We heard from many people that it’s very rare to see the Denali Mountain Peak in the summer because it’s normally completed clouded in. With that in mind and since we were also starting to see smoke impacts from wildfires, we thought we should spend as much time as possible in the Denali area to increase our chances of seeing it. So after leaving Homer, we booked on up to the north side of Anchorage and stopped at Eagle River Campground. It was a nice campground next to yet another raging river and it served our purposes, but it was really noisy due to its proximity to the highway. The next day we drove through the western side of the Mat-Su area where we saw a lot of farming in the huge flat valley northwest of Wasilla. We never thought of Alaska as having a huge agricultural center, but the reality is that with 20+ hours of intense sunlight a day, you can grow a variety of produce. Add in the usage of green houses and you can grow pretty much anything you like.
As we continued north, we had the Takeetna Mountains to the east and the Alaska Range to the west. Denali is within the Alaska Range and given its size (20,310 ft), it can be seen as far away as Anchorage on a super clear day. We had located a boondocking option at the South Denali Viewpoint within Denali State Park. It was literally in the parking lot, but we thought it would be a good place to stay if, by chance we could see Denali. Well, the norm held true, it was covered in clouds, so we could only see some of the closer mountains and the lovely Susitna River. The next day we decided to stay at an RV Park in Cantwell, about 30 miles south of the Denali National Park entrance. This enabled us to charge up all our devices, shower and do a flush/fill before heading into the park. There was also another viewing point for Denali about 6 miles away from the RV Park along the Denali Highway. The first time we went up to the viewing point, there was still too many clouds, so when we got back to the RV Park, I found a live cloud coverage website and kept checking it every half hour until I saw a potential opening. Although there were still a lot of clouds around us, it was showing Denali had no clouds over it. So off we went to the viewing point again, where with the aide of binoculars I could barely make out the outline of Denali. Not exactly the view we were hoping for, but if anyone asked, yes, I’d seen Denali!
The following day we entered Denali National Park and checked in to get our driving pass before heading out to our campground. The Denali Park Road is 92 miles long, but due to a major landslide that occurred last fall, it is currently closed at mile 42. It has a lot of driving restrictions on it, private motor vehicles are only allowed to drive out to mile 15. If you have reservations at the campgrounds that are beyond mile 15, you are allowed to drive out to that campground and back, but you can’t use your vehicle while you are there. We stayed at Teklanika River campground, which is 29 miles in and the furthest campground that allows RVs and Trailers. You can ride your bike on any part of the road and they have a couple different bus tour options that are always in high demand. The main reason for these road restrictions is to help preserve the wildlife in the park and we were led to believe we would see a lot of creatures on the road. But we only saw a couple of birds on the way in and nothing at all on the way out. After picking our spot at Teklanika Campground, we set up the mosquito netting which enabled us to be outside. They were so bad that you really couldn’t be outside even with bug spray, they still would have pestered you to no end. I got a nice complement on the netting from one of the Rangers who also told us to go up to Sable Pass to get our view of Denali (if we got lucky). He also cautioned us that we needed to put the cooler of beer inside the truck, as apparently bears like beer and would tear through the soft cover on the truck bed to get to it. We were not sure if that is really the case, but we obliged as we don’t want to have any part of habituating bears. We had a very nice evening, safe inside our netting and celebrated the fact that we had arrived at the ‘Destination’ of this trip.
After having moved every day for the past 3 days, we took it pretty easy the next morning, a bit of a sleep-in followed by a tasty breakfast/brunch of ham steak, tomatoes, eggs and potatoes. From there we got our bikes unhitched, Lola’s carriage* setup and headed up the Denali Park Road in search of a view of Denali. We would be climbing up about 1,400 ft, most of which was a very mellow ascent. It was an exceptionally nice ride, the first section we were in a spruce forest so there wasn’t much of a view, but after Igloo Creek it opened up and we could see more of the Alaska Range to our south and the Wyoming Hills to our north, just stunning all around.
At one point, we stopped for a few minutes to take a closer look at some Dall Sheep up on a hillside and met four other cyclists. Two of them were on their way back down and mentioned they had bailed on the ‘final grade’ up to Sable Pass, poor souls, they did not have e-bikes. The other two were on their way up and looked like serious athletes, who probably had no trouble with the grade. It didn’t take long after we had reached the grade for Conrad to realize that hauling himself, his heavy e-bike, Lola and her carriage up this section was problematic at best. We weren’t sure how much further it was to the top of the pass, so he started walking the bike and the carriage up while I rode ahead to get the scoop. Turns out it was only about a ¼ of a mile to the pass, so Conrad walked up the rest of it. You need to go just a little further beyond the pass to the see Denali, which I did and unfortunately, it was all clouded in.
Of course, we were disappointed, but we had a fun ride back down the hill and got to see a Moose and two Grizzlies along the way. The Moose was munching on some trees just off the road a bit and I got a fairly good photo of him. A little further along, eagle-eye Conrad saw a very blond Grizzley up on a hill in front of us, close enough to see, but far enough to be safe and too far for any chance of a photo. A minute or so after we started watching Blondy, we saw a much bigger, darker Grizzley further up the hill. We thought that since it was the mating season, perhaps the big guy was trailing Blondy, she kept looking back up towards him, then they would both move along a little bit more. The show didn’t last much longer though, because a tour bus came by, and the big guy took off up the hill and out of our sight in a hurry. We had lost sight of Blondy too. So, although we didn’t see Denali, we had a really great ride and finally some wildlife viewing.
The next day the sky was much clearer, and we got away quite a bit earlier to ride back up to Sable Pass again, this time without Lola. Typically, we wouldn’t want to leave her in the trailer, but it wasn’t going to be a hot day and we knew we could get up there and back pretty quickly, so she got a well-deserved (and I expect much appreciated) napping opportunity. We chatted with another couple near the Dall Sheep again, then proceeded up to Sable Pass, just beyond the pass Conrad yelled in joy as we could see Denali! And what a sight it was, not only is it so darn tall, but it’s massively wide and it just towers above everything else around it. It was simply magnificent, and boy did we feel lucky to have that chance to see it.
Our final night in Denali marked a turning point for our trip, we had made it to our destination and we had seen the mountain, so now it was time to head back home. But of course, many more adventures await us on the journey back.
*Lola really, really loves her carriage, even before it’s assembled, she’s ready to get in and take a ride. We always have to hold her back until we get it attached to Con’s bike and get her bed in. We never imagined when we got it that she would take to it as well as she has, and it makes us both so happy that she enjoys it so much. Added bonus is the smiles and comments we get from pretty much everyone who sees her in it.