We drove 119 miles on the Parks Highway to Riley Creek Campground in
Denali National Park this morning. All the surprises we had were nice
ones today, especially the first big surprise of the morning.
Here are two relevant but overlapping and mis-matched map sections of the Parks Hwy. from The
Milepost. (I didn't take the time to stitch them together.) You can access the full pdf. maps online at this
I highlighted our route in yellow
from Byers Lake to Denali National Park.
For reasons I'll explain shortly, we
first went south on the Parks Hwy. from the Byers Lake Campground in
Denali State Park to Denali Viewpoint South, then north to the national park.
THIS MORNING'S WONDERFUL
On the way out of the Byers Lake Campground Jim
dumped gray and black water. We knew we could get drinking water at Denali
National Park so he didn’t put any additional water in our fresh water tank. He
rinsed off the truck and camper again and we were on our way, not very
hopeful about the weather since it had been raining for three days.
We left Byers Lake at MP 147 on the Parks Hwy. at 9:05 AM. Down in the
campground it still looked overcast. The temperature was in the upper
Our view literally changed when we drove up the hill to the Parks Hwy.
and could see farther than the sky right above us. We saw enough sun to
the west that I asked Jim to pull into the rest area/veterans' memorial
just north of the campground road. We walked over to one of the viewing
decks at the visitor center.
Doggone if we couldn’t see part of Denali!!!
Even though the
mountain was partly obscured by clouds, the
sight of the elusive mountain
just made our day. So did having a day with mostly sunshine after so many rainy
days. Those were our first and best surprises today.
Here is a closer
view of The Great One from this location:
Keep reading, it gets better.
DENALI VIEWPOINT SOUTH
It knew this spot wasn’t supposed to be the very best view of the mountain along the
road, however, so after taking a few photos I talked Jim into driving south –
the “wrong way” – to MP 135, where the views of Denali and the Alaska
Range are supposed to be even better.
That added about 24 miles to our trip today but was well worth it for
the stunning views at the upper and lower overlooks.
Here are some
photos from the lower overlook:
folks at the lower viewing level
Chulitna River is in the foreground, with Denali rising majestically
in the background.
moved in and out over Denali all morning as we moved north but we
could still see most of it here.
Wish I could show you these at
full 16-megapixel resolution!
So many people were at the lower overlook that I decided to follow the
smooth gravel 800-foot path that gradually ascends to the upper overlook.
Fewer people were up there:
I recommend visitors take the time to walk to the upper level
because the views of the Chulitna River and Alaska Range are even more expansive
just left of center in the background; a very wide interpretive panel
at the upper
level identifies all the visible peaks, with their elevations.
Still some wispy clouds obscure Denali's highest
peaks but you get the idea . . .
View between Hunter Peak and Denali; there are
several glaciers visible with binoculars from this overlook.
This rest area has
several interesting interpretive panels that are different than the ones
at the rest area at MP 147 (location of the veterans' memorial I wrote
One panel describes the historical importance of rivers like the
Chulitna for transportation by Native peoples and explorers before roads
were built in Interior Alaska. Another shows how the Ruth Glacier has
carved the deepest known gorge in the world as it slowly grinds its way
through the Alaska Range:
Another panel describes how much easier/faster it is today for climbers
to access Denali. In the early 1900s climbers had to travel many miles
from Seward, Anchorage, or Fairbanks without benefit of roads or
airplanes just to get to the base of Denali. It took early expeditions
three to five months to get to the mountain before they could begin the climb to
the 20,320-foot summit.
Now climbers can take a 50-minute flight from Talkeetna to the base camp
on Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200 feet. They still face the same risks of
getting to the summit as the early explorers did, however, and only
about half of them make it up and back down safely.
There is ample parking for large rigs
in the parking area (that's our Cameo on the far left, in the
Amenities include picnic tables,
restrooms, water, viewing scopes, and space for about ten RVs to park
overnight for a $10 fee (this is part of Denali State Park).
DENALI VIEWPOINT NORTH
After we stood for a few minutes in awe of the scenery spread before us,
we retraced our route and continued north on the Parks Hwy.
The remainder of these photos are in order going northbound.
The views of Denali are somewhat limited because of all the
trees to the west between the mountains and the road but we were
sometimes able to see Denali and other snow-covered peaks in the Alaska Range and
lower mountains closer to the highway:
On a day even more clear than today I imagine the scenery would be quite
distracting to anyone who's driving in either direction on this stretch
of road! Scenery just doesn't get much better than this.
We also stopped at MP 163 at the north viewpoint to see Denali. We got a
different angle on the mountain at this location, which is closer than
the south viewpoint at MP 135. We couldn't see as much of Denali,
though, because the clouds were building up and obscuring more of the
top of it:
I liked all the flowers at this rest area but the
view wasn't quite as good as that at MP 135.
