Denali National Park Hikes

This is the second part to our Alaska adventure, read the first post! Here we take you through the land-locked hikes in the Denali National Wilderness.

Discovery hike

Discovery hikes are ranger-led, off-trail hikes through the park. These hikes range from moderate to strenuous and can start from anywhere on the park road at the ranger’s discretion. You’ll start with a bus ride ranging from 1-4 hours, hike for 2-3 hours, and then take a similar bus ride back. You have to sign up in person at the visitor’s center a day or two before the hike, and make sure that you have the appropriate gear outlined on their website.

Standing on the Denali wilderness on a gorgeous day

We opted for a strenuous hike with Ranger Emily that started around mile 30 on the park road. The bus dropped us off on the side of the road, we got a rundown of safety and how to hike off-trail, the ranger picked a point to meet, and we all took off on separate paths to meet there. One main takeaway about off-trail hiking is to not make new trails. Rangers encourage leave no trace practices including not stepping in another person’s tracks to avoid creating social trails and much more.

Ranger Emily had us climb to a peak on the Igloo Mountain range. We encountered various terrain including tundra and rocky scree. There were a couple of points where we ended up taking different routes after the original path appeared too steep…all part of the fun of off-trail hiking!

We were also able to enjoy the bounty of blueberries, cranberries, crow berries, and other tasty treats for our personal enjoyment and sustenance. In fact, we spent a good portion of the hike bent over filling our bellies. We saw plenty of recent evidence of bears doing the same…

During our hike we were able to stop to enjoy some of the gorgeous scenery. Every few hundred feet we climbed, we could enjoy more of the glory around us! We hiked to a peak where we stopped for about an hour to eat lunch and just enjoy the view – we even did a little coloring while we were there. The hike down took a different route with a lot less scree and a lot more brush. We found ourselves doing a bit of bushwhacking and creek crossing to make it back to the road.

Highly, highly recommend the Discovery Hike.

Savage Alpine Trail

The Savage Alpine Trail is a strenuous, 4.5 mile trail that connects the Savage River Campground to Savage River Day Use Area in Denali National Park. Take the free shuttle bus either from the visitor’s center or the bus depot to the trailhead. We hiked this on a cool, rainy morning and there were very few people on the trail.

The trail gains 1,400 feet of elevation culminating at a lookout point over the valley. We recommend starting at the Savage River Campground since the climb is much more gradual.

The trail winds its way through alpine fields before coming to a rocky tundra. Once you get to the top, the trail descends steeply via a series of stairs to the Savage River. While a bit more grueling than some of the other on-trail hikes in the park, we loved getting up high and looking over the wilderness.

After a strenuous hike, the only thing left to do is head towards the only road in the Wilderness and wait for a bus with available seats. The scenery, even on a cloudy day, makes it a quick wait.

Need a ride in Denali? Just catch a bus!

Horseshoe Lake Trail

The Horseshoe Lake Trail is an easy, 2 mile loop in Denali’s front country. We started from the bus depot, which added an additional 3/4 mile along a bike trail, but the bus can drop you off right at the trailhead. The trail descends roughly 400 feet from the trailhead and then it’s an easy jaunt around the lake.

The scenery of this hike was very different than the previous two hikes we did in Denali – it was through pine forest rather than alpine tundra. The coolest thing about this hike is the beaver activity along the trail. There are active beaver dams and we heard that you can often see those busy beavers at work. We did this in the afternoon after we hiked the Savage Alpine Trail and the weather couldn’t have been better.

The sun came out and we had bluebird skies. The lake was so still it was like glass, perfectly mirroring the landscape.

Horseshoe Lake in Denali

Finally…

What is an Alaska adventure without a moose??

Moose in Denali!

We have one more Alaska post coming at this. This time we take to the water in the Kenai Fjords!

