Denali–6 million acres of rugged wilderness. Very little of this wilderness has been scarred by human development. Home of the highest mountains in North America, vast untouched forests and all kinds of wildlife–it is about the closest we have to God’s creation untouched.
The wildlife here includes moose, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, wolves, fox, and caribou. The park is patrolled in the winter only by teams of dog sleds and the park kennels are open to visitors. Larry and I didn’t get to visit the kennels but some of our group did and Janet shared her photos.
Traffic is very limited inside the park. They run a series of “school” buses to take campers and hikers, as well as tourists, up into the mountains, but they limit the number of buses as well to keep the environmental impact to a minimum. There is only one road in the park and most of the park has no access other than hiking and dog sled. Our bus was equipped with a spotting scope hooked to the tv monitors throughout the bus. When our guide spotted wildlife (and he was SUPER good at it!) he would stop and zoom in on it with the scope. So, even if we weren’t close enough to get good photos, we could see what was happening on the screens.
Since there is only one road, it is the luck of the draw and weather how many animals each bus load gets to see. We were pretty fortunate in the number of grizzlies, caribou and dall sheep we saw. I was really surprised at how blonde the grizzlies were! They are much lighter here than the grizzly bears I was familiar with. They are also not nearly as large as other grizzlies, aka coastal brow bears, that you can find in other areas. This could be because of their diet. Although they will occasionally eat small animals or carrion, the bears in this area are primarily herbivores. The females hibernate mostly in small areas they dig out of the hillsides and have their cubs. The cubs then stay with their mother for two or sometimes three years before they are on their own. We were AMAZED at how many of these bears we saw! The Dall Sheep were pretty cool as well. They basically run up the vertical rock faces. They don’t really have any fear of predators because nothing can follow them when they jump up the rock. Starvation is their biggest enemy.
There were some really rare creatures up in those mountains–we even saw a few unicorns!
In contrast to the rain forest climate we had traveled through on the way, where the rainfall totals over 15 feet per year, here there is less than 15 inches of moisture per year. The lower elevations in the park consist of the taiga forest–spruce trees, aspen paper birch and balsam poplar. While these trees are ancient and untouched forest, they aren’t very tall because of the very poor growing conditions. The growing season here is less than 100 days from beginning to end. The soil is acidic and rocky. And then there is the permafrost–the layer of frozen subsoil not far below the surface. Shifts in the permafrost cause the trees to grow at crazy angles in some places. These areas are called the drunken forest. Much of the park lies above the treeline. There are broad areas of moist tundra with thick underbrush and even more areas of dry tundra with short spongy plants.
To say the views are breathtaking is really a massive understatement. There are no words in the English language that describe the beauty and majesty. There are no photos that can capture the the incredible scale. The way up the mountain got interesting on that bus in places. We were really happy NOT to pass another bus on this part.
We finally got high enough to have a view of the park’s namesake–Denali aka Mt. McKinley which reaches 20,310 elevation making it the highest peak in North America. Only one-third of park visitors actually get to see Denali at all because of the persistent cloud cover. We were extremely fortunate to be able to see a great deal of the mountain including the peak. You have to look closely to pick out the peak from the white clouds.
Unfortunately, I never did get to see a male moose up close. My colleague who was up in the park the same day got this great shot a few hours later! That’s alright–we are definitely going back to find Mr. Moose!