Here we are, a month and half in on the trip of a lifetime, going places we've never been, and even some places we may never see again. While traveling I like to keep the saying "how many places have you been for the last time?" in the back of my mind. I remind myself of this not to bring myself down, but instead to keep me focused on the thought that I may never be here again.
After saying goodbye to Valdez and getting back on the road to Anchorage, I was left with the "will I ever be back here?" thoughts. This place is a long way from home after all, and not exactly easy to get to, so I better get a good look just in case!
We traveled down the winding Alaskan road that lead us deeper into the mountains. The rain was pouring, of course, and we could faintly see the sun getting close to the horizon. Golden hour approached and the clouds finally began to break. Sun beams fought their way to the valley floor through the rain, as the sun now covered the mountains in a golden shadow. It was one of those breathtaking sunsets, in a beautiful place that I most likely will never see again. Or at least never see it in this light again. The sunset was the perfect reminder to not take a second of this trip for granted no matter the rain, the unexpected expenses, or the (literal) bumps in the road. We were doing things we may never do again and would always have the memories to keep with us.
It had been a while since our last big city, after days on the Alaska highway and time in Valdez, we had gotten use to wide open spaces. As we approached Anchorage we felt a little overwhelmed. So many stop lights, people wandering around, and how in the world are we going to choose between Wendy's, McDonald's, and Dairy Queen?
We ended up spending a couple days camped out in Anchorage with sunny weather. With our time there we knew we had to snag a peak in the Chugach Range so we set our sights on Wolverine Peak one afternoon. It was a fun 10 mile hike that lead to an incredible overlook of not only the Chugach Range but Anchorage as well.
A couple trips to Walmart and a new set of tires later and we were on the road to the backcountry of Denali! On our way to Denali Megan attempted to decode the permit system to backpack within the park...a task we had both been putting off for a while. After some research we had decided that unit 13 looks like the place we want to be. Unfortunately the permits were on a first come first serve basis and there could be no more than 4 people camping within the unit each night to help keep the "wild" element.
We arrived at the permit office early in the morning and were excited to see 2 spots available in unit 13: Mount Eielson. Lucky we got there when we did too, because not 10 minutes later 2 people came in looking for that unit as well!
We returned to the car to pack our bags for 3 days in the back country of Denali! A couple hours later and a complete flip of the car we were packed and ready to go!
The camper bus picked us up at 7 am to drive us deep into the park where we would spend the next couple days. The awesome thing about Denali is that within their park they have no trails. That means the camper bus drops you off and you can just take off in whichever direction you please. Now on the flip side of that, the whole no trail thing also makes miles really trying. A mile through thick alders and willows, straight up hill, feels like about 5 miles on a trail. Not to mention when we get to a river you can either turn around or get wet, because no one has built you a bridge to cross out here.
The bus ended up dropping us off around noon. We grabbed our packs, laced up our boots, and took off through the brush. After about a mile we made our way down to a braided river. For the most part we were able to find shallow spots to rock hop over, but eventually the river became wider and deeper. We decided to kick off our boots, put on our Keens, and roll our pants up high. The first crossing of icy water only made it about calf high, but we knew deeper spots were ahead.
At its deepest, the river was thigh deep, which made for an unsteady crossing with the current rushing and a heavy pack. On our way out we planned to cross it early in hopes the water level would be down...we didn't want to cross that again.
After making our way over a mile across the gravel bar the rain started to pour. It continued to rain as we climbed through the tall, wet willows and searched for a flat spot to camp near Mount Eielson. Once camp was set up, it wasn't long until the clouds began to clear and we could see what was around.
Its important to know that one of the only rules in camping in Denali is that your tent can not be seen from the road to keep the wild spirit alive for those traveling through. As the clouds cleared we realized that we not only could see the road miles off in the distance, but we could see one of the park's visitor centers. Guess that means its time to pack up and move again!
Since Alaska is a notoriously cloudy place it's not abnormal to visit the park and never even get a glimpse of the massive Mount Denali. After setting up camp (again), the skies were beginning to turn blue. We made our way up a near by hill where we had stashed our food and were greeted with a crystal clear view of the 20,320 foot Mount Denali towering above us! What a camp site!
In the morning we woke up to more sunshine as we packed what we needed to climb Mount Eielson standing 3,000 feet above us. We hiked for about about a mile, fighting viscous swarms of mosquitoes as we approached the base of the mountain. Since the park has no established trails, we decided to just pick a ridge to climb up and hope it connected to the summit.
As we climbed we would take breaks only to look up to make sure the route ahead wasn't too steep to climb and the route below could be maneuvered coming back down. At one break, we scanned the valley floor below and spotted something moving through the willows. It was a massive, dark animal, even from 1,00 feet above. As it ran we quickly realized it was grizzly sniffing around the path we had taken. We watched him until he finally ran out of our view.
After climbing over 2,000 feet of rock straight from the base of the mountain we had made it to the summit with beautiful views of the Alaska Range right before us.
We camped another night in the back country and woke early the next morning to take on the river crossings. Luckily we had hit them early enough sp the water was barely above our shins. As we made our way back over the gravel bar we had another grizzly spotting. We caught a glimpse of him as he was running into the brush, most likely trying to get away from us!
A couple hours of hiking later and we finally made it back to the road. We hitched a ride with another bus within the park to make our way back to our 4 by 8 home and on to the Arctic Ocean!