Denali National Park, Alaska
We disembarked the ship at 9am at the Seward passenger terminal and took the bus to Denali national park. The trip took approximately eight hours, including a two hour stop over in Anchorage.
The scenery between Seward and Anchorage was beautiful, wide glacial rivers against a mountain backdrop. Anchorage was, like Juneau, modern, clean looking and fairly non-descript. We stayed only long enough to have a bit to eat and use the internet. Due to the extravagant prices for wifi and internet services aboard ship we'd been pretty much disconnected for the whole week. Its only when you lose it that you realise how much of our modern life revolves around smart phones and internet.
The scenery on the journey north was even more dramatic than that to the south. The mountains were taller, more rugged and the forests thicker. Every now and again we passed by a "settlement" or town - often little more than a roadhouse or service station.
Outside of Talekeena (check spelling) we pulled over for a rest and refreshment stop at the roadside McKinley View cafe. As the sun was shining and the skies were clear we managed to see our first glimpse of the famous mountain - the tallest in North America at 20,237 feet. The mountain was named after President McKinley in 1896. It was renamed Denali, its Athabaskan Indian name in 1975 (in Alaska as an Ohio congressman continues to block the national renaming). McKinley towers double the height of the rest of the Alaskan mountain range, but due its reflective blanket of snow its can be hard to distinguish from the clouds that swirl around it. In fact, the peak is cloud covered almost 80% of the time.
Almost two hours on from Talekeena we were dropped at the Denali village; basically a hotel resort almost 10 miles from the Denali park entrance. We found ourselves somewhat stranded as the accommodation we'd booked, the Perch lodge, was nearly 10 miles back down the road. The Lonely Planet says the lodge has a shuttle, but this is two years out of date. There is no shuttle to The Perch, which necessitated organising a taxi from the nearby village of Healy, some 16 miles further up the road towards Denali. Needless to say this proved to be an expensive taxi ride.
Although the cabins at The Perch were fine, the transport arrangements were not, so after some discussion with the owners we cancelled our second night's accommodation and booked a 'room' at the Denali Mountain Mist hostel directly across the highway as they did have a shuttle to and from the park. The only room they had available was a tent but beggars can't be choosers. It was all part of the adventure!
At this time of year the sun doesn't set in the north and we'd completely lost track of time. We retired to our cabin at 12 midnight while outside it was light enough to read a book.
We were up early, packed our bags and moved to hostel in time to catch their 8.20am shuttle to the park. As I dragged our bags across the highway a young moose stepped out of the forest and ventured out into the road. It took me totally by surprise. The moose stepped back into the forest as a car approached and then slowly sauntered across the road again when the car passed. I managed to snatch a couple of quick shots on my phone as he walked passed.
The Park Services run shuttle/tour buses into the park. These vary from 6 to 12 hours in length. We managed to get on the 8 hour Eieslen (?) bus at 10am. The buses are retired school buses but what they lack in comfort they make up in character. The driver provides narration and keeps and eye out for wildlife. The park is home to moose, caribou, Dall sheep (a type of mountain goat), wolves, foxes, black bears, grizzly bears, and a host of other animals. We expected to see moose and caribou - and we did - and possibly a black bear - which we didn't - but really didn't expect to see a grizzly bear. Amazingly we saw seven grizzly's. The first was a mother with two new spring cubs. The bears were walking along a hillside in fairly open country, which is apparently their preferred habitat. The black bear prefers more wooded country which makes them harder to spot.
Alaskan grizzly's living inland are quite different to the grizzly's living on the coast. The coastal grizzly's feed extensively on salmon during the spawning season and are larger and dark brown in colour. This is the traditional image of the grizzly bear. Inland grizzly's will hunt young and old animals and scavenge carcasses if they get the chance, but they are predominately vegetarian as the glacial rivers are too silty for fish. Consequently they are smaller in size than the coastal bears and, quite surprisingly, their fur is a golden blonde colour.
Shortly after the first grizzly sighting we came across a lone male digging at the side of the road. Several buses had stopped to observe him so he had quite an audience, but he seemed quite unconcerned with all the attention. After about ten minutes he wandered off along the road and descended down into the valley.
On the return journey we came across another mother and her two second year cubs. The cubs were larger than those we'd seen earlier and their fur was already lightening. The cubs were extremely confident and roamed away from their mother. I guess its a fairly carefree life when you are at the top of the food chain.
We were also blessed with another day of marvellous blue skies and clear weather and we were able to view The Mountain from several different vantage points. The next day the mountains were again shrouded in mist and rain and McKinley was completely obscured.
On the shuttle back to the hostel later that evening we had to stop for a large bull moose wandering along the road.
That night's sleep in the tent was rather spartan, being both bright and cold, but at least we had mosquito nets to keep the nasty little bloodsuckers at bay.
The next day we visited the husky dog station and then walked the trail back to the visitor centre (2 miles), making jokes about being attacked by bears in the woods. Maybe 500 metres from the visitor centre we spotted a car parked on the side of the road. This was a good sign there was an animal about so we both turned to look back into the woods and there, no more than five metres in front of on the trail was a moose. We'd never even seen it. Despite their somewhat dopey looking appearance moose are very large, very wild animals and should not be approached, so we all just stood there for a moment wondering what we should do. The moose decided for us and moved slowly off the trail, munching away on vegetation as he went. What a morning!
At 12.30pm we boarded the Alaskan Railroad for the trip back to Anchorage. The train gently winds it's way across the landscape, travelling slowly in spots so everyone can enjoy the view. It was a lovely journey and you certainly get a better view from the upper observation deck of the train than you do on the bus.
We arrived at 8pm in Anchorage. We checked into our hostel, the Artic Adventure, which was pretty basic (but a step up from a tent!). We had a dinner downtown but otherwise had a quiet night. We had to be up early for our flight to Seattle.