ALASKA Day 2: Denali

(Each picture on this screen is a thumbnail. Click on each picture to see them full size.)

Pictures just don't do vistas justice. But this one is of Denali (right), Mt. Foraker (17,000+ ft), and the other 14,000 ft peak I can't just remember what it's called taken from the banks of the frozen Talkeetna River before dawn at about 10:00 am local time. The waning full moon is shining brightly about an inch to the left out of view of the shot. Sorry!

I left Anchorage dark and early this morning, hoping for views like this. What I didn't expect was the "OH MY GOD!!!!" I screamed upon first seeing this vista three hours earlier as I drove into Talkeetna to visit the Talkeetna Ranger Station where all climbing expeditions of Denali begin. About two miles outside of the town, you drive over this ridge into the Talkeetna River Valley. Immediately after cresting the ridge, Denali explodes into view. My timing was such that the very first lights of morning twilight were appearing in the east while the waning full moon was still shining brightly. The entire drive from Anchorage, I had been in virtual darkness, but suddenly, right after cresting this ridge outside Talkeetna, Denali, Mt. Foraker, and the third mountain explode into moonlit view. You can not understand the scale unless you see it for yourself. These three mountains dominate the horizon. Talkeetna is 60 miles away from these towering behemoths. I had read about Denali. I had seen pictures of Denali. I had heard all kinds of stories of expeditions on Denali. But nothing prepared me for the reality of Denali.

Zooming in on Denali from the same vantage point along the frozen banks of the Talkeetna River.

Honestly, I never thought I could feel awe when looking at a mountain again. When I was a teenager, my father took my brothers and I to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We drove up to Copper Harbour. We saw the mountains of our home state. Don't laugh! And I was impressed. Compared to the flatlands of Detroit, the UP had mountains, alright?

Looking back at Denali from the Talkeetna overlook two miles outside of the town of Talkeetna just after sunrise.

When I was 20, I drove out west to Washington State via Kansas City and Denver. I drove north up I-25 through Colorado and Wyoming and into Montana and then west on I-90 and over the continental divide and through Idaho into Washington. The entire way I was in awe of the mountains I saw, how huge they were. These were real mountains.

Close up of Denali about 30 minutes and 20 miles closer to the mountain along the Parks Highway (Alaska Highway 3). Note that the sun is still extremely low on the horizon and the illumination from the sun, which is barely above the horizon, isn't any better.

Later on that trip to Washington I drove to Mt. Rainier, and from Paradise, I was astounded by this massive volcano that dominated the entire sky and rose 14, 410' above sea level. Up until today, Mt. Rainier is the highest mountain I have ever laid eyes on.

But then in 1997 I went to Hawaii and saw Mauna Loa stretch wide across the entire Big Island from the Top of Mauna Kea. Manua Loa and Mauna Kea are the two tallest mountains on the earth, each standing over 32,000' high from their base on the sea floor. The Big Island of Hawaii is actually just the tops of these two massive mountains. So I learned mountains are big in another way, and yet today I saw a mountain that rose 20,000 feet, almost 4 miles straight up above surrounding land. And it took my breath away.

Driving from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Denali is visible almost the entire 375 mile way. I caught my last glimpse of it from behind just 15 miles outside Fairbanks. The only other mountain I have ever seen from more than 100 miles away is Mt. Shasta in California, which rises way above the deep central valley floor. I am still in awe.

Along the drive I also saw something very interesting and kind of unique. The air was so cold that the fog that rose up from river valleys from time to time wasn't made of water vapor so much as it was made of ice crystals. So when the sun passed through the fog, which I learned is called "ice fog", it creates rainbows. I took a picture of this, but it needs some photo enhancement to see the rainbow well in the photograph, so I'll post that one later. But what I also saw was mile after mile of frozen snow just smothering trees. We've all seen trees encased in ice after an ice storm, but I've never seen really hardened snow encasing trees. Apparently, when there is a heavy snow, if it gets cold enough, the snow hardens and does not fall off of the tree. It's the same kind of snow that crunches and hardens beneath our feet when it's like zero degrees outside. So on the trees, it becomes a kind of snow crust.

I thought it was pretty amazing, and it certainly is visibly impressive.

Also today I stopped in at Denali National Park. I was the first visitor today at about 2:00 pm. Normally they lead snow shoe hikes through the park trails, but there's hardly any snow right now, so snow shoes are not necessary. However, I will be returning on Thursday to hike these trails with the Park Rangers and I can't wait.

After stopping in at Denali, I continued on to Fairbanks and ate dinner at the World Famous Thai House. Apparently, people from all over the world know about this restaurant and when they are in town for whatever reason, the visit is not complete without a visit to this restaurant. I went there and had the Pad Thai. It was really outstanding! But after the build up on Frommer's Travel Guide I was disappointed. Not taking anything away from the Thai House's food, but Molly Woo's in Columbus, Ohio has ( Shrimp Pad Thai that is every bit as good if not better than the Thai House, and Molly Woo's is much less greasy. Kudos to Molly Woo's!

Well folks, it's going to get to -40 tonight in Fairbanks, putting my dogsledding trip tomorrow in jeopardy. The dogs just do not run when it approaches -40, so we'll have to keep my fingers crossed. I'm hoping for that frigid experience!

Thanks for reading.


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