thank heavens there was hardly anyone else on the road or the delays would have been much longer. Even with the delays it only took us 30 minutes to reach the end, largely because there were only a couple of places to pull off and take pictures. And of course no animal sighting because of all the construction racket.
Honestly the views didn’t wow me after the day before, so we decided to go see if the Visitors Center was open. We reached it by 7am and although I really wanted to get a fleece there decided I wasn’t going to wait an hour to check it out. So after taking a couple of pictures we decided to head down the road.
I never ever go into these situations expecting animal or view sightings. I remember when I did, and I get it. You work hard, spend tons on a vacation and by God you feel cheated if you don’t see something extremely cool. But I learned very early on in this lifestyle that feeling entitled is a sure way to be unhappy. Every animal sighting, every spectacular view, every wondrous moment is a gift and I try to always treat it like that, but I am human and so to be honest I was a little bummed. I shook myself out of it though and we headed down the road, with the thought that now we would have plenty of time to hook-up with Kelly and Bill. We were less than 10 miles outside the park when we saw a beautiful bull moose and a pretty great view. See that’s how life is, when you least expect it, you get the magical moments.
Right outside of Glacier National Forest is Glacier State Forest. We have seen this phenomenon before and always recommend checking out the state parks as well, because you never know what you might find in them. In this case they had two places where you could see Mt. Denali, so we stopped at both the north and south viewpoints. Apparently I am a glutton for punishment.
At the south viewpoint we met this very nice couple who are native to Alaska and they apologized that we didn’t get to see the view. I thought that was so sweet because they generally seemed bummed for us and took the time to give us some information about things they liked to do in the state. Jan seemed really interested in the full-time lifestyle and I gave her my blog card so she could check our adventure out. So Jan if you are reading this, meeting you and your husband was a highlight of our day and keep reading because I think it will make you happy!
We also stopped and saw Hurricane Gulch which was an unexpected little treasure. There is a dirt path leading to a scary if spectacular view, and Lee even pulled out his drone hoping to get some video. Once he was over the gorge though he got this weird power message he had never seen before and decided not to chance it. I don’t blame him, that was one deep gorge.
By this time we had given up on seeing the mountain, but were looking forward to going to Talkeetna with Kelly and Bill. We stopped at the campground they were staying at Trapper Creek, which seemed very nice, although side to side the rigs were very tight, and then we showed B/K our caribou skull (oh yeah, that was still in the back of our truck) and headed out.
Kelly had heard about the premier site to see Denali on the way to Talkeetna so we were like sure why not. At this point I thought at least I will get a funny picture out of the deal, and sharing disappointment with good friends can take the sting out. So we stopped at this pull out with a great bench and took some pics.
Right after we took this pick we sat on the bench and I am not kidding you, in that moment we started seeing some faint images. At first we thought it was imagination, but no it started to get clearer. Holy crap! We all saw it faintly and even though these pics aren’t anywhere as beautiful as so many I have seen, they are worth more to me because I will always have the moment that went with it.
So this is what it looked like with the naked eye..well the naked eye with binoculars or a long lens, and I did get some better pictures by playing with tone and contrast. But this is what we saw and that’s enough to add us to the 30% club of people who actually get to see the mountain. So Jan thanks for telling me to keep looking throughout the day, and Kelly’s friend (sorry don’t remember your name) thanks for telling us about the spot. But most importantly thanks to Kelly and Bill for being there with us. Love you guys.
After our exciting sighting we were all starving and we headed into Talkeetna. We had all heard good things about this town, which lies at the end of a road and is a major tourist attraction in the Denali area. It was a super cute town with lots of shops and sight-seeing vendors, but unlike McCarthy, I really liked the vibe there. We decided to eat at the Denali Brewing Company restaurant (brewery is right down the street and they make some nice beers) and had a nice lunch. Kelly and my halibut was greasy but Lee loved his reindeer meatloaf and Bill enjoyed his pretzel loaf roast beef, plus it was much more reasonably priced than the dinner the night before.
Afterwards we walked through town and in and out of tons of shops. At some point the guys gave up and just sat down, but I think Kelly and I could have kept going, Really neat stuff. Plus the weather was absolutely beautiful. It may have called for rain in Denali, but down in Talkeetna the weather was just fine.
We had a nice time, but knew we had lots of driving still ahead of us so we said our goodbyes. On the way back we stopped at the Walmart in Wasilla and this is by far the best grocery store we have been to. Amazing selection, very reasonable prices, and super clean. As we were in the store though Lee got a phone call from American Express and they did a three-way call with him and a lady who had found his wallet in Talkeetna. I had borrowed the wallet when the guys took a shopping break and when we were saying our goodbyes I handed it back to Lee and it ended up in the parking lot. An Alaska resident, she called American Express immediately and the customer service agent allowed Lee and her to work out a deal where she would return it. That’s why I like American Express so much, I can’t imagine any other credit card company doing that. She is sending it (we have a tracking number) and she saved us tons of hassle for cancelling all of the cards. See, some people are good!
Lee handled the incident extremely well, chalking it up to the flurry of activity at the end of the visit, and our drive back was very pleasant, especially because the condition of the roads between Denali and Wasilla were the best we have seen. It was also interesting though how the drive between Palmer and Glennallen compared to what we had just seen and I have to say from a sheer landscape perspective that is still the most beautiful road we have seen here. The lighting was absolutely beautiful I just had to take another picture. We ended up getting home around 7pm and just collapsed. It was a long couple of days, but I am really glad we did it.
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