Our drive from Fairbanks to Denali National Park was easy though we had some worries about the weather. As we neared the park the sky looked very dark but it turned out to not be rain but smoke. We had heard of fires farther south on the Kenai peninsula but didn’t expect to be affected until we were in that area. As it turned out winds had brought the smoke north and it was very thick around the park. Visibility was very poor and the smoke smell was very strong.
We had planned on a whitewater raft trip that afternoon but decided to cancel it due to the smoke. Instead we drove around the area, checked out the park visitors center and found another great place for lunch (The CreekSide Cafe.)
By the time we had checked into our hotel we were glad we had canceled the raft trip as visibility was growing worse. Instead we wandered around some shops near the hotel and just took it easy. The following day we were scheduled for a 13-hour long bus tour of the park and we were worried that it would be a complete bust due to the smoke.
That night it rained and in the morning (06/23) the air was clear of smoke. Our bus picked us up on time and we were on our way. As we got farther into the park the weather continued to improve.
The first wildlife we spotted were Dall Sheep. I find it hard to believe how they can manage these rocky, steep crags.
Not much later we spotted our first bear. This one was just snoozing out in the meadow, completely oblivious to the busses on the road. Our driver explained that the Grizzlies in Denali are much lighter in color than those in other areas. He described them as the “Marilyn Monroes” of Grizzly Bears.
Around the next bend in the road we came across a herd of Caribou. They were ambling over the hill in the direction of the bear above. Grizzly bears are a major predator on Caribou so they are careful to stay away from them. The bus driver stopped and we watched while the Caribou discovered the bear in their path. Here is a picture of the herd after they changed direction away from the bear (to the right of the photo).
Coldfoot is north of the Arctic Circle and we were there on the Summer Solstice (6/21). This meant we experienced 24 hours with the sun above the horizon. You sort of loose your sense of time-of-day under those circumstances.
When we left Coldfoot in the morning we backtracked a ways north to visit the settlement of Wiseman. It’s a one-time mining town founded when gold miners left the old Coldfoot for richer diggings The population was 21 as of the 2000 census. Here is a shot of the Wiseman Museum which contained all maner of artifact from the gold mining era.
Wiseman is definitely an “off the grid” place with wind and solar power prominently visible.
On the morning of June 20th we left Deadhorse for a two day trip by van back to Fairbanks. We had only been on the road a short while when we saw our first tundra wildlife, an Arctic Fox. This one was just starting to change from its winter white to its darker summer coloring.
Not many more miles down the road we spotted a pair of Gyrfalcon(s?). They are the largest true falcons in the world with wingspans up to 64 inches. They are classed as a threatened species by the IUCN.
Next was the first of many Caribou we would see, both here and in Denali National Park. They seemed to be quite content to graze alongside the Dalton Highway while large noisy trucks passed putting much dust into the air.
This post will turn out to be rather long simply because there is so much to say about Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay
Deadhorse is the name of the town in the Prudhoe Bay area. It was a fascinating place, much different than I expected. It isn’t actually a town, since few people live there continuously. Most come up and work for a few weeks and then return down south for a few weeks off.
Everything here is about producing oil and the facilities for tourists are minimal. Here is our first view after we got off the plane.
From the picture you can see the terrain is very flat and there are no trees and little other vegetation. Everything is built on gravel pads spread over the permafrost.
Here is a view of our “hotel” the Arctic Caribou Inn
Like nearly every structure here, it is a prefab building that was trucked up the Dalton Highway in pieces.
When we mentioned we were going to Prudhoe Bay the reaction from some people was “Wow! Cool!” From others it was “Why do you want to go there?” In fact it turned out to be one of the best parts of the whole trip. Here’s a map of the route – the red stars mark places we stayed overnight on the return trip.
On the northward leg we flew to Prudhoe Bay from Fairbanks. Here’s Jan waiting for the flight to depart.
The plane was an AirArctic Piper Navajo. This picture was taken after we landed as my pre-takeoff shots weren’t so good.
We got up early, grabbed some coffee to go and got on the road. We planned on having breakfast in Glenallan, just a ways up the road. Unfortunately, the place we were considering didn’t look open so we continued on. There was a lot of low lying fog and sometimes the visibility was poor. Eventually things cleared up and we came across two lakes that were gorgeous in the morning sun. Here is a view of Paxson lake reflecting the sky and trees with a fog bank in the background.
The next lake, Summit Lake was even more beautiful. This may be one of the best pictures of the entire trip.
A little later we spotted our first moose. I think this one is a female but I’m not a moose expert. S/he was close to the road when we arrived but quickly moved off when we slowed down.
Later on we got some better moose pictures but we were pretty excited about this first chance to see one up close.
On the morning of June 17 we headed out on our do-it-yourself day tour. We decided to continue up AK hwy #1 to the town of Tok (rhymes with Coke) Here’s a picture of Jan with our rental car at one of the pullouts along the way.
The road to Tok goes past the Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve which is a whopping 13.2 million acres total! Because of clouds and haze I couldn’t get the best photos of the Wrangell mountains but here is one shot of 16,327 ft tall Mt. Sanford in the distance
Even with the clouds, the day was beautiful. All along the road were wildflowers of different types. These are Bluebonnets (I think).
When we got to Tok we did typical tourist stuff – went to the visitors center and prowled through some gift shops. Tok is the first town of any size on the Alcan highway past the Canadian border so it was quite busy. Once again, by dumb luck, we found a great place for lunch; Fast Eddie’s . Good food, an huge salad bar and friendly people. Some say it’s the best restaurant on the Alcan highway.
We got back to Copper River Lodge a little early and so I was able to get a photo of the lobby without the mobs of bus passengers.
The train arrived in Anchorage fairly late on the 14th of June and we barely got to our hotel in time to have dinner before the dining room shut down. The next morning we picked up our rental car and did a little touring around Anchorage. We had lunch at a cool brew-pub called The Glacier Brewhouse. Their Amber Ale was great! After that we stopped at Resolution Park which is right downtown overlooking the Cook Inlet. They claim you can see Mt. McKinley from there but, in my opinion, it would have to be an awfully clear day.
The next morning we encountered one of the few negative things about traveling in Alaska – Tour Buses! When we got up we thought we would have a quick breakfast at the hotel and head out for our next stop. Unfortunately the hotel was jammed to the gills with people on bus tours, all wanting breakfast before the buses left. We decided to postpone eating until we found someplace less over-run. This turned out to be good as we found a neat little place for breakfast down the road called the Noisy Goose Cafe.
Notice the wonderfully restored old Ford sitting in the parking lot. We noticed many well (and some not so well) preserved vintage cars all over Alaska. Don’t know the reason but they were common.
We continued east on Alaska highway #1 from Palmer. The scenery was fabulous. Almost every direction we looked it was beautiful. Here is a typical scene of the forest and mountains along the highway. I believe these were the Chugach Mountains.