Day 16: Fairbanks to Denali to Fairbanks, Alaska (292mi, 6382mi total)
Planning the trip, I kind of dreaded Denali day. This seemed like about the worst possible experience for a repressed outdoorsman, having to take in the Alaskan wilderness from the window of a tour bus. As much as I tried to tell myself it would be just like a safari (like I ever wanted to go on safari?) the idea just seemed depressing, missing out on it all when it’s right outside the window. This wasn’t exactly Alexander Supertramp’s bus; I wasn’t going ‘into the wild’, just around the wild, or through it, ignoring the wildness of it. The visitors center did little to help my dismal opinion of the place, heckles raised by the steady flow of backpackers in the other line picking up their wilderness permits while we waited for bus tickets. This had better be either some damn good wildlife or some damn bad views so I don’t feel cheated and want to come back when I can like all these other places, I thought.
Once our bus was finally due to leave, it lurched onto a surprisingly narrow, steep mountain road (no wonder you can’t drive here anymore), into what reminded me a lot of Arizona and the Navajo lands, near the Grand Canyon.
The mountains themselves were an odd hybrid of the colorful rock formations of the Southwest and the muted pyramids of the Arctic Range. According to the tour guide, they get even more colorful in clear weather, and in July when the alpengrass blooms, giving them the name “Polychrome Hills”
Getting closer to The Big One. Apparently with the right weather you can see Denali’s summit behind these foothills. When do I ever have the right weather on a trip?
Yes, Laura, I really am a moose. Look right here!
The valley, from yet another tourist concession. Denali’s peak is just starting to peek into view behind all these clouds.
On the way back out, the sun made a feeble attempt to light up Polychrome, giving it at least a tint of color.
We made one very ironic stop at the Teklanika River crossing, just 3/4 of a mile from where “Into The Wild” was filmed, and not much farther than that from where Alexander Supertramp spent the summer of 1994 in an abandoned bus. You can just see the bus in the distance from the tour stop, and there is a trail along the riverbank to the bus itself. What I’m wondering, and what the tour guide had no answer to, was why Chris/Alex didn’t escape this way, following the “uncrossable” (itself a stretch) river to the tour road, and taking a national park bus back out of the wild? It certainly makes me think more about how I would go about it when I eventually go for myself.
It turned out to be not so bad; I’d rather climb the Arctic hills if I ever returned, not these ones. That being said, the experience of riding the tourist bus (and seeing no wildlife whatsoever) didn’t drag on as painfully long as I had feared it would. We stopped at a tourist trap (everything here is) restaurant on the way out of the park for fish tacos, which seemed appropriate somehow in Alaska. Back in Fairbanks, we were treated to this brilliant sunset (actually sundip, this was about as dark as it got before the sun rose again!)
Day 17: Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska (359mi, 6743mi total)
Today was only a highway day, going back along the road to Denali park then toward Anchorage, on what we only thought might have been a scenic route. At least I got a zoom lens today, finally, for better views of the wildlife (after missing all the most exotic stuff, but whatever). And we saw Sarah Palin’s house, from which there is no view whatsoever of Russia, only suburban Wasilla and a strip-mined mountainside.