Yesterday morning we left the Grand View RV Park and drove west on
the Glenn Highway to Palmer, where we turned north on the Parks Highway.
Since our reservation at the Riley Creek Campground in Denali
National Park didn't begin until today, we stayed overnight at a private
campground in the town of Cantwell about 25 miles south of the park
entrance. We completed the trip to Denali NP this morning.
This entry chronicles our two-day, 272-mile drive through some beautiful
Alaskan scenery -- even when the sky is overcast or it's raining.
The road conditions, however, left a lot to be desired.
We ran into quite a few road construction stops, waiting our turn to
follow pilot vehicles, and slow, muddy gravel sections where the surface
has been torn up.
We drove the majority of the way to the park yesterday, positioning
ourselves for an early arrival at Riley Creek CG this morning. We
learned when we were here three years ago that people come in earlier
than the 11 AM arrival time and get the bigger campsites. With a 36-foot
5th-wheel and truck, we need one of those.
With all the road construction stops, getting diesel in Palmer,
shopping at the super WalMart in Wasilla, and stopping for photos at the
south Denali Viewpoint at MP 134 on the Parks Highway it took us
5½ hours to drive 244 miles to
Although it was overcast and we couldn't see the tops of all the
Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains along the Glenn Highway, the drive began well.
We were happy to see a young female moose a few miles west of Grand View
RV Park early in the morning. Jim spotted her on one side of the road and
stopped when she crossed in front of us. As far as we could tell, she was alone:
The terrain was rolling the whole way. We
enjoyed views down to the Matanuska Glacier and River from Grandview to
Traffic was light until we got to the work zone about ten miles east of
Palmer; we had to wait there about ten minutes for a pilot truck
to take us through a mile of muddy gravel break:
The next nine miles are still being paved and were OK since we got to
drive on the new asphalt.
At Palmer we turned north onto the Parks Highway. Traffic was heavier
through Palmer and Wasilla but thinned out by the time we got to Willow.
Traffic got congested again in the next work area between MP 123 and
146. There was a sign warning drivers to "expect long delays" but we
didn't have to wait any longer than a few minutes for a pilot vehicle in
two parts of that section. Some of the road was paved and painted, some
paved with no paint yet, and some still being paved.
Alaska Range -- and more road work -- ahead.
There was more construction on Broad Pass, with a two-mile section of very
rough dirt/rock roadbed that was riddled with holes filled with water
from rain that had just fallen.
We got way behind the pilot truck and vehicles in
front of us on that one, after a seven-minute wait:
At least the views in every direction from Broad Pass are beautiful:
The final straw was wicked wavy road for a couple miles south of
Cantwell -- they need to dig that part up and start over.
THE SOCKEYE FIRE DEBACLE
We were dismayed to see the extensive damage from the "Sockeye" wildfire
in the Willow area several weeks ago -- and all we saw were blackened
trees (and some houses) along the Parks Highway, not off the road where
even more devastation occurred.
Eighteen square miles of forest and residential property were
destroyed, including more than 50 houses and 40+ other structures. We've
been hearing about this fire since we arrived in Alaska.
Skinny lodgepole pines are even less attractive
when burned to a crisp.
Today the state finally released the cause -- two people burning
brush improperly at their cabin near MP 77 on the Parks Hwy. They live
in Anchorage and are charged with a bunch of different misdemeanors and
felonies. They could be held liable for twice the cost of suppressing
the fire ($8 million x 2) and face jail time.
This is a good
article from Alaska Dispatch News. The
perps allegedly knew they had started the fire but didn't call 911 or
come forth with details until interrogated later. They apparently fled the
scene in their motorhome. No people were killed but many pets reportedly
lost their lives, many homes were lost, and many people lost considerable
I would be extremely upset if I'd been one of the victims. It sounds
like these perps had no conscience or sense of right and wrong after
they started this massive wildfire and thought they could get away with
it. I'd love to be on that jury.
CAMPING AT CANTWELL RV PARK
It's OK but we were disappointed by this private campground -- just
not worth the cost to us ($30.50 plus tax and minus 10% discount for
military, Good Sam, etc.).
The sites are very close together, with very little clearance between
slides that are extended next to each other.
Our camper is to the right in the photo below. There is another RV
hidden out of view from this perspective between us and the next camper
that you can see past us:
The water connection was so far to the back that Jim didn't hook our
longer hose to it. It's buried in the basement behind or under two new
35# bags of dog food. He found it easier to add 12 gallons of water from
containers to the fresh water tank than to dig out the longer hose.
We had 30 amps electricity. There was no sewer or cable. The WiFi
didn't work with the campground almost completely full but our Verizon phone
and MiFi signals were strong.
fireweeds and metal cutouts of a wolf and moose on the hillside behind
our RV site
After we got set up we drove just the the truck to Denali National Park to check
out the situation at Riley Creek Campground, our next destination. We got back to Cantwell about 6
PM, ate dinner, and walked the dogs.
also talked to some of our neighbors.
He noticed a 32-foot Cameo two sites over (next photo) and talked to the
for a little while, as well as the older fella parked between us:
He also talked with a retired Army guy who was a helicopter pilot in Viet Nam
when Jim was there. He and his wife were at JBER the same time as us but
they were on the Elmendorf side and we didn't see them there.
While he was walking around
Jim overhead a man telling someone else about his bus ride in
Denali yesterday. The bus driver told his riders that it was the first
he's seen Denali-the-mountain in a week.
In addition, he mentioned that construction starts on the road in the
park -- not just on the Parks Highway outside the park --
each morning at 6 AM. That must be a real challenge
for all the park and private tour buses.
DRIVE #1 BETWEEN CANTWELL & DENALI NATIONAL PARK
After we got set up in the campground in Cantwell yesterday we drove the truck to
Denali NP to check out Riley Creek Campground. We have a
reservation for one of the larger sites but they are first come, first
served and we wanted to see which ones would be available this morning.
On the way up to Cantwell we debated about just driving to Riley Creek
in hopes of moving our reservation up one day. It's a good thing we
decided to go ahead and stay in Cantwell because Riley Creek was completely
booked last night. In addition, the road between Cantwell and Denali is
so bad we would have hated to drive it three times in two days with the
The good news for the scenic drive north yesterday afternoon was blue
sky and no more rain. The bad news was an additional
three work areas in that 25-mile section, with intermittent new pavement
but also some very rough gravel breaks:
To complicate traffic even more than it usually is at the entrance to
Denali National Park, a new bridge with two additional traffic lanes is being constructed just south of
We dreaded the prospect of hauling the Cameo through all
of that this morning. We had several waits of up to 12 minutes coming
and going through those areas yesterday without the camper behind us,
plus some rough, muddy surfaces.
Once inside the park late yesterday afternoon we
drove through the paved Bear
Loop at Riley Creek Campground and noted the sites that would be available today that
are large enough for our RV -- the "A" sites for rigs up to
40 feet long. We wrote down which ones were single wide, double wide, and supposed
to be vacated on June 14.
The three sites we occupied in 2012 are either taken for a few days or
unavailable because they are disabled sites (the rules for those are
more strict this time).
Loop is paved and half the sites are large enough for our rig -- if they
We drove around the
other two campground loops at Riley Creek to see if there are any other
suitable "A" sites but the roads there are rough, narrow,
dirt-and-puddles, the sites are too small for our rig, and the trees are
too close to maneuver or open our slides. They are fine for small rigs.
We were able to check in and got the cards for our campsite posts for the
two times we're at Riley Creek and one time at Tek during this visit, plus my
Tek pass for the buses, but we couldn't choose a site until we got here
DRIVE #2 FROM CANTWELL TO DENALI NATIONAL PARK
We left the RV park in Cantwell about 8:30 this morning. It took over an
hour to drive 27 miles on the Parks Highway to Riley Creek Campground
with the camper because of the rain and all the road construction.
I can't believe they're excavating, filling in dirt/rocks, and paving in
We had to wait eleven minutes at the first stop, then rode over new
for a couple miles. The second work zone was about six miles from the
park entrance. The wait was about eight minutes there. This section has very
rough, scraped dirt and rocks. Jim just took his time, as did other RVs
coming and going.
The deep dive I showed in one of yesterday's photos was OK with the
camper. We have no idea why they created a major dip there, unless they
plan to put in a large culvert and cover it.
