Thursday morning, Lee and I woke up half frozen. We hadn’t turned on the heater that night, the temperatures had dropped considerably and we were shivering under our two blankets. We quickly dressed in our warmest clothes, and headed for the park.
Denali National Park is six million acres of wilderness. There is one road through the park, and you can’t drive it yourself. Lee and I had bought tickets several months ago for one of the park’s shuttle buses, which are basically old school buses painted green. The bus winds through the park, stopping anytime there is wildlife for us all to drop our bus windows and snap photos or watch through binoculars.
Our bus driver was a character. He looked a lot like George Carlin and didn’t say a whole lot unless you asked a question. But oh man, when you did, you got an earful. We learned all about the sexual reproduction of spruce trees because someone had a simple question about the cones.
We saw a lot of wildlife in the park. Herds of caribou could be seen grazing in the valley below us. Dall Sheep were grazing on the mountains above us. We saw two wolves trotting across a hillside, a porcupine, a couple of moose, and a ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird). There was quite a bit of excitement on the bus when we stopped to watch a grizzly bear eat something. The bear was actually very close to our bus, but he was ignoring us. He had his back to us and was in a dry creek bed near the road, pawing at something. We all took pictures of his backside, then he sauntered away around a corner and out of sight.
The mountains in the park were beautiful. Many of them glowed a reddish purple color under the sun. At times, our bus drove alongside these mountains on a one lane road, with rock face on one side and a sheer dropoff on the other. It was a little scary because even though the road is one lane and not paved, buses go both directions. If they meet, they have to slowly squeeze by each other. But we made it without any close calls.
When our bus reached the end of our route and turned around, we got off to do some hiking. You can pick up any other bus at any time, so we’d catch a later one back to the park entrance. We hiked down toward a valley, choosing some precarious routes and sliding halfway down on top of loose rocks. It was very windy and cold, but we chose a spot literally in a thicket of bushes to eat, and the plants protected us from the wind. It was a very pleasant lunch spot.
The hike back up was considerably more difficult. There’s nothing like hiking in Denali National Park to remind you that you should go to the gym more often. It was nice to stretch our legs and get our heart rates up after having spent 4 hours on the bus.
We caught another bus back, and kind of saw four more bears. There was a mother grizzly with three cubs on a mountainside. She was pretty high up, and you could barely make out her shape. Mostly you could just see movement on the hillside, but the people with binoculars assured us it was the mom and cubs.
By the time we made it back to the entrance, we’d been in the park about 9 hours. It was a fantastic day, with beautiful weather most of the time. It began to rain a little on our way out, but by then, I didn’t care. We’d been so lucky with weather.
That night, we enjoyed a warm meal at the restaurant, then I decided to take a “nap,” then wake up to catch the sun setting. But the 9 hours in the park must’ve worn me out, because I was asleep for the rest of the night.