Alaska, end of summer outdoor adventure – Part 1

Alaska offers an abundance of wilderness experiences and a chance for us to get away from the monotonous modern business life. It is a quick, cheap flight from Portland to Anchorage, directly up the Pacific coast.

From Portland into Anchorage

On a clear day looking East you are able to enjoy the splendor of the coastline, ancient volcanoes, islands, mountains, and once further north, glaciers. However, thick smoke hung over most our trip, caused mostly by the large Swan Lake Fire.

We spent the rest of our day and evening in Anchorage which was still under some gorgeous low-70 degree F weather at this time. Save the smoke in the air, it was a perfect time to walk around the city and enjoy the last bit summer. We moseyed over to a highly rated pizza joint, Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria. It definitely did the trick–good stuff!

Alaska Railroad 8-hours North from Anchorage to Denali

First thing the next morning we headed to the Alaska Railroad station to catch the 8am train. Driving a vehicle the 5+-hours to Denali is another viable option–in fact the railroad runs parallel to the highway for nearly the entire trip; however, the train does offer a hands-free and scenic perspective to the landscape that we did enjoy. A vehicle does not give you any extra capabilities in Denali anyway since the town is small and shuttles are provided to and from the hotels to the Denali Visitor Center and National Park buses inside the Wilderness area.

There are two different options when booking the train: the Goldstar Service or Adventure Class. We actually rode in both classes and would definitely recommend upgrading to Goldstar if your budget allows. The Adventure Class ticket includes spacious seats, food for purchase, and second floor open seating with domed windows. You are free to move about the train and explore other cars. The Goldstar Class is more expensive but includes amenities that were worth the upgrade for us. The ticket includes larger seats with footrests, glass domed ceilings, open air deck, two meals, two alcoholic drinks, and upgraded facilities. Either way, you can’t go wrong; riding the train was such a great experience.

Along the route we got our first view of the great Mt. Denali peak. The mountain range is over 60 miles away and from this distance it is a rare site (visible less than 20% of the time). However, on this day it was visible in all its glory standing at over 20,000 ft above sea level, which is about 16,000 ft above surrounding base! Also visible on the left are the lower peaks of Mt. Russel and Mt. Foraker.

Mt. Denali from the Alaska Railroad, peak over 60 miles away

The smoke from the Alaska wildfires followed us everywhere. We got a very up-close experience with the 3,000 acre McKinley Fire (50 times smaller than the 160,000 acre Swan Lake Fire mentioned earlier) that ran along the Alaska Railroad for several miles. The train slowed to a crawl to give way for the forest firefighters who were containing the still-smoldering areas that we captured.

Burn area from the McKinley fire along the Alaska Railroad

As we approached Denali National Park we come to Hurricane Gulch which spans 914 ft and stands 296 feet above the valley floor. This bridge is among the oldest in the area, built in 1921.

Hurricane Gulch from the Alaska Railroad, 300 ft above the valley floor

Denali National Park

We spent a little time near the hotels, getting to know our surroundings. There are plenty of hotel options near Denali National Park. Be aware that you may pay a bit more, especially during the summer season. We booked a hotel as part of a package with the railroad. It was a good deal, but we wouldn’t recommend that particular hotel. If you have a large budget, there are also lodges in Kantishna – the center of the park.

Getting around

If you choose to take the train, chances are you’ll need some way to get around. Luckily there are plenty of free shuttles that run to and from the park and town. “Downtown” is really just a short strip of road with a few restaurants and shops – it’s a very short walk to many hotels from there.

Even if you have a car, you’ll need to ride a bus in the park. There is one road that runs 92 miles through the park. In order to keep the land as wild as possible, vehicles have been limited on park roads since the 1970s. Personal vehicles are allowed in the first 16 miles of the National Park Road, but if you want to go further you have to purchase a ticket. There are also free shuttle buses that will go to mile 16 (Savage River) if you don’t have a car.

