Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bicycle Trip to Denali National Park

A few weeks ago I decided to get out and do some exploring of one of Alaska's greatest treasures, Denali National Park.

Friday night, a friend and I loaded up our gear and my bike and headed north to Healy. Our plan was to camp at Riley Creek just inside Denali National Park and then make the bike trip on Saturday morning. The rest of our crew was going to meet us in Healy later that night.

About 4 hours and a disappointing number of Disney song singalongs later, we made it to Riley Creek.
After setting up our tents, we learned that the campsite we had picked was actually reserved, and that the whole campground was full for the night, so we would need to find another place to camp. So we headed about 10 miles north to Healy, where we found a nice little secluded campground on the shores of Otto Lake.

We got to our campground at sunset, which turned out not to be a terrible thing at all. 

This is the view from our campsite as we set up our tents. Not a bad sight after a long day of driving.

 From there my buddy and I headed into Healy to check out the 49th State Brewing Company, an excellent bar and restaurant where I had an Alaskan-raised yak burger with carmelized onions and gruyere cheese, topped off with a couple of pints of white peach wheat ale from their brewery. This is how you Alaska, people.

Savage River parking lot, the start of our journey. Civilian vehicles are only allowed to drive to this point, and any further travel is either on foot or bike, or on one of the park's tour buses. 

After about 2.5 miles of straight climbing right off the bat, we ran into this bastard right in the road. He trotted straight at us while we waved our hands, clapped, yelled and hurled insults at his mother. He only left when I flexed my biceps at him. #sunsoutgunsout

Long climbs mean long downhills, which are fun until you remember that they turn into long climbs on the way back. 

Looking north from the Sanctuary River bridge.

Our party stops to survey the mighty landscape before us. 

Sanctuary River, looking south.

Sanctuary River is a glacial-fed river, so it will clog up your water filter bottle with glacial silt pretty quickly if you're not careful. 

My trusty steed, with way more gear than I ended up needing. Cannondale CAADX Disc 6. I was initially worried that my 35c tires wouldn't do well on the rough road, but they ended up being more than fine and I probably could've gotten away with as small as a 28c. 

Stopping to have a snack. This was a frequent occurrence for us. Turns out you have to eat a lot when bike touring to keep your energy up. Who knew?

Teklanika River, looking north. A braided glacial river. There was a big caribou standing in the river bed but he was too far away to get a picture of. 

Teklanika River, looking south.

Panoramic view, Teklanika River bed looking south.

Fall was just starting to show up in Denali National Park, and the leaves were slowly changing colors in patches throughout the parks. Different elevations change at different speeds. 

Finally we reached our destination for the evening, the Igloo Creek campground. Igloo Creek is a backpacker-only seven site campground with a bathroom, secure bear food storage and a bus stop nearby. You have to reserve the campground on the day you plan to use it, and we were lucky enough to snag the last spot at around 11 am. 

Just north of our campground was Cathedral Mountain, which sits next to Igloo Mountain forming Sable Pass between the two. 

Igloo Creek looking north.

Long and lonesome road.

Another shot of Igloo Creek looking south towards Cathedral Mountain. 

Since we started at mile 15, we actually only biked about 20 miles in. Had we gone farther, we would've needed a backcountry camping permit, as the next established campground on the park road is at Wonder Lake at mile 85. 

Our campsite for the evening. 3 tents, although my small yellow backpacking tent is barely visible in the background.  The Igloo Creek campground has 2 toilet with locking doors, a bear-proof food storage locker, bearproof garbage disposal, and picnic tables. There are no fires allowed in Denali National Park, so no fire rings, though you are allowed to bring a campstove, which we did. 

After we cooked dinner, we hiked along this dry creek bed next to Igloo Creek hoping to find something cool, but we didn't see anything but a bunch of dumb rocks. So we turned around and headed back in the other direction. About 100 yards south of where we set up camp, we found...

...a huge meadow filled with ripe blueberries ready to be picked. We grabbed all the ziploc bags and Nalgene bottles we could and picked berries until we ran out of things to store them in. 

There were so many blueberries as far as you could see. There were also some lingonberries, but everyone knows those are bullshit berries. Blueberries are the money berry. 

This bag represents about 15 minutes' worth of casual picking. We probably filled 8 or 9 bags with berries. Berries for days. No wonder bears do this shit all summer.

Resting in a meadow after a fierce battle with a grizzly over a berry picking spot. 

After the berry picking, I took a little walk up the road a ways to stretch my legs a little after so much riding. 

A patch of trees changes color on the mountain. 

There was a small herd of Dall sheep up on this ridge, but they're too small to see in this picture. 

Another panorama of the berry meadow, turning red as fall begins to set in. 

Mountains in the distance near our campsite. 

Looking back north towards our campsite. The white roof of the toilets is just barely visible in the left side of the picture. 

All in all, Denali National Park is one of my favorite places in all of North America to visit, and bicycle touring is a great way to see the park. You have to be prepared for bad weather, lots of climbing, and the potential for wildlife encounters at any time, but the payoff is well worth it and bike touring is one of the best ways to experience this side of Alaska. 

Here's an elevation profile of the park road to give you an idea of what kind of climbing you can expect. The most difficult portions were the first 2 miles going into the park, and the 4 or 5 mile uphill on the way back. That part was especially difficult because we had a good 15 to 20 mph headwind blowing directly at us the whole time. I think I averaged about 4 mph the time I wasn't pushing my bike up the hill to avoid the wind. 

And finally, here's some video I shot with my helmet-mounted GoPro of portions of the ride. Apologies for the shaky video; no apologies for the wonderful jazz soundtrack.