I had been thinking about visiting Alaska for many years. This year I decided was the year. Since I wasn’t familiar with Alaska at all I worked with a tour company called Pursuit and decided on their Denali Backcountry & Northern Lights Adventure. This was a 7 day/6 night trip that starts late-August to early-September. I chose to start August 22. While I saw many people during the week that were doing the same parts of the tour that I was, I was on my own schedule and not with any group at all.
A little bit about the timing of the trip… I knew this time frame was toward the end of the tourist season so the number of visitors would be less. But what I didn’t know was that this time frame was more or less during the rainy season of the year. Winter is coming and that meant less mosquitoes but more overcast skies. They actually close the Denali National Park Road on September 14. And since it was the end of summer, the nights are getting longer allowing for viewing of the Northern Lights better than the long summer days.
(If you click on a picture, you will get a full sized image. Helpful when trying to see the Dall sheep.)
I departed Boston at 7am and after a layover in Seattle arrived in Anchorage at 3pm the same day.
I stayed at the Clarion Suites Downtown. It was nice. About a mile walk to the main street of Anchorage where there were tourists shops and restaurants. If I go again, I’ll look for a hotel on the East side of town with a better view of the mountains.
Today’s itinerary involves taking the Alaska Railroad from the Anchorage Depot to the Denali Depot, Mile post 114 to Mile post 348, where I’ll be staying for the night at Denali Cabins.
Not this train, but the one below it!
They offer two types of travel on this train, Goldstar class and Adventure class. I took the Goldstar class from Anchorage to Denali and the Adventure class from Denali to Fairbanks for comparison. The basic difference is that in Goldstar, you travel in a dome windowed car, meals and two alcoholic drinks are included. Every seat was taken by tourist. For Adventure class, a bistro car is available to purchase food and drinks, you only have large plate glass windows, and it was about 1/3 of the way full of common folk for half the price. In my opinion, Adventure class is the way to go.
When the view is clear, this is the typical view of the scenery. On this day is was overcast and rainy. Cloud cover was very low.
As the train travels about 30-40 mph most of the time, this is the view you see.
As we cross rivers the trees give way to rugged wilderness.
Along the way we see many old telegraph poles still standing. They were supposed to be taken down after they finished building the railroad but became National Historical Landmarks so were left in place.
We left at 8:15am and arrived at Denali Station at 3:40pm. There, many of the nearby hotels had shuttles picking up guests. About 20 of us were going to Denali Cabins about 8 miles from the depot.
This was my cabin. There is another unit attached on the reverse side. For the record, you hear everything anyone says or does on the other side of the wall.
It was rather homey and comfy. A small flatscreen TV and a wall sink were to the left and the toilet and small stand-up shower are off through the door to left. There is a small but nice restaurant onsite, with a large lounge with couches and tables.There wasn’t much to see as it’s all forested, and overcast and rainy.
The four hour time difference between Boston and here meant I was up until almost 2am. But I got to sleep in…
The next leg starts at 12:30pm when I take the bus back to the Denali Depot and meet with others to board a bus to the Backcountry Lodge in Kanthishna at the end of the 92.5 mile Denali Parks Road. The road was built mainly to support gold mining efforts in the area before it became a National Park.
It’s at this point I realize how prevalent overcast conditions rule the weather this time of year. Our driver expressed concerns that the rainy weather might limit the chances of seeing wildlife along the road. It is also at this time that I find out that only 10% of tourist actually get to see an unobstructed view of Denali. Nonetheless, I’m enjoying my vacation and I’m still amazed at the rugged beauty and vast wilderness I’ve been seeing.
The first 1.5 miles of the road is paved. After that, gravel and dirt. I’m guessing the bus was 85% full and I’m probably the youngest person on the bus.
Despite the weather, the wildlife was abundant. The first we saw were the moose. According to the rules, the bus can stop, and we can open windows, but we must be quiet and not stick any body parts out of the windows.
Down the road a few more miles there was a grizzly bear. He was awesome. He was chowing down on berries. They estimate about 300-350 bears live in the park.
I have a great video of this guy but I couldn’t get any of my videos to upload…
The next thing we “saw” were Dall sheep. If you look closely at the center of the picture you can see about 10 small white dots. Using binoculars we were able to see them clearly, but I did not have a camera lens that could capture them. There’s about 2500 sheep in the park.
We cross a few rivers. I believe this one is the Savage River.
And this one is the Teklanika. The rivers were very murky brown from silt sediment being carried from glaciers.
More bears, a sow and her 2 two-year old cubs. The sow starts pushing them away after 2 and 1/2 years in preparation for a new litter.
Then we see Caribou. The park’s 2000 caribou mostly roam in groups.
We also saw a pack of wolves resting at a “rendezvous” point. There was four of them. The park has about 76 wolves this year that run in nine different packs. Again, they were so distant we could see with binoculars but not my camera.