That's Denali in the center; the top part of the
behometh is now
covered in clouds.
Can't see much of the Chulitna River from here, but
the broad river basin is down there.
That's 14,574-foot Mt. Hunter to the left of
This is another wayside in Denali State Park with a large day-use
parking area and overnight RV camping available for $10.
There were only a few vehicles there when we stopped:
The summit of Denali is hiding under the clouds
below the arrow. (This reminds me of one of those
Good Sam camping photos where folks are supposed to
guess where in the world your RV is parked.)
As at the other Denali State Park rest areas, this one also had some
interesting interpretive panels. I'm surprised how little repetition
there is but that's probably because visitors stop at most of
The panels at Denali Viewpoint North that interested me the most were
the ones about the early climbing expeditions and how they differ from
more modern climbs -- equipment used, routes taken, etc.
One of the early groups (1910 Sourdough Expedition) mistook the correct
summit, reaching the north peak (elev. 19,470 feet) instead of the south
peak (elev. 20,320 feet). This panel chronicles their trip:
The 1913 Stuck party (Hudson Stuck, Walter Harper, Harry Karstens, and
Robert Tatum) holds the distinction of being the first group to reach
the south peak. Walter Harper, a Native American, was the first
individual in the party to get there.
The expedition started in Fairbanks, took three months just to reach
Denali, and climbed up a different route than the one most commonly used
today. As they ferried supplies up to each camp, they climbed the
mountain the equivalent of three times.
The next panel describes the Stuck party's success and the near-miss by the
Parker-Browne party the previous year. Herschel Parker, Belmore Browne,
and two other men missed the south summit in 1912 by only 100 meters
because of a ferocious storm. They had traveled for five months on foot
and by dogsled from Seward for the opportunity to climb Denali.
What a disappointment that had to have been! I don't know why they
didn't try again while they were there.
Stuck later wrote about his successful summit experience, "Never was
a nobler sight displayed to man . . . What infinite tangle of mountain
ranges filled the whole scene, until gray sky, gray mountain, and gray
sea merged in the ultimate distance."
< big sigh > I'm sorry I waited too long in my life to be able to
climb this magnificent mountain.
As we drove north the views to Denali constantly changed, which is a
good reason to stop at all the available viewpoints when the weather is
clear enough to see the mountain. Each perspective looks a little
different, and I'm sure if/when we see Denali in the national park it
will look different from the interior park road. By then we'll be on its
We continued to get some other views of Denali to the west and southwest
as we continued north on the Parks Hwy. from MP 162 to Broad Pass:
Denali continues to play hide and seek. This is
very common, since it's a cloud magnet.
We got up to 2,429 feet elevation at the unmarked summit at MP 201.3.
is one of the lowest mountain summits in North America yet it marks the
divide between streams that empty into Cook Inlet and the Yukon River.
Broad Pass looked more like a big plateau than a pass to me. The ascent
and descent were very gradual. It's a scenic area between the Alaska Range
to the west and the Talkeetna Mountains to the east.
Alaska Range (above) and Talkeetna Mountains
(below) on the other side of long Summit Lake.
By 10:30 AM much of the Alaska Range was covered in
clouds. We were extremely lucky to see it when we did. We got into some
light rain, then sunshine again by 11 AM.
There are several other turnoffs and wayside parking areas along the
Parks Highway as you drive north. Some look like good
places to boondock overnight. There are "no overnight parking" signs,
however, once you get to national park property at MP 231.3.
Here are more photos as we continued driving northbound:
Highlighted in the distance is a limestone mine at
Riding close to the Nenana River
TRAFFIC AND ROAD CONDITIONS
Traffic was fairly light this morning on the Parks Hwy. There are only a few passing lanes but
plenty of places faster vehicles could go around us.
The road was bumpy
enough in some places that Jim just kept the speed about 55-60 MPH so
the Cameo didn't bounce around too much. The
speed limit was usually 65 MPH.
We're on the edge of Denali National Park now.
The Parks Hwy. gets increasingly hilly as it approaches Denali National
Park. The road dips down to cross several scenic creeks and rivers. None of the
hills were difficult to negotiate with our 36-foot 5th-wheel coach.
Right after we crossed Riley Creek at MP 237 we turned
west into the national park
and drove about half a mile to the Riley Creek Campground. I'll talk
more about the park and this campground in the next entry.
Ta, da! Made it. That's one of the park tour
buses ahead of us.
We're here!! We've both been looking forward to staying in the park
since we made our campground reservations 'way back on December 1. That
was the first date reservations could be made for this summer.
I hope to have many good stories and lots of beautiful photos to
share with you in the next eight days. We have our fingers crossed that
we can see Denali clearly at least once while we're here.
our first day in Denali National Park
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil