John Muir was once asked a question something to the effect; If you had only one day to spend in Yosemite, what would you do? His first response, only half jokingly, was that he might not want to live. Only after being pressed for a serious answer did he then conclude that a hike up to the top of the falls of the Merced River would be his choice. I am reminded of this after having to choose what to do with only 2 days to spend in Denali National Park and Preserve.
Denali National Park is managed very differently than most national parks. Despite its vast area, there is still only one unpaved road into the interior of the preserve, and very few marked hiking trails or facilities. This park system and preserve exists largely because of the efforts of naturalist, hunter, and conservationalist Charles Sheldon, who traveled here with packer and guide Harry Karstens between 1906 and 1908. It was Sheldon who first observed that the Dall sheep that inhabit the high peaks of this region were in fact a unique species, although a close relative of the bighorn sheep. The park was first commissioned as Mt McKinley National Park in 1917 primarily as a wildlife preserve. The total area was more than tripled in 1980, and was renamed Denali. In 1972, due to the increasing visitation, the national park service created a bus system. This was done both to protect visitors, and to reduce threats to wildlife and the ecosystem. There are a limited number of permits which are granted by lottery to drive on the park road, mostly for camping reservations. If you are lucky enough to have a camping reservation you can hike in the interior at will, on your own recognizance, but there are no trails, and lots of wildlife. But for all others, you must utilize the park’s own eco-friendly tour bus system. Our “Taiga and Tundra Tour” was great, but I'll talk about that in another post.
The Mt Healy Trail begins in the taiga near the park visitor center and climbs up into the rocky ridges looming above. We had another nice day; very chilly in the morning, but mostly clear with marauding misty clouds of fog drifting through. The lower trail passes through very typical taiga, with lots of stunted black spruce, quaking aspen, dwarf willow, and some birch, and hemlock. The growing season is very short, and only trees having very shallow roots can survive here because of the permafrost. There were a few arctic hares and ground squirrels scurrying about. The lower trail is graded very well with a lot of switchbacks, but the higher you get, the steeper and rougher the trail becomes. A few areas were slippery because of water runoff. Above the tree line is mostly just rock and short dense vegetation, the diversity of which I could not even begin to properly identify without the help of a real naturalist. The fall season was just beginning in Denali so the color was everywhere. There is a link to my flickr pix at the end of the post.
When we got to the overlook we were treated with panoramic views out over the taiga, down to the Nenana River, around to the rocky ridges, and to the distant peaks partially shrouded in mist and fog. After savoring the vistas and the air, we couldn’t help but notice that the trail actually continues on up higher amongst the rocky peaks. We had some time, so we continued up climbing higher among the crags and rocks. As we looked up above our position there was a white dot that appeared to be moving. With binoculars we could see it was a Dall sheep grazing amongst the crags. I wanted to try to get pictures, so we continued up trying to be quiet, placid, and non-threatening, and got to within about 30 feet of the sheep. We could see at least one more sheep up further where we could not go. This one close by appeared to be a sub-adult male, and was not too concerned with us. It would look at us for a few moments and just walk off seemingly confident in it’s footing advantage. The wonder of seeing the Dall sheep up close was a bonus I did not expect on this hike. On our interior tour, they were literally just white dots high on the mountains. I’ve been hiking in the Sierras for years, and been to the Rockies and the Tetons a few times, but have never seen a bighorn in the wild.
The views were spectacular, and the fall colors were dazzling. I can assure you that my pictures will not do justice to it. We headed down about 11:00 am in order to be on time to catch a train to Fairbanks. I was not using my GPS, but I would estimate the hike was about a 9 to 10 mile round trip with roughly 3000 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead. Other wildlife sighted included, arctic ground squirrel, spruce grouse, and arctic hare (still brown this time of year). We found no evidence of larger mammals, although on the same morning, two young grizzlies were spotted foraging along the river very near the lodge. Click here to see my flickr pix.