Leaving the Eielson Vistor Center at Mile Post 66 we saw a red fox resting in a little hollow. A telephoto lens would be nice with a tripod.
At the end of the road there is the Backcountry Lodge (BCL). The whole place is run on generators. This lodge has a nice dining room area on the bottom floor and a large lounge and bar on the top floor. They provide activities such as biking, hiking, fishing, and nature walks. You can fly in landing at the air strip about a half mile away. They have flightseeing trips around the area.
This is where I stayed, #33.
Other cabins along the way.
The inside was beautiful! I could live here!! A full bath is off to the right of the vanity. I stayed here two nights.
We had arrived about 7:30pm. So after the supper meal which was included I called it a night, a very dark night.
On day 4 a miracle happened. The rain stopped and sky cleared!! The staff at the BCL said that it had been raining and cloudy for the past 12 days straight. I had signed up for the shuttle to Wonder Lake the previous night. It was scheduled to leave at 10am. I finished breakfast at 8am and was ready to go now! I didn’t want the weather to change!
So while I waiting for the shuttle…
This is the stream that ran past the cabins. I took other pictures, one of a swing bridge but that photo wouldn’t load either.
Then 10am has come and about 8 of us loaded into the shuttle for the 5 mile trip to Wonder Lake. The parking area is about a half mile from the lake so we had to walk the rest. You can see the skies have cleared!
As we neared the lake I had to take some pictures.
There are small cloud formations as the mountain range creates it’s own weather. Denali is over 20,000 feet above sea level.
I’ve seen many pictures of this mountain but none of them can compare to seeing it with your own eyes. My pictures don’t do justice. I took well over 200 pictures but only post a few of them here.
The lake was fairly calm so the reflection was amazing!
So here’s the prerequisite selfie.
I used CPL filter as the sun was coming from the east to my left.
Staying on a trail I climbed a small knoll to get this shot.
There was another shuttle going back in the afternoon. I canceled my botany walk and signed up to come back again.
I took this for my sister! I think it’s a larkspur, but I’m not sure.
The afternoon shuttle left the BCL at 3pm. The westerly sun changed what Denali looked like from the morning!
The cloud cover changed and the snow looked brighter.
I climbed a small hill named Blueberry Hill to get a different view.
From a small dock on Wonder Lake.
Time to return to BCL. This last shot was about 6pm.
The next morning we must begin our return trip back out the Park Road at 6am. So we get another chance at seeing Denali, in the early morning light!
As we approach, the sun is just coming up over the mountains to the east, not yet hitting the summit of Denali. We are able to wait a few minutes…
The lake is very calm.
There some cloud cover but we can still see most of the Denali range.
The morning glow is gone…
It’s time to move on.
As we travel eastward, the range takes on a different look.
Back at the Eielson Center we can see the Denali range, where a couple days before coming in we didn’t even know it was there.
We see more caribou. We also saw snowshoe hares, a porcupine, and some ptarmigan.
The overcast skies and clouds were moving back in.
And just before leaving the Park Road, one young bull moose came close to the bus.
We made it back to the Park entrance at approximately 11:15am. Some of the guest were taking the Southbound train to Anchorage and some of us were taking the 4pm train to Fairbanks.
We arrived at Fairbanks at approximately 8:pm. Once again we found shuttles to our respective hotels. I went to Pike’s Waterfront Lodge (PWL), home to restarts for the Iditarod in 2015 and 2017. I found some dinner and went to bed.
By this time I still had not seen any northern lights. Except for the one night while at the BCL it had been overcast. And today was still cloudy. The plan for the day is to fly in a small plane up to Coldfoot, above the Arctic Circle, then drive back to Fairbanks looking for the northern lights along the way. Coldfoot is 250 miles north of Fairbanks, and 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The Dalton Highway and the Elliot Highway runs between them. You might be familiar with these places as they are mentioned and seen in the TV show Ice Road Truckers.
This is our plane and the 70 year old ex-Air Force pilot. Since it was so overcast in Coldfoot, the contingency was to fly to Bettles, about 40 miles southwest of Coldfoot. They can land there using instrumentation while landing at Coldfoot is visual. But there’s no roads in or out of Bettles so I’m not sure what the plan was after that. The pilot would make the call whether to fly into Coldfoot as we got closer.
There was only 3 passengers. I sat in the back near the door where I could take better pictures unobstructed by the view of the wings.
I was continually amazed at the vast openness of the wilderness where there was nothing trees, rivers, lakes, and low vegetation for miles! I watched for wildlife but saw none.
Nearing the decision point, the pilot, after talking with other pilots in the area, decided to skirt this rain storm, drop down to about 500 feet and follow the river through the valley to Coldfoot.
We landed safely at Coldfoot, the crosswind was minor.
A rainbow was there to greet us. This was the only lights we saw in the sky this day. A couple other planes brought in a few passengers.
