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John and Mandi

us --> van --> overland
1,927 days a wanderin'

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Touristy Touring Tourists

Aug 19, 2015
by John
in: Alaska, USA

Denali has been at the top of our list since the moment we decided to include Alaska in our Pan-Am route. Everything we have seen and heard was wonderful, a little research later had us changing our expectations. The park is mostly closed to traffic, requiring pricey shuttle passes for exploration. We weren't entirely enthused about being mostly confined to a bus for an 8-9 hour tour. A discussion with Brad and Oksana (Perky Mog) gave us a lead on a pass that would allow us to ride the shuttle buses as much as we wanted as long as we didn't backtrack past the Teklanika campground. Only problem was, we don't make reservations and that campground required a three day minimum stay. On a whim, Mandi checked the online reservation system and we luckily scored a site. A phone call later and we had the shuttle passes, $70 for the both of us.

Sometimes reducing, or reality checking, our expectations sets us up for a positive experience instead of a disappointment. With our reservation and passes secured we checked the weather, uh oh. Cold and rainy, not the best for the crown jewel of Alaska. Whatev, we were excited to get the chance at possibly seeing Mount McKinley and whatever wildlife decided to brave the unfavorable conditions. It would also be nice to park the van for three days and leave things on the counter for a change.

Our first day we caught the 7:15AM bus going to Wonder Lake, the place where most of the iconic photos are taken. It was raining and foggy and visibility was nonexistent in several places. The stop that would have allowed us to see McKinley in its entirety totally skunked us, even the base was lost in the fog. Really, not one inch of North America's tallest mountain could be seen, our driver made many jokes and the mood of the bus was great. The cold rain and wonder of Denali was not lost to any of us. The random Caribou awed all, then it snowed. It snowed really hard, transforming the park before our eyes to give us a glimpse of an entirely different Denali. Magical could never describe the reality, entirely an understatement when we began to see the grizzly bears.

Denali National Park, AK, USA

What the hell is a Langolier?

Denali National Park, AK, USA

Orange you glad grizzly does banana (naked in the snow - WOD)

Denali National Park, AK, USA

Be bear aware

Toklat River, Denali National Park, AK, USA

Always tell a horny woman she has a nice rack

On our second day we decided to catch a much later bus, 3:10PM, to try our luck at the evening hours. This one only went as far as the Eielson visitor center making for an almost 6 hour tour. It was still overcast but visibility was much better. Mount McKinley made a brief and somewhat obscure appearance, it was great to get a glimpse. Moose, sheep, caribou, and lots of bears were spotted. The landscape was completely different than the day before. Denali did not disappoint.

Denali National Park, AK, USA

I think we're supposed to throw beads or something

Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park, AK, USA

Sunny where there's solar panels, a conspiracy we tell ya

Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park, AK, USA

We call him tater chip

The Teklanika campground was sold out the day we originally planned to leave, our efforts to extend our stay thwarted, so we slowly headed out of the park stopping to watch moose along the way. We wanted to drive the Denali highway, over 100 miles of gravel, even though hunting season was already open. It was almost a total bust, only a couple of squirrels were seen, mostly it was locals tear assing about on four wheelers looking for caribou to shoot. Every single pull off was crammed full of makeshift hunting camps so we opted for a campground to escape the melee. Being berry season, we hung around to five minutes until checkout to pick over a pint of blueberries, pick a pint of crow berries, and to have some fresh blueberry pancakes. The cranberries weren't ready just yet.

Denali National Park, AK, USA

Dude, it was a total stag party

Tangle Lakes Campground, Denali Highway, AK, USA

Three humps, look out for Captain Kirk

We were told by many Alaskans that the drive to Valdez was beautiful so we took a couple days to head that way. The mountains of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park ushered us along, pirate camping one night with Mount Drum as our backdrop. The drive into Valdez is very beautiful with many gravel side roads to explore. We took one to try and get a better view of a glacier which resulted in an unexpected watershed that was exquisite. Momma always said, sometimes you gotta take a back road... well maybe not one of our mommas but somebody's we're sure. It was a long drive but the last 60 miles or so are really rewarding, it might be smarter to ferry to Valdez and drive out or yo-yo it and ferry out.

Richardson Highway, AK, USA

Wrangell me this, Batman

Richardson Highway, AK, USA

River to the left of us, glacier to the right, here we are, stuck in the middle...

Valdez, AK, USA

Go go gadget submarine

Over the past few weeks we had been toying with the idea of visiting McCarthy and Kennecott, an old copper mining town. We were really close so we went for it. The road in was the worst we've driven so far, the Denali highway a close second. Apparently the State of Alaska isn't willing or able to maintain all of its roads. It's sad in the case of Kennecott, one of the gateways into Wrangell-St. Elias (the largest US national park). Couple that with privately owned land and structures mixed into federally owned ones, the result is one bureaucratic mess. While Kennecott was neat, we're still undecided on whether it's worth the effort to visit. Maybe fly in or rent a car/RV to make the voyage, save your vehicle for other wild explorations.

Kennecott, AK, USA

Barn red was all the rage back then, it's starting to make a comeback

Kennecott, AK, USA

Tell me again about Chucky

The joke about Alaska is that it's "miles and miles of miles and miles", that is not an understatement. Sometimes it takes days to get to a place that is just a stop before driving to another place. Some roads are stunning while others are mundane. To understand its sheer size Alaska must be driven. The cost of Alaskan beauty is in time spent in the cockpit. Sometimes rounding a corner is the most wonderful experience as the landscape unfolds. It then takes hours to drive 40 miles because you just can't stop pulling over to marvel at its wonder. When you feel you have a handle on it, it snows and wonders you all over again. There are times it will make you road weary, just stop and remember the bears.


Say what? (2)
Aug 20, 2015 at 05:50 AM
Beautiful shots guys! Making us peanut butter and jealous on the opposite corner of the continent!
Aug 21, 2015 at 04:22 PM
Thanks Tiff!

You made us laugh so hard Mandi started coughing, you owe her a lung. Too bad we weren't in the PNW when you guys were, would have been fun to hang out again. In a not so far future your pics will be reminding us, crazy cool.
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