Sunday, January 05, 2014

50 States: Alaska - Denali and Coldfoot

I recently completed a Bucket List type of challenge, which was to visit all fifty states. I completed this goal when I visited Alaska this summer. As luck would have it, a high school friend has retired to a small community just outside of Anchorage and offered to host us for our visit.

We used Eagle River as a center for side trips, the longest of which took us to Denali, Fairbanks, and ultimately to above the Arctic Circle. Wiseman, Alaska is one of the more unique places I have visited. A former Klondike Gold Rush village, it has dwindled down to about two dozen year round residents. The most prominent citizen of Wiseman is Jack Reakoff, a subsistence hunter who also conducts tours to visitors like us. This truly was a visit to a portion of Alaska which is slowly disappearing.


Wiseman is just up the Alaska Highway from Coldfoot, the last truckstop between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. It has the airport we flew into and a dirt lot gas station where the 'ice road' truckers stop for their last indoor toilet for 240 miles.


Above left is the Coldfoot Airport where you can see the Alaska Pipline meandering across the tundra and on the right is the airport office. Below is a panorama of eighteen wheelers at the truck stop.

Our trip to Coldfoot took us by train to Denali National Park. We arrived there on a warm (for Alaska) clear day and impulsively booked a sightseeing flight over Mt. McKinley. We were lucky to do it when we did as we got some good glimpses of the huge mountain before it clouded over for the rest of our trip. 


The main purpose of the Denali stop was for wildlife viewing. It was a eight hour train ride from Anchorage just to get to Denali. There are two types of tour trips through Denali. The first is a 'guided' tour on converted school buses where a tour guide points out wildlife and gives short talks about the park and the area. The second style is an unguided trip which goes a little deeper into the park. In practice, there is little difference between the two. In either case, expect to spend six to eight hours in modest comfort while squinting to see wildlife in the distance.


The biggest realization about Denali is how vast the park is and how sparse the inhabitants are. Between the two days we did manage to see all of what is called the Big Five, bears, moose, sheep, caribou, and wolves. Of these, wolves are the rarest but we did see one roaming on a distant river bank. An Alaskan resident we later met was furious because she has been to to Denali many times and never seen a wolf although she recognized the site where we saw it.



The hotel we stayed at in Denali was affiliated with Royal Caribbean Cruises which seemingly only rents to people over the age of 80. Rather than do the atrocious sounding dinner theater, we took a shuttle bus into Healy where we found a great brew pub. Healy is also the last town Chris Chandless stopped in before the went on his ill-fated Into The Wild hike. The bus where he spent his last four months is less than 20 miles out of town. And the replica of the bus used for the Sean Penn directed movie is on the grounds of the 49th State Brewery.


The central Alaska region truly is still an untamed area full of colorful people, beautiful scenery and incredible wildlife. You owe it to yourself to see it on your own.

Check out more photos of Denali and Coldfoot.

1 comment:

Michigoose said...

Wow--this is great! I saw four of the big five (no wolves. . . now that I think about it, I've never seen a wolf) in Yellowstone and was somewhat surprised at how much different it feels to see them on their own turf. Looks like you guys had a great time, and the picture of Mt McKinley/Denali is stunning.