Early spring hike in Denali National Park

Posted by lwpetersen | March 31, 2014 | hiking, outdoors, photo-blog
Me posing with Denali

My self portrait with Denali

I left Fairbanks at 5 am and drove down the Parks Highway on the last day of March. In the roughly 125 mile drive I saw one other car. One. I passed it going the opposite direction just south of Nenana, 60 miles south of Fairbanks. Even during the tourist off-season I didn’t expect there to be so few people on the road.

With the weather as beautiful as it has been this spring I was certain the park would be packed. I’d struggle to find a parking spot near the trailhead and follow a crowd of people to the top of the ridge. Instead, my adventure with no one continued when I arrived at the park before sunrise. “Oh, surely there are going to be tons of people on the road to watch the sunrise on a beautiful weekend like this,” I thought. Nope. I drove a few miles of the Park Road. No cars. No people. Just a sunrise.

Looking east out from Denali National Park toward Mt. Deborah in the Alaska Range.

Looking east out from Denali National Park toward Mt. Deborah in the Alaska Range.

I spent half an hour on the side of the road watching this amazing display of light. The entire time there were no signs of any people. The mountain was on display.

Double Mountain in front, Denali in the back. To give a sense of scale, Double Mountain is about 10 miles away and Denali is close to 70 miles.

Double Mountain in front, Denali in the back. To give a sense of scale, Double Mountain is about 10 miles away and Denali is close to 70 miles.

With the morning color fading to whites and blues it was time to make my move to the trailhead at the Savage River. I drove another 7 miles down the road. Nobody was there.

The number of cars at the Savage River parking lot: 1. Mine. I took a few moments to walk around, check out the trail, throw away my banana peel, change my pants and boots, pack up my crampons and ice axe, look around in astonishment that I’m still alone, shoulder my pack and both cameras, shake my head, then I was walking.

The beginning of the Alpine Trail, just above the rock outcropping at the Savage River parking area.

Start of the Alpine Trail at the Savage River

The trail started out with snow firmly packed by snowshoes, becoming less travelled the higher I went. As I approached the initial steep section most of the tracks had faded or gone off into the brush. I’m pretty adamant about Leave No Trace and I know this is a heavily travelled area in the summer with lots of revegitation projects and don’t want to just wander through the brush. The problem was the main trail quickly became steep solid ice. A perfect excuse to don the crampons. I sidestepped my way up the 100 ft. stretch of ice before gaining some easier terrain. As I packed my crampons back in my pack I heard and saw a car on the Park Road. Two cars! Wait, both are rangers. They drive around the loop, check the gate at the bridge and head back. Still alone.

Nice view of the Park Road. The road is closed to vehicle traffic at the bridge except for a short time in the pre/post tourist season, the buses, or lottery winners.

Nice view of the Park Road. The road is closed to vehicle traffic at the bridge except for a short time in the pre/post tourist season, the buses, or lottery winners.

The rest of the way up to the rocky ridge was a bit dicey. There were just a few centimeters of snow on top of water ice, it was easy to get tricked into thinking I had solid footing. A couple little slips later I gained the totally snow-free ridge and turned around to enjoy the view.

After a bit of slipping and sliding on the alpine trail I found myself on the totally snow-free, rocky ridge. This was the view from the direction I came, with Denali on the horizon.

After a bit of slipping and sliding on the alpine trail I found myself on the totally snow-free, rocky ridge. This was the view from the direction I came, with Denali on the horizon.

Once on the ridge I was in the Sun, the air was warm, the sky still crystal clear, absolutely perfect day. The hiking was easy since there was really only a few spots of snow. I started walking the ridge, but then I noticed a moose below. It didn’t take long to realize there was more than one.

I spent about 40 minutes watching 6 moose from the ridge above in Denali National Park. Most of them were on the ground early in the morning, then on my way back down later in the day all but one were up and grazing. This was the closest shot that I could get five of them together.blogpost: https://lwpetersen.com/photo-blog/travel-alaska/2014/03/early-spring-hike-denali-national-park

I sat and watched them for about 40 minutes. I’ve never seen so many moose all together like this. There was always one that was a bit too far away to get them all in one frame. I counted six total, but there could have been another lying down somewhere. Then the thought went through my head, “it’s not rutting season, why are they all together?” There’s certainly no trouble finding food with the snow cover as thin as it is. Then I found myself wondering if they ever form herds for protection from predators, which led me to the realization that I was still by myself out there. (Maybe – later in the summer of 2014 we heard from rangers that a wolf pack may be starting to populate this area)

There’s not much more to say about the hike up the ridge. It was gorgeous . . . perfect. Here are a few more pictures:

Some gorgeous light on the trail

Looking over the Savage River Valley in Denali National Park. Denali is on the horizon just up and left of the Park Road (on the far right). A perfect day in the Alaska Range! Cropped to print at 10

Around noon I figured it was a good time to turn around, my feet were already starting to hurt a little and my out-of-shape legs were getting tired. I stopped to watch the moose for a while longer since they were still hanging out in the same spot, then made my way very slowly down the icy “trail” to the steps.

There were two cars in the lot when I made it back down. I walked a ways down the Savage River, it was already starting to show signs of opening up a bit.

Some open water starting to show on the Savage River.

Down the Savage River.

Looking down the Savage River

To be repetitive, it was an awesome day. So few (none) people on the trail made for a very quiet and meditative journey. Thanks for letting me share the experience with you!

The full gallery is here if you want to check out some more photos: https://lwpetersen.smugmug.com/Date/2014/March/2014-03-30/

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