Day 4: Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour

We worked out first thing in the morning (Which I will post for this week’s Work-It Wednesday!), had a delicious buffet breakfast and were ready to go on the Denali Tundra Wilderness bus tour!

Our travels inside Denali National Park captured just how vast Alaska is. Pictures cannot do it justice and I’m surely not descriptive enough to have my words paint you a picture, but my god, everything is so far away. The visibility is great and you can see so much and so far that your mind can’t even quantify it.  The valleys and meadows are massive, the huge rushing rivers only look like little capillaries and brooks. The gigantic, 1,800 pound moose, which appear to be just outside the bus window, are hardly visible unless you have a camera with 15x Optical Zoom.

Alaska Moose Comparison

Here is an example of being zoomed out and zoomed in as far as I could. Surely enough, there’s nearly a 2,000 pound majestic creature sitting in the brush.

 

 

Vast Denali National Park

T wishing he was R. Kelly. Don’t worry, those little foothills you see in the back are only like 3,000 ft high. Compare that to Denali’s 20,320 ft and try not to shit your pants.

The park is 6 million acres. Which is about 9,500 square miles. Which is bigger than New Hampshire (9,351 sq miles), and almost as big as Massachusetts (10,555 sq miles). A quote I heard and loved was, “The bear you don’t see might be a bear that’s never seen a human. And that’s only possible in a place this large and wild.”

Mt McKinely and Bear Denali National Park

One of my favorite shots that I captured. Denali and a grizzly.

The ecosystems are interestingly balanced as well.  The snowshoe hare can reach population densities of 600 per square mile (Yes, that’s over 5.5 million bun-buns). This dense population leads to more Lynx (their main predator) and lower food sources. Therefore, the population will crash and both species rise and fall together in 8 to 11 year cycles. 

The tour took about 8 hours.  Packed full school bus for 8 hours? Nothing about it seemed appealing at first.  To be honest, it was one of my favorite parts of the trip (I have so many favorites).  

Passenger cars and buses can only access the first 15 miles of the park that is open to the general public. We traveled a full 62 miles into the park! The private access portion of the park is unpaved and only accessible by tour buses, bicycles or by foot. This keeps park attendants supervised and wild nature disruption to a minimum. 

During the 8 hour tour, we saw 2 Moose, 2 Grizzly Bears, 1 Black Bear, a lot of Caribou and other wildlife like birds and squirrels. We encountered a mom and baby caribou on the road back and they didn’t want to get off the road, so we followed them for about 15 minutes. 

Mom and baby Caribou Denali

Bear Denali National Park

Wet Grizzly, crossing the river (Same one that was in front of Denali)

Squirrel Denali National Park

SQUIRREL! They look different in Alaska

Probably the biggest highlight of this Tundra Wilderness Tour was we FINALLY got to see a decently clear Mt. McKinley! The temptation was really building since we only got to see bits of and pieces of it through the clouds until finally seeing the whole mountain in one large view.  We were about 35 miles from the base of it, and it was breathtakingly beautiful.  This is my favorite picture I took. It looks like an oil painting.  This was taken at our turnaround point. Stony Dome, Mile 62.

Mt McKinley Denali National Park Stony Dome Hill

Since the park has only one road in and out, it was the same path back.  We got to see lots of additional animals, but the initial “hype” had passed and many of us took a nice little nap during a portion of the 62 miles out of the park.  

Once we arrived back at Denali Princess Lodge, we grabbed pizza at the on-site restaurant.  After dinner, we walked across the street to the season town and grabbed a six pack and a couple of bombers of some Alaskan craft beers and headed back to the hot tubs where we drank in open-air hot tubs overlooking the beautiful views of the Nananee River. 

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My SIL and Brother (J & H) and my other Brother, Hobey

This was our last full day on land. On Day 5, we boarded a glass top train and rode 300 miles south to our cruise ship.

xo R

 

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Day 3: Iditarod Sled Dogs, Talkeetna, & Denali Princess Lodge

Day 3’s morning excursion was one of the highlights of the trip. The entire trip was amazing, but this definitely stands out. 

We woke up, grabbed a parfait and some coffee at the lodge coffee shop and boarded the shuttle to the town of Talkeetna. From there we checked in at Kahiltna Bistro and took a smaller van back to Sun Dog Kennels.

The dogs were so high strung.  There was a brief introduction and then our first activity was to get pulled on an ATV by 15 Iditarod Sled Dogs! The owner of the farm, Jerry Sousa, has run in the Iditarod 12 times and is signed up for his 13th this March!  It was amazing to watch the temperament changes as the owners were choosing the 15 dogs to be picked for our short 5-mile ride. They wanted it SO BAD. The barking was boisterous with jealousy as some were picked and others weren’t. There was over 50 dogs there. Almost all of them running in circles on their short tethers around their little houses that had their names on them. Others jumped up to stand on their houses. 1 or 2 were a little scared of people, so they sat quietly in their homes, looking at us suspiciously.

 Sun Dog Kennels Talkeetna Alaska Sled Dogs

The more dogs they chose, the louder the barking got as they were PLEADING to be chosen to pull the ATV.  We weren’t aloud to interact with the dogs during this first bit because of how high strung they were and how unpredictable they can be at this time.  When 14 dogs were chosen and there was only one more, the barking was at its loudest.  It was deafening.  The moment the owner picked the 15th dog, the barking just about seized completely and there were no peeps from the dogs. It was the most bizarre thing. They knew their chance was up and they’d have to wait for the next ride.  The course was split in half to let everyone ride; 2.5 miles each. It was an amazing experience to be right behind them, being pulled through the forest.  My SIL said, “Is this what Santa Claus feels like?” lol.  

