Alaska Vacation: Backcountry Camping in Denali National Park [Part 4]

Uncategorized

As promised in Part 3, it’s time to talk about Denali’s back country. I fully admit that when I signed up for this trip I had no idea what to expect. I purposefully chose not to Google everything on the itinerary. I trusted my friend who was putting the trip together and I trusted that we’d have a good time.

Turns out this was the BEST decision. I was able to learn so much while there, whereas reading about it online ahead of time would not have done it justice. For example, what the heck does “backcountry” mean?

Traveling and camping in this expansive terrain is special. The lack
of developed trails, bridges, or campsites means that you are free
to determine your own route and discover Denali for yourself. – source

Backcountry means you can only get to this part of the park if A. you have a special permit to drive and camp at Teklanika River and/or B. you purchase a park bus pass to ride the bus past Savage River.

We had the special permit to drive our RVs to the Tek campground. However, we had a slight snafu when two of our RVs missed the turn to the campground and had to figure out how to turn around on the super narrow gravel road!

Hanging out, eating trail mix, waiting for our other RVs to figure out how to turn around

Thankfully, everyone finally arrived at the campsite safely and with enough time to set up and get in a short hike along the river before dinner. I stayed behind and read my book, though. Hey, when you’re traveling with 17 people you’ve got to find some peace and quiet when you can.

After dinner we discussed the plan for the next day. We had guaranteed seat bus passes on the first bus of the day that allowed us to take the bus all the way to Wonder Lake, aka the end of the road. However, this can be a 4+ hour bus ride from Teklanika! Why so long? Well, the buses stop for wildlife and at several other scenic areas. Also, backcountry campers with permits to camp outside of designated campgrounds and hikers that want to hike in the backcountry can ask the bus to stop anywhere along the road and get out. Plus, the road is entirely gravel and is barely two lanes wide!

All of this makes for an interesting trip. I admit, Wonder Lake is the one thing I Googled in advance because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to ride the bus all the way there. However, if the weather was just right it would be the best view of Mt. Denali (f/k/a Mt. McKinley). I didn’t want to get so close and then regret not going. So, I decided to ride all the way to Wonder Lake.

I also figured that riding all the way out to Wonder Lake would give me the best sense of what to expect of backcountry. And, let me tell you, it did NOT disappoint.

 

We definitely saw wildlife (caribou trotted in front of the bus for awhile), and we saw some amazing vistas.

This stretch is known as Polychrome. 

Once we got to Wonder Lake, though, we realized that it was too cloudy to see Mt. Denali and that Wonder Lake is, in words my mom once used to describe a lake in Minnesota, “a mosquito infested weed hole.”

Thank goodness our friend added “mosquito head net” to our packing lists

Okay, maybe it was still pretty, but some of us quickly decided we’d rather ride the bus back to Eielson Visitor’s Center and hike two of the only three groomed trails in backcountry.

And that’s where I’ll pick up the story next time.

Alaska Vacation: Denali National Park [Part 3]

Uncategorized

In today’s installment of “So you want to take an Alaskan vacation”, we’re going to talk about Denali National Park and Preserve. And if you need a refresher of how we got here, don’t forget to read Part 1 and Part 2.

When I left off last time, we’d just finished running the Anchorage Marathon and were getting ready to take RVs to camp in Denali.

This part of the trip is going to be the most difficult to write about. Why? Because SO MUCH happened. Plus, the magnificence of Denali National Park and Preserve is almost impossible to explain. But, I’ll do my best.

We rented the RVs from Great Alaskan Holiday and they came with everything we needed except food, a camp stove, and wash basins. Thankfully, part of our group went shopping for ALL THE FOOD the day before and our group leader could borrow some other items from Sierra Club friends.

All of our meals while camping were planned out so there was never any scrambling or wondering what to make. I promise, that made life so much easier.

Anyway, the morning after the race we loaded up the three RVs and started the 6+ hour drive from Anchorage to Denali. The drive went pretty quickly and before we knew it we were at the Denali Visitor’s Center.

We didn’t hang around for too long, though, because several of us wanted to hike the trail from the Visitor’s Center to the Sled Dog Kennels!

Yes, Denali park rangers still use sled dogs to get around in the winter. Why? Because there’s only one road in all of Denali! Yes, six million acres with one road.

While we were visiting the sled dog kennels, suddenly all of the dogs jumped up on their houses and started howling and barking. Turns out there was a mama moose about 100 yards away!

Also, the dogs got SO EXCITED when it was time for the demonstration. They all wanted to participate!

After visiting the kennels, we hopped on a park bus for a ride to our campground for the night: Savage River.

Savage River is the last campground in what it called “front country.” Meaning you don’t need a special permit to drive your RV to Savage River and it’s the trail head for one of the last “groomed” trails: Savage Alpine.

There are not very many marked trails in Denali, and most of the trails are short (less than 2 miles) and near the park entrance. One of the reasons Denali exists is to provide people with a place to explore a trail-less wilderness, and a result of this is a limited trail network. – Denail website

We set up our RVs for the night. Again, don’t forget it doesn’t get dark! We all went to bed fairly early, though. We had a busy next day planned!

One thing to note: even though we were sleeping in RVs, they weren’t hooked up to power or water. We were rationing the onboard propane and water and, as such, weren’t cooking, using the bathroom, or showering in them. Thankfully the campsites had nice outhouses and outdoor running water spigots. But, it did mean no showers!

In the morning, we layered up (it was chilly in the mornings but got warmer throughout the day), ate breakfast, and then headed out to hike the Savage Alpine trail. Our group leader had helped build this trail!

