The next morning, we had breakfast and headed out to Mt McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge by bus. The bus ride was around 4 hours but was broken up with a 2-hour lunch stop in Anchorage. We spent most of our time in Anchorage visiting a craft show and buying jewelry and other souvenirs. We met a photographer there who was selling some of his very interesting wildlife pictures. During our discussion he offered to guide us on some tours if we came back in the future to some nice areas where he guaranteed an opportunity to see bear fishing for salmon and plenty of moose, along with other wildlife. We took his card and plan to set up a land only trip back to Alaska in 2024 with 3 or 4 couples who would like to experience getting up close and personal with some of the Alaskan wildlife. After a quick lunch we headed back on the bus to the Wilderness Lodge. When we arrived, we were thrilled to have a great view of Mt McKinley (or Denali Mountain as it is currently called). It is said that only 30% of the people that go to Denali Park have an opportunity to see this mountain because of the constant cloud cover and smoke that tends to always be around. Mount Denali is the largest mountain in North America with an elevation of 20,310 feet at the summit. Mountain climbers from around the world come to Alaska to attempt climbing to the summit. Only about 50% make it and there have been over 100 deaths of people trying to make this climb. For us just seeing the dark blue silhouette of the mountain in the distance was a real treat. This is the 3rd time we have been to the Denali area, and we have been fortunate to see the mountain each time. Shortly after arrival to the lodge we went on a pre-arranged horse trail ride. It was a nice ride through the park and there were a few opportunities to see the mountain during the ride. We didn’t see much wildlife, but the ride was enjoyable. Unfortunately, once again we didn’t get back to the lodge until late and no dinner was offered there after 9PM. We were frustrated with that because there is no other place to eat around the area within 45 minutes of the lodge. You would think they would keep the restaurants open longer but they are having staffing problems due to Covid, like some many other places are having. On our way to breakfast the next morning, we were shocked to look over at Mount Denali and see how clear the mountain looked. It was like the clouds and smoke had all gone away leaving a crystal clear and colorful view of the mountain. Once again, we felt blessed with this wonderful view!
We then headed out on bus to go to the train station about an hour away to take a train to the Princess Denali Lodge. During the bus ride we had two great viewings of moose crossing the road. There was even a mother and her baby that came out. The mother had crossed the road, but the baby was afraid of the bus which had stopped and was trapped on the other side of the road. Eventually the mother went back over the road to get her youngster and head back into the woods. The train ride was very enjoyable, and many people see this as one of the highlights of their trip. Passengers sit up on the second floor of a specially designed railway car in some very comfortable seats. There are several people there who share information on what you are seeing and where you are going, and they even have a bar to serve you drinks along the way. The sides and ceiling of the car are entirely made of glass to give you great views of anything outside. On the first deck below the seats is a restaurant on every car where you can have a nice meal. The also have an observation deck on each car where you can go outside and get some better pictures without having the glass windows to deal with. Sharon and her brother and sister-in-law spend almost the whole ride outside taking pictures and enjoying the amazing scenery. Once again, we got some tremendous views of Mount Denali that were crystal clear and closer than where we had been at the previous lodge. There were so many different picturesque spots along the way and the narration that was provided was extremely interesting.