There are two types of buses running through the park: green Denali park buses and white tour buses. The green buses are non-narrated while the white busses are narrated. The price of a ticket varies based on whether or not you choose a narrated bus as well as the distance you want to go into the park. These trips usually range from 5.5-12 hours round-trip if you don’t get off the bus. The buses make stops every hour or two for bathroom breaks, but be sure to take your own food and water.

Visitors are encouraged to get off the buses and explore the park. Be aware of wildlife and follow the safety precautions. When you’re done hiking and ready to go back, simply flag down a green bus and hop on.

For the Ranger Discovery Hike we took the disco bus to nowhere

Denali National Park offers a boundless many activities, but most of them are centered around very wilderness-oriented activities. We opted for the Ranger-led Discovery Hike as our first introduction into the Denali Wilderness. It gave us the confidence to explore the back country with an experienced guide, so we could get our bearings.

Sightseeing on the disco bus before the hike

We started the trip on the disco bus, 1.5-hours (about 30 miles) into the park early in the morning. On that early trip, we were able to catch some wildlife along the way. There are over 150 species of birds in the park as well as plenty of mammals and even one amphibian (it literally freezes solid in the winter!). These caribou are a common site, but these large males had particularly impressive racks. We were also able to spot some brown bears (grizzly bears), from a safe distance. They were digging for roots along a river bed. It was moose rutting season while we were there, and we got to see quite a few moose.

Further up the road we were able to get some fantastic shots of Mt. Denali. This for the second time in 2 days–a rare treat!! Even near the end of summer those peaks are completely snow-covered and frigid. So many people visit Denali and never get off the bus. The scenery and wildlife is so amazing that you don’t have to, but we highly recommend hopping off the bus for some hiking.

There is so much to do in Denali and Alaska; this was just the start of our adventure. Our favorite part in Denali had to be the off-trail hike we did – stay tuned for a recap of that! And in Part 2 (?) we venture south to Seward and the Kenai Fjords.

2018 Year In Review

Mostly for posterity, because thinking back I couldn’t for the life of me remember what we did January-March. We had a great year and are excited to see what 2019 has in store.

January

We don’t have many photos from early in the year. We spent the first few months in Louisville, and January was marked with some snowy walks and finishing up the garage (I think we finished the siding at this point and were able to park inside!).

February

Matt ran the electric to the garage and learned a new skill in the process. We went on a trip to Hawaii, and even though it was rainy we did some amazing hikes, ate way too much poke, and tried stand up paddleboard yoga for the first time!

March

In March we: had a fire, it snowed a bit, we crashed a wedding, and drove across the country (again)!

April

We spent April in Phoenix and enjoyed the warm weather. We visited Petrified Forest National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Sedona. Ralph and Jan came to visit. We did some desert hikes and spent some time hanging out with friends.

May

We moved to Utah, I got a new job, we spent a lot of time at the pool, and we did a lot of mountain hikes. Looking back at these pictures I forgot how green Utah was in the spring; by the time we left in September it was completely brown.

June

We spent more time at the pool and exploring Salt Lake City. We hit up some new breweries. Matt turned 33! We hiked some more. Beth and Casey came to visit and we went to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. And we went to a professional rugby match.

July

I started training for a 50K. Ralph and Jan came to visit and we took a trip to Moab to see Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. We did lots of hiking including our first sunset hike on Antelope Island. Matt went to Vegas for the first time and I went to Boston. I turned 32.

August

More hiking and running in August. Matt went to Canada. The weather got really hot. We spent more time at the pool. I ran my first marathon distance in Park City and saw some moose on the trail.

September

We did more running and hiking and tried to keep cool (the Utah summer was HOT). We went to Wyoming to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. We went to the Utah State Fair. I started another new job. We moved to Boise for a few weeks.

October

We moved to Portland. I ran the Elk-Kings 50K. We did some hikes and watched the leaves turn. We went to a Timbers game.