This was not the weather we were hoping for on our first day in Denali
CAMPING AT RILEY CREEK
When we arrived at Riley Creek this morning we immediately drove through
the Bear Loop with the Cameo in tow to see exactly what "A" sites are
A few we considered yesterday are now filled for one or more days. Two
were already empty that were vacated this morning; we noted three
yesterday. One still had a small Class C motorhome in it that must leave by 11 AM.
They should have been in a "B" site for rigs under 30 feet, but that's
Since there are no water or electrical hookups at any campground in the park, Jim dropped me
off by the Bear Loop hosts' sites and went to dump our black/gray tanks and fill the fresh
water tank near the Mercantile building adjacent to the campground.
I asked Fritz, the on-duty host, about using one of the two empty "A"
handicapped sites. Three years ago we were able to use two of those
sites because none of the others were large enough for our rig. Fritz,
however, said absolutely not unless we have a handicapped sticker. OK,
that's only fair.
I looked at the three choices we had in the Bear Loop again and chose
the one across from the campground hosts. I put our reservation card on
the post and waited for Jim to come back with the Cameo.
Fortunately, the site is larger than it looked when empty. Jim was able to get into
it easily since he could see it from the driver's side while backing in.
There is plenty of room in front for our truck and lots of privacy on
both sides and the back.
We can get online at our site just fine with a good phone and MiFi
signal. If we want free WiFi we have to sit outside the Mercantile
or other buildings in the park.
No problem. With our NPS senior pass we're paying just $14/night (half
price) for a beautiful, large, quiet site in the spruce trees. It's nice
to be able to open our blinds during the day and not have to worry about
other people seeing in because they're just a few feet away.
I took this shot on a sunnier day.
Despite the intermittent rain and chilly temperatures (high of
only 51 F.) we accomplished a lot this afternoon in addition to
getting settled into our new home for the next five days.
We ran errands at the Mercantile, Wilderness Access Center, and
main visitor center in the park. I also signed up for a guided Discovery
Hike tomorrow 60 miles into the park (a little before the Eielson Visitor
Center). I've never done one of the off-trail guided hikes before but
they sound like fun and the weather is supposed to be nicer.
Sneak peek at one of tomorrow's Discovery Hike photos:
Denali's north and south peaks are clearly
visible in the distance.
Jim rode the bike with Casey and I walked Cody around the three campground
loops between rain showers. Everyone took short naps, Jim and I got online
to check news and weather, and we all took a drive north on the Parks Highway
about ten miles to the town of Healy, where we got diesel for the truck.
There is no diesel in Nenana Canyon just outside the park and the price
was much cheaper in Healy than in Cantwell (still expensive at $3.63/gallon,
There are three more areas of construction on the Parks Highway north of
the park that we didn't see yesterday. What a mess!!!
1) Another bridge and new lanes beyond the park entrance toward Nenana
Canyon AKA Glitter
Gulch; the road is excavated down to dirt and rocks. 2) Another
section of road just north of the Gulch that's down to dirt and rock,
where we had to wait over 20 minutes going NOBO. 3) A third section
farther north that's longer but
had more new pavement for us to drive on. That wait was shorter.
Another sneak peek from tomorrow's Discovery Hike:
five shedding caribou that passed close to us;
they were part of two large herds we could see
coming down one mountain and going up ours.
the way back to Denali we had only about five minutes total delay, plus
going very slowly over rough surfaces in the truck. Glad we won't be
going that way this month with the camper. We're coming back here in late
August and have fingers crossed that all this roadwork is completed by then.
I hope next year's visitors appreciate all the inconvenience this year's
We're glad we'll be in the park for two weeks because there's a fighting chance
we'll see some sun within that time period. We feel sorry for tourists who are
here, especially from other countries, for only one or two days. Not only do
they have to contend with the annoying road work in and on their way to and
from the park, they also have to deal with frequent rain and low clouds in the
I seriously doubt anyone saw Denali today, or even any scenery above 3,000 feet
in the foothills. At least the forecast for tomorrow is for sunshine.
Next entry: more scenes from a sunny Discovery
Hike 60 miles inside the park
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup
© 2015 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil