SEEING “THE MOUNTAIN” AND OTHER ALASKA SURPRISES
You can’t drive over 5,000 miles into the Northern Hemisphere without stopping at the Santa Claus House in the North Pole. Unfortunately, Santa had taken the day off, but it was still a fun place to get an Alaskan Christmas ornament and a good stop for fudge. But, could a stop involving fudge ever be bad?
Upon arriving in Fairbanks, we headed over to Pioneer Park. Pioneer Park allows RVs to stay in their parking lot for up to four days for a reasonable fee. They even have a place to fill up water and Wi-Fi.
Formerly called Alaskaland, Pioneer Park is a historical theme park honoring early Alaskan history. The park is free to enter, but many of the attractions do charge an admission fee.
Inside the park you’ll find restored historical buildings making up the “Gold Rush Town,” museums, gift shops, an art gallery (which was great, by the way), an old sternwheeler, and many other exhibits.
You may even spot a moose or two.
Summer days are long in Alaska. We saw this sunset at 11:30 pm!
After Fairbanks, we headed to Tatlanika Trading Post and RV Park for a few days. After a week of heavy driving on the Alaska Highway with very little Internet, we needed a few days to catch up on school and work.
It was rainy and cold those two days; perfect weather for school and quality family time. Thing 2 is starting to learn guitar and Thing 1 has been really inspired after attending the International Music Camp last month in North Dakota. He has been playing his piano for hours almost every day.
Finally after years of looking at Denali National Park on a map, it was time to pack up the RV and make that dream a reality.
On the way to Denali we stopped at the 49th State Brewery in Healy to see the Magic Bus from the movie Into the Wild. The book of the same title, written by Jon Krakauer, inspired the movie. It’s a true story about a young man who heads out, not fully prepared, into the Alaskan wilderness. Tragically, his body is found four almost months later in the abandoned bus. The real bus is still in the Alaskan wilderness off the Stampede Trail, but it requires a long, difficult, and potentially very dangerous hike that requires crossing the Teklanika River.
Later that afternoon we arrived at Denali National Park!
Originally called Mount McKinley National Park, two million acres of Denali was set aside as a national park in 1917. In 1980, the park tripled in size and its name was changed to Denali.
There is only one road into Denali – the 92-mile long Denali Park Road. The first 15 miles are paved and open to the public. If you wish to go beyond mile 15, you have to purchase a ticket for one of the buses or you can walk or ride a bike.
We camped in the Teklanika River Campground at mile 29 on the Park Road. With Denali’s restricted traffic on the park road, a stay in Teklanika requires a three-day minimum reservation. During those three or more days, you can ride the shuttle as much as you want for the price of one trip if you purchase the “Tek Pass.” However, you aren’t allowed to drive or ride a bus back to the entrance, so it’s important to plan accordingly by filling and emptying tanks, and having all your supplies.
There wasn’t any phone or Internet reception at Teklanika, but it was refreshing to unplug for a few days. We went to a ranger program, went on walks, grilled outside, and simply enjoyed being a family without outside distractions. Don’t tell the boys, but I think we’ll have to seek out places with no reception more often!
The air was crisp and cool as we waited for the shuttle bus on our first full day in Denali. It tooka lot of effort to get our family up and ready to catch the bus. I was particularly nervous about taking Thing 3 on the shuttle. We are used to following our own schedule and making stops when and where we need to in our RV.
Babies must ride in a car seat on the shuttle, which is clearly safer, but also meant I had to time his feeding and changing schedule just right. He travels very well but the “what ifs” were bouncing around in my brain. What if he needed a diaper change and we were far from a stop? He doesn’t cry much (if he did we never would have taken him on the shuttle), but what if he had one of those very rare fits of tears?
Then there was the biggest question of all.
What if “the mountain” doesn’t come out? During the summer the mountain is shrouded in clouds 70-80% of the time.
I wanted so badly to see Mount McKinley in all of its 20,320′ of glory.
Like most of life, my worries were unnecessary. Let’s be real, I can’t control the weather so why worry, but Thing 3? Well, I can’t control him either, but he ended up doing great on the shuttle.
As we rode down the bumpy gravel Park Road we rounded the bend to be greeted by the largest mountain in North America: Denali or Mount McKinley, her peaks clearly visible against the cloud streaked sky.
So is the mountain’s name Denali or Mount McKinley? Well it depends on whom you ask. A prospector named the mountain Mount McKinley in 1896, while the Athabasca Indians of the region called it Denali, which means “the High One.” In 1980 the Alaska Board of Geography changed the mountain’s name back to Denali. But the U.S. Board of Geographic still shows the name as Mount McKinley. The one thing that’s for certain is the mountain is beautiful.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see much wildlife from the shuttle bus that day aside from a strange cross between an elk and Captain America.
But we saw the mountain and that alone made the day!
The next day Brent and Thing 2 decided to go on a hike.
They took the shuttle to Cathedral Mountain where they hiked up one of the summits.
You can see Park Road winding below.
Past mile 15, there aren’t many trails in Denali. Visitors are allowed to get off the bus and just start exploring. This was Thing 2’s favorite part, “walking through the wilderness.”
After their hike, they walked back down to Park Road where they flagged down the next shuttle and plopped down into the empty front seat.
A mile later, they saw a mother grizzly and her two cubs through the windshield of the bus. Did you know grizzly cubs stay with their mothers for two to three years?
Talk about front row seats!
They returned home to the RV excited to share stories and pictures of their adventure.
As if the bears weren’t enough, this beautiful caribou walked right out of the brush in front of our truck the next morning as we were leaving Teklanika. Although it would have been nice to have been given little more warning on his appearance. Thank goodness Brent was driving slow!
Once back at the entrance we headed over to the visitor center so the boys could turn in their junior ranger booklets and receive their badges.
Before leaving Denali, we stopped at the sled dog kennels to attend a ranger-led demonstration.
These are the only sled dogs in the United States working for a National Park!
The demonstration was informative and we learned a lot about how the park raises, trains, and uses sled dogs. Of course, the most fun part was petting the dogs themselves!
We got one last glimpse of the mountain we had dreamed of seeing for so long from Denali State Park before we headed south to experience more of Alaska’s treasures.
As the sun set that day, I was filled with gratitude: Thankful for getting to see the mountain, thankful for the warmth and comfort of our RV, and thankful for the memories we were making in Alaska.
Do you have a National Park where you love to #GoRVing? Or are there any National Parks on your dream list?