After spending a few days in Anchorage to relax and recover from Kenai Fjords, we hit the road North for Denali National Park. For many years, Bryan had imagined Denali to be the National Park “mecca” of Alaska. He had seen so many great photos over the years and really wanted to visit even before we met and started throwing around the idea of an Alaska road trip.
It just sounded like such a wonderful place. Denali, the largest mountain in North America. Wonder Lake – surely a wondrous place. Bears and other wildlife galore. The vast tundra of the North resplendent in its untamed glory. In other words, we had high expectations, and we had 4 days to visit.
While planning our trip, we discovered that we wouldn’t actually be able to drive around ourselves in the park. Instead, we would have to book seats on shuttle buses that bring tourists through the park on one road that is not accessible to the public. We had multiple recommendations from people to book a campsite at Wonder Lake, but by the time we got our logistics figured out, the campsite was full. So we stayed at a nearby hostel, Denali Mountain Morning Hostel. We booked the bus ride all the way to Wonder Lake though so we could at least check it out and see as much of the park as we could. This meant we would be on the bus for an 11-hour round trip. We figured with the other 3 days we had at Denali, we could book a short backcountry trip, as you could only book those one day in advance anyway.
The drive up to the park was a grey and dreary one. One of those drives where you pass lots of “scenic viewpoints” but can only see low-lying clouds blanketing the horizon. And the weather forecast for Denali consisted of lots of clouds and a decent amount of rain over the days we were there. Lovely.
On the plus side, the hostel was quite nice. We were staying in a dorm room, which was Lisa’s first hostel dorm room experience (we had previously stayed in private rooms). In fact, prior to this Alaska trip, Lisa hadn’t ever stayed in a hostel. We were in a cabin with 2 bunk beds and a loft with a double bed – we were in the loft. It actually felt quite private, and we were very comfortable for our 4 nights there. There were also plenty of bathrooms and showers, and a well-equipped communal kitchen (in separate buildings).
So far Lisa had enjoyed all of her hostel experiences on this trip. At first she wasn’t thrilled about the whole shared-bathroom situation, but it turned out not to be a big deal. We never really found that we had to wait very long to use a bathroom or shower in any of the hostels we stayed at. The kitchens required more getting used to – grimy dish sponges, damp dish towels that had been used for who-knows-what, and the uncertainty around other hostel guests’ hygiene practices. (There was some certainty though that some guests’ hygiene practices were below Bryan’s standards, placing them wayyyyyy below Lisa’s). But Lisa managed mostly not to think about it. And she didn’t get sick once, so she started to think maybe she could ease up on her strict kitchen cleanliness rules and trust her immune system. [Hmmmmm….interesting…-Bryan].
We have found that staying in hostels provides plenty of opportunities to meet and chat with lots of interesting people. For the most part, people are very friendly, and they tend to have lots of stories and tips to share from their adventures. We have only had one negative experience with a fellow hostel guest (whose identity remains unknown to us). One morning, we woke up, looking forward to a delicious breakfast of bagel sandwiches with avocado and fried egg. After lots of oatmeal on the road, this was going to be a real treat. We had two bagels left in our labelled food cubby in the hostel kitchen. Or so we thought. Upon fetching our bagel bag, we were dismayed to discover that there was now only one bagel. We also noticed that our tub of yogurt in the fridge was suspiciously more empty than we had left it. At this point, we also noticed a note on the fridge admonishing a food thief who was clearly helping themselves to lots of other people’s food. Fortunately, we had nothing more valuable than a bagel stolen. (Also note that Bryan has probably stayed in 50+ hostels in his life, and this was the first time he ever had his food stolen – it just doesn’t happen normally).
We have found overall that hostels provide excellent value for the cost – especially if you make full use of the kitchen facilities to save some money on eating out. You can typically get private rooms for cheaper than a hotel or motel, and if you want to save even more money, our experience with shared dorm rooms has been very good too! And don’t underestimate the value of meeting interesting and like-minded travelers, and having a sense of community everywhere you stay. In case you are worried that hostels will be filled with noisy drunken 18-20 year-olds, this was not at all the case in Alaska at least. In fact, there were people of all ages, including families and some very lovely grandparent types!
All Aboard the Bear Bus?
