August 23, 2022
I know, it looks like we spelled Denali wrong, but Denyli seemed more appropriate since the mountain denies visitors the opportunity to see it very often. With the cloud cover hovering over us the entire time we’d been in Alaska so far, we also didn’t expect to see the summit but we tried to be optimistic. Our campground Livinginbeauty.net neighbors told us they’d seen it a few days before, and the couple we met a week before when we went to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park told us they’d seen the peak too. And at least we’d seen a good chunk of the mountain (minus the summit) yesterday.
Our hopes for Denali summit views diminished substantially when, sometime around dawn, we heard a pleasant-sounding 20-minute downpour pattering on the truck’s roof. Neither of us went back to sleep again. Actually, we’d awakened before that because someone way back in Virginia called Susan about some real estate deal that she handled some twenty years ago, not knowing our time zone was four hours earlier. She didn’t answer but we were then fully awake at 5-something am.
It was already daylight so we decided we might as well get up. Even if Denali’s peak never came into view we both were enchanted by this park. Perhaps it was the vast landscapes, the thin crowds, or the overall other-worldliness of Denali, but whatever it was, we were really content when we woke up and knew we had another day of Denali experiences ahead of us.
Once out of the truck, we realized that although the brief rain had stopped it was overcast and there was a real chill in the air. That would be something we’d realize several times this day. If it was this cold in August we wondered if it ever was warm in Alaska.
After breakfast and with several layers on, we took the free Denali National Park shuttle bus to a trailhead and started an easy ascent along a wide trail to Mount Healy Overlook. The end of the trail was 1,800 feet higher than we were, so the trail soon decided that we’d better start gaining some elevation, and fast.
For what would seem like the only time today, we got warm as we trudged up a steep path through the aspen, then the firs until, huffing and puffing, we broke through the tree line. It seemed absurd being above the tree line at a mere 3,500 feet but latitude (Denali National Park is north of 63 degrees) makes a big difference. What was crazier still was that even though we were above the trees, we were still nearly 17,000 feet below Denali’s summit. A curiosity about Denali is that it appears much taller than Mount Everest because whereas Everest rises 12,000 feet from its base, Denali rises 18,000 feet from its base. It’s an incredibly impressive mountain to see rising out of the plains—when you can see it.
At the peak, the view was 360-degrees of colorful mountains and lush valleys, along with a distant view of buildings that apparently housed park employees along the riverbank far below. The sun went in and out of the clouds but we were again denied a view of the big one. The “partly cloudy” part of the forecast here apparently meant mostly dark clouds with a few splotches of blue.
Though the trail didn’t provide views of Denali, the “little” mountains around us were nothing short of spectacular and incredibly wild. Hillsides were a colorful autumn-ish mix of reds, oranges, gold, and green with an occasional stand of golden aspen in the mix. And it was still August!
We lingered as long as we could soaking in the view of nearby mountains from the rocky outcropping at the summit, but even layered up we couldn’t seem to keep warm unless we continued moving. So down we went. But even as we briskly descended the trail, we remained cold. The wind was strong and the sun was mostly a no-show.
A few miles later and shivering, we took the shuttle back to the visitor center and warmed by a fire there before deciding that we were gluttons for punishment and should do another hike. The next one would be shorter but required a half-hour-long shuttle bus trip to reach the trailhead.
Our bus driver was a tour guide wannabe and along the way he slowed so we could see several caribou with magnificent antlers a hundred yards away. He suddenly stopped again to show us a rare peek at the peak. Denali, 70 miles away, was letting us see its summit as the clouds parted for just a few moments. There were lots of oohs and ahhs from the few passengers on the bus as they jostled toward the windows to look.
The two-mile-long Savage River Trail went through a treeless rocky canyon and followed the untamed and changeable Savage River for a mile before crossing a bridge and heading back on the other side.
Eventually, the river became rough and wild, as it flowed over the rocks. It was quickly obvious why the river had been given the moniker “Savage.”
For the first time all day, in fact for the first time since we’d arrived in Alaska, there was more blue in the sky than clouds. But there also was a very strong wind pushing us downriver, chilling us once again.
At the bridge, we crossed and headed back, this time against the wind. It was probably close to 50 degrees but the wind sapped our heat. By the time we were back to the bus stop we were glad we’d be in a heated bus to warm up.
But we were denied again, this time heat. The bus ride was even colder than walking had been. Every window on the bus was stuck in a partially open position and we shivered all the way back to the campground. After dinner and still chilled, we sat in the truck and started it, finally feeling the luxurious heat we’d been craving.
We’d be going north to Fairbanks tomorrow where it was oddly forecast to be ten degrees warmer than Denali and where I hoped I could find a dry spot somewhere to crawl under the truck to fix the wheel sensor that had rendered our stability and anti-lock brakes systems inoperable.