November

We slowed down a little this month. Fewer hikes and fewer runs. We settled into our apartment. Beth and Casey came to visit and we drove down to San Francisco to visit Heidi and Brian. We had some good coffee and payed virtual reality games. We stopped at Crater Lake National Park, but it was closed due to snow. We went to a holiday beer festival in downtown Portland.

December

Heidi came to visit/dog sit and we tried some delicious food and drinks. We hiked a little, it rained a lot. And we celebrated the holidays in a very low-key way with just the three of us.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Photos

Summer 2018 was the summer of National Parks. Yellowstone and Grand Teton marked our 7th and 8th National Parks of the year. We drove up to Wyoming the weekend after Labor Day and stayed at a cabin just outside of Yellowstone. The mornings were crisp and cool and the days were sunny and warm. It was a perfect weekend to get out of town and enjoy nature. Without further ado, a massive photo dump from our weekend:

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Grand Teton

 

Moab, UT

The second week in July, we hit the road for Moab – about 230 miles, or just shy of a 4 hour drive southeast from Salt Lake City. Maybe it was a bit crazy to hike in the desert when the temps were in the 100s, but we were hell-bent on visiting the two National […]

The second week in July, we hit the road for Moab – about 230 miles, or just shy of a 4 hour drive southeast from Salt Lake City. Maybe it was a bit crazy to hike in the desert when the temps were in the 100s, but we were hell-bent on visiting the two National Parks in the area: Arches and Canyonlands.

Arches National Park

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Balanced Rock – Arches National Park

Arches is located on the Colorado Plateau near the Colorado River. With over 2,000 arches, it has the largest concentration of natural arches in the world. The majority of the rock in the park is sandstone. The arches are formed as water seeped into cracks and through the freeze-thaw cycle ice created pressure breaking off parts of the rock. As wind cleaned out loose particle, fins remained, which further give way to water and wind and became arches. You can see the some of the progress below – the pictures on the right shows the fin stage while the one on the left shows an arch. Fun fact, Skyline Arch (pictured in the photo on the right below) was actually only half that size until 1940 when a boulder fell out and doubled the opening. While we didn’t get to the most famous arch in the park – Delicate Arch – there are so many other beauties to see.

We went in the evening to beat the heat, and while it was still in the 90s the shade made it much more bearable. We drove through the park stopping at Balanced Rock and Skyline Arch before hiking through Devil’s Garden. We passed the Landscape Arch, which is one of the longest arches in the world, before climbing up the rock face to head back toward Double O Arch. We ended up turning around before we got there because the sun was setting and we didn’t want to be scrambling in the dark, but we were able to stop at the Partition and Navajo Arches on the way back. In the dark, we pulled up to the Delicate Arch viewpoint to try and capture it with a long exposure.

Corona Arch

Corona Arch is located along a trail in a side canyon along the Colorado River. The arch is partially free-standing and has an impressive 140 ft x 105 ft opening. The trail is relatively easy with only a few short, steep sections,  and is 2.3 miles round trip. It’s easy to follow with cairns and green paint to mark the way. While summer is probably not the most ideal time to hike in Moab, we went early in the morning before the sun got too high in the sky. This allowed for some shade along the way from the canyon walls and we were able to finish before the trail got too crowded. We ended the hike with a quick splash (for the dog) in the Colorado River.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park covers over 330,000 acres of land in southeastern Utah. It is one of the more remote National Parks with very little for services throughout; the NPS encourages you to take anything you might need for your visit with you due to the remoteness. The park is divided into three “districts” that are bounded by the Colorado and Green Rivers. You cannot access the different areas from within the park as there are no roads that cross the rivers. To get from one district to the next is anywhere from a 2-6 hour car ride.

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The three districts that make up Canyonlands are: Island in the Sky,  The Needles, and The Maze. Island is the Sky, with its proximity to Moab, is the most highly visited area. Island in the Sky is a sandstone mesa that sits over 1,000 above the surrounding terrain. We visited the Grand Viewpoint, which is at the southernmost point of the scenic drive. It gives a great vista of the White Rim – a sandstone formation above the river convergence, as well as The Needles and The Maze.