This was really when I started to see what people mean about not being able to describe Alaska. It’s so….expansive. And beautiful. And in less than 4 miles of trail you can experience almost every kind of terrain possible. I just couldn’t stop marveling at the views.

A little over four miles and several hours later, we arrived at the Savage River, reconvened with our RVs, and then it was time to head into back country!

What does that mean? I promise to explain in Part 4!

Alaska Vacation: Anchorage [Part 2]

Uncategorized

I’m back with the second installment in my “So you want to vacation in Alaska” series. Missed the full itinerary? Find it here. Today’s post is going to be about our two full days in Anchorage, including where we stayed and what we did.

First thing to note, the flight to Anchorage is long (6.5+ hours) and I chose to do non-stop. I HATE flying with layovers if I can avoid it. However, I don’t mind settling in to watch a movie or read a book and I did both on the flight out.

Turned out that another person from my group was on my flight so after we landed we took a Lyft from the airport to our hotel: the Bent Prop Inn – Midtown.  Our group guide recommended this place and the two of us splitting a room with two other group members was perfect. We each had our own bed and we had a little kitchen and living room. It’s walking distance to Walmart so we headed over there to get some breakfast items for the next few days.

View from our hotel

Alaska is three hours behind Chicago and, guess what? When you go at the end of June you’re visiting at the solstice so it basically doesn’t get dark! At all. This meant that I basically had to force myself to go to bed. I slept fine, though. I just pretended I was taking an afternoon nap.

Friday

On our first full day in Anchorage  we took the bus (so cheap and you can buy your tickets using their People Mover app) to University of Alaska – Anchorage to pick up our race packets. We did a little bit of shopping and I won a carabiner for doing pull-ups. When I packed I didn’t have room in my duffel bag or backpack for sandals so I bought some Oofos.

From the University we took the bus to downtown Anchorage. We had lunch at Glacier Brewhouse and then took a tour of Anchorage with Anchorage Trolley Tours. It’s $20 and definitely worth it! It was the perfect way to get an overview of the city and learn some history. Much of Anchorage is walkable or bikeable (and there are tons of bike rental places), but I enjoyed seeing it on the trolley first. You also get coupons if you want to do some souvenir shopping. Which we definitely did.

We’d planned to go to Moose’s Tooth for dinner (walking distance from our hotel) but they had a three hour wait! Instead we ended up at an Italian restaurant nearby. Nothing special, but perfect for the night before a race.

Saturday

Saturday was race day! And, yes, if I was going to fly all the way to Alaska I wanted to see 26.2 miles of it on foot. The Anchorage Mayor’s Marathon is a point-to-point race so they bus you out to the start line and you run 26.2 miles back to the finish. Also, the half marathon course is almost completely different so it really is just you and your other marathon friends out there. And bears. Yes, you do have to look out for bears. I didn’t see any, but my friend Stephanie saw one!

Seriously, though, bears aren’t that big of a deal. As our Sierra Club guide/friend kept saying, “bears just want to do a bear thing” which, 99.9% of the time means avoiding you.

The Anchorage Marathon is HILLY, especially compared to Chicago. But, I ran my second fastest marathon time and only struggled in the last few miles. It’s a mix of paved road, sidewalk, gravel road, dirt path, and paved paths. You run through a military base. You run through some woods. You run through parks. It’s really very pretty.

Oh, also? I WON THIRD PLACE IN MY AGE GROUP! I placed at a marathon, people! That’s huge for me. Actually, most people in our group either had a good race time or just a good time in general. Post-marathon food at the race left something to be desired, though, so we ended up back at Glacier Brewhouse.

Post-race we relaxed, ate dinner at the Anchorage Alehouse  and got ready for the next day’s adventure: RV camping in Denali National Park! And that’s where we’ll start Part 3…soon.

So you want to vacation in Alaska? Here’s how. [Part 1]

About Me

If you follow me on Instagram, you already know I went on vacation to Alaska at the end of June. And if you’ve talked to me in person since then you know that I think it was the trip of a lifetime.

I know there are lots of ways to take an Alaskan vacation, but the trip I went on was perfect for me, my interests, and my comfort level. In fact, it made me learn things about myself that I didn’t even know before!

So, I thought I would revive this here blog to tell you about my trip, my recommendations, and what I learned. Plus, then you get to see pictures of Alaska!

First things first, what did we do? I took this trip with members from my running club and the entire trip was planned mostly by a club member who has been leading trips to Alaska via the Sierra Club for years. And, yes, since we’re runners, many of us started our trip off with a race.

But we did so much more than run. In fact, here’s our agenda:

  • Thursday, June 21st – Arrive in Anchorage, AK
  • Friday, June 22nd – Explore Anchorage and pick up race packets
  • Saturday, June 23rd – Run the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage!
  • Sunday, June 24th – Drive RVs to Denali National Park and camp in Savage River Campground
  • Monday, June 25th – Hike the Savage Alpine Trail. Drive RVs to Teklanika Campground.
  • Tuesday, June 26th –  Take the park bus to Wonder Lake. Hike at Eielson Visitor’s Center.
  • Wednesday, June 27th – Back country hiking
  • Thursday, June 28th – Return RVs to Anchorage. Take charter bus to Seward, AK.
  • Friday, June 29th – Ice climb at Exit Glacier
  • Saturday, June 30th – Kayak in Resurrection Bay
  • Sunday, July 1st – Boat trip around Resurrection Bay. Take bus back to Anchorage
  • Monday, July 2nd – Explore Anchorage & fly home

I could write one GIANT post about my trip, but I thought it would be more fun to break it up into pieces. So, come along with me as I take you on a trip through Alaska!