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Last Updated: July 6, 2010
Alaska Vacation part 2
June 14-16 ? Denali National Park
After Talkeetna, we headed north for a few hours to Denali National Park. I planned this whole trip in March, and one the most difficult and expensive spots to find lodging for was the Denali part of the trip. I ended up going with the Denali Park Hotel, about 10 miles north of the park entrance in Healy. It is a misnomer to call it a hotel. Motel would be much more like it, albeit a decent one.
Before going further, let me explain that the first day of summer, and the longest day of the year, was on June 21. At this time of year and location, the sun rose at about 3:30 AM and set about 12:30 AM. However, even during the three hours of "night," it was still very bright out. Easily bright enough to read a book or take pictures without a flash. So I never saw anything close to darkness the entire trip.
The first three days I was a bit sun-silly ? going to sleep late and waking up very early. However, it caught up to me on June 14 after arriving at our place of lodging in Healy. We arrived at about 2:00 PM, and I decided to take a quick nap. That turned into a five-hour deep sleep. Then, after about a two-hour break to eat dinner, I went back to bed and slept another nine hours.
About the only thing I have to report on for June 14 was our dinner at the Prospector's Pizzeria & Alehouse. It is located among a bunch of tacky-looking businesses along the highway near the park entrance. There were not many restaurants, so my expectations were not high. I believe that without much competition, quality tends to suffer. However, I have to say that Prospector's was very good. They had an impressive menu with lots of gourmet pizzas and an impressive list of draft beer. The place was packed and the service a bit slow, but our waitress was very nice, telling us how she was working there for the summer after responding to a help-wanted ad on Craig's List. It made up for missing out on the Moose's Tooth Pizzeria in Anchorage, which I lamented in part 1 of my travelogue.
The following morning, before heading to the National Park, we had breakfast at the Denali Salmon Bake. I thought that Alaska salmon bakes were supposed to be basically buffets, which this one was not, but I still highly recommend it. Before this point, I thought the only legal gambling in Alaska was tribal bingo and pull-tabs, the later of which I address in detail in my page on that topic. However, I noticed a flier at the Salmon Bake about a poker tournament they have on Monday nights. I never noticed any advertising for poker nights anywhere in Anchorage or Fairbanks. If it can work in Denali, I would think poker would be very successful in the bigger cities of Alaska.
The rest of the day was devoted to exploring Denali National Park. Normally I'm pretty good about planning out vacations, but I was not up to my usual standards on June 15. My expectations for national parks are founded in places like Zion and the Grand Canyon (south rim), where comfortable and free (after paying a park entrance fee) shuttle buses frequently go up and down park roads, as happy passengers leisurely get on and off to explore various spots. That is what I expected to happen at Denali, with lots of curious bears, moose and elk sniffing at the bus as it went along. Man was I in for a reality check.
Unlike Zion and the Grand Canyon, which are relatively accessible and well-developed, access into Denali is a 92-mile winding dirt road. Plus, instead of riding on free, comfortable shuttles, in Denali we were stuck with ugly old green school buses that we had to pay extra for. There were some other nicer looking buses, but I think you have be part of a packaged Alaska tour to use one. Spending the good part of a day on one of the green buses, along a dirt road, is not this city-boy's idea of a relaxing vacation. I may have been lucky to get on one at all, because there are only so many of buses, and they are filled to capacity most of the time. I think most people purchased their tickets in advance. The cost of my round-trip, adult ticket to the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles down the road, and not to be confused with the Air Force base outside of Fairbanks, was $30.75.
So I've complained about the buses, but what about the views of the park and the wildlife? I won't say anything bad about the park itself (yet). It was probably the "least touched by civilization" part of America I have ever seen. Most of the time, it was miles and miles of hills and small peaks, with the larger mountains of the Alaska Range and Mt. McKinley further away. However, for this hiker, it was depressing to take it in from a school bus when they allow you to hike and camp almost anywhere you wish in the park. No trails, just the great outdoors. Not many places like that in America any more. However, if you're on a school bus, all that freedom and potential for adventure does you little good.
About every hour, the buses make a 10-minute stop. You can either reboard the same bus within that 10 minutes or take your chances that you can get a seat on the next one. We were afraid of losing our seats, so after about three hours, we arrived at the Toklat Visitor Center at the 53-mile point. At this point, everyone in my family was getting very grouchy from the experience and losing their faith in the trip organizer (me). So, I suggested we get off early where we were, as opposed to going another hour and another 13 miles to our intended destination: Eielson Visitor Center.
The Toklat Visitor Center was a tent-like structure, like the Pauma Casino near San Diego, but much smaller. The inside was mostly a gift shop, along with some modest educational displays. Outside was a very wide riverbed with running water in places. We spent about an hour by the riverbed, mostly throwing rocks in the river. The water was too fast and cold to attempt crossing it. The first bus we tried to return on didn't have five available seats, but the next one fortunately did, barely.
What about the wildlife? Lots of postcards of Denali National Park show buses waiting for families of bears to cross the road. Even the guidebooks say Denali is one of the best places in America for viewing wildlife. At the start of the trip, the driver said anybody on the bus should yell "stop!" if they saw anything. Twice this happened for us. Once was for a dall sheep, which some other passenger was very astute to spot high up in a rocky cliff near the road. I have to admit, we had a decent look at him, especially through the zoom lens on my camera. The other stop was for three bears ? a mother and two cubs ? way off in the distance on a hill. Somebody must have had good binoculars to spot them. I could only make out the sleeping mother as a speck in the far distance. If I hadn't been told it was a bear, I would have never known.
Speaking of binoculars, I forgot to rant in part 1 of my Alaska travelogue that the thieves in baggage handling at Alaska Airlines stole mine! A very nice and almost new set made by Bushnell. I put them in an unlocked suitcase, despite having some Department of Homeland Security approved locks somewhere. My bad. After I arrived in Anchorage, I was surprised to see the straps of my suitcase opened, although the zippers were still closed. What I later noticed missing were the binoculars and the charger for my iPad. Fortunately, I hand carried the iPad itself onto the plane. I used it to easily find an Apple store in Anchorage to buy another charger. So, if that isn't enough to stop you from flying on Alaska Airlines, let me also mention that they charge $15 per piece of checked baggage, and there is no free food, movies or even music. What bums! They charge you to take a suitcase on a 2,300 mile trip, and then they steal from it.
Getting back to Denali, if I had it to do over again, keeping in mind I'm traveling with three children ages 3-12, I would use my own car and go up the park road 15 miles to Savage River. I would spend more time doing activities near the park entrance and take some time to hike at Savage River. Private vehicles are not allowed past that point. In my opinion, the scenery is not significantly different past that point anyway. If you are planning in advance, and you want to explore deeper than Savage River, then I would recommend taking your chances in the road lottery, which is for a limited number of private-vehicle permits.
Finally, let me be the first to say that I think Denali is overrated. I'm sure it is a great place for backpackers to explore the unspoiled wilderness. However, for the average tourist who can't be bothered to walk more than half a mile, I think the experience of a visit will be underwhelming. This will hold especially true for those used to the magnificent vistas at other national parks, like Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Zion. You don't have to go that far away to find something better. During my first trip to Alaska, my wife and I visited Kenai Fjords near Seward, which was spectacular. I would take it over Denali any day.
On the morning of the June 16th, I did my usual morning jog and noticed a miniature golf course (or what you call "putt-putt golf" on the east coast) and a lake with canoe rentals. The miniature golf was attached to a Black Diamond "midnight sun" golf course, which I would have loved to play. There we had a delicious breakfast in the clubhouse, which came with free miniature golf. The miniature golf was a bit run down, with grass growing in the cups, but the Alaskan themed holes made it fun nonetheless.
Then we rented two canoes on nearby Otto Lake. My two older children shared one boat, while I took the other one. Once on the lake, I realized it was pretty windy. My kids were quickly blown to the shore on the opposite end of the lake. They tried in vain to go against the wind, but it was too strong. At one point, they almost tipped over. To make a long story short, I had them walk to a nearby playground, and I paddled both canoes, one at a time, back to the point of origin, with much difficulty. So that is about it for Denali. In part 3, I'll cover Chena Hot Springs and Fairbanks.