The Needles is east of the Colorado River and is named after rock pinnacles that can be found in the landscape. The Needles was once the home of Pueblos, and there are still traces of their heritage including well-preserved petroglyphs. The Maze is located to the west of the Colorado and Green Rivers and is the most primitive area in Canyonlands. It is also one of the most remote and inaccessible areas in the entire United States, which has led to it being called on of the most dangerous places to hike. It has many geological features unique to the area including Orange Cliffs and Golden Stairs.

 

Weekend trip to Southern Utah

Beth and Casey came to visit us back in June, and we road tripped to southern Utah to take in the sights. Utah is home to 5 National Parks, third only to Alaska and California, which both boast 8. Not only does Utah have these gorgeous parks, but it also ranks 3rd for most federally owned land – this includes not only the National Parks, but National Monuments, National Forests, and wilderness areas, to name a few. This is especially important because these publicly-owned lands provide protections to the land and wildlife, ensuring their preservation for the future.

We could go on and on about the benefits of preserving nature and how we shouldn’t be stripping those protections away, but that’s a post for another day :).

Back to our trip. We loaded up the car early Saturday morning heading to our final destination – Zion National Park. Since Utah has such amazing scenery and a high concentration of these lands are in the south, we made sure to detour and see as much as possible. On the list: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Dixie National Forest, Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, and Cedar Breaks National Monument. For more about our hikes through all of these parks, check out our post on June 2018 Hikes.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

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Grand Staircase Escalante – whose name derives from the Escalante River and geological “steps” corresponding to various time periods over millions of years – stretches from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon. It is among some of the most remote in the country and was the last part of the contiguous United States to be mapped. There are five “steps” in the Grand Staircase: the pink cliffs formed of pink and red limestones that has many different rock formations including Bryce Canyon’s famous hoodoos; grey cliffs made of Cretaceous sandstone comprising the area between Bryce Canyon and Zion; white cliffs formed of Navajo sandstone and home of the majestic cliffs of Zion; the vermillion cliffs made of silt and found near Kanab; and the chocolate cliffs, which are the oldest formed of Kaibab limestone and makes the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, the sights were spectacular. Driving through the changing landscapes and noting the different geologic periods that made this possible kept us in awe of just how small we are in the grand scheme of things.

Bryce Canyon National Park

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Bryce Canyon National Park has the highest concentration of hoodoos in the world. It’s at 8,000-9,000 ft elevation at the rim, which looks out over the canyon filled with hoodoos. Bryce Canyon is technically not a canyon, but an amphitheater created by headward erosion wherein erosion occurs at the origin of a stream in the opposite direction of the flow. This erosion has led to the exposure of hoodoos where a layer of soft rock (typically mudstone) has been covered by a layer of hard rock (limestone, sandstone) leaving spires. We only made it to Sunrise-Sunset point, where the views were spectacular, but there are many other viewpoints and hikes throughout the park.

Zion National Park

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Zion National Park could have an entire post of its own. After visiting a handful of National Parks in the last couple of months, what struck us most about Zion is how majestic it is. While the park actually encompasses a large area from Zion Canyon to Kolob Canyon, most people only go through Zion Canyon in the southern end of the park. The north fork of the Virgin River cut through the Navajo sandstone creating looming, red cliffs. The park winds through a canyon, and due to the small size and high traffic is only accessible by shuttle in the summer months. There are plenty of trails and sights to see through the canyon including the Court of Patriarchs – a trio of peaks named after biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Angel’s Landing – a rock formation that got its name because it appears that only angels could summit, and the famous narrows – the narrowest section of the canyon and an incredibly popular hike. We didn’t get to hike Angel’s Landing this time, but it’s on our list for our next visit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

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Cedar Breaks is off the beaten path and easy to skip even if you’re in the area, but we would highly recommend visiting. It’s a natural “amphitheater” that stretches 3 miles wide and 2,000 feet deep. It’s not an amphitheater in the casual sense – no concerts are held there – but it is a rock formation that naturally amplifies sound. It is at 10,000 feet elevation and has rock formations similar to Bryce Canyon. We only ventured along the rim, but were awestruck by the magnitude of the space and just how far you could see out into the valley.