We got up nice and early to catch the bus. As it was a 20 minute drive to the park, and the bus left at 9:15, we figured we should leave the hostel by 8:30. That way we would have a bit of buffer for any issues on the road and would get to the bus station early enough to check in and get our tickets issued. Along with the normal morning procedures, we had to make a nice fried egg breakfast to cover us for half of the 11-hour bus ride, and make some hummus and peanut butter sandwiches to cover the other half. No, we did not make sandwiches with both hummus and peanut butter – that would be gross. We made some hummus sandwiches and some peanut butter sandwiches. But that’s not the point.
Lisa suggested getting up nice and early to give us time for all of the above, plus extra time for the usual hostel things – waiting to use a frying pan, waiting to use the bathroom, etc. We also needed to pack up the stuff we’d need for the day, some of which was buried in the chaos of our car. So, to give us plenty of time and hopefully make for a not-too-stressful morning, Lisa’s suggested wake-up time was 7:15.
It’s important to note that by this point in the trip, we had disagreed repeatedly about what time to get up in the morning, and every time, Lisa had been mostly right and Bryan had been mostly wrong. That did not deter Bryan from continuing his crusade for more sleep, against all the evidence. Engineers don’t need evidence when they have their own intuition, right?
So Bryan – wanting more sleep, worrying less about bad things happening, and glossing over the small details – scoffed at Lisa’s suggested time and proposed that we get up at 8:00. After some wrangling, Lisa finally agreed to get up at 7:45. But she was not pleased about it as she knew what would happen.
We got our nice restful sleep, and then got going in the morning. It soon became apparent that the relaxing morning Lisa wanted was not to be. By 8:00 we were just getting to the kitchen to make food. By 8:20 Bryan was rushing to clean up the dishes while Lisa was smashing hummus onto bread as fast as she could. In between all of this, we were filling water bottles, waiting in line for the bathroom, brushing our teeth, and getting clothing ready (we were told to be prepared for all weather). Note that all of this takes a bit longer when you have to walk back and forth between your hostel cabin, the bathroom block, the main common building, and the car where you are storing much of your stuff. By 8:45 we grabbed our last few bits from the pile of stuff in the car and started driving.
Although Bryan drove quickly, we ran into some road construction on the highway, and ended up arriving at the bus station parking lot shortly after 9. The first parking lot was full but we found a spot in the second lot, and ran into the station. There was a big lineup at the counter, and no way to get our tickets issued before the bus left. In a blind panic, Bryan ran up to a park employee and pleaded to be allowed to get on the bus using our electronic ticket receipt instead of the required paper tickets. Fortunately, he was nice and agreed. So much for a relaxing morning. But at least we made it, and Lisa did not have to kill Bryan.
All Aboard the Bear Bus!
We got in line for the bus and boarded with everyone else, grabbing a couple of seats towards the back. It was an old yellow school bus – an interesting place to spend the next 11 hours.
The bus made its way through the park, with the driver announcing things and the OWPs on the bus getting excited about this, that and the other thing. We wanted to see Denali, and we were excited when our driver pointed to a peak far off in the distance and said that we were part of only 40% of park visitors who ever got to see the mountain. At almost 20,000 feet, it is such a large mountain that it makes its own weather, most of which is clouds that shroud its lofty peaks.
We were happy to at least have seen the famed mountain, especially as the weather forecast was spotty for the day, and even worse the rest of our visit. As the bus proceeded, we saw lots of bears. So many bears.
Bears bears bears bears bears bears bears bears moose bears bears bears caribou bears bears bears bears bears.
Of course, it’s quite a different experience seeing bears from the inside of a school bus packed full of excited tourists, to that of seeing bears from a kayak where the two of us are the only people in the area. However, we still really enjoyed watching them, especially a funny mama and baby bear that decided to stroll along the road for about 20 minutes, causing a traffic jam of tour buses.
And how about the destination of the bus tour, Wonder Lake? As both of us are accustomed to the spectacular jewel-like lakes of the Canadian rockies, we had high expectations for such an impressively named lake. But we quickly found out that the only thing wondrous about Wonder Lake was that, on a clear day, you could see Denali above and reflected in it. We decided they should probably call it Mediocre-at-Best Lake instead. But then we found out why it was so named, and it all made sense. The first white people to find the lake didn’t see it the first time they went through the area. When they saw it at a later date, they called it Wonder Lake because they wondered how they had missed it the first time through. We can understand missing it – it is very underwhelming on its own. Perhaps the tour should come with a disclaimer.
When Bryan got his first cell phone back in the day, the person setting it up suggested that he register as Dr. Bryan Chu. As a first year engineering student, this seemed like a great idea, and Bryan spent a number of years as Dr. Bryan Chu, at least as far as his phone company was concerned. Bryan also sometimes liked to dispense unsolicited medical advice, based mostly on anecdotal evidence or a loose understanding of human physiology (he’s a chemical engineer, after all). Usually Lisa would just laugh at and promptly ignore these little tidbits of pseudoscience.
