Thorofare Pass – Meadow Summit, Eielson Center- Denali National Park, Alaska
“ To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful country in the world.”- John Muir
A simple postcard with the stunning picture of mountains from a National forest and under it a famous quote of John Muir,an early advocate for the preservation of wilderness appeared in my mailbox from Arbor Day Foundation. I have kept it carefully on my desk. There is something splendid about those words.That gives me motivation to explore Alaska. In every year our family take vacation to different National parks to be in the nature, mostly to do hiking on the mountains; the fun and experience are priceless! We have been trying from last five years to visit Alaska because of its uniqueness; It is 663,268 square miles, ½ the size of the rest of the USA, it has the largest and magnificent mountains in North America, has more coastlines, stunning aurora borealis,volcanic valleys, jagged sea cliffs, have half of the world’s glacier, tundra,3000 rivers and lakes, two largest coastal rain forests; Tongass in Southeast and Chugach in south central. It has Denali, once called Mount McKinley, is the tallest mountain in North America. Located in south-central Alaska, the mountain’s peak is 20,310 feet (6,190 meters) above sea level, also making it the third highest of the Seven Summit. Imagine the breathtaking beauty of their wilderness!
One evening in February. I was returning from a long walk in the trail when my daughter called. “ Hi Mom! How are you?”
“ I am fine. Just returning from my walk. Are you back from work?
“ I am early today. But guess what mom. Are you ready to hear? Stand still.”
“ Is everything okay?” I asked with concern standing in the middle of the trail.
“ We are going to Alaska in July.” Her voice was full of excitement,enthusiasm.
“ What? I have not made the ticket or requested for vacation. Are you kidding?” An eyebrow lifted. My lips gave a slight twitch.
“ Not to worry mom, I have taken care of everything, so on the first week of July we will be on our way to the dream vacation. Are you excited mom?Mom?”
There were no words for this unexpected news! Just nodding of head in disbelief. Tears choked voice of thrill and joy. A sudden flash of a big delightful smile.
On the first week of July,on a mild sunny day, suitcases were packed with rain coats, winter jackets, hiking boots, hiking poles, backpacks with jingling bells to alert the bears, sun block, mosquito repellant ( Alaska has at least 27 species of mosquitoes) and all other necessary items. On a refreshingly bright Saturday morning, happiness and excitement gathered tightly in our hearts as we drove to the airport. The four hours, twenty eight minutes long flight landed at Seattle airport in late afternoon and in fifteen minutes we rushed to board the next flight Alaskan airline. Inside the flight, my husband leaned comfortably against the seat, the tips of his feet were crossed. He was reading the New York Times newspaper. My daughter took a long nap; a nice break from her intense work load and my son continued his work from his laptop. My eyes wandered outside through the small window, far to the beautiful snow-covered mountain range of Alaska,the way I have seen in the documentary.The book Second hand Time stayed close on my lap for a long time until I heard the sweet voice of the nice, friendly air hostess.
“ What would you like to drink?”
“ Water without ice is fine. Thank You.”
I sipped the water from a small plastic cup and opened the first page of the book. I was almost in the middle of the book when the announcement in a shrill voice echoed “ Hello! We will be landing shortly.Please switch off all your electronic devices and buckle your seat belts.” After two and half hour our flight safely touched the heart of Alaska’s, “ Ted Stevens Anchorage International airport”, located 5 miles southwest of downtown. We picked up our luggage and the rental car. The rental car lines were very long. It took almost one hour to pick up the car.Outside the weather was sixty-seven degree, sky was running by plump, cushion clouds and the road sides were full of pretty lipstick red flowers, small yellow as marigold and blue clustered flowers. Just above the bowline of the horizon, faint as a watermark on pale blue paper if the wavering tracery of the mountains! The smile on my face was wide open, sunny without a doubt on the world that this week of adventure in Alaska will be wonderful.It took us only fifteen minutes to drive to the Home2 suites in downtown.
Day 2- Around eleven in the night the lights of our room were switched off. But it was difficult to sleep when the heart is swelled with excitement! “Excitement is a crossroad which runs in all directions.” Criss Jam
It was almost two o’clock in the night, when I woke up to drink water from the water bottle that was on the small table close to the big window facing the parking lot. I took a few gulps of water and glanced outside, gently moving the heavy curtain from the window. “What?” outside there was light in the sky! It was not that bright but like the soft late afternoon sky. “No way!Out of curiosity, immediately I turned sharply from the window and looked at the small table clock which clearly showed the time 2:15 PM. I slowly pulled the curtain across the window. “ It is so cool! No sunset!” I laughed on a high prolonged note and then my lips closed slowly not to disturb others. But it was too late.
“ Mom,go back to bed. We have to wake up early.”
