I wrote the first draft of this blog post while sitting in my tent at Riley Creek Campground during my last evening in Denali National Park. (I’ve never written a blog post inside my tent before). Tomorrow, I leave the park, and will probably never return in my lifetime.
I arrived in Denali National Park on May 24 and left on May 29. I spent four full days in the park partially because I wanted to sit out Memorial Day weekend and partially because I wanted to maximize my chances of actually seeing Denali, the highest point in North America. I was lucky: I saw Denali on three different days (though on one of those days only the north peak was visible).
In addition to seeing Denali itself, my other aspiration was to expose myself to ecological landscapes I have never experienced before: boreal forest and subarctic tundra. Lucky me, I got to do this.
I am astonished by how much animal wildlife is visible in Denali.
One of the first things which happened as I left the Denali train depot is that a ranger told me to stop and turn around because there was a sleeping moose. I saw the sleeping moose. I was taken aback that there was a wild moose sleeping just a few minutes away from the train station.
I’ve seen a lot of moose during my five days in Denali, many more than I ever expected. They tend to hang around this campground. I’ve heard that the moose cows tend to come to the campground when they are giving birth and have new calves (i.e. this time of year) because they are especially wary of predators when they have newborns, and they know that their predators (wolves, bears) tend to avoid humans.
There have also been a lot of snowshoe hares around. I’ve learned that there is a cycle where the snowshoe hare population keeps growing and growing for 7-9 years, and then the population will totally crash, which resets the cycle. I’ve heard that we are nearing the peak of that cycle. I even saw some snowshoe hares fighting each other.
The animal which I was most surprised to see were seagulls (or rather, mew gulls). Yep, there are gulls which breed in the middle of interior Alaska, hundreds of miles from any seashore.
I saw many other birds, most of which I cannot identify, and I heard even more kinds of bird song, and I saw caribou, arctic ground squirrels, some squirrel that lives in trees, a coyote, Dall sheep, and (from a far distance) grizzly bears. I did not see any wolves; apparently there are only about 70 wolves living in Denali National Park, and Denali National Park is about the size of the state of Massachusetts.
And yes, I got to see and walk around in both boreal forest / taiga and in subarctic tundra.
This is a large part of why I am here in Alaska. There are many beautiful places I can visit which are both much closer to home and much cheaper, but to see and experience taiga and/or subarctic tundra, I needed to go to Alaska or someone even further away.
I completely missed ‘Denali Village’ (I think that is what it is called, I’m not even sure of that). When I was on the train, one of the high school students who the railroad hires as summer train interpreters was telling me about ‘Denali Pizza’ and that I could go on some kind of rafting tour and stuff. I never saw any of that. Almost all of the accommodations in ‘Denali’ are in ‘Denali Village’ or somewhere near the entrance to the national park, but the train station is within the national park itself, and so is the Riley Creek Campground.Thus, I had not left the boundaries of the National Park between the time I got off the train and then boarded the train again five days later. Most of the passengers who got off the train were picked up by shuttles from their accommodation outside of the national park; I guess the summer train interpreters assume that everyone is going to stay in the accommodations outside of the park.
I remember, as I was walking past the sled dog kennels, I overheard some visitors talking about how it was a break from the ‘touristy’ area. I did not understand what they meant, since the sled dog kennels is one of the most touristy sights inside the national park. They explained that compared to Denali village, the national park itself is not touristy.
I do not look down on things just because they are ‘touristy’. As I explained recently in this blog, I have grown up near a ‘touristy’ place. I celebrate the touristy nature of Denali National Park itself. Nonetheless, that comment, combined to the various other hints I received about the nature of ‘Denali Village’ led me to believe that staying within the boundaries of the park was a good choice for me.
You know what is not on the list of reasons I am visiting Alaska? Challenging myself. Nope. This is a trip where I want to travel in luxury – I don’t have to vigilantly watch my pack weight and ruthlessly pare it down (I’m carrying a laptop computer for crying out loud), I am almost entirely relying on modes of transit where I can sit down and watch the scenery go by me, and so forth. It’s nice. I haven’t been on this kind of travel trip since 2016.
I know a lot of people go to Denali to challenge themselves, and that’s great. But that’s not what I came here for. I hiked a bunch of the trails as day hikes (with day pack weight, yes!) and I rode the bus out to the Toklat river twice. That is an amazing bus ride into the wilderness, and I wish I could have taken the bus as far as Wonder Lake or Kantishna, but I arrived in Denali too early in the season. Oh well, even being able to see as much of the Denali Park Road as I have was a great privilege.
I considered camping in the backcountry, and I met quite a few people who were going to camp in the backcountry. Actually walking off trail and camping in the wilderness, out of sight of the park road, would have certainly fostered a closer relationship between me and the subarctic tundra. However, it would have meant MORE LOGISTICS, and I’m already a bit tired of dealing with the logistics of this Alaska trip. And it would have meant moving my tent, instead of just keeping it in one spot for five nights. And I honestly don’t know this climate/ecosystem, which adds an extra level of risk (well, maybe not, since getting cocky due to familiarity with a climate/ecosystem is also risky). And, well, I personally feel better in the boreal forest, and the Riley Creek Campground is basically the boreal forest campground in Denali National Park.
Another camper I met at Riley Creek explained that he is the opposite – he feels more comfortable camping in broad open spaces, like tundra, than in forests. I’ve noticed this dichotomy before – people who prefer exposed campsites, and people who prefer campsites with lots of trees. I am definitely on the ‘I want to camp among trees’ side of the continuum.
Plus, this campground has a camp store with free WiFi (which was very useful, and made it possible for me to put this blog post together faster than I would have otherwise). And all of the time and energy I would have had to put into shifting camp if I had gone into the backcountry I instead got to spend in other ways, such as dayhiking.
At one of the ranger talks in the campground, the ranger discussed that we are privileged because we have the time, money, and health to come here to Alaska and visit Denali National Park. (And yes, traveling to/within Alaska is EXPENSIVE, I’m doing what I can to contain the expenses but it is still very expensive). Yet the national parks are supposed to be for everyone, not just the people who have the means to visit them. Thus, she urges us to share our experiences here with others who will never be able to come to this park in person.
I guess this blog post is my way of sharing the experience. I know most of the people who read this will never visit Denali National Park themselves, just as there are many wonderful places in the world which I will never visit (heck, I will probably never visit most of the national parks in the United States).
I did take a fifteen minute walk away from the road, following a gravel river bed, and then turned around and walked back to the road. That was the extent of my off-trail hiking experience in Denali.
It was very tame. But I was still walking on a path made by nonhuman forces, and that makes a difference. I had to adjust myself to the ground I was walking a lot more than when I go on any path made by humans. I had to be more aware of the environment.
I know that is nothing compared to the people who venture miles away from the road and camp overnight. I know that requires a lot more awareness and contact with the nonhuman landscape. But I like to think that I took one small step in that direction.