Day 8: Saturday
Steamed milk in hand, we were on the 8:30 bus to Fish Creek (formerly Eielson, but the visitors’ center there is under reconstruction, so the stops have been shifted during this process), boarding at 8:15; you have to bring enough food and water for yourself for the entire eight-hour round-trip ride, and longer if you want to get off the bus and walk around and then get picked up by the next bus. We actually didn’t bother switching busses because ours made enough stops for us to get several chances to walk around.
It really was a great bus ride when seen as a nature ride and not a wildlife ride--we were glad we saw the wildlife at Big Game Alaska, because here we saw caribou from very far away, lots of “bears” (judging from the man who kept making false calls on the bus) that were really hikers, some willow ptarmigan (the state bird, fluttering around at the edge of the road), a bald eagle, some hawks, and an arctic squirrel.
Robert ate a Subway club sandwich and some Tim’s chips (everything non-Alaskan is imported from Washington state, or at furthest, California) on the bus, and I had cheese popcorn and dried cranberries (there didn’t seem to be any sandwiches that I would like in the town; in fact, Subway was said to have the most “gourmet” bread in town).
The busses we rode on were indeed old schoolbusses, but they had more comfortable seats than you might expect, and working seatbelts. It was great watching the tundra give way to the taiga as we climbed into the park, and the make-shift visitors’ center deep in the park at a tent had some good exhibits. We took a half-hour ramble along a braided riverbed, keeping our feet dry on the mud and the gravel and admiring all of the multicolored rocks.
At left, the fascinating swirls and beautiful colors of the rocks and mud in a braided riverbed.
Since we’d seen Denali itself yesterday, from right up close, we weren’t as disappointed as others not to see the mountain today in the smoke and fog. They say it’s partly visible fifteen days in the season, and fully visible, without cloud cover obscuring it, only about eight other days, so really most visitors come here and never really see the mountain from the park or the roads.
At the end of the day’s bus tour, we went back to the real visitors’ center, which we learned had just opened a few months ago, and explored the exhibits there more fully, watching their nature film as well. They also have a great, brand-new bookstore with some lovely things in it.
At left, the view from above the lake, and then the view at the lake itself.
Though we wouldn’t have minded having another day to hike around the entrance area, we settled for taking the Horseshoe Lake mini-trail, which took us just over 45 minutes round-trip from the pull-out near the railroad, and went on a moderate descent to a glacial lake with a large beaver dam. We kept seeing lots of birds and some squirrels and voles in the woods as we walked, but again, no beavers (nor bears. Robert was relieved, having read up on proper bear avoidance and bear encounter behavior for both grizzly and brown bears, but relieved not to have to use any of his new knowledge).
Leaving the park around 7:00, we drove from Denali straight to Fairbanks, through lots of smoke and lots of road construction, including some really unpleasant gravel road-top stretches. We ate, just for a change--and because they seated people right up until 10:00, which was basically when we arrived--at Gambardella’s Pasta Bella, a local Italian place that had pretty good, al dente pasta (I had giant stuffed shells) and decent pizza (Robert had a white pie). Exhausted, we then checked into the Golden North motel, highly recommended by our guidebooks, which is really nice, family run, and a bargain for what you get, given Alaskan prices: $99 got you a big room with two queen-sized beds and a separate sitting room. We fell asleep without taking advantage of the sitting room, though.