A Day Trip to Denali National Park

Mt. Denali is so easily recognizable even 100 miles away.

Shall we go for a drive?

It was a lovely Spring day in May when I drove south about 120 miles to visit Denali National Park. Because I was in no hurry to get there, I pulled over to read historical markers and take in the scenery. As a matter of fact, about 20 miles out of Fairbanks was the first scenic pullout and saw the magnificent Mt. Denali. It is clearly recognizable even at this great distance. Unfortunately my little phone camera does not do it justice.  

Historic Markers are a great source of information. AK 3 is known as Parks Highway. If you ask a local resident how to get to Anchorage or Denali National Park, they will tell to take the Parks Highway.

Also in that pullout featured a monument dedicated to George Parks. Parks came to the Alaska Territory in the early 1900’s as a civil engineer, then later was appointed the first Territorial Governor for Alaska by president Grover Cleveland where he served two terms. Highway AK 3 was named in his honor — Parks Highway.

Scenic Pullouts Worth the Stop.

During my drive I pulled off the road several more times, soaking in the scenery, but no more glimpses of the highest peak in North America.

Such great unobstructed views of the wildness along Parks Highway.

Since I did not pack much of a lunch, I decided to eat in a diner along the road — The Clear Sky Bar and Grill. When I walked in I was the only customer and chose to sit at the bar. The server was a friendly woman who bragged about her freshly made chicken soup. That sounded good, so I ordered soup, sandwich and an iced tea. While I was feasting, the place slowly filled up with customers. Another woman took my money for my meal. She told me that it was common practice for folks from Fairbanks to drive the hour or so to dine at The Clear Sky. I believe that.

Rivers Still Frozen Along Their Shores

Feeling refreshed, I continued south on Parks Highway. At one point the highway followed the Nenana River. I stopped to admire and photograph a half-frozen waterfall. Soon after the waterfall I slowly drove through the resort town of Healy. This village is one of the train stops for the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star train that connects Anchorage to Fairbanks. This is also the village where many tour companies house their passengers for their Denali Park tours.

The Nenana Canyon, carved by the Nenana River. Still some ice clinging to the shores.

Just past Healy is a rest area with lots of interpretive signs along the river trail and offers clean restrooms. I stopped there to use the facilities and learn about the area. The Nenana River was flowing freely with some ice clinging to its shores.

This waterfall hasn’t completely thawed.

From Parks Highway to Park Road

Shortly after leaving Healy I turned right, leaving George Parks Highway and entering Denali National Park. I just hope that I don’t confuse Parks Highway with Park Road. 

A token selfie at the park entrance.

The park visitor center and bus services were all closed to the public. Fortunately, the restrooms were open. Upon recommendation of a co-worker, I made my first stop at the Mountain Vista Trailhead. I followed a short path marked with interpretive signs describing the early days of the national park and the geological history of the area. The Savage River was flowing nicely and scenery was beautiful, but no view of Mt. Denali.Also, I didn’t see any wildlife, but I did come across some moose scat. 

The Alaska Range is beautiful, and the ever elusive Mt. Denali is not visible from this location.

After returning to my car, I returned to Park Road and continued driving further into the park. I saw cars ahead of me and followed them. I got to the Savage River Ranger Hut and no one was there. Normally this would be as far as private vehicles can drive into the park. So I continued ahead, just like the cars ahead of me. At one point I saw a lot of cars parked along the shoulder of the road. I stopped alongside a park ranger and asked what everyone was looking at. Off in the distance was a grizzly bear feeding in the stream. I could see it, but the zoom on my phone barely picked it up. 

Moose scat, anyone?

Can You See the Bear?

My journey continued deeper into the park. The road was no longer smooth asphalt. It became a well maintain gravel road when I passed the Ranger Hut. Even though some drivers liked to exceed the posted speed limit, I preferred not to. Once in a while an impatient driver passed me.

The furry object sort of off-center is a grizzly bear feeding from a stream.

Finally reaching closed gate at Mile 30, I was still 35 miles from the best view of Mt. Denali. Maybe if I had a bike with me I could have ridden out to that point. Instead I walked another mile to a bridge that crossed the Teklanika River. That is where I was treated to a stunning view of some mountains, none of which was Denali. 

The view from a bridge crossing the Teklanika River.

Another Bear Sighting

On my way back to Parks Highway, I stopped again to view the grizzly again. And a few miles later I stopped at another crowded spot along the road. To my delight there was another grizzly that was wandering along a stream. He was barely visible through the trees.

A second grizzly sighting. It is visible just above the top of the trees.

After enjoying all that excitement I drove non-stop back to Fairbanks. It was a great day for a scenic drive while in search of view of the highest peak in North America.

Next post will be about a journey into the Arctic Circle. 

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