Sun Dog Kennels Talkeetna Alaska Sled Dogs

H& J Getting pulled during the first 2.5 miles

When we returned to the farm, The dogs were wiped and covered in water and mud.  We got to pet the dogs and praise them for their good work.  They were absolute dolls; rolling on their backs for tummy rubs, loving all the attention.  Next, we got an explanation of the Iditarod from the runner himself and he shared his experiences with us.  For those of you that don’t know, the Iditarod is a dog sled race, that is appx. 1,100 miles long, and takes about 11 days, therefore, they run about 100 miles a day. 

The training for the dogs is pretty exemplary. Their goal is to get 3000 miles logged on each dog before the Iditarod.  They start training in the late summer, starting with 5 miles, 10 miles, 15 miles per day, all the way up to 100 miles.  They start training the yearlings (the younger pups) and pair them up with the older dogs to learn from their wisdom and experience.  I learned that the dogs race almost their entire lives.  The dogs don’t retire from pulling until they are about 10 years old. Which blows my mind because thoroughbreds will only race until about 5 years old, if that, and their life span can reach 25-30 years. 

We also got to play with husky PUPPIES!! They were soft and adorable and fluffy and it was amazing :) 

After leaving Sun Kennel Farms, we walked around the small town of Talkeetna, which consisted of mostly pubs, bars and gift shops. It didn’t take us more than 30 minutes to walk the entire town and go in most stores. Very small. We made our way back to Kalhitna Bistro for lunch where I had the Reindeer Chili, which was absolute to die for. 

We headed back to Mckinley Princess Lodge, played a game of Farkle, desperately waited to see if Denali would make an appearance from behind the clouds, and boarded a bus to get to Denali Princess Lodge.  Once at Denali Princess Lodge, we did a 12 minute HIIT workout (Which I just posted for this weeks WORK-IT WEDNESDAY!, Read why I LOVE HIIT, HERE!) and the went to a dinner theater show! It was very corny and hokey, but thats what you expect in a dinner theater.  It was a lot of fun and the food was great!  I was just about falling asleep by the end of it from pure exhaustion, so it was straight to bed after that and preparing for the next day in Denali!

xo R

Day 2: Hiking Lake Byers

After arriving at Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge, we grabbed a quick bite to eat at the bar and prepared for our afternoon hike. 

McKinley Princess Lodge is beautiful! It’s unique for many ways. For one, it can show you one of the greatest views of Denali. However, only an estimate 40% of the guests will see it because of the pesky clouds it almost constantly hides behind. Denali stands at 20,320 ft, so it is hard to miss. With so many surrounding foothills and peaks within view, and all of us so eager to lay eyes on it, we thought we saw Denali a couple times.  However, we were told, “If you are unsure if you are looking at it, it’s not Denali.”  In addition to a traditional “Wake-up Call”, the lodge offers a “Mountain Call”. Someone is always on the look for the mountain, and when it comes into view, they will call all the rooms so you can get a chance to view the peak! We didn’t get a chance to see the peak while at the lodge, but it showed itself to us in the near future.  

McKinely Princess Lodge Night View

Mt. McKinley hiding behind the clouds

Another way its super unique is Princess Cruises created these lodges to expand their business onto the land before or after cruises. The lodges are only in operation from May through September.During the season (May-September) Princess employees and houses about 2,000 employees.  On September 21st, the employees drop to 30. Just a couple people at each lodge to stay back and make sure all is well…..AKA The Shining. NO THANKS. There are entire towns in function because of the lodges.  Signs on the road ways say “All Services May-Sept, 2 Miles Ahead”. People bring their RVs and park them behind the coffee shops, gift shops, ice cream parlors, gas stations, and live there for 4 months, working in the shops all day before returning home during the off-season. 

One thing I love about the summer months in Alaska is the length of the days due to the crazy amount of sunlight.  The sun rises around 4am and sets around 11pm. We were able to go on an evening hike from 2-8 pm around Lake Byers. I was originally not interested in hiking with a tour guide, but he was truly awesome. First, he prepared us with all the proper gear, equipping us with rain coats, pants, boot covers, hiking poles, hats, and anything we needed.  I opted for the rain pants, and am very glad I did, walking the brush and mud, I would have ended up incredibly wet and muddy.  

Lake Byers Alaska

Our guides name was Will, and he was extremely knowledgable.  I learned a lot while hiking 5-6 hours with him. The trails were lined with wild blueberry plants.  They were delicious, and we ate copious amount along the way.  Another plant we learned about was called the wild cucumber.  It looks like a little reddish-pink jelly bean hanging from some leaves. Its squishy.  It tastes like the perfect combination of watermelon and cucumber.  Refreshing! 

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Lake Byers is a salmon spawning area.  We saw all sorts of salmon in different parts of their life cycle. We learned a lot about the plants, birds, fish and wildlife during the hike. It was a beautiful day with only minimal rain, a short 5-10 minute drizzle towards the very end. 

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This entire bridge is tilted at least 30 degrees to the right. Its extremely sketchy!

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After the hike, we had dinner at the Lodge Restaurant, aptly named Twenty Three Twenty (20,320) which is the height of Denali. We had some great laughs during that dinner. My dad and I were crying over the silliest things. I think we were becoming delirious because of too much oxygen, not enough sleep, time zone change, and good beers. After our late dinner, we got ready for the next day!

xo R