Embracing the Unpredictable Weather in Denali
The giant state of Alaska is full of adventure, wildlife and extremely diverse landscapes. With our Alaska Bound Adventures this summer we’ve explored so much of this amazing state over the past couple months. As we were planning our Alaska exit, in order to beat the snow, we kept asking ourselves: Can a visit to Denali National Park really make our Alaskan experience any better?
It seems we were not the only ones to have this ying and yang perception of Denali National Park. During our 9 days in the National Park area we asked everyone what they thought about the park, from workers, to rangers, to native Alaskans and here’s some the responses that stuck with us.
“It’s Wilderness in the middle of Wilderness.” “People assume that inside Denali National Park the wildlife is abundant and wildly diverse, but that’s just not the case.” “Somebody once asked me if I get tired of seeing the mountain (referring to Denali) and I tell them it’s impossible to not stare in awe at the beauty Mother Nature has created.” “Hiking in Denali State Park is much more fulfilling than the National Park.” “I’m so fortunate I get to work inside my favorite national park, but I’m really fortunate that I get three days off each week to backpack in my favorite park!”
All these varying responses really set the stage for our Denali experience, however there’s one quote by Ranulph Fiennes that really stuck with us during our time in Denali:
“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”
For us this simple quote sums up our Denali adventures. Our time in the park was a proverbial roller coaster and nothing displays that better than our attempt at hiking the Savage Alpine Trail near mile marker 15.
Whaddya think of that hike? Mother Nature sure can dish out a beating when she wants to. Like Mr. Fiennes said, there’s no such thing as bad weather. Our major takeaway from this experience: If you come to Denali, and you want to hike, you can’t wait for perfect weather. Even if things don’t turn out as planned, simply getting out for a few hours can turn into an unexpected adventure.
I’m not going to wax on too much with our thoughts because you’ll take home your own piece of Denali (and my words can’t do the place justice), but what we can do is share pieces of our experience in the hopes of making your Denali National Park adventures go a little more smoothly.
Planning a Denali Camping Trip
Mother Nature is King out here and you won’t know what type of weather she’ll throw at you until you’re here! You can plan all you want, as far in advance as you see necessary, but once you get here there’s a chance you’ll have to throw all that planning out the window. We booked our campgrounds and bus passes less than two weeks in advance of our arrival, and honestly we didn’t know a thing about the park since we weren’t sure if we’d even make it to Denali National Park. We share all the planning details, tips and tricks in our post about Decoding Denali National Park.
Be prepared for anything! During our stay we had it all. One day was sunny and warm. In the middle of our stay it rained for nearly 72 hours straight. Our third to last day in the park it snowed so much they closed all the roads. Our last couple days snowed enough over night to delay the buses by several hours thwarting our plans to hike in the park.
Denali Mountain (formerly Mt McKinley)
Don’t come out here and expect to see the mountain because you’ll likely leave disappointed. We’re told most people don’t see it. In fact, because it’s seen so little, inside the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66 in the park) they have a marker on the ground and a sticker on the window that shows the outline of where the mountain is. Not as grand as seeing the peak with your own eyes, but we got the jest of just how massive North America’s tallest mountain is. This is what our view from the visitor center deck looked like.
Maybe I’m lazy, or maybe I don’t have the patience to be a wildlife photographer, either way the wildlife in Denali didn’t cooperate much for us. The road is a popular place to catch wildlife and the diehard photographers with their $30,000+ worth of cameras and lenses would spend an entire day in the same area waiting for that perfect shot. I sure hope they got it. From the bus we only spotted one grizzly high up on the hill, a few caribou and some other miscellaneous small game. It’s OK, we didn’t come out exclusively for the wildlife so unlike some people on our bus we didn’t step off feeling disappointed. We were just happy to be enjoying the wilderness. Here are a few of our best wildlife snaps, keep in mind I rarely brought the “big camera” and as I mentioned above we didn’t wait on the road for that perfect shot.
Hiking in Denali
When we come to see and experience nature we do our best to get out and explore, even when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Here’s a few of the hikes we were able to tackle inside the park.
- Horseshoe Lake Trail – It’s a lush trail with tons of rose hip to be plucked along the way this time of year. There’s a neat beaver dam and there’s plenty of half cut down trees waiting to be drug into the water, we looked for a while but didn’t see this busy beaver working.
- Savage Alpine Trail – Recommended by most everyone we came across as “one of the best hikes in the park” and honestly this little hike provided a load of unexpected excitement for us thanks to the wind and snow!
- Savage River Loop, Mountain Vista and Savage Cabin Trail – These are fine ways to stretch your legs and see the scenery around the Savage River Campground. These are popular trails so they can get crowded, but on a rainy day we’d didn’t see a single person!
