Driving Highway 3 and Hiking in Denali National Park, Alaska

We had only three more days in Alaska, and three more days in our eastward-bound journey home. Panic began to set in with this realization, but we tried like crazy to keep reality at bay as we said goodbye to Fairbanks and hopped back in our 22 foot chariot toward Denali National Park. We were going out with a bang.

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On the road again. Highway 3 toward Denali National Park.

From Fairbanks, it’s about 2.5 hours to Denali. As we drove down highway 3, we were still in awe of the insane surroundings. It was still stunningly beautiful, and we just couldn’t get enough. It was very easy to see the appeal Chris McCandless found in the Alaskan wilderness.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name McCandless, he is the man who, in 1992, set off into the dense forests of the last frontier to live off the land. He found a broken down and rusted bus near the Teklanika River and camped there for several weeks. But as his food stores ran out and his hunting skills failed him, he was packing up to get back to civilization. However, the river had filled considerably making it impossible to pass. McCandless passed away shortly thereafter due to exposure, starvation, or poisonous berries.

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A replica of Chris’ bus at the 49th State Brewing Company in Healy, AK.

Jon Krakauer wrote Into the Wild in 1997 about the young man and made many speculations into his death. While the book is a fantastic read, it does beg the question of what really happened out there.

We had no interest in getting ourselves stranded trying to find the original bus deep in the woods, but just off the highway, at the 49th State Brewing Company, you can see a replica of the rusted bus on display. I was a bit unsure how to feel about this since it was an obvious tourist attraction sensationalizing a tragic death. But then again, there I was with a dozen Spanish tourists, also taking pictures of the replicated bus. I definitely felt strange after snapping my photos.

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The McCandless replicated bus.

Healy, where the brewing company is, is just about 45 minutes away from Denali Village, a small city that resembles a ski town with log cabin strip centers and tourist destination restaurants. But I had no interest in stopping in a tourist trap; I wanted to see the actual park and the actual mountain.

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We made it! Denali National Park.

In just a few moments, we did just that. We arrived at the Denali National Park Visitor’s Center and grabbed a map of all of the trail systems in the 6 million acres. While it is impossible to cover even a fraction of the 6 million acres in the two days we had at Denali, we endeavored to get a taste.

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Passes last for 7 days, so use them to the fullest!

Inside the park and preserve, you can only drive your personal vehicle as far as the Savage River Campsite about 15 miles into the park. We stopped our mobile apartment and set out to walk the Savage Alpine Trail, a 4.3 mile hike with about 1500 feet of elevation.

For the first .8 mile, the terrain was relatively easy and the views were breathtaking. But after that, the incline really began, and we were huffing and puffing up the side of this massive hill. But it wasn’t until mile 2.6 that we felt our breath taken away…literally. The wind on that side of the hill is adamant about knocking you down. It was all we could do to fight the headwind and loop around the backside of the mountain. But thankfully, after our blow-dryer experience, the rest of the hike was downhill.

We passed a group of hikers who were carving out their own paths along the rock face. I was doing everything I could to not tumble down the hill, but I heard one of the girls yell to the guy up ahead about his rogue steps off the path. I’m not sure what came over me, but I shouted, “Just go your own way,” to which he started belting out Fleetwood Mac. It was hilarious and gave us a chance to laugh and look out over the amazing horizon.

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Just another view of Denali National Park.

The Savage Alpine Trail is one-way. So, we did have to walk the roughly 4 miles back to our RV via the road. Green school buses do frequent the roads to pick up hikers at any point along the way, but we managed to miss every one of them that drove by.

A quick note: When hiking in Denali, do pay attention to the Green Shuttle Bus schedule, but also there is a regular shuttle that runs between Savage Creek and the Visitor’s Center. The regular shuttle has odd and infrequent times, though, so plan accordingly.

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The Mountain Vista Trail start.

Right where the car was parked was a short, flat trail called Mountain Vista Trail. Since it was just about a mile loop, we decided to walk it as a sort of night cap. Unfortunately, clouds covered Mount Denali, so we couldn’t see the snow-covered top, but we did still love seeing the landscape from the ground.

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Hiking around the Mountain Vista Trail.

As we made a turn on the path, we came across two monks. One had suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair. His companion sang to him in a lovely voice as they looked on toward the covered mountain. When she heard us approach, she asked if we could take a picture of them. We happily obliged, and while the man in the chair couldn’t speak, he gave us a small smile. It was one of those lovely moments I will always remember.

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The actual Riley Creek as seen from the Denali Grizzly Resort.

If you plan on camping or parking your RV inside Denali National Park overnight, you must reserve your spot in advance. We were very lucky to have found one of the last remaining spots in the Riley Creek Campground just weeks before our arrival. However, we didn’t bank on blowing through so many of the tiny towns from the day before along highway 2, so we arrived to Denali a day early. While I was thrilled to have an extra day to roam around the preserve, we now had to find a last minute camping spot.

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The Grizzly Bear in all its sunny glory.

Roughly 10 miles south of the park entrance was Denali Grizzly Bear Resort right off the highway. We managed to find a last minute spot with full hook ups and stayed the night right next to a lovely river and in the shadow of the massive mountain.

Notes about the RV: In Alaska, there is no law that says you cannot just park your RV overnight off the side of the road. There are many, many turnouts and small patches of cleared land sprinkled throughout the entire highway system. We personally never did this because I’m a bit paranoid, but I know if we were hard-pressed to find a location, it was a last ditch option.

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We woke up the next morning and bee-lined it back to the park. Thankfully, we were able to go ahead and park in our reserved spot in Riley Creek and start our climb. The weather in Alaska in August can be anywhere from brisk to hot. We started our hike in full pants and sweaters, but within an hour or so, we stripped down to t-shirts, shorts, and we were soaked with sweat.

The first trail we followed was the Horseshoe Lake Trail, which was an easy 3.2 mile loop through the Spruce Tree, Morino, and Taiga Tree Trails toward Horseshoe Lake. We followed the trail down to the Riley Creek riverfront and watched the rushing and intense water curve around tight corners and over jagged rocks. We followed the path around the lake, skipping rocks all along the way. We crossed over a beaver dam, and while we saw plenty of evidence of beaver eating activity on the felled trees, we never saw the creature at work.

The next trail we wanted to conquer was the Mount Healy Overlook Trail. It was after the lunch hour, so we knew this would be our last hike, and we don’t shy away from a challenge. When we first saw it was only 2.7 miles, we thought it would be a quick stroll, but the 1700 feet of elevation had us checking our ego at the door.

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We head straight up!

The first .6 mile was just a steady climb, but after that, the trail turned straight up and stayed like that until the crest. We passed bounding dogs and panting children on this hike, but every single shallow breath and sore calf muscle was worth it for the views. The wind whipped us like it had the day before, but we were determined to take in the vastness of the Alaskan terrain. Mount Healy literally took our breath away.

As we began our descent, a very intoxicated girl leaned very close to us and asked if she could take a picture of us. We politely declined as I tried to fathom climbing this thing as inebriated as she was. I had a hard time stone sober!

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Hikers’ stones on the edge of Mount Healy Overlook.

On the way back to the RV, we walked through the Taiga Trail once more and I thought again how this whole trip had come full circle. The monks from the day before wore the same garments as the monks we saw walking in meditation in Bangkok, and we were surrounded by trees that were native to the Russian tundra. It was a lovely realization.

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Our tour bus toward the Eielson Center.

The next morning was our last. We reparked our RV in the Visitor’s Center parking lot and boarded a tour bus to go deeper into the preserve.

A quick note: If you want to take a tour of the park, I highly recommend buying your passes in advance. We went the day before, and Wonder Lake was completely sold out, and there were only a few remaining seats for the Eielson Center. We opted for Eielson to cover as much ground as we could.

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Cabins deep in the heart of Denali.

Our bus boarded at 7am, and off we went into the depths of the park. The road was incredibly windy, narrow, and at times, flat terrifying. But our lovely driver stopped frequently for us to spot wildlife and take in the scenery.

Apparently, it is actually quite rare to be able to see the mountain of Denali in its entirety because of clouds that hover around it, but we had the rare glimpse as we drove around the Polychrome Pass (nicknamed the Poison Pass because if you take one drop, you die). Unfortunately, the other tourists on the bus flooded the windows so it was near-impossible to get a good view from where we sat.

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The drop off at Polychrome (or Poison) Pass.

I am a bit hard pressed if I would recommend the tour or not. It was many, many hours trapped in a school bus seeing wildlife from yards and yards away and not getting the chance to do any real hiking or exploring on foot. The tour was so regimented and regulated that even pausing to look at wildlife was disappointing because of all of the video cameras and elbows that were thrown in my face. But without the tour, it is impossible to drive through the park and see the things we saw, so because of that alone, I appreciated the bus.

We got back to the Visitor’s Center and said a sad farewell to Denali National Park. In retrospect, what we should have done is instead of taking the tour bus, taking the day to explore Denali State Park which is further south and offers other views and trails in and around the mountain.

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Our last night in Alaska.

On our last night, we stayed close to Anchorage in Eagle River Campground. While we were close to a main city, it was still quiet, secluded, and picturesque. It was ideal to be near the rental return site and airport for our flight the next day.

With just a few hours until our flight, we did roam around Anchorage to see if we had missed out on anything in the city. I stand by my earlier statement regarding Alaska: you go to be outside; not in a city. There was very little to actually do in Anchorage, so we spent a lot of our time roaming around random stores. But I did finally get my chance to try Alaskan snow crab, which was incredibly challenging, painful, but divine.

It was close to midnight when we took off from Alaska and made our way to the second largest state in the U.S. Our eastward-bound journey was over, and Jeff and I were to begin the next chapter of our lives finding a home at home.

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The midnight sun as we waited to board our final plane.

If you think we’re going to just sit by and not travel anymore, you’d be wrong. Stay tuned to Extra Letteurs as we explore the U.S. and all it has to offer.

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