“ Sorry. Good night!’’ I went back to the bed and tried to sleep.This time I had to meditate to fall asleep.
A bright and lemony morning fell across the rectangle wooden table, touching a brass vase of plastic flowers and scattered on our opened luggages.It was almost 9 am. After breakfast, we arranged ourselves in the car and drove on Seward Highway south for about 47 miles past Girdwood to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation center, on the right side at Mile 79. The view is spectacular on both sides of the road; the shorelines of Turnagain Arm,the magnificent view of Cook Inlet and jutting peaks of gorgeous Chugach mountain.You can pull over along the side of the road to snap a few pictures.Each turn on the road reveals another scenic wonder. There is freshwater marsh, nestled between the foot of the mountains and Turnagain Arm where the Seward Highway leaves urban Anchorage behind, offers intimate views of migrating and nesting birds, spawning salmon and browsing moose. On the sides of the road there are lots of sky blue color,flowers with five connected salverform petals,that are a quarter to a third of an inch wide, have a white inner ring and a yellow center. We checked all the flowers of Alaska in a magazine that my daughter picked from the hotel and it is the“Forget-me-not”, Alaska’s state flower.
There is a beautiful poem by Esther Darling on this flower. One stanza is
“ In the land that God forgot,
We’ll recall Alaska to them
With our blue Forget me not.”
We reached our destination around 10 am. It is a slightly cold morning the sun looks like a little white button stitched tight to the sky. My son stopped and read loudly the mission of the Wildlife Center which was posted on a board at the entrance; The mission of the Wildlife Conservation Center is to provide extreme care for sick,wounded and orphaned animals year-round. Most of the animals they rescue become permanent residents. The Center maintains over 200 acres of large spacious habitats for animals to feel at home and display their natural “wild” behavior. After we purchased the entrance ticket which was $ 12 for adults and free for the children. We walked around on a wide gravel glittered road, the 1.5 miles of enclosed area. There were four brown bears, one red fox, white mountain goats, lots of moose, musk ox, bisons, porcupine and elks.Visitors may see brown bears cooling off in the water, a bull moose strutting, wood bison roaming on pastures and more.Most striking, though, were the brown bears, lumbering and quite intimidating from an open, winding boardwalk above the bears’ habitat. It’s safe — the bears can’t get you — but thrilling, too since there’s very little barrier separating you from the animals. I managed to snap a pretty decent photo of one of them, but it didn’t do justice to the excitement of seeing these huge animals up close.There was one red fox, white mountain goats, lots of moose, musk ox, bisons, porcupine and elks. They have a beautiful gift shop as neat as a pin.The contribution by the visitors in the form of admission fee, donation, gift shop purchase are a big help for the center. I noticed a fat black bird in wedge-shaped tail, heavy bill, on top of a small bush and it was overly articulated. I asked one of the forest ranger. “ Hi! Is this a crow?”
She laughed. “ It is a raven, a very smart bird! They are capable to make 50 calls of their own and mimic almost any sound they hear.”
“ Really! Unbelievable!” My eyes turned to the talented raven.
Anchorage, Alaska- Wildlife Conservation Center
“ The mountains are calling and I must Go.” John Muir
The sun was close to the edge of the clouds and one half of the sky was bright blue.From there we drove 15 miles in Chugach state park to the famous Flat top mountain. Flattop Mountain is located on the southeast side of Anchorage, just slightly above a residential neighborhood with some of the city’s best views. From Highway 1 on the south side of town, take the Rabbit Creek Road exit and head east. Rabbit Creek Road turns into Hillside Drive, then turn on Upper Huffman Drive, then Toilsome Hill Drive, which will then turn into Glen Alps Road. At the end, you’ll arrive at a large, and likely very crowded, parking area. There is a parking fee of five dollar.The mountain is total of 1,260 feet from the parking lot trail head. The high point of the mountain – 3,510 feet Ascend the 1.5 – mile, 1,350 vertical foot trail to the rocky, football field-sized summit in about an hour.The trail starts from a wooden stairway in the parking area and the path makes its way through the scattered trees, heads up hill over several switch backs and moderate sottish hike. My husband was singing a few lines from Robert Frost’s poem “ Stopping By Woods in a Snowy evening
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.”
The mountain was completely enshrouded in low clouds. There were periodic bouts of clearing, leading us to hope that perhaps we would get lucky along the way.A light rain started, the weather cooled down a lot. Like a glass of ice water with the ice just taken out, I announced. “My favorite weather!” The cloud covered most of the mountain tops, so it was hard for us to navigate although the scenic beauty was mesmerizing. We spotted Bunchberry which is an evergreen groundcover that grows up to 8″ tall. It has an erect stem topped with 4-7 leaves in a whorl. The leaves are oval with a rough “dogwood” texture. Tiny flowers cluster at the top of the stem atop 4 white modified leaves, which form a structure that looks like a white flower. While I was in the height of exploration I heard my husband’s voice from my back. “ We should go back. It is hard to navigate in the fog.” He did not want to face or surprise any animal.
Anchorage, Alaska- Flattop Mountain Trail i the Chugach Mountain Range (Chugach State Park)
“ I understand but can we hike a little more? I don’t want to go back.” My stubborn mind always takes over on mountains. But there is no point of argument, so we turned around to climb down. Although I was not in a mood to leave the place. The view from the top is amazing! A panoramic view of Anchorage; of the neighboring valley, looking back into Chugach State Park, and the Chugach Mountains. Our eyes lingered on them, taking everything greedily in. After the long day of adventure and sightseeing we eat in a Thai kitchen. The price was reasonable and we ate delicious steamed spring rolls, yellow and red curry with tofu and lots of vegetables. Around eleven in the night the sunlight was still lingering outside when we returned to the hotel room to take a good night’s rest.
Day 3 –
It was a splendid morning! After breakfast we headed out to our next adventure to the Wolverine Peak Trail. From the new Seward Highway we drove east on O’Malley Rd for ~4 miles at which point the road bends sharply left. Immediately after the bend, we turned right onto Upper O’Malley Road. At the “T” intersection, turn left onto Prospect Dr. One mile further, bear left where Prospect Drive intersects Sidorof Ln and continued .1 miles to the Prospect Heights parking area. We reached a small parking area after one mile. You pay $ 5 dollar fee. The trail starts there. Upon starting we turned left at the T path leads to Powerline pass, followed the trail around the hillside until reached a wooden bridge crossing a pretty creak. The trail makes its way out of the surrounding forest. Along the side of the trail there are 1 to 4 feet long beautiful clusters of white five lobed flowers with long stamens shooting above the petals. A few western Hemlocks, leaves are wider, thin light green than the spruce, pointing down,Their cones are dark brown and the bark is gray-brown.The trail is a gradual slope for first few miles, trail gets steeper through the brush. It narrows and veers up and out into backcountry. After a couple of miles along a very well maintained flat trail, crossing Campbell creek, the trail forks uphill towards the peak passing through the spruce,black and paper birch forest. The trail was a bit muddy and slick from rain and lots of mosquitoes. There are beautiful springs flow on both sides of the trail.A ridge will be reached after a long trek uphill, marked by a large pile of rocks. We were hiking up and the bells in our backpacks jingled all the way.My son was hollering “ Hey, Bear” in every twenty minutes or so. We are supposed to talk or sing when hiking in the wilderness to alert the wildlife and not to startle them.From now and then we had to stand still and look around to check the surrounding. That is a bear country for sure! It is a 8.6 miles out back trail and the elevation is 3,550 feet. Towards the top of the valley the tundra stretches ahead and on the ground there were recently bloom white flowers, red flowers .pretty pink five petal roses and patches of eight-lobed flowers with a yellow center.Gorgeous all along!
Anchorage, Alaska- Wolverine Peak Trail, Chugach State Park
A high alpine wonderland. We stood there and looked around.On a distant valley we spotted two moose grazing and on the opposite side, two white dots.
“ Must be the Dall sheep!” I said snapping a few pictures. Then I asked my family if we could climb a little further up to the top but they did not agree.
“ Mom, last month there was a bear attack in one of the trail here in Anchorage. We should climb down from here.”
As we were climbing down we saw a young man in a navy blue short and a white t-shirt taking picture of the Dall sheep in his professional camera.
We greeted each other and I asked him. “ Are you taking the picture of Dall Sheep’s?” I pointed to the top where the dots were moving slowly.
“ O’ they are not the sheep, but brown bears. I am a research student and trying to observe and study the bears.” He answered smilingly.
“Really!” We looked at him then turned our heads towards the mountain top. I could not resist.
“May I look through your binocular?”
We took turns to look through the binocular. The white dots were two light brown bears! We were glad that we did not climb up towards the bears. From there we went straight to Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria to eat.We had a great server who was efficient and prompt.Helpful with the menu, patient with our questions, and still had a sense of humor.Pizza was amazing and the atmosphere was cozy. It was almost eleven Pm and outside it was like an early evening sky! That night my husband and children were very tired from hiking. My husband asked me. “ You must be real tired too.How is your right heel?”
“ Nothing, no soreness so feeling fine.” I answered honestly arranging my pillow to a perfect position. I could see the astonishment in his eyes. Even I was surprised too. I had sore knees from the kickboxing class and Plantar Fascisti on my right heel. It was real painful for couple of weeks before I ventured out.But there was not much pain after two days of hiking, just a little soreness on my heel. My daughter overhead and smiled.
“ Dad, I think mom’s excitement has taken away all the pain.” All our heads nodded simultaneously and laughter echoed in the room.
Day 4 –
A bright slice of sunlight moved slowly across the wall and when it reached the top of the clock on the corner table, we checked out of the hotel.Another gorgeous, lovely morning! We drove almost five hours on AK-3N to Denali. Mirror Lake is the first of many, located just a short drive from Anchorage, and a few minutes from the highway. Surrounded by the untouched wilderness of Chugach State Park, this lake is known for its flawless reflections of the mountains behind it. There are picnic tables and hiking trails, but we could not stayed longer as the sunny day turned into a cloudy and rainy day! It is a two-way road and speed limit changes either to 60 or 50. We passed Reflection Lake, Eklutna lake,Talkeetna on our way. When you arrive at the entrance to Denali National Park, this is when your journey into the gorgeous, untouched wilderness will begin. Depending on how much time you take to reach Denali, it’s feasible that you will arrive late. After driving through the breathtaking view we were already fallen deeply in love with Alaska. We drove north on the Glenn Highway (AK-1), took the interchange north on the Parks Highway (AK-3). At mile 238, there is a signs for the beautiful Grande Denali Lodge on the right (east) side of the road. We drove in a zigzag road to the top of Sugarloaf mountain and checked in there.Their staffs and service were perfect! It has easy access to guided Denali activities,spacious rooms, Alpenglow Restaurant with local cuisine, peak Espresso in the main lodge and courtesy shuttle service.The view from the restaurant window was spectacular! It offers a panoramic view of the entire Denali Canyon, located less than a mile from the entrance to Denali National park. There in the restaurant we eat black bean burger and chicken sandwich. In their Peak Espresso cafe they serve Alaska’s very own Kaladi Brothers Coffee and a wide variety of specialty coffees and teas. The delicious pastries are a perfect way to satisfy a light sweet tooth craving.The place was beautiful, and the restaurant staffs were outstanding – food was terrific.
On the way to Denali National Park – On the right is Mount Denali, seen only by 30% of the visitors to Denali NPS. We saw it!
It was almost five fifteen in the evening and there was no sunset, so we decided to check the visitor’s center and go for an easy hike. We turned onto the Park Road at mile 237 of the Parks Highway. Just up the road on the left there is the road to the post office, Riley Creek Campground and the store.There is also the Wilderness access center where you can park.
The Denali Visitor Center is just up the road has information about the Park.Near the visitor center, there is a bookstore and cafeteria.Denali rangers repeated this message–run from moose, don’t run from bears.Of all the park’s critters, moose and bears are the two most likely to charge and injure a human if encountered at close range. “Stand your ground and talk to the bear. And wave your arms slowly above your head.Never run from a bear; that’s the worst thing you can do, because it could trigger the bear’s predatory instincts.” My son walked to one open corner of the room to rechecked his backpack to make sure that we have the bear spray.The hazards of surprising a grizzly are well documented, but moose can be nearly as dangerous.If you encounter a moose, get out of its way as quickly as possible. Run away from it. We thanked the ranger for his advice and left the center.
“Dad and mom, both of you make sure to walk jingling your bells and do what the ranger told us to do if we encounter any animal.”
“ Sure, we nodded our head.” We smiled. It was so much fun to hear when the children act like your parents! After checking the map for nearby trails we decided on Horseshoe Lake trail. The popular trail begins at Mile 9 on the Park road near the railway tracks. It is 3 miles roundtrip, elevation gains 200 feet. We walked leisurely on a developed trail.The trail takes us into a forest of spruce, aspen, birch, poplar trees and tall fireweed a common plant with a tall stalk, long, willow-like leaves and fuchsia-colored flowers, the fireweed blooms from bottom to top. Looking around, we see that many of this forest’s aspens have had sections of their bark stripped away. After the overlook bench, there are lots of wooden steps to go down, the trail drops steeply. Along the way we had a panoramic view of the Nenana River, passing the impressive Beaver dam. We stood at the edge of the calm and serene beaver pond. A steep slanted flash of sunlight was falling along the water, and the reflection of the sky and the trees and the mountains on the clear water were absolutely stunning! It is funny to see the teeth marks of the beavers on lots of trees surrounding the dam and surprised at the intelligent engineering skills of the beavers.We walked along the pond towards the Nenana River, the water flow out of the Nenana Glacier and runs south then west into a wide glacial valley.The Nenana River is a tributary of the Tanana River, approximately 140 miles long. It is the most popular river rafting destination and also a favorite whitewater kayaking destination for boaters throughout the state.It has an annual Nenana Wildwater and Slalom Race each Fourth of July. We watched the amazing whitewater rafting from one side of the river. The side of the river is full of rocks and pebbles. On the shore there are a few small white and purple flowers hugging close to the ground .Beyond the river is a heavily commercialized stretch of Parks Highway, with hotels, restaurants, and other tourism businesses. We could see the Denali lodge up in the mountain, the train track, the bridge and the surrounding mountains. The view is dazzlingly beautiful! While we were busy in looking at the rafters, we heard a very distinctive sound. We looked down and there on a small rock stands a cute yellowish-brown, gray-flecked arctic ground squirrel.It was persistent in chatter. It face was lifted up towards us.
“Begging for food?” My son asked him mischievously.
“Let me feed him a nut.” I opened my backpack.
“No.Mom. You can not feed any animal.”
I closed the zipper of my bag and watched the cute and intelligent behavior of the squirrel.
The squirrel runs to the other side and chattered again. In the Visitor’s Center they have asked not to feed any animal so we could not offer him anything but enjoyed its company.The squirrel left with disappointment. For dinner we went to The Black Bear restaurant.Amazing food with fresh ingredients, good size portions and very filling.
Denali National Park- Horseshoe Lake Trail, beaver dams and arctic ground squirrels
Day 5 – “ And into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul.”
Early morning around seven-thirty we drove to the Wilderness Access center. We parked the rental car and rode the Denali park and preserve transit green shuttle bus to Eielson Visitor center with our carefully packed hiking backpacks; sandwich, power bar, mixed nuts,water, mosquito repellent. The weather is extremely variable and changes without warning so we had both the rain and winter gears.Shuttle buses run frequently all day, making wildlife sightings and letting off park visitors along the park road and it’s an inexpensive wildlife safari.It is almost 3 hours to the Eielson Visitors Center via Park road. You have to purchase the ticket and make a reservation.The bus was packed. People were courteous to let others look out their side of the windows. The bus driver stopped for restroom breaks every hour or so, usually at some scenic spots. The heater was on during the whole trip, but the windows can be opened at will.The restrooms are outhouses with no running water, but are very nice and well maintained. The friendly driver asked all of us to shout if we spot any animal so that he can stop the bus. The other thing is we can take pictures but have to stay quiet so that we will not disturb the animals.On our way we stopped to see a brown bear resting on grass, a few caribou grazing on the field, state bird of Alaska ‘ The willow ptarmigan, a medium to large ground-dwelling bird, generally stands 14 to 17 inches high, has a wingspan ranging from 24 to 26 inches. Their plumage changes color from light brown in summer months to snow-white in the winter. In addition to color-changing feathers, another distinctive feature of the willow ptarmigan are its feathered toes. We saw Grizzly and cubs in an open field. The view of the snow-covered mountains and streams from both sides of the bus are impressive beyond words. They say that only about one-third of visitors ever get to see the Denali mountain. There were lots of cloud that day and we could only see the tip of the mountain.Once arrived at the Eielson Center, there was a 50 min break before the same bus makes the return trip. The landscape was partially hidden by low clouds and fog, but gave a different feeling than when sunny. Just imagine if the sun comes out with blue sky and what more can we see!The Eielson Visitor Center is a large, shiny, modern facility in a gorgeous location packed full of people during the tourist season and fits into the surrounding landscape beautifully. It has limited displays & exhibits, allowing Mt. Denali and the surrounding vistas to be the focus of your attention during your time there. The Park Rangers had an exhibit set up to discuss animal identification. There is a small gallery of art inspired by Denali wilderness and wildlife are on display inside the Center and it is well worth viewing. Below Eielson there is a short walking loop which is a good option to take if after the long drive you need a few minutes to enjoy the peace and tranquility in the shadow of North America’s tallest mountain. Outside the Center, there are plenty of benches and tables to enjoy the views from while eating a snack that you packed.
Denali National Park – Eielson Visitor Center, Alpine Trail
We could have signed up for a ranger led hike but preferred to hike at our own space. Another Indian couple joined us in our hike. We crossed the road to go to the Eielson Alpine trail head.The Alpine Trail is a popular one. It’s steep, well maintained, and gains about 1,100 ft. of elevation through serious switchbacks.We started up a narrow side trail that merges with the main trail after a hundred yard.It’s a single-track trail that winds rather steeply up the mountain on the other side of the road for about one mile. It ends a thousand feet higher in the tundra, where hikers can strike out on their own for as far as they want to go.Our elevation ranged from 3,766 feet at the trailhead to 4,883 feet at the peak. Reaching the top was breathtaking. We saw dwarf shrubs, sedges, mosses and tundra on the top. The tundra has bearberry to arctic rose, yellow marsh marigold,fireweed, dwarf dogwood Fuchsia flower at the top of the stalk and a family of cute arctic squirrels, very articulate.
