Biking Touring the Denali Park Road (For Newbies)

First off, Thanks to all who contributed to the new watermark. Your input and voting helped a lot, and I was overwhelmed by the response. It was really great!

If this post had a theme, and I guess it does since I’m suggesting it, the theme would be that there’s always a “silver lining” or “blessings in disguise”.

When Aaron and I began our bike tour on the Denali Park Road our eagerness was tangible. Even the first big hill after Savage River could not dampen it. However, the next few long climbs put out some of our internal fires. While we are talking about hills, if you do go to Denali National Park remember, it is known for it’s mountains and one of them, who’s name literally means “The Great One”, is the tallest in North America. Gradients are often 5-9% and can extend for 2 or 3 miles. Getting over or around these stone giants is the name of the game.

The video here does a great job of capturing the incredible wildlife (bears, sheep, ptarmigan, wolves) as well as the joy of riding down a big hill and some of the scenery. For context on the video make sure to read the rest of the post 😉

The first night we peddled into the Sanctuary River Campground which was is located at mile twenty-three. We got a a late start, so when we arrived at camp around 8:30 PM it was time for bed. The next morning’s sky looked promising. Blue sky overhead was allowing the rising sun to illuminate the fall colors. Autumn in Denali NP was in full bloom. White-barked aspens were fluorescent yellow and stubby, dwarf shrubs were dark red. Willows along the banks were a mellow yellow and the bowl of mountains provided a stark, snow-covered backdrop.

As we pushed our gear up the road to Igloo Campground the curtains were pulled and the sky when flat gray. It stayed that way for the grueling climb over Sable Pass where we encountered a few inches of snow on the ground, but a clear road. The sky remained gray for our joyride down the back of Sable Pass. By the time we had reached the Polychrome Mountain Overlook rain seemed imminent. The Polychrome Mountains are known for their red-streaked banding which resulted from old volcanic activity. However, on Saturday we could barely make them out, and shifty fog was hanging in the valley and around the toes of the mountains.

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The Denali Park Road as it heads up Polychrome Pass. The reds in the rock are a result of volcanic activity and were sculpted by glaciers.

At the bottom of Polychrome pass, approximately 43 miles into the park disaster hit. The bike that Aaron was using broke down when the spokes in the rear wheel loosened up. We knew we could grab a bus at anytime, but before hanging our hat on that fate pushed our bikes the 2 miles to the top of Sable Pass. We reached the top and a few minutes later a bus trundled up. The bus driver opened up the door and told us the great news – there were two wolves headed up the pass and would be there in just 90 seconds!! I grabbed my gear, set up, and just a few seconds later encountered my first wolves of Alaska when they popped up 50 yards away. One was a collared animal which I assume is female and was traveling with one of her offspring. Both of the wolves seemed a bit thin. Lately wolf numbers in the park have been way down for unknown reasons, so since approximately 25% of visitors see wolves I was ecstatic to be so close! The encounter lasted for less than 45 seconds before they moved on and were never seen again. It is amazing to think that if Aaron’s bike had not broken down and if we chose to take the bus right away that we never would have had this incredible encounter. What an experience! That’s my silver lining story!

A collared Denali Wolf at the top of Sable Pass. What a treat!!
A collared Denali Wolf at the top of Sable Pass. What a treat!!
This juvenile wolf was traveling with the collared wolf. Who knows how many were still in the brush. This wolf seems a bit thin, hopefully he bulks up before winter for his sake!
This juvenile wolf was traveling with the collared wolf. Who knows how many were still in the brush. This wolf seems a bit thin, hopefully he bulks up before winter for his sake!

After the wolf Aaron caught a bus back to Igloo campground and I biked through the snow and rain to the bottom. As night fell the sun broke through the clouds and lit the mountains up in coral pink. We were optimistic for great weather on Sunday!

Just as the sun set it lit the sky up in an ever-intensifying pink. The snow capped mountains and sky all the incredible shade of color.
Just as the sun set it lit the sky up in an ever-intensifying pink. The snow capped mountains and sky all the incredible shade of color.

The next morning Aaron got an adrenaline rush right-off-the-bat when he encountered a mature brown bear at the food lockers. The bear did not hang around long, but since Aaron was carrying food to the locker when he came up to it, the experience was pretty electrifying! Without bikes we decided to hike up one of the snow clear summit of Igloo Mountain. We climbed from about 1200 feet and were greeted by sheep, snow covered peaks, a piping arctic ground squirrel and blue skies. Our journey was almost done as we pushed our bikes to Teklanika River where a bear came to the rivers edge to strip berries and flip rocks for insects. We exited the rest of the park on motorized wheels. Trip accomplished with a final count of three grizzly bears, two wolves, loads of sheep, and buckets of memories!

I guess this is Bear Ass picture. This big brown bear appeared in camp on Sunday morning. After very briefly checking the food lockers he forded Igloo Creek and headed to the bridge and down the road.
I guess this is Bear Ass picture. This big brown bear appeared in camp on Sunday morning. After very briefly checking the food lockers he forded Igloo Creek and headed to the bridge and down the road.
Teklanika River Grizzly
This grizzly came out and stripped berries and flipped rocks along the river.

 

Igloo Mountain Summit
Near the summit of Igloo Mountain. What a day!

Thanks for checking in!

13 thoughts on “Biking Touring the Denali Park Road (For Newbies)”

  1. Ian,
    Your posts just get better and better, and this is spectacular. You have such wonderful experiences. I’m curious. How far away were you from the grizzly you filmed? (BTW, I saw Jefferson Airplane perform that song in Fargo in the late 60’s. They played so loudly, it felt as if the sound would blow us right out if the Civic Center.)

    1. Thanks Sandy. I really think this blog has improved my writing/videography/storytelling, and am happy to have such a great review! 🙂

      As for the grizzlies they were actually quite far away – the one along the river was likely 3/4 of a mile, the one walking through the willows on the hillside was maybe 1/2 mile and the one on the road was about 60 yards… he was a bit closer, haha! I’m able to pull off those long videos with a little bit of camera trickery. I shoot a micro four-thirds camera. The micro 4/3 technology doubles the lens equivalence in 35 mm, which means I’m shooting an equivalent 600mm lens. Then, I’m able to use a 2x digital teleconverter to get me along the lines of 1200mm – that’s a lot of reach! It’s not exactly at 1200mm, but regardless I can get quite close even with very distant animals. In the bottom of the past the grizzly shot along the river and under the mountains is shot at 100mm and gives you an idea of distance.

  2. OO LA LA is right, Ian! Other than the bike issue, it looks like you couldn’t have asked for more in a weekend adventure. Its 40 degrees here this a.m. so am reminded the white stuff, that looks so beautiful as it graces the mountains, isn’t too far away here at home. Thanks for another EPIC Alaskan adventure!

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