Denali AKA Mt. McKinley


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"The many-colored (polychrome) rocks are hardened lava, from a period of mountain-  
building 100 million years ago. That time frame seems unimaginably distant -- yet
this area is experiencing continued seismic activity. Earthquake tremors are
frequent. As the crustal plates along the Denali Plate keep grinding
together, mountains of the Alaska Range may still be rising."
~ from an interpretive sign at Polychrome Pass

That sign, visible in the photograph below, continues:

Though the visible glaciers appear remote -- gleaming between distant peaks -- the valley below is strewn with signs of massive glaciation:  stranded boulders, gouged-out ponds, and gravel outwash plains. The last big glacial advance plowed through this valley about 10,000 years ago.

To a geologist's eye, the landscape is still active with glaciers. Denali's wandering meltwater rivers, cloudy with glacial silt and rock fragments, are evidence of ongoing glaciation and mountain carving.   

The Polychrome area is memorable in so many ways -- not only for the beautiful glaciated mountains in the distance and the colorful rocks you can almost touch from the bus, but also for the narrow road that winds about 700 feet above the valley.

That's frightening to some folks. If you are afraid of heights or being out of control because someone else is driving, do not sit on the right side of the bus on the return trip to the park entrance!

It looks like the bus is right on the edge and could go careening down the slope at any second on the curves. It's most nerve-wracking when an inbound bus on the slope side meets an oncoming outbound bus on the inside of the skinny road. If you're in a window seat it almost feels like you're hanging in space.

If you want the best photos, however, DO sit on that side of the bus. Just aim out your window and shoot. I trust these experienced drivers so riding on the edge is more fun than scary to me.

Jim and I have been intrigued with the idea of seeing this section of road up close and personal on our feet and bicycle so we took that opportunity today. Not many people do what we did but it's allowed -- and less scary than riding on the bus.


We woke up to beautiful blue sky this morning at the Teklanika River Campground. Although we had a 50% chance of showers today there were none between Tek and Polychrome Pass when we were out there.

There were some clouds as the day progressed but we loved the weather and we both got to see Denali near Sable Pass this morning:

Jim left before I did. He rode his bike a couple miles beyond the pass and back, for a total of 36 miles. About a third of the photos in this entry are ones he took while riding.

I took a bus to the pass and walked several miles there and closer to Tek. This was my third ride on my Tek Pass, which I've described in a couple previous entries.

Our track is in yellow:

We've also got our separate GPS tracks but I don't usually include those on the website.

I caught the later of two Kantishna buses at our campground about 9:45 AM. I got to sit in the second seat again, this time with a nice woman from NY.

The bus driver, Sheryl, did a good narration that was different than Tim's but just as informative. She even took the time to let us out four at a time to take photos of Denali with beautiful fireweeds in the foreground:

Tim stopped there on Monday so we could take pictures but wouldn't let us off the bus.


As we were going up to Sable Pass I could see Jim ahead on his bike. He pulled off to the side each time a bus came by.

I told the bus driver that was my husband, and jokingly asked her please don't run over him. Then I asked her if she could stop and say "Hi, Jim!" to surprise him. I figured that way he'd know I was on the bus.

Jim on his bike later in the day.

Sheryl said she'd do even better than that and she did.

She stopped next to him, opened the door, and yelled out, "Nice legs, Jim!" He heard his name and knew I was on the bus, but he didn't hear the "nice legs" part. I told him when I saw him next and he chuckled.

The bus passengers got a kick out of Sheryl's comment, too, and were duly impressed that Jim was riding the road on his bike.

Not a lot of folks do that, although it's encouraged. Cycling is a terrific way to see the park. In our three trips to Denali so far, Jim's seen bears, moose, and caribou on or very close to the road during his bike rides and he's able to notice details you just can't see on the bus. Ditto for me on foot.

For example, Jim took this picture of a mama grizz and her two cubs in 2012 when he came up on a bus that had stopped for the bears to cross the road:

Cyclists can purchase tickets to ride camper buses out any distance in the park, where they can get off and ride in either direction on the road. They can catch another camper bus on the way back, if they want.

Jim's not as fond of riding the shuttle buses as I am so he chose to just ride his bike from Tek and Riley Creek campgrounds while we were visiting the park this time.


In at least seven bus rides out and back on the park road in 2012 and this summer, I've seen more people cycling on the park road than walking along it.

I've hiked the road near Tek but my two most memorable road walks were up and down the long hill past Savage River to access the trail up Mt. Margaret. Both times three years ago I saw caribou and moose up close. Part of my goal today was to experience that thrill again.

Moose inspecting a webcam set up by park officials  (8-15-12)

I got off at Polychrome Pass where the buses always stop for a few minutes outbound, and let Sheryl know I wouldn't be getting back on.

I walked around the upper loop trail and the tundra for about a quarter mile:

There's a loop trail above the overlook and you can also wander all over the hills up there.

View south from the overlook; there goes my bus.

I went back down to the road and took some more photos of the Polychrome glaciers, kettle ponds, and wide East Toklat drainage area :

I walked west for a mile so I could get close to two rock outcroppings where gyre falcons and golden eagles sometimes perch:



I didn't see any of the falcons today but enjoyed the scenery. These rocks are also popular with Dahl sheep. I saw some there a couple times in 2012 but I haven't seen any of them in this location this summer.  