When the train ride was over, we took a short bus ride to Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge which is located in a great spot along the river and just a mile from the park’s main entrance. After getting situated in our room (which isn’t as nice as some of the other lodges) and having a little lunch, we decide to take a hike into the park. During our last trip here, we had hiked Horseshoe Lake where you might get lucky and see some beavers. As we did this hike again, it was amazing how different the experience was since the first time we did it. The trails had been significantly improved by the park rangers and there were steps and a very large open trail. There were also thousands of mosquitos! When we did it originally 7 years ago, the trail was rustic, and you had to find your own places to walk but now there are signs, steps and graded trails – and lots of mosquitos. It would have been nice to have some mosquito repellent, but we didn’t bring any on this trip since we did not have this problem last time. We did complete a walk around the lake and ran into a very big beaver on the shore who spent a lot of time swimming in the water near shore which allowed us to take many pictures of him. We also had some great views of several of the dams the beavers have made. Although the hike was enjoyable, we liked it better when the trails weren’t as nice and there weren’t many mosquitos. When we got back from this 8-mile hike, we once again couldn’t find any place open to eat in the lodge – you think they could at least have a coffee shop with some snacks open throughout the night. Fortunately, in Denali there are other places to go other than the lodge. We walked across the street and the only place open was a pizza place. We went there and some people got some drinks and snacks while Sharon and I spent most of the time watching TV. We were mesmerized to see 3 TV’s showing live feeds of the Katmai area where bears were in the river fishing for salmon. On one TV there must have been 4 bears fishing in the same area. We watched several bears catch their salmon and either eat it or walk away with their dinner to eat elsewhere. We were watching this around 11PM and it was still sunny outside as we watched the bears going after the salmon. It was extremely entertaining. We learned that there are many observation decks near these cameras where people go to watch the bears and take pictures. This is one of the areas we plan to go during our trip in 2024. Go to this link to see these video feeds although I think you have to create a log in to see the live feeds, but they have the previous days feed recorded which can be easily viewed:
Fortunately, we had 2 nights in Denali, since we had learned from our earlier trips to spend most of your time here. Unfortunately, a tour we had scheduled for the day had been cancelled and we decided to take a shuttle bus down the road to a trail that the park rangers had suggested. The visitor’s center is very nice there with some interesting displays of the wildlife and plant life. The rangers are all very helpful and friendly. In past trips we have done the Wilderness Tundra Tour that takes you 50 miles into the park on a slow moving bus to view the wildlife along the way. Due to a landslide that occurred earlier this year, you can only go about 13 miles down the road. They have been working months to repair the road and hope to have it reopened sometime in September. The hike we took went along a river where we were seeing constant signs of moose (droppings) and felt for sure we would see one somewhere along the way but unfortunately, we did not see any. As the trail veered away from the river, it started to go uphill, and then more uphill, and the more uphill. After going uphill for 2 miles of this 4.5-mile trail, we turned around the corner of the trail and looked up to see the trail going straight up the side of a mountain. How depressing! Greg looked at Sharon’s brother and said a nasty word or two, while we contemplated whether we would continue. Sharon’s brother and sister-in-law didn’t contemplate it too long and said they were going back the same way we came. Sharon looked at Greg, pleading to go on. Greg looked at his out of shape body and grudgingly agreed to give it a try. As Sharon ran up the mountain and Greg drudged far behind, we eventually made it up to the top after another 30 minutes or so of agony, at least to one of us. The views were great but unfortunately clouded by heavy smoke in the area. As we crested the mountain top, we were hit by 30-mile gusts of wind and cold air which was about 20 degrees cooler than we started. Unfortunately, Greg only had on a t-shirt and was a little uncomfortable but kept following Sharon as she ran up in front taking pictures. Down below the crest was ice covered snow to help remind us of how far we had climbed. Sharon was the first to spot, what we eventually discovered were Arctic Ground Squirrels. These were friendly little animals that came right up to your feet and were obviously being fed by hikers. They seemed to love to pose for Sharon and we probably eventually saw 10 to 12 of these animals as we continued to hike. Greg was the first to spot 4 Dahl sheep (mountain goats with heavy fur) up on the ridge in front of us. After getting several hundred yards past the crest, the wind started to be blocked by the side of another mountain that the trail went around (fortunately not over!). As we walked along, we came across another animal that we had no idea what it was. We later found out it was a marmot. This one was large and looked like it weighed over 12 pounds. All it did was eat moss off a rock while Sharon took 30 pictures. It certainly wasn’t scared by us. The walk across the side of this mountain was not easy since the path was covered with loose shale which made it slippery, and you had to be careful where you put your foot. There were several large rock outcroppings that were very picturesque. When we finally came out of the last outcropping you could see the road below and the trails end. Sharon noticed a bus up on top of a small rock formation halfway down the path. Greg thought she was joking because it was actually a bus on the other side of the rocks down in the parking lot below but did look like an optical illusion that the bus had somehow gotten wedged up on those rocks. When Sharon walked another quarter mile and couldn’t see the bus, she asked what happened to it and Greg explained that it really wasn’t up on the rock formation. The path down was mainly rock steps and you had to be careful since some of the steps were large with loose rock on them. When Greg reached the bottom and saw the trail marker, he went over and kissed it, thanking anyone who would listen that his ordeal was over! From the end of the trail, we took a shuttle bus back to the Visitor’s Center and then walked a mile and a half to Riley Creek Campground where we were told a moose was being seen every day. We walked around the campground but unfortunately did not see any moose. As we made our mile and a half walk back to the lodge, Sharon saw a moose crossing the road about 20 yards behind us. We walked across the road to take pictures of this large animal that was only about 20 yards away from us. Fortunately, he was behind a row of birch trees and didn’t seem too interested in us. In was amazing how many cars stopped when they saw Sharon was taking a picture of something.
After walking for more than 35,000 steps that day we headed out on an ATV ride we had prearranged with Viator. The ATVs are not allowed in Denali Park and there is a $1000 fine for every wheel that touches park land. The ATVs were run in a mining area that is inside the park but no longer considered part of the park since it is an actively mined property. They are still pull-out millions of dollars of gold a month out of this area. The ATV ride was enjoyable but very dusty. The views would have been nicer except for the heavy smoke. While we were in Alaska on this trip, there were multiple fires in many different areas around Denali. The fires are almost all started by lightning and not humans. They burn millions of acres of forest each year, but this is just a drop in the bucket of the forests in Alaska. Out ATV group was big but moved at a good pace. We stopped at a river and was given a lecture on rocks and geology. It was a nice ATV ride, but it certainly was dusty.
The next morning a bus picked us up and drove us to Fairbanks which was our final destination. When we arrived in Fairbanks, we went straight to the paddle wheel river boat which was to take us on a 4-hour ride. This turned out to be a very enjoyable trip. The paddle boat itself was an original Alaskan boat that had been taking Alaskans for over 50 years up the river to Fairbanks. The original captain and owner of the company died about 15 years ago and the Alaskan senator at the time held a moment of silence in the US Senate in remembrance of this Alaskan hero who helped pioneer the territory to a new state over 60 years ago. The boat was well suited for tourist passengers, and we were able to see a demonstration of how the bush pilots of Alaska land and take off on the many rivers around the state. As we went down the river, we saw some beautiful homes that people had built including the home of the wife of the original captain who started up the company over 75 years ago. A little further down we stopped at the kennels of Susan Butcher. She was the second woman to win the Alaska Iditarod back in 1986. She ended up winning it 4 times in 5 years and Alaska even created a Susan Butcher Day after her last victory. We heard many great stories about her and sadly she died of cancer in 2006 but her story continues with her husband running her dog sled kennels that she built 40 years ago. We saw from our boat demonstrations of how they trained the dogs and even watched a small race of how the dogs performed by dragging a sled on wheels around the entire kennel area. The boat we were on acted as a theater to watch these demonstrations with the Susan’s husband providing the commentary down on the shoreline with his dogs. As the boat moved further down river we saw an Indian village on the left side and were provided a demonstration of how they fish for salmon with a small paddle wheel that scooped up the fish right out of the water. We were then told and shown how they prepared the fish and smoke them. Next to the demonstration we saw 5 elk that suddenly appeared which turned out to be part of the show but were very interesting to see. The boat turned around in the river when it joined another river and we sailed back up to the Indian village where the boat docked and we got out to see several demonstrations on how the Alaskan Indians lived and survived in this rough country. After boarding the boat again, we headed back to where we started and was given more information about Fairbanks and Alaskan. It was really a very nice tour, and we recommend it to anyone who gets up to Fairbanks.
After checking into our lodge, we were picked up for our ATV ride that we had booked through Viator. It took us a good 20 minutes to drive to where the ride was to begin, and the roads were pretty bumpy along the way. As we were driving, we spotted a moose on a small lake. We turned around and stopped to take a few pictures but got eaten up by mosquitos while we did that. We got to the ATV shop and was given a brief operations and safety talk. Our group was only 8 which was much smaller than what we had experienced in Denali. The ATVs were much nicer, and we had two good guides. The trip was great but dusty once again. Fortunately, they provided goggles which really helped. We road on dirt roads, dirt paths, and through the woods (in some areas where there was only a couple of inches of clearance between the trees and ATVs!). We got a few sunset pictures with the ATVs in the foreground and stopped at a few places along the way. We rode for hours and had a great time. When we eventually got back to the lodge it was over 5 hours later, but we had a great time. It was one of the best ATV rides we ever had!
Ending the trip with that excursion was a great way to end a great trip. We really enjoyed our land stay in Alaska and look forward to doing it again in the future. Before we go back to Alaska, we have several other trips planned:
- Kenyan African Safari – July 2022
- Caribbean Cruise – August 2022
- Mediterranean Cruise + Italy Land Tour – September 2022
- Antarctica Expedition Cruise – January 2023
- Northern Lights Viking Cruise – February 2023
- Tahiti/French Polynesian Cruise – April 2023
- Iceland/Svalbard/Greenland Cruise – August 2023
- Canada/New England Cruise – September 2023
- Vietnam Cruise – February 2024
Sharon and Greg