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Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!

Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!

So we’ve been in Alaska for a few days now and it is really something. Like it’s huge state, but it’s also just a HUGE state. “Everything’s bigger in Texas” except when compared to Alaska. EVERYTHING is massive here. The mountains. The glaciers. The distances. The temperature differences. It is really incredible.

And it is just an incredible contrast from where I was last week in Iowa and Minnesota, with their gentle rolling hills and Mid-western charm. That is not Alaska – at all. This is the big leagues of adventure travel.

After our initial train ride from hell, we checked into our hotel just outside Denali National Park. After a quick dinner at Karsten’s Pub (go with the fish and chips, they’re really good) we crashed for the night at about 9:30. After a few hours of sleep, we were awakened by the phone ringing.

“Aurora!” I shouted as we jumped out of bed, got dressed and went outside. The phone call was indeed from the front desk, telling us to go outside and look up. And boy what a sight…

The ACTUAL Northern freaking Lights IN REAL LIFE!

It lasted for about 15 minutes before fading away, but we actually got to see the Northern freaking Lights. This had been a lifelong dream for me. In fact, when we went to New Zealand we made an attempt to get as far south as possible in the hopes of seeing the Aurora AUSTRALIS (the nearly identical, although much less well known Southern Lights), but it just wasn’t happening. The pictures and video really don’t do the experience justice. We just gaped at the sky, awe-struck.

And then we went right back to bed so the whole thing felt like a dream – except for our photographic and video proof.

The next morning we were up at 5:30 and headed into the park. And it was incredible. I try not to use terms like “spectacular” or “grandiose” too often but they really fit the bill. Denali is just something else. We saw all kinds of animals like moose, caribou, bears, eagles and dall sheep.

Welcome to Denali National Park. One of the most remote places in the United States.

One thing to know about Denali is that they really enforce the rules about not interfering with the animals. Being that people aren’t able to drive in, you don’t get idiots who feed animals or otherwise interact with them. So the moose and bears keep their distance. This is a good thing for them, but it’s a bad thing for you…if you hypothetically forget to bring binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens…

There are bears somewhere off in the distance there, I swear…

It’s not like Yellowstone, where bison literally walk right up to your car and follow you as you drive down the street.

But the real star is the mountain itself. At over 20,000 feet, Denali (which means “The Great One”) is the biggest mountain in the world. What’s that you say? Mount Everest at 29,029 feet is higher? Well yeah, sure, if you grant it the 15,000 foot PLATEAU that gives it an unfair head start! Denali is on just a 2,000 foot plateau – so the mountain towers over its base by about 17,000 feet. Everest only goes up about 14,000 feet from top to bottom.

So as far as I’m concerned I just saw the BIGGEST mountain in the WORLD.

By far, the most incredible mountain I’ve ever set eyes upon.

And apparently, it’s a very shy biggest mountain because it’s really only visible about 30% of the time. Well we sure lucked out.

Our trip through the park took about 13 hours to go to the end of the 92-mile-long park road.

The end of the road…

They don’t let private cars drive more than 15 miles into the park so you need to book a ticket with either a tour bus or a shuttle bus. The tour bus costs about three times as much and includes a guide that tells you about the park.

Don’t bother.

We went with the shuttle bus, which was driven by a National Park employee. Our driver, JJ, had a microphone and basically did the job of a guide anyway. He answered all of our questions, told us about interesting things about the park, and stopped the bus anytime someone saw an animal they wanted to photograph. In fact, he was so devoted to showing us everything we wanted that we actually got back to the entrance to the park, the last shuttle back to our hotel (which leaves at 7 pm) had left.

Our driver even showed us wild cranberries and blueberries that we could eat!

Calling the hotel to send a “special” shuttle to get us meant paying $10 and waiting 20 minutes.

NOPE.

After our new friends on our shuttle bus heard about our predicament, several of them offered to drive us back since they were staying in the neighborhood anyway. So we caught a ride for free. Much like our near disaster at Tongariro, I knew there was about a 100% chance we would be able to catch a ride back with one of the dozens of people who visit the park if you miss your shuttle. So take your time and don’t stress it.

Who would want to leave this place, ever?

We got back to the hotel, had a quick dinner and went to sleep. No dancing lights this time.

The next morning we got our stuff together and headed for the cruise ship in Seward.

And finally some relaxation. But first there was one last little sidequest to complete…

Always make the most of the time you are given.

But we’ll save that story for another time.

49 States: We Made It To Alaska!

49 States: We Made It To Alaska!

Well, we did it! We are in the Last Frontier.

After my short diversion this week to states number 47 and 48, Ariel and I touched down yesterday afternoon in Alaska!

Welcome to Alaska everybody.

Just setting foot in this state was a pretty massive moment for me because I’m now officially a member of “Club 49” – and it just so happened IN the 49th state.

And then, there was one. Just need to get to Hawaii and that’s a wrap.

That’s a pretty awesome coincidence and even better because the 50th state to enter the Union, will also be the 50th state I enter – whenever that happens.

So we’ve now been in Alaska for just about 24 hours and it really is everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s huge. It’s beautiful. It’s cold. Perhaps that last one is not so surprising, but still, even being in Alaska, it’s strange to think about wearing layers and sweatshirts in August. It’s also the tail end of the season here and you can really feel the state winding down.

The colors are shifting in the bushes. The hotel employees are getting ready to head back to their home states for the winter. And the average age of the other people visiting is somewhere north of 67.

After landing in Anchorage, we crashed into bed early last night. It was a pretty long travel day – starting at 6:45 am New Jersey time and ending at about 6 pm Alaska time (which is 10 pm NJ time).

A view of downtown Anchorage from the train station.

This morning we were up and at ’em at about 5 am for an eight hour train ride to Denali National Park. Unfortunately for us, we shared a train car with a pack of rabid hyenas. Wait no, they weren’t hyenas, they were just a pack of drunk retirees who felt the need to bellow and bray and hoot and holler for the entire ride.

Look, I’m all for having a good time. But we were in this unbelievably beautiful place, with panoramic windows and views of endless mountains, valleys and forests, and these loudmouths wouldn’t shut up for eight straight hours. I mean imagine sitting in one of the loudest bars you’ve been in…but on a train in a national park. At 10 am!

Ariel and I seek refuge in the dining car from drunken hyenas.

Even worse, the guy whose job it was to point out landmarks and give us interesting facts about the areas we were passing through just gave up trying to talk louder than them. It was so bad that I wanted to apologize to the one foreign couple in our train car. Eventually we just moved to a different (much quieter!) car. And it was such a shame because our guