Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Spending Summer in Alaska, Part 2-Denali National Park, Fairbanks, North Pole, and Chicken

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spending Summer in Alaska, Part 2-Denali National Park, Fairbanks, North Pole, and Chicken

Denali National Park
We left Cristine, Bill's daughter, in Anchorage with a tinge of sadness in our hearts, knowing that another trip to Alaska will not happen again any time soon. But we were also eager to proceed to Denali National Park, one of the country’s most admired parks. It was established as the first national park to conserve wildlife in 1917.  Its dynamic glaciated landscape supports grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep and moose. And the park is home to North America’s highest peak, the awe-inspiring, 20,320 foot Mount McKinley. At 6 million acres, the park is larger than the State of Massachusetts.

On the way we passed through Wasilla (population: 7,000), the hometown of Sarah Palin.  The normal rumor-mongerers that we were,  we tried to drive around Lake Lucille to chance upon her home.  But we were not lucky.  So we went on to Talkeetna, on the southern end of Denali, where the view of Mt. McKinley was supposed to be best.  Unfortunately, the mountain was hiding from us under the heavy fog cover.  Now we understand that July is the best time to spend summer in Alaska! That night we camped at the nearby Denali State Park, reserving the next 2 at its big brother, Denali National Park.  

a Grizzly on the road
our great bus driver!
The only way to get to the heart of Denali National Park was to backpack or ride the park buses.  The next day we chose a bus that would take us to the nearest point to Mt. McKinley.  Our bus driver did a good job of spotting wildlife for us.  He stopped when a grizzly bear suddenly appeared roaming on the road right in front of us.  Later he spotted dall sheep grazing at a mountain side, a wolf nestled among the grass by the road, and caribous resting down the valley.  From many sides the majesty of the alpine tundra began to unfold before us. Little did we know that it was a prelude to our Arctic experience.

me and the Iditarod dogs on a sled
But when we reached Eielson, the heavy fog behind which Mt. McKinley had been hiding had not lifted at all.  We were denied the spectacle of the ‘High One’ of the 600-mile long Alaska Range.  We could, therefore, not buy any of the merchandise at the gift shop that glowingly said: ‘I am part of the 30% that saw Mt. McKinley’. And even if we stayed a few more nights, the forecast was that it would not clear so we decided to just visit the educational Murie Science Learning Center and the fascinating Iditarod sled dogs training facility on the park and leave for Fairbanks the following day.

view of Mt. McKinley from University of Alaska in Fairbanks 
musk oxen at the Large Mammals Research Center
Fairbanks is the largest city in the interior region of Alaska, and second largest in the state behind Anchorage. The population of the city is over 35,000 and is home to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the oldest college in the state. The university was the most exciting place in the city.  From a viewpoint on campus, we finally got a glimpse of Mt. McKinley, albeit 100 miles away.  Then, I saw, for the first time, artichoke plants at the university’s beautiful nursery.  But the most exciting part in campus was chancing upon the large muskoxen at its Large Animals Research Station. 

We stopped by the Fairbanks Visitors Center to ask about how we can see the famed Aurora Borealis and a possible trip to the Arctic Circle.  They told us the northern lights will have a greater probability of being seen in about 5 days (it is visible in Yellowknife, Alaska 10 months in a year).  We also found out that the distance between Fairbanks and the Arctic Circle along Dalton Highway is about 400 miles roundtrip while between Dawson City and the Arctic Circle along Dempster Highway in the Yukon is about 500.  I guess we were not ready to take the big leap so instead we went to North Pole, Alaska the following day.
our campground in North Pole, Alaska
Santa at our North Pole, Alaska campground
And there we became kids all over again.  The city and our campground were bedecked with everything Christmas:  Christmas d├ęcor hung from all the light posts on the streets, the campground entrance was guarded by  7 reindeer and 20-foot Santa.  Another big Santa with a sleigh was in front of a small park with real reindeer.  Then there was a huge Christmas store on the lot from which we sent Christmas cards to all our siblings, children, and grandkids postmarked North Pole, Alaska.  And, of course, I had my picture taken on Santa’s lap! Truly, there it was Christmas 365 days in a year! 
the Christmas store in North Pole, Alaska

gold panning in Chicken, Alaska
Finally, we decided to go back to the lower 48 on a different route (not the Alaska Highway) this time…through Chicken, Alaska and the Top of the World Highway to Dawson City in the Yukon. The road to Chicken, Alaska is all gravel, a prelude to our next several days of travel.  The town’s summertime population is 32 (wintertime it’s 7).  We understand that the town got its name because the residents could not spell the ‘ptarmigan’.  The town is comprised of 2 campgrounds, one with gold-panning activities and the other with a country store.  We stayed at the former which is up the hill.  There we witnessed a spectacular sunset.  And the following day, we resumed our journey through the spectacular Top of the World Highway.
the country store in  Chicken, Alaska

Next Stops:  Dawson City and the Arctic Circle in the post titled, ‘Venturing to the Arctic Circle’