“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was very windy at the top. We hiked a little more on the top and walked around, snapped a few pictures. Suddenly the partial clear weather turned into light rain and clouds covered the mountains again. We had to climb down to the visitors center to catch the bus back to the Denali Visitors Center. We reached at our hotel around seven in the evening. Surprisingly, a little colorless sunlight forced its way around the hotel building and lay exhausted across the floor.
Day 6 –
It was a bright sunny morning, another magnificent day! We were on our way to hike Mount Healy. It is a ridge system and reaches up to 6000 feet and the summit is 1500 feet higher. We drove to the Denali Visitor Center to access the trailhead easily. We followed the Taiga loop trail about 3 miles crossed the second service road. The stretch of the Taiga trail is relatively easy and with minimal elevation gain. Once we reached the trailhead, Mt. Healy Overlook trail begins going up immediately.The trail rises steadily through the forest of pretty Paper Birch, White Spruce, Alaska Birch and lots of pink five petal rose plants. Around half point, we reached at some wooden bench, took a little rest, snapped some pictures.It was a little hot that day so we had to reapply the sunblock, put on our hats before climbing up. The climb became steeper, rockier and trickier with lots of switchbacks and unsafe footing on the loose gravel.I have hiked before and on the same time I am scared to heights! When fear takes over I cry a little, but move on. So at the point when the trail tuned into loose gravel and real narrow, without any trees on the sides, I stopped and looked down. I should not have done that mistake! I started to cry and murmured to myself. “ I am really scared now, kids will you wait. Let’s go down. Kids!” No answer. They have moved ahead of me. I held both the hiking poles real tight, head down,eyes focused on the gravel trail and started to climb up. I don’t want Fear to win. But really it was very scary on those narrow turns!
On the top it was very windy!The breeze was strong enough to lift a ball cap off your head and send it flying,if you don’t grab it.But the breeze felt good, serving as a built-in air conditioner as we worked up a sweat, climbing the steep ridge. I stood with my back straight, took a deep breath and adjusted my hat. It took us almost a little over two hours to reach at the top.The actual summit is 1500 feet higher on the mountain. What a hike! “ Mom, we made it ! High five to us!” That was my son’s excited voice. We high-fived. On the top,the alpine tundra was stunning, dotted with patches of tiny, blooming wildflowers of all colors — yellow, white, purple, red, blue, white. Some flowers are densely packed like thickets hugging the ground, there are pink dandelions. They provided a stark contrast to the rock and talus-covered landscape.The views got more impressive the higher we climbed. The ridge we followed dropped off thousands of feet into creek bottoms on both sides. There were mountains stretched out as far as the eye could see to the east, west and south. Patches of white, creamy snow still littered the north-facing slopes while occasional patches of green grass dotted the south-facing slopes. The top of the ridge was dominated by prehistoric-looking rock formations,and loose rocks with jagged peaks. We sat on two big rocks and eat our lunch. My son spotted a family of marmots.Near the top, the ridge turns to the south and you follow it to the top, which is marked by a rock formation consisting of four spires called “The castle.” The pucker factor increased the higher you climbed. There were several steep, rock formations and bolder fields to negotiate, some of which involved scrambling and climbing on hands and knees.We stopped at the bottom of the castle, which requires about a 50-foot climb up a steep crack in the rock wall. My children and husband went ahead to explore more. I waited for them and snapped some pretty pictures. From the top it was a beautiful 360 degree view. Below we saw the Nenana river, the Denali Lodge, visitors center. On the top surrounded by mountains in every direction. We did not spot any bear or moose. After one hour as the rain clouds started to move, we decided to descend back.
Denali National Park- Mt. Healy Scenic Overlook Trail – We explored the entire ridge for ~6 hours.
Even though it was faster, the climbed own seemed harder than the climb up.Picking your way down through the rocks and talus slopes required more mental energy than climbing up. Our knees ached and our thighs burned as we made our way down the mountain toward the highway.It was our last day in Denali. We did not want to leave. There are so much to explore!
Day 7 –
After dinner we packed our luggage and drove back to Anchorage. Our last adventure was a journey in Kenai Fjord cruise to see the wildlife and glacier. Around 4 am we were on Seward Highway. It was the only highway to get between the two cities. The first stretch of highway is known as Turnagain Arm as it winds along the dramatic shore of the gorgeous bay. On one side there are the magnificent mountains and the other side offers the gorgeous view of the alpine tundra across the Turnagain Arm. On the side of the road there are lots of dark blue flowers in long thick spike, bluebells and pinkish ¼ “ clustered flowers.We passed the Potter Marsh, a coastal wildlife refuge area for migratory birds including Trumpeter swans, red necked Grebes, pintails. But we could not stop as we had to catch the cruise at a certain time. The time plays a big role here. After two and half hour we reached at Seward, a scenic port city in southern Alaska, set on an inlet on the Kenai Peninsula. The majestic Fjord is a geological formation that has been carved by 38 glistening glaciers, and Kenai Fjords are massive stone monoliths and islands that sit on the edge of great Alaska.It’s a gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, where glaciers flow from the Harding Icefield into coastal fjords.To the west, a trail leads to the summit of Mount Marathon.Seward sits on the edge of this fjord that is surrounded by steep mountains that come straight up from the ocean. This geographical formation, fjords, brings together two of nature’s most magnificent creations, mountains and oceans, in a very dramatic way. A very striking landscape! We parked our car in a free parking lot and rode the shuttle across the road to board the cruise.