Eight of us boarded this little tour bus. It was comfortable with large windows. We drove a half mile away to the Coldfoot camp. It had a small vehicle repair shop, a couple fuel pumps, a small cafeteria that seated about 40 people that served sandwiches and Chinese food. I thought it quite strange that they had a Chinese restaurant here but the tour bus driver explained that during the summer, they had hundreds of Chinese tourist come through here a day.
They also have a US Post Office.
Coldfoot sits at Mile Post 175. We started South on the Dalton Highway. The Trans Alaskan Pipeline pretty much ran parallel to the highway, as the highway was built to support building the pipeline. The pipeline runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south. 380 miles of it is buried and 420 miles run above ground. There are 11 pump stations along the route. Pump station 5 can be seen in this picture of Globblers Knob, Mile Post 132.
Continuing South we came to the edge of the Arctic Circle, Mile Post 115
I apologize for the glare on the windows, they couldn’t open. Here you can see the highway and pipeline running side-by-side.
The oil runs hot through the 48 inch wide insulated pipe. It’s designed to be able to move due to temperature expansion and earthquakes. Each stanchion has a set of thermosyphons that conduct heat from the oil to the fins at the top in order to prevent thawing of the permafrost on which they are built.
At each stanchion the pipe has a cushioned bumper to prevent the pipe from hitting the stanchion. I believe the tour guide there was 70,000 of these stanchions.
The Yukon bridge crosses the Yukon River at Mile Post 56. The pipe crosses the river on the other side of the bridge.
It’s starting to get dark. It’s just after 9pm.
About two hours later we arrive at the Arctic Circle Trading Post, a little roadside stop with a couple of outhouses. It sits at Mile Post 49.5 on the Elliot Highway, which runs for 74 miles between Fairbanks and where the Dalton Highway starts. I’m not sure why they call it the Arctic Circle Trading Post because it’s 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle. But it sure was dark there. A few of the people that were on the bus with me were staying for a couple hours in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. Four of us switched vehicles to a small van with large windows to continue south to Fairbanks.
It was still very overcast. The weather forecast in Fairbanks called for rain. There were small patches of clearing as we traveled south but all we saw were stars, no Northern Lights. After dropping the other passengers off at their hotels, I arrived back at the PWL at approximately 2am. I stood outside in the parking lot for a while but still no light show. I guess I’ll have to go back…
This is going to be a long day. I have the Riverboat Discovery tour at 9am. That finishes around 12:30pm. Then my flight leaves at 9:54pm, so I have to wait around all day. I asked for a late check-out but was denied. I had hoped to return from the Riverboat Discovery tour and take a shower and then relax in my room until later, but no such luck. I think that was the only thing that disappointed me during this trip. They did have a room I cold store my luggage until I left for the airport so that was a good alternative.
Again it was cloudy and a bit colder, around 45 degrees. This riverboat was on the Chena river which runs through Fairbanks. I didn’t take many photos on this day as I could have. I was starting to run out of energy, and getting to bed at 3am last night didn’t help.
I’m guessing about 300 folks climb aboard this boat. I’m not a fan of bi crowds. Since it was cold and wet, the upper deck was empty except for me.
When we left the dock, we got to see a demonstration of float plane takeoff from the river, circle and land. I did take a video of that, but once again it wouldn’t load to this site.
We cruised slowly down the river past a few nice homes. Then we came to David Monson and Susan Butcher’s Trail Breaker Kennel. Susan Butcher was a champion dog sledder and won the Iditarod 4 times. Susan died of leukemia in 2006 but her husband continues running the kennel.
This is the only video that loaded (?) It shows David starting a training run around the lake.
We continued down the river for 6 miles where the Chena ran into the Tanana river. We turned around and headed upriver.
We did dock at a replica of a Athabascan Indian village. Here we disembarked and toured the village where we were told about the Athabascan way of life and how they survived in Alaska for 10,00 years by drying salmon and trapping wolf, fox, martin and beaver.
We reboarded and headed back to the home dock.
A few of the homes along the Chena were rather nice, Nothing like the rugged wilderness cabins I’ve been seeing the previous few days.
I could live here…
I got back to PWL about 12:30pm. I took the shuttle into town and walked around checking things out. I did find the northern most Harley Davidson dearlership in the U.S. – the Outpost Alaska.
Later I walked back to the PWL, it had warmed up to 55 degrees, and chilled until I headed to the airport at 8pm.
My flight left Fairbanks at 9:54pm, with stops in Anchorage and Seattle. With 10 hours flight time, 3 and a half hours layover, and 4 hours lost due to time change, I arrived back in Boston at 3:30pm.
It was a great trip. I only saw a fraction of Alaska, there is so much more to see and do. I’d like to go back to visit someday, but next time I think I’ll plan my own accommodations and travel and see a different part of the state.
I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing some of my vacation.