- Anywhere – Denali is one of those parks where they allow and encourage you to go off trail and enjoy the wilderness. They only ask that you don’t walk behind each other in order to avoid creating a trail. It’s loads of fun and really leaves you feeling out there!
It’s a brutal ride all the way out there to mile marker 92.5, and unfortunately the ride is so long (12-13 hrs from Riley Creek) there’s not much of an opportunity for hiking or exploring the areas on the way out. If it wouldn’t have been snowing we could have gotten out and hiked for an hour or two then caught another bus, but due to intermittent road closures, getting off the bus wasn’t recommended. Sure it was neat to see the entire length of the road but we felt a little disconnected since we saw it all from the seat of a bus. We dive deeper into the bus system in our Decoding Denali post.
Typically, we’d only have a few major misses, especially considering the length of time we spent in the park, but Mother Nature wasn’t exactly making things easy on us.
- Disco Hike – Short for “Discovery Hike” these are special hikes that are limited to a dozen or so people. Where else can you hike with a park ranger in such a small group and discover a portion of the park off the main trails? If the weather would have cooperated we’d have taken two of three of these hikes! They are free however you must be “approved” for each hike, spaces are limited and they can only be booked 3 days in advance, and yes they often fill up fast. So schedule this the moment you arrive at the park!
- Mount Healy Overlook Trail – This is supposed to be a spectacular overlook but during our visit it was covered in clouds the entire time so we didn’t bother hiking up for the views of nothingness.
- Triple Lakes Trail – The ranger at the Denali Visitor Center said this hike was her favorite on the 14 mile entrance road. Obviously there’s lots of lakes on the trail but the forest is lush and there’s a cool suspension bridge you get to walk across.
- Mile 55 – Apparently mile 55 is extremely special. We saw this mile marker referenced over and over in the ranger led backcountry Discovery Hikes. Many of the Disco Hikes begin right at, or near, mile 55. We had a Disco hike planned for mile 55 and mile 66 but we were snowed out.
- McKinley Bar Trail – Recommended by many of the park rangers we spoke to as a great hike with varying landscape of meadows and forests with killer views of Denali mountain.
- Reflection Pond – Located a couple miles past the Wonder Lake Campground there’s a small pond that, when all conditions are perfect, provides mirror like reflections of Denali Mountain. You can see our reflection pond shot below.
- Giant Camera Lens – Yep, having an obnoxiously long lens would have been great for wildlife photography, maybe even a 400mm lens with a 2x teleconverter…but who wants to hike around with that monster!?! I guess that’s why many of those guys apply for a photography permit and spend their days close to the road.
A few notably neat facts about Denali
- 30% – The number of people that actually get to see Denali the mountain
- 20 days – The average number of days the mountains is visible during the season
- 6,000,000 – The number of acres Denali National Park Covers
- July – The busiest month to visit, also considered the “rainy month”
- August – Known as the “Shoulder Season” with less crowds but mother nature isn’t always sure if it’s Winter or Fall, so arrive prepared for both!
- Denali – Athabaskan for “the great one”
- 08/31/2015 – On this day president Obama officially renamed Mt. McKinley back to its native name of Denali. Too bad we didn’t stick around for a few extra days or we could have been a part of history.
Our trip was an adventure but there’s no doubt we’d have different things to say if our weather was perfect, if we could have seen Mt. McKinley towering over the Alaska Range and we would have been able to hike all those trails we missed…but I like the way one Alaskan transplant put it “Alaska has its way of setting the hook and reeling you back in, if she gave you everything it’d be too easy, this way she knows you’ll be back.”
Dear Alaska, I can guarantee you we’ll make it back to Denali before we die and we’re looking forward to seeing it all next time around…even if it takes an entire month!
Have you been to Denali National Park? Were you one of the lucky ones that got to see the mountain? What’d you think about the buses? If you’ve been and have tips to share please do in the comments below. If you’re planning your Denali Experience feel free to leave a comment or question, we’ll do our best to provide a helpful answer.
Fuel Prices – In general the least expensive fuel is found in Anchorage and Fairbanks, however we’d recommend topping off your tank before you go into the park so you’ll have plenty of fuel to drive into the Tek campground and run your generator if necessary. We topped off near Talkeetna, AK for $3.37/gallon, that’s only $0.10 more per gallon than Fairbanks. There is a filling station just outside the park entrance but it’s pricey.
Road Conditions – The road in the park is well maintained up to mile marker 15. If you score a campsite deeper inside the park the road turns to a single lane dirt road. There are potholes and a few washboard sections but for the most part the park service keeps the road in relatively decent condition for the buses, although a good snow and/or rain causes the road to rut pretty quickly. We made it just fine and so did all the other RVers at Tek.
Weather – As you’ve read in this post be prepared for anything. One day at Tek the temperatures never got above freezing and it snowed for nearly 24 hours. But it was an incredible sight!
Dates Visited – August 23 – August 31