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Hiking Denali

Hiking Denali

That smell in the van? Turns out that wasn’t me… Already thought it was a weird smell to come from me. I have many smells, most of them are not very nice but I didn’t recognize this one. I have been looking all through the van (in the fridge, cupboards, under the hood, in the ventilation system but I cannot find what I expect is some dead animal. Anyway, it is time for another highlight of the trip: Denali National Park! Another ridiculously large park with in it the highest mountain of North America: Mount Denali (previously known as Mount McKinley). Not only is the mountain 6140 m, the mountain is standing quite freely in Alaska. Base to peak is 5500 m (as compared to 4200 m for Mount Everest). This means that some of the viewpoints that are only 60km from the peak are at only 150m altitude. But the mountain is covered in clouds 70% of the time so I was not able to see more than clouds from the two view points on the way to the park. This day also had a new first during my trip. After 3 months of travelling I arrived at Denali National Park at 2 in the afternoon on a Tuesday to ask for one of their 100+ campsites. There were all full. Also for the next day. I tried the campsite outside of the park: also full. The next campsites were 40km in either direction. But when I told the lady I only have a small van and not a 20m long bus she decided she could call her brothers parking spot a dry site (no power or water) and sell that to me. Perfect! I went back into the park to get info on hikes (the girl working there was very good at making plans for my low budget trip by telling me that many of their trips are a waste of money and how I could even get some stuff for free). Denali has a 146 km long road heading into the park. But you’re only allowed to drive the first 24 with your own car. The weather was nice so I decided to do this with the rest of my day. The last view/hiking point that you were normally allowed to go to was now closed because some brilliant person saw a bear on her hike and decided to ignore all instructions, freak out and throw her backpack full of food at the bear and run… But one stop back was pretty too.

Byers Lake

Byers Lake

I had booked the 7 in the morning bus that would bring me to the Eielsen center 100 km into the park. The buses are some kind of American school buses. The cheap ones are shuttle buses and not tour buses so you don’t have a tour guide. But our driver (fittingly named Bear) filled the 4 (FOUR!!!) hour drive with funny stories and stopped the bus many times when he had spotted caribou, bears, arctic ground squirrels (they seem to be suicidal and don’t want to move aside when the bus comes up). Most of these animals were pretty far away (especially compared to my last bear encounter), but it was still very impressive. At 7:30 we stopped at a viewpoint and saw Mount Denali completely clear of clouds. This doesn’t happen very often and did not happen the rest of the day. The 100 km, 4 hour drive went through diverse landscapes: forests, open fields, broad river streams, mountains, colorful canyons. Most people stay at the endpoint of their bus for just an hour or so before heading back, but I had different plans. I spend the next 7 hours hiking. There are only a few trails and you are encouraged to hike off trail. I first went up a ridge to the top of a mountain some 700 m higher than the bus stop. This got me to 1700 m, less than a third of the height of Denali on the other side of the valley. A few times the clouds opened up a bit for me to see the top of the Denali. On top of the mountain I climbed I had a 360 view: no people, no villages, no airplanes only a a single one-lane road at the bottom of the valley. It was extremely quiet up there, until I heard a lot of noise. A herd of 12 caribou was running across the snow right below me. After some time enjoying the views I walked down again. The last bus back didn’t go for another 3 hours so I decided to walk down from the road to the riverbed. I met up with two guys who had seen a lake across the river and wanted to try and reach it. We crossed two streams of water, climbed some very bushy hills and kept walking until we saw the lake… And the bear right next to it… another grizzly… Luckily this time the bear was more than 200m away and he/she was very busy digging a deep hole. We decided to not go any further and just watch the bear for a bit. We got back to the bus stop and I took a bus back at 6 which meant I wouldn’t be getting back to my campsite until 10. On the way back we saw loads of caribou right next to the road.

Denali out of the clouds

Denali out of the clouds

Once again the predictions were rain. But actually it was dry. Good reason to enjoy Denali for another day. The buses are too expensive to go into the park every day (I should have brought a tent and camp inside) but there was supposed to be a good hike from the area where you are allowed to get to by car. And according to most people there should be a free/3 dollar/5 dollar shuttle bus running all day/only after 5. Nobody knew exactly but there should be something. The triple lake trail leads, as the name would make you expect, along three lakes. It was a nice easy 15km trail with not too much height differences. It followed a river, crossed a nice suspension bridge and went up a steep ridge before getting to the lakes. I saw a whole bunch of grouse with chicks on the way (the grouses here just look like the “famous” one, just lest colorful). When I got to the middle lake I saw a moose swimming. It was pretty fast getting across the water, luckily the moose was gone by the time I got to the lake shore. The last lake had a beaver lodge and people walking the other way said that they had seen beavers there. But when I got there it did start raining so I didn’t wait to see if anyone was home. The trail ended at a lodge hotel. I did find a shuttle bus that was not supposed to go into the park but did not mind dropping me off.

Grouse

Grouse

Well, once the rain starts it won’t stop. Big puddles of water on the campsite in the morning. Time to head up north. There isn’t much too stop for on the way to Fairbanks when it’s rainy so I got there early just when it started getting sunny again. Good time for laundry, charging batteries and planning. Turns out it’s the 4th of July weekend so the campsite was already pretty full. No power sites, but there was a power plug at the parking lot so I could leave my van there during the day and didn’t even have to pay for it. The good thing about being in a tent spot is that all the people are outside. So that gives you loads of people to talk too. My neighbors were a German couple who were going to bike the Pan-american in four stages over the next four years. We came up with a theory why all these old American couples have these ridiculously big touring bus size RVs. They said that whenever they have a fight they can just bike a little further apart. You can’t do that in a car. But these buses are so big that one of the two can hide somewhere in the back and they won’t have to see each other for days.

The next few days I’ll be driving the top of the world highway. Depending on who you ask this road is in a relatively good shape or a total disaster. One thing everyone agrees on is that large parts are unpaved and there aren’t many services along the way. So it’s time to stock up the van again with food and supplies. I drove to Tok with loads of rain on the way again. But on the plus side I did spot a porcupine. I arrived at the campsite and there was a long long queue at the check in. But luckily they had a spot for me. On the campsite I met a group of Belgians. One of the guys was running the whole Pan-american, 1 marathon per day, 6 days per week for two years. So nobody can call me crazy anymore. I also decided it was time for my empty day. The weather is going to be much better on the top of the world highway if I wait a day. Plus I had some website, planning and budget work to catch up with.

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