This family owned tour operator has distinguished themselves with their great Seward-based cruises into Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park: they were the first to get National Park Service Rangers on board We boarded the 95 feet long luxurious cruise around eight am. There are almost one hundred passengers. You can sit inside the heated viewing area with giant picture windows, or stroll the large viewing decks. We preferred to stay outside on the deck. There were benches to sit. It was chilly and a little windy. But the air was alive with chatter and laughter and enthusiastic discussions.Also a wonderful time to meet and greet lots of international travellers. The boat was very clean (even the bathrooms). Breakfast and lunch were also decent. There is a galley on board where you can get snacks and extra drinks but you are also more than welcome to bring your own food/beverages on board as well. The staff was enthusiastic to fill your water bottle for you. The tour began with a narrative speech of the captain. Time to time the he narrated during the cruise, sharing some of his deep knowledge of the Seward area’s history and terrain. Captain was on the lookout for wildlife and stopped the boat to drift along when something’s been spotted. He maneuvered the vessel so that we could see, hear and sometimes even smell all of the wonders around us. He had a great speaking voice and was very knowledgeable about the area and the history of what he was showing us.
Our captain cruised out to the Cape Resurrection. The east side of the Resurrection Bay presents a massive sheer cliff to the pounding waves. The captain explained it as a pillow basalt, a type of igneous rock. It gets its name from the bulbous, pillow like shape which forms as the hot lava underneath the water cools rapidly. The bubble texture of the cliff is an ideal habitat for thousands of nesting Alaskan seabirds like puffins, kittiwakes, and cormorants. The captain stopped the boat close to the seabird nesting areas, providing great photo opportunities. Everyone scrambling to get their shots.There were the cutest Horned Puffin and Tufted Puffin. Both birds have bright orange beaks, webbed feet with black and white coloring. The Tufted Puffin has yellow tufts of feathers behind each eyes and fully blackbody, bold white face mask. They can dive deeper than 24 m to catch a fish. Also the captain was describing that they can also hold 62 fishes in their bill at one time! They can fly beating their wins 300 to 400 times a minute, speed up to 64 Kph. It was so cool to see those pretty birds!
Kenai Fjords Day Cruise – Out of Seward – Puffins, whales, sea stars, and more!
On the opposite side of the bay, the shore is eroded into cliffs and coxes, dark-colored stones. Mud transformed by heat and pressure becomes a fire grained dark stone with lots of layers and hardens to slate in time.There were very porcelain white, the black-legged Kittiwake, a smaller gull on exposed rock ledges. I heard that they are unique with three toes rather than four. Our eyes traveled to a small rock where one bald eagle was trying its best to catch a big fish but could not. It was either too heavy or too big.On a big rock ledge there were the Common Murre, a deepest diving seabird and it can fly too. The captain was telling that this birds do not build nests, but instead lay their eggs on bare rocks, typically in horizontal cracks or crevices.There was red-faced Cormorant paddling on the water to eat fish. The Black Oystercatcher with bright red and flat bills, have their nest among the pebbles in shallow, rocky depressions on the beach.
Moving to the west, there is Cape Aialik juts into the tumultuous water. The rock her is granodiorite, a lighter color than the ocean rocks. Glacier has covered the bedrock into steep cliffs, the slate crumbles once the ice melts away. It’s sheer surface is draped with waterfalls. It was packed with tens of thousands of Puffins, Murree.
“ Birds must have an affinity for granite as we love that in our kitchen.” I whispered to my husband. Both of us chuckled.
On a triangular-shaped large rock with lots of small rocks to its right in the water which is the Stellar sea-lion colonies, where they gather on the rugged, rocky coastline. This area of water is called “Haul-out.” The forest ranger who was standing with us pointed out to one Sea lion. “ Look closely in your binocular. The one with thick enlarged neck is the male and the ones half the size or smaller are the female.” They were basking themselves on the rocks.
There are lots of starfish, Harbor seals on a huge rock formation. My son rented one binocular, which was so much better to see the pretty,dazzling starfish clinging to the side of the rocks. I love the cute faces of the Harbor seals, as they pop their beautiful round heads quietly above the water surface and their curious eyes fall on the surroundings.There was red-faced Cormorant paddling on the water to eat fish.The cruise went close to the beautiful Fox Island, Pedersen glacier and Addison glacier. Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge is the only accommodations on remote Fox Island. The waters surrounding it are a rich blue-green color that reflect the weather lapping upon the shore.. The air was getting colder. I walked down to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Holding two cups of hot chocolate I climbed up to the outside deck. Me and my husband leaned back,stretched out legs and enjoyed the ride. “ Isn’t the sea wonderful?” says my husband rising from a long wide-eyed silence. I nodded and pointed towards the sea-gulls. “ It will be nice to wake up at sunrise, swoop down over the water and away out in the lovely blue day!”
“Really, they are so lucky!” he replies looking at the birds through his binocular.
It was fun to see Orca or Killer Whales, member of the dolphin family swimming together, where the mother and the young ones were in the center and the male Orcas surrounding them. They have pretty jet black bodies and white patches over their eyes, under the jaw.There are three different types, but I think we must have seen the Resident Orcas. They are highly social and travel in family groups. The curious and intelligent Orcas made a beautiful show for us for half an hour,by coming out together from water then diving into the water. Their tall fins stacked up out of the water as they were swim close to the surface. It’s just incredible. You can see the whites of their faces glistening in the sun as they rise out of the water. I was thinking to just relax and enjoy these views. Then we heard over the loudspeaker “Well, we’ve seen a lot today. But…. there’s one last thing. Your wish has come true”. Suddenly you’ve gained the energy back, your fingers are somehow working after 7/8 hours of pressing the shutter down and you’re back in the game. , the captain asked us to look to the right side of the boat. There were two or more Gray whales standing on their heads in water with their flukes above the surface. They fall back at an angle creating a loud noise and a big splash, stayed underwater for fifteen minutes then dived up again. After half an hour, in a distant there were Humpback Whales with a distinct hump in front of their dorsal fin and large wing like flippers. They were swimming on their back with both flippers in the air. It was so cool to see when they raised their tails and slapped on the water surface as if performing a beautiful show to entertain us. There were a few black and white Dall’s Porpoise with small pointed flippers and triangular heads, swimming erratically, zigzagging in the water very rapidly. It was hard to snap their pictures. The captain made us laugh when he said that the Dall’s Porpoise get a free ride on the bow-wave of the boat. It was almost one, our lunchtime.The weather was perfect chilly weather! It was gorgeous – low clouds and mist created a primordial scene with one awesome view after another!
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The cruise boat travels approximately 100 miles round-trip through Resurrection Bay into Kenai Fjords National Park. It cruised through the protected Resurrection Bay and continued around Cape Aialik (pronounced “I-al-ik) into Aialik Bay to view Holgate Glacier, an active tidewater glacier. It was the highlight of the cruise.After couple of hours we reached in Kenai Fjord.The Kenai Fjord park covers an area of 669,984 acres on the Kenai Peninsula in south central Alaska, near the town of Seward.There we spotted a few playful, cute sea otters swimming in the water. As we cruised into Aialik Bay we had our first glimpse of Aialik Glacier, an active tidewater glacier. We stopped in front of the glacier and watch for calving, where large chunks of glacial ice break off and crash into the water. Our next stop was Holgate Glacier, a 400 feet of high colossus of snow and ice that moves at four feet per day into the sea. Standing outside on the front deck we looked at the glacier. We could feel the cold wind around us. It was freezing cold. Our captain took the boat as close to any glacier as safely possible—typically between a half mile and a quarter-mile. And because big-time calving happens almost every day. We heard a sound like the crack of a gunshot, then watched as a huge chunk of ice splinters off the glacier to fall hundreds of feet to the ocean below. The glacier is constantly shedding its ice from its edge in order to balance itself as it ever so slowly moves forward toward the Gulf of Alaska.The ice that falls does so in massive chunks that become the icebergs spotted around the sea.Some of the icebergs can be incredibly large, so seeing one of those icebergs actually fall into the water is a sight to behold. The whole boat quiets while you’re just listening to the amazing sounds of the ice cracking, water streaming down the rocks, and yourself: in disbelief of where you are at this current moment in time.
Vibrantly blue pieces of the glacier break off and go crashing into the sea below, rippling into a wave around it. It will sound like you’re listening to a thunderous large waterfall as the ice breaks apart and descends.The forest ranger scooped up one large piece of ice from top of the water so that we could touch and feel the ice. It was breathtaking to see the glacier from so close.We stood there silently holding our hands,with an awe to the nature. At the same time a strong awareness for Global Warming wrapped tightly on our heart. Of the more than 100,000 glaciers in the state, 95% are currently thinning, stagnating, or retreating.The gray clouds started to roll over and the captain slowly turned the boat back to Seward.