Drive to Healy

After a relaxed morning, eating breakfast while watching the mountains from our living room in Girdwood, we managed to pack up and get out by 10:30AM.

View from our vacation rental loft in Girdwood, Alaska
Mountain Gazing

First stop was Beluga point on the Old Seward Hwy. We didn’t see any Belugas or other Whales for that matter but it was a gorgeous view out to the bay. Next stop was Costco in Anchorage to fill up on gas and pick up some food for the road. We briefly stopped at Kaladi brothers in Wasilla (Best tea and coffee!) and started driving up to Denali.

A glimpse of Mt. McKinley (aka Denali) somewhere near Talkeetna, Alaska
A glimpse of Mt. McKinley (aka Denali) somewhere near Talkeetna

The drive to Denali from Anchorage or Girwood is so scenic that you can’t do it without stopping along the way. So you probably want to add 1.5-2 hrs to your navigation’s ETA.

Snowed in lookout somewhere near Trapper Creek, Alaska
Somewhere near Trapper Creek

We finally arrived in Healy, which was our Denali Basecamp (Aurora Denali Lodge), around 5PM. In early May, when we visited, almost the entire town of McKinley Park was boarded up for the winter so Healy was as our next best choice. We had dinner at 49th State Brewing Co which was like one street over and filled up on gas and snacks at Three Bears, a huge store with sporting equipment and groceries – they even had insoles which came in handy for A, who’s shoes were giving her problems, and called it a night.

Bus from the movie 'Into The Wild' at 49th State Brewing Co in Healy, Alaska
Bus from the movie ‘Into The Wild’ at 49th State Brewing Co

Denali National Park

We woke up in the morning to see snow flurries outside our window. The weather forecast had said overcast but nothing about snow! The back of our room, where the window was, faced the forest, and was covered in a blanket of snow. The view was just magical. We hadn’t seen any breakfast options at the lodge the night before so we were prepared with fruit, yogurt, and PB&J. The rooms came with a mini-fridge and a microwave. We headed off to Denali a little after 9AM. Since it was still the shoulder season, the main visitor center was still close but the Murie Science & Learning Center open. There were no admission ticket booths along the Park road we needed to check in at the Murie center to get out park tickets. There were two rangers working the desk and drew us maps and said the park road should be open upto Mile 30 and we could drive as far as it was open (in case it was open further along). After a quick trip to the bathroom (which was super clean), we headed back to the car to make our drive to Mile 30. It had stopped snowing when we got to the Murie center but just as we left, the flurries started.  Just as we passed the Savage River trail head at Mile 15, the flurries turned into a full-on blizzard with hardly any visibility. There was a convoy of about 10-15 cars that passed us but I voted for us to turn around. But as we stopped to take some pictures at the overlook, it stopped snowing. So we kept driving up until the Teklanika rest stop, at Mile 30 at which point, the ranger opened the gate to let the car convoy before us pass and promptly closed the gate before we could sneak past. The Teklanika river was frozen, and so was the ground around and by the way, it started snowing again. We took some pictures, and got back in the car to drive back.

As we got to the Savage River trail head, it’d stopped snowing so we decided to hike the Savage River Loop (2 mile RT). At this trail head, there are two trails – the Savage Alpine trail and the River loop. The Park Ranger had said the River loop might be icy with the snow and all but we decided to hike that any way as we had crampons. Parts of the Savage river were frozen solid. The Alpine loop looked like rock climbing so be passed on that. Well, as luck would have it, the blizzard started again. It was spectacular to experience Denali in a blizzard so we kept walking and finished the loop. 

Savage River Loop trail in Denali National Park during a blizzard
Savage River Loop
We stopped at the Husky Kennels on our way back and got to see some amazing rangers with even more amazing huskies. During winter the huskies get their exercise from sledding however, during the rest of the year, they need to be walked for about an hour everyday which the volunteers from town sign up to do which is kinda incredible. We also saw a Moose happily sitting in the wooded area along the trail to the kennel not bothered by people or the dogs.
Moose by the sled dog Kennels in Denali National Park, Alaska
Moose by the sled dog Kennels

Park Tips

  1. If you’re visiting Denali from Anchorage, stay in Healy (~ 11 miles) or McKinley Park (~ 3 miles) as they are the closest towns to the Park entrance and that way you won’t waste time driving to and from the park.
  2. There is only one road entrance into the park from Hwy 3. So entry and exits are thru here.
  3. There are no Gates/Manned posts at the park entrance. You need to pay the entrance fee at either the Denali Park Visitor Center or Murie Science and Learning Center (during winter and off-season). If you have an Access pass, entrance fee is waived for Access Pass holder + 3 people (total 4). Extra people in the group are charged $15 per person. 
  4. There are NO shuttle buses in Denali until mid-May. 
  5. They start plowing the roads mid-March. So you may drive as much of the road as snow conditions allow in the spring, until you reach Teklanika River (Mile 30).
  6. Starting mid-May (~May 20), shuttle bus service starts and private vehicles are allowed up until Mile 15.

Rejuvenated after playing with the dogs, as it was only 3PM, we headed back to the Murie center to use the bathrooms and do one last hike before we headed out for good. We left the car parked at the Murie center and decided to walk down the McKinley trail upto Riley Creek and back the same way (~2 mile RT). We crossed over from the Murie center and got on the Spruce Forest trail which connects to the McKinley Trail. Just as we were crossing a wooded area just past the back of the Denali Visitor center, a Mama and a Baby Moose who were by the trees, probably thinking of crossing the trail onto the other side, startled us and they were startled by us too. We quietly kept walking and made it past them. However, on on return, Mama moose was blocking our path and wouldn’t move. For those of you who haven’t seen a Moose up close, standing up, they’re huge weighing more than 1500 lbs and almost 8′ tall! While the rest of the group decided to backtrack, I bravely tried to walk up, talking to the Moose in soothing tones in the hopes that she’d move away. But alas, she decided she wasn’t going anywhere and at the behest of S and my fellow travelers,  we decided to take the longer path (hoping that there weren’t any bears on the other side) that looped around the Riley Creek Campground and back the the Murie center thru the Parks Hwy. What started off as a “short” hike, turned into a very long and hungry walk. It was close to 6PM when we were finally out of the park and decided to eat at Moose-Aka’s, which was boarded up to our disappointment. So, we went back to Healy and ate at the same place as the night before, 49th State Brewing Co, and crashed for the night.

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