The day before we planned to get a backcountry permit and head off into the wilderness of Denali, Lisa started getting a stuffy nose and sore throat. By bedtime, she was hacking away with a painful cough. Hiking all day and setting up a tent to sleep in the cold Alaskan night was sounding less and less appealing. So, we decided to forego our plans, and instead just remain at the hostel and do some shorter day hikes around the park entrance.
We went for one easy stroll around Horseshoe Lake, where we saw a pretty impressive beaver dam. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any of the beavers themselves.
Lisa felt fine until we hit an uphill section and her cough started back up with a vengeance. The cold air stung her chest as she coughed relentlessly. Doctor Bryan decided to pipe in at this moment to let her know that the exercise was helpful, because when one had lungs full of phlegm, it was good to get them “stirred up.” However, after successfully getting the mucus moving out of the lungs, one also had to break the mucus cycle. This means horking up and spitting out any mucus which comes up into the throat…because otherwise, the mucus will just go back down to where it came from and continue the mucus cycle.
Lisa tersely explained that the mucus would actually just go to your stomach if you swallowed it. Bryan countered that it would go back down and get stuck with the rest of the mucus, and maybe backslide into the lungs at a later point in time. Lisa was unsatisfied with this vague explanation, wondered whether “Doctor” Bryan even understood the difference between the trachea and esophagus, and called him a quack. Bryan found this a very hurtful term. What was poor, hapless Doctor Bryan to do? All he wanted to do was help Lisa feel better. But she just seemed to want to explain how he knew nothing about anatomy or biology, lording over him with her two science degrees.
Lisa also explained that while she agreed that fresh air and gentle exercise might be helpful, she simply did not enjoy the current state of feeling like she was being stabbed in the lungs every time she coughed. Bryan explained that every stabbing pain would be worth it if she harnessed the mucus dislodging effect of the coughing. Of course, she would then need to spit it out to break the mucus cycle. Much to his surprise, even this great news only seemed to worsen Lisa’s mood.
The end result of the advice was that nothing got better and some things got worse. Words were exchanged and then a veil of hurt silence descended over Bryan. It turned out Doctor Bryan was not as helpful as he imagined himself to be. From this point onwards, Doctor Bryan became a character who would show up here and there throughout our travels. (Really he had always been there, but now we had a name for him.)
The good news was that despite the rain and the clouds, and the sparring over what may be spurious medical advice [the jury is still out on that though – Bryan], Horseshoe Lake was actually pretty neat (despite Bryan’s normal ridiculing of easy-to-access, easy-to do hikes at the front of National Parks). On our walk, we spotted a muskrat in the pond! Unfortunately, he quickly dove down into the water, too quickly for Bryan to get a photo. This prompted another expedition to search for muskrats the following day (sadly unsuccessful), but also got Bryan to think a bit differently about easy-to-hike, easy-to-access walks. Maybe some of them weren’t so bad, after all. We even saw this adorable little bunny that allowed Bryan to put his telephoto lens to use.
We also decided to check out the sled dog team demonstration on our last morning. Denali has the only sled dog team in the US National Park Service, and they work throughout the winter to provide transport and haul equipment to support a variety of projects.
In the summer, tourists can visit the kennels and watch the rangers and dogs demonstrate this mode of travel. The dogs were super enthusiastic, barking with excitement and rushing over when called. Clearly, they love their job!
Denali is a nice park. It has lots of great wildlife, which you can enjoy from a bus. It’s hard to give a full account of the park since we did not end up going out in the backcountry, as that could certainly have led to some great wildlife encounters. As far as scenery goes, if the weather cooperates and you can see the mountain, then you have some spectacular views from a number of locations throughout the park. If you cannot see the mountain, the park scenery is still nice, but perhaps not as great as the park’s reputation may have you expect. Then again, maybe we are just spoiled by living 4 hours away from world-class parks in the Rocky Mountains. In our opinion, Banff and Jasper beat it hands down, any day. And we would bet they do so even when Denali is in view. So much for the National Park “mecca.” Oh yeah and Princess Cruise Lines owns a lodge right outside of the park, and has a lot of buses going in and out. Just saying.
We put together a little video of some highlights from our bus ride through Denali – as you can see, it looks like everyone was trying to fatten up for winter! The video is up on our YouTube channel: