Sunday, June 26, 2011

Denali National Park

My wife and I drove up to Denali NP on Wed. afternoon. We had dinner at 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern which is named for the mile marker on the Denali Hwy. My sister had eaten there last fall and highly recommended it. We started with fresh local pacific oysters and a garden salad. The buckwheat flour braided bread served with lemon/dill butter was particularly good. Next up were some outstanding duck confit tacos. We followed them with a fine halibut bouillabaisse that included paper thin fresh pasta strips, manila clams and green lipped mussels. Dessert was a chocolate trio, and a custard tart smothered in fresh blueberries, raspberries and blackberries. We drank a bottle of Nautilus sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. It proved to be a great starter meal for our time in Denali. We were so hungry and attentive to the food that I spaced out taking pictures of the dishes.

After dinner we went into the reception area at the McKinley Chalet Resort where we were staying to use the wifi. As we were leaving we ran into our friend and neighbor Brian who works for Aramark which manages the resort. He had helped set up our reservation. It turned out that he was "in town" for a couple of days on business. We had a drink with him and his business colleagues before begging off to get to bed since we knew we had to be up at 5 AM to catch the shuttle bus into the park.

The alarm rang all to quickly, but we were excited about taking the shuttle bus into the park. Denali NP was created in 1917, and has been expanded over the years to include a total of 6 million acres with one road that crosses thru the center of the park. The road is 90 miles long ending at Kantishna where gold was found in the early 1900's. Only the first 14 miles are open to private vehicles unless you have a permit to travel into one of the campgrounds. The vast majority of the visitors ride the shuttle buses past the 14 mile point in order to see the park and the big animals--grizzily bears, moose, caribou, Dall's sheep and wolves--plus Mt. McKinley which is our highest mountain at over 20,000 feet. 1 in 4 tourists to Alaska visit the park each year.

The shuttles are school buses and do not travel very fast on the gravel road. Most people buy a ticket that takes you as far out as the Eielson visitor center at mile post 66. Whenever a big animal is seen the bus stops for everyone to get a good look, and take pictures if the animal is close enough. While not one of the big animals, the red fox just above was a nice sighting on our way out. This particular coloration is called a cross fox--click on any photo to enlarge.

Because Mt. McKinley is so huge in both heighth and width, it creates its own weather system. As a result, it is often surrounded by clouds. They say you can only see part of the mountain 1 out of 3 days, and the top is only visible about 1 in 10 days. As a result the question is often asked as to whether the mountain is "out today". The photo just below shows the double top of the mountain barely visible in the small blue horizontal opening.

It took us 4 hours to make the drive out to Eielson. We then walked another mile down the road in hopes of finding the gyrfalcons that are nesting near mile marker 67. They put up signs wherever key birds of prey, or animals may be trying to raise young. When we arrived at the signs we only found a golden eagle taking sticks to a large nest site. Soon after we were fortunate to see a pair of gyrfalcons circling nearby but very high overhead.

We walked a bit further down the road and found some more signs. As we walked up a male gyrfalcon flew down towards us, and then circled briefly before flying about 300 yards back up the mountain where it perched. We had lunch while we waited hoping it would fly down closer to another perch that was obvious because of the white bird poop splattered below it. Instead the bird just stayed where it had landed, preening and checking out the scene. Unfortunately it was too far away to get a good photo. So instead I have added the 2 pics just below of first a white-crowned sparrow and then a golden-crowned sparrow. I was particularly glad to see the golden-crowned because I had not seen one in breeding plumage.

After over an hour of waiting for the gyrfalcon to come closer, we gave up our vigil and walked back up to the visitor center to catch a bus back. While there I did the "tourist" thing by holding a pair of caribou antlers up so my wife could take a picture. On the way out we actually saw a caribou walking in the river bed (second photo just below). During our bus ride we also saw a couple of moose, a total of 6 grizzly bears, including 3 fairly close by, and lots of Dall's sheep on the mountain sides. The only big animal we missed was a wolf. When we finally returned to the Wilderness Access Center about 5:30 we were more than ready to be off the bus.

We had bought tickets to ride the bus again yesterday, but decided to go to plan B. We slept in, and then drove out to the Savage River parking area which is where private vehicles have to stop. As we were approaching the parking area we were very lucky to have a lynx walk across the road in front of us before disappearing into the brush.

We walked 2 miles further down the road to a point where a trail cut thru the dense low vegetation allowing us to climb up to Primrose ridge. I was hoping to find up on the ridge some of the alpine breeding birds such as rock and white-tailed ptarmigan, lapland longspurs and northern wheatears. After climbing about 1500 feet in elevation we reached a long plateau that we hiked across. No birds were to be found anywhere, but instead we had a lengthy observation of the Dall's sheep in the photo just below. On our way back down we did see a golden eagle and a male northern harrier.

Since we did not find any ptarmigans on the ridge we went down to the river where we saw this male willow ptarmigan in its summer attire. Nearby was the female who had 5 chicks that rushed to hide under their mother. After about 8 miles of hiking we were ready to call it a day once we saw the ptarmigans.

We ate a second meal at 229 Parks which proved to be less impressive than the first nite. The food was still quite good, particularly the halibut tacos, but overall we felt the dishes were less inspired than on the first nite. This morning (Saturday) we were on the road by 8:30 to make the 460 mile drive down to Homer which is on Cook inlet on the Kenai peninsula. Stay tuned!

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