Alaska, Day 4: Journey into Denali

Monday, July 23, 2012: the day we saw ALL the animals

We purchased tickets for the 7:30 a.m. shuttle bus to Eielson Visitors Center, 66 miles deep into the park. I was especially excited about this part of the trip because I had read that the shuttle bus ride is one of the best ways to spot wildlife. They were not kidding around. We spotted pretty much everything, from either a far distance with binoculars to sometimes right up close along the side of the road.

Our first spotting was a small herd of caribou crossing over a ridge. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Caribou!

Throughout the day, we probably saw the most Dall sheep. I particularly liked this spot where a group of males was sitting on a steep hill, just chilling out. With binoculars, you could see their faces in amazing detail. We watched one of them scratch his butt against the side of the rocks, leaving a big brown spot on his white hide.

Dall sheep

One of the most exciting sightings of the day was coming across a grizzly bear napping with two young cubs at her side. They were totally passed out in the middle of a meadow. With binoculars, you could see great detail and the texture of their fur. The mother was massive and as cool as it was to see her, I was definitely glad for the safety of being inside a bus. On our return trip they were further away from the road, up and about. The two cubs would stand up on their hind legs to look at us and we’d see their little brown heads pop out of the brush. Adorbs!

when you’re the top of the food chain, you nap anywhere

Two pretty awesome sightings happened simultaneously. The whole bus started gasping, and we were swiveling our heads to find out what had been spotted. On the right side of the bus, I saw a red fox trotting down the road towards us; on the left side of the bus Kurt witnessed the clouds parting briefly to uncover both peaks of Mt. McKinley (with the cloud cover as thick as it is, this is a rare thing to see). The fox seemed to be chasing a small mouse, and we saw him follow it into a ditch, pounce, and then run off to enjoy his lunch.

fantastic Mr. Fox

When we reached Eielson, we lucked out again with the sky clearing just enough to expose the north peak of Mt. McKinley. Look carefully to see it amidst the clouds.

Denali, a.k.a. Mt. McKinley

Another cool thing about the shuttle bus is that you can ask the bus driver to stop anywhere you want to get out and hike. When you are done, you just find your way back to the road and wave down the next green bus that comes along (one about every 30 minutes). We decided to hike near Polychrome Pass, a gorgeous mountain ridge bathed in color. Once again, it was somewhat slow going as we trekked through waist-high brush, climbed bluffs, and stopped to take a zillion pictures, but we ended up doing over 4 miles according to Bob and Amy’s GPS watches. Even after several days of being in Alaska, you don’t get used to the amazing scenery. At any given second, the views around you are postcard-worthy.

hiking

One of the most memorable moments during our hike was running into a young caribou. We had just reached the end of a small forest that opened up into a dried-up rocky river bed. The caribou was maybe 25 yards away and noticed us. We racked our brains trying to remember all of the instructions the rangers had given us for wildlife encounters (bears: don’t run, moose: run!, wolf: stand your ground, etc.) but could not remember ever hearing anything about caribou. The caribou started walking tentatively toward us, lowering his antlers a bit; at this point, we totally nerded out and pulled out our camping book to LOOK UP WHAT TO DO. As it turns out, caribou are not threatening, phew! We started walking the direction we wanted to go, but the caribou, watching us the whole time, cut us off and lied down on the ground. Even though they are not dangerous to humans, the book still said to avoid doing anything that would cause the caribou to change its natural routine, so we had to choose a different route so as not to disturb him.

the life-threatening caribou (not really)

After we finished our hike, we got back on the bus to return to the RV. We had a few more up-close Dall sheep sightings.

more Dall sheep, roadside

We also spotted several moose, including a mother and calf that suddenly popped up right next to the bus, and a gigantic bull moose grazing on a hill.

moose crossing

The best moose sighting of all, however, happened right at our campsite. We were sitting near the campfire after dinner when suddenly Bob jumped up and said “There’s a moose!” I thought he was kidding, but I got up to look and sure enough, a gigantic long-legged animal was casually walking by near our RV. Some other campers told us that they saw her sniff a tent. Moose encounters are actually just as dangerous as run-ins with bears, but we forgot that quickly as we tried to get a few photos. The moose continued on her way, slipping out of sight into the trees.

that’s our RV in the foreground

Also, Kurt and Bob saw a snowshoe hare. I was jealous. They are brown in the summertime, but it still has its telltale white feet.

snowshoe hare

For anyone planning a trip to Denali, I definitely recommend taking a ride on the shuttle bus. Start out early (the trip to Eielson was 4 hours each way) so you can make a day of it. The tour companies offer narration but use the same road and cost as much as 6 times the price. Even though our ride wasn’t narrated, our bus driver was very knowledgeable and shared tons of information. He stopped at each wildlife sighting long enough for everyone to get a good picture and use their binoculars. Afterwards, we all agreed that the bus ride was one of the highlights of our trip.

Wildlife spotted: grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, eagles, ravens, snowshoe hare, fox, pika, ptarmigan, ground squirrels
baby animal alert!: grizzly cubs, moose calf
notable scenery: Mt. McKinley

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Categories: fun trip, on the road, the great outdoors | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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