Strategically-placed signs warn visitors from climbing the rocks or hiking off-road in this particular area because of nesting birds:

Although I didn't see any gyre falcons I did have a close encounter with a large bull caribou after I'd walked a little way down the road from the Polychrome overlook.

I first saw him running through a grassy meadow to my right:

I watched him until he disappeared behind a small hill in front of me. Soon he was heading up the road right toward me:

I got off to the right side as far as I could go (not the side with the 700' drop to the river!) and he sauntered by while I talked quietly to him and snapped pictures:



He trotted up the hill toward the overlook, where bus passengers were looking his way:

See the tiny people at the overlook?

I don't know if the people could see me or not. If they did, they probably thought I was nuts for 1) walking along the road and 2) being so close to a caribou with a serious rack. It's not like I followed him. I know he's a wild animal but I've inadvertently been this close to caribou several times on the road so I wasn't fearful of him. Moose tend to be more unpredictable this close than caribou are.

A couple buses stopped several minutes to watch the caribou as he walked up the road and into the brush. I couldn't see him when I got back to this point about 20 minutes later. 


I turned around after a mile and headed east. Before I got back to the overlook Jim came by on his bike. I was happy he got that far.

We talked a little bit, then he continued west for another couple miles till the road started down to the main Toklat River. He knew he had two other long hills going back, including Sable Pass at 3900 feet, so he turned around before reaching the river.

Here are some more of the photos he took outbound:

In some places the road is wide enough for vehicles to meet and pass each other.

In other places, the road is just one lane wide. Vehicles have to watch
ahead and wait in a wider spot if they see someone coming.

After I walked the two-mile out-and-back section from the Polychrome overlook I headed east along the road, high above the river bed.

I continued to enjoy the magnificent views across the wide valley to the Polychrome glaciers and down to the meandering channels of water that funnel into the East Fork of the Toklat River. I wished I knew more about the colorful rocks close at hand. A geologist would go nuts around here with all the cool rocks and a botanist would love the pretty flowers.


I noted the animal trail where the folks on my bus saw a coyote cross the road and climb the hill two days ago. I scanned the riverbed for grizzlies but didn't see any. I did see one just past the East Fork on our way outbound this morning but the picture I took from the bus is fuzzy.  

It's amazing how much more you can see by walking, even better than cycling or running and certainly better than riding a bus or our own vehicle. I enjoyed this road walk, but not as much as tundra hikes at higher elevations. 

Jim caught up to me about 1/4 mile below the overlook. He took this picture of me near a golden wall of rock as he approached:

We found a rock outcropping where we could eat our lunch. You should have seen the looks we got from bus passengers as they passed us! Some took pictures of us out their windows. In a few minutes we both took off, heading east. 

Shuttle buses, tour buses, and a few other vehicles came and went. I usually stayed to the outside, right above the huge drop, so they could better see me at the curves.

Jim and I were together when two buses in one direction, and a bus and truck in the other direction, all converged where we were. There was room for everyone to safely pass us and, fortunately, that was the only little bit nerve-wracking incident we had along the road. Buses and other vehicles were courteous and went very slowly by us.

You can see how narrow the road is through the Polychrome Pass area; this is one of the wider spots!

Here are some more photos we took as we dropped down to the East Fork of the Toklat River and beyond:



As I was still walking down to the bridge Jim had already rounded the curve and took a picture of me in the distance. I'm there, but I didn't crop it closely enough to see me in this small photo:

We both took several photos of the broad, braided riverbed and searched for animals but didn't see any:



I stopped across the East Fork bridge to take off my two jackets, walked another quarter mile up the hill, then caught an inbound Eielson bus to the Teklanika rest stop.

Along the way we caught up to Jim, who was stopped with another bus near Sable Pass watching a mama grizzly and two cubs in the distance. I could kind of see the bears but couldn't get a picture of them because of a tree in the way. Jim did get photos with our old, less powerful camera but the bears aren't very clear:


He also saw a bear at the bridge over the Tek river on his way outbound but wasn't able to get a picture of it.

Before the buses began moving again I was able to talk to Jim out the window so he knew I was on a bus back to the campground.


I got out at the Tek rest area to use the bathroom and decided to walk back from there, a distance of about 1 miles to our site. This is the scenic route where Jim's been taking Casey for a run with his bike:



Jim passed me again by a scenic pond and got home first:

He'd already fed and walked the dogs briefly when I got back about 3 PM. I walked them each two more times at least a mile each, and also did about a mile solo along the river. (Dogs aren't supposed to go out there because of the grizzlies). Jim rode Casey through the campground with the Walky Dog attachment on his bike before bedtime.  

I had a total of over 8 miles hiking today and Jim rode his bike about 36 miles. We both had fun and loved the nice weather. 

After supper Jim hooked the truck to the camper and we did some prep to leave Tek in the morning to return to the Riley Creek Campground closer to the park entrance. We also attended the ranger talk re: lynx, which I described in an earlier entry.

Nice, wide, smooth, dry roadway near the Tek Campground

Because of the wet, chilly weather and muddy road we weren't too happy when we got to Tek on Sunday. The rest of the time we've been here has been so nice that we're a little sad to leave. It'll be good to access the internet again at Riley Creek, though.

At least we aren't done with this trip to Denali. We'll be at Riley Creek CG again for five nights so we'll have time for more hikes and bike rides.

Next entryMcKinley Station and Horseshoe Lake Trails

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2015 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil