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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Denali National Park in Fall

Autumn is a spectacular time to visit Denali National Park. The alpine and subalpine tundra at higher elevations gleams with fall color by mid to late August. The taiga at lower elevations is aglow in reds by early September. The aspens near the park entrance turn brilliant yellow and gold about the first of September.  Winter’s bitter cold has not yet set in. Moose are rutting; bears are feeding actively to fatten up for winter; caribou are migrating. You may be fortunate to see Dall sheep or a wolf. An early snow may decorate the mountains.

Bull moose, Denali National Park
Grizzly Bear on Sable Pass, Denali
Moose cow and calf in Denali
Grizzly bear near Eielson in Denali

We spent the first two weeks of September in Denali National Park. The Athabascan people called the mountain “The Great One,” or “Denali,” and I prefer that name to the name Mt. McKinley given the mountain by an early prospector in letters back to the east coast.

Denali (Mt. McKinley) is a glorious moutain, breathtaking, impressive - magnificent beyond words. It is the tallest mountain in North America and has the greatest elevation gain from base to summit of any peak in the world, rising from a plateau of about 2,000 feet elevation to a spectacular 20,320 feet, clothed in the pure white of snow and glaciers. It is exceptional and unique in that it is in the middle of a six-million acre wilderness accessible by road.


Denali & Alaska Range - Reflection Pond, Denali National Park

On a clear day the mountain can be seen from more than a hundred miles away, but the awe-inspiring peak is famous for being shrouded in clouds most of the time. The Alaska Range, of which Denali is one peak, is spectacular in itself, but Denali rises far above the next highest peak and when it is visible, it dominates many views within the park. During our visit, it was visible slightly more than half the time.

Denali in fall from Mile 10 on park road

The aspens and balsam poplar in the lowlands near the park entrance and at Wonder Lake, are mixed with spruce in lovely woods. You may see gray jays and red squirrels, especially around the campgrounds, both here and at higher elevations.

Fall color near park entrance, Denali National Park
Gray jay, race canadensis, Denali National Park
Red Squirrel, Denali National Park

The scrub vegetation of the taiga, as the northern boreal forest at this latitude is called, turns infinite shades of red and rust in the fall, making for gorgeous views of the subalpine landscape from about 2,500 to 3,500 feet elevation. The green of the scattered spruce contrasts with the reds of the taiga, the entire landscape framed by rugged mountain ranges. The forest floor feels spongy under your feet as you walk on different mosses and lichens, and you will find many kids of mushrooms.

Fall color on the taiga, after an early September snowstorm on the mountains, Denali National Park

Golden Delicious mushroom - not poisonous but not actually edible, Denali National Park

Opportunities for wildlife viewing in Denali are as awesome as its spectacular scenery. We were surprised at how much wildlife we saw from the park shuttle bus, including grizzlies, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and even two wolf pups. While shooting photographs from a bus window is not the photographer’s ideal (though at least the windows open!), the shuttle drivers do stop briefly whenever wildlife is sighted, and they try to give passengers an opportunity for photos. But our best photographic opportunities were when we cruised the first 13 miles of the park road daily in mornings and evenings during the moose rut; and when we were able to drive the entire length of the park road in our own vehicle with a road lottery permit.

Bull moose crosses the park road in front of a park shuttle bus, Denali 
Grizzly cub in snow, photographed from park shuttle bus, Denali
Bull moose on taiga in fall, Denali National Park
Dall sheep, photographed from park shuttle bus, Denali
Alpha female wolf and two cubs of Riley Creek Pack, Denali

Migrating caribou in Denali National Park, September
Bull moose, Denali

Most of the six million acre park and preserve is wilderness. There is a single road, 92 miles long, into the park. The first 13 miles of the park road is open to the public. Past this point, the road is gravel and you must travel by shuttle or tour bus, unless you have a campground reservation - in which case you may drive to your campground but must then leave your vehicle there for the duration of your stay. 

The landscape is beautiful, wild, spectacular, and majestic.

Alaska Range after September snowstorm, Denali
Denali and Alaska Range with fall color
Teklanika River from Teklanika Rest Stop, Denali

Kettle pond on tundra near Wonder Lake, Denali

Rugged mountains east of Sable Pass, Denali

Moonrise from Savage Campground, Denali

An early snowstorm on September 2nd closed the road past Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 the first day of our visit, and more snow delayed traffic the next day. The views of the snow-covered landscape were particularly spectacular after these storms.

Denali Park Road after September snowstorm
Denali from Denali Park Road eastbound after September snowstorm
Grizzly cub viewed from Denali Park shuttle bus
Tour bus headed up Polychrome Pass, Denali
White-tailed ptarmigan, Denali

Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park

There are five campgrounds along the park road, and another at the park entrance. We stayed in three of them over a two-week period in order to experience and access different parts of the park more easily. Backpacking and back-country camping are also allowed, with a permit. For four days per year a road lottery allows a small number of people to drive their own vehicle on their one assigned day. Bicycling the park road, or parts of it, is popular and a great way to see the park.

Wonder Lake Campground, Denali National Park

Visitors near Wonder Lake, Denali

Bicycling near Wonder Lake, Denali

Moose and grizzly were the wildlife we saw most. Moose can be seen anywhere in the park but we saw them primarily in a five mile section from about mile 7 to mile 12 along the park road, the section which was closed to any hiking off the road, due to the moose rut. Moose are more easily viewed near the road in the early morning and early evening hours during the moose rut.

Bull moose in Denali
Moose cow with her calf on the taiga in fall, Denali
Bull moose in Denali

Bears, too, can be seen anywhere in the park, but we saw most of them from the park shuttle beyond the Teklanika viewpoint, and when we drove the same parts of the road during the road lottery.

Grizzly heads up a snowbank in Denali

Grizzly on Plains of Murie, Denali National Park

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