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Dixie National Forest

Dixie National Forest is the largest forest in Utah, stretching across 2 million acres at the southern end of the state. In fact, most of the above national lands lie within the areas of Dixie. We were constantly passing through the forest as we wound our way to all of the National Parks and Monuments. The area is composed of many different ecosystems and is quite beautiful to behold.

To note: National Parks are not dog-friendly, but National Monuments and National Forests are.

Grand Canyon and Sedona

We’re rounding out our third week in Phoenix and have been loving the sun and warm weather. The nights are cool and the days are hot and sunny and we have the tans to prove it 🙂 – not to rub it in for everyone in the Midwest who is still dealing with snow.

We decided to take advantage of a free weekend and headed north to the Grand Canyon and Sedona. Since we are both working remotely, we went up on a Sunday afternoon and worked from the hotel Monday – this is where working Eastern time while on Pacific time comes in handy since we log off at 2pm and can use our entire afternoon for fun. We left a little later in the day, which worked out to our advantage because we got to the Grand Canyon in the late afternoon when crowds were mostly non-existent.

We took a slight detour to Prescott on the drive to grab some lunch and stretch our legs. We stopped at Watson Lake for a quick walk – the scenery was gorgeous! At 5,000 ft. elevation, the scenery was a bit different from the desert we get in the Phoenix valley with lots of scrub bushes, juniper trees, and an absence of cacti. Snickers especially enjoyed chasing birds through the mud.

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Since we had the dog with us, we were limited in the hiking we could do at the Grand Canyon (National Parks are notoriously dog-unfriendly). We parked at the Bright Angel trailhead and walked about 3 miles out and back along the Rim Trail. The great thing about this location was that no cars are allowed beyond that point and most people ride the shuttle rather than walking. We had the trail mostly to ourselves, and even though it was paved we had a very enjoyable time. It’s amazing to see all of the striations along the canyon walls and think about how the Colorado River cut it out over millions of years. It’s impossible to capture the grandeur in pictures, but suffice to say we were constantly uttering “wow, this is amazing!” even though we’d both visited before. We definitely recommend a visit at least once in your lifetime.

 

 

 

Sunday night we drove down to Flagstaff to stay for the night. Our time was mostly spend in the hotel since it was a Monday and we had to work, but we did end up grabbing beer at Dark Sky Brewing (highly recommend!), some lunch at Macy’s Coffee House (delicious lattes and healthy food), and walking the trail that runs through town (such a great use of space!).

Once we were finished with work, we headed to Sedona for a hike. The drive down was on mountain roads that cut through the rocks and provided amazing views. The weather was cloudy and cool – 70s – which was actually perfect for the hike since the desert sun can be brutal. We did 6 miles on the Chuckwagon Trail to Devil’s Arch. Very few people were on the Chuckwagon Trail, but the last 0.8 miles up to the arch we ran into quite a few hikers. I can’t blame them because the view was spectacular! The hike itself wasn’t too strenuous and we ended up running about 3 miles of it. Snickers, our resident mountain goat, had a blast running up the rocks at the end and nearly gave Matt a heart attack when she ran to the edge to survey the land. The red rock landscape is something that you just can’t see anywhere and even though they weren’t lit up by the sun we were amazed by their beauty. Matt didn’t brave walking on the bridge, but Snickers and I ran out there to snag a quick photo before our descent.

 

 

 

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All-in-all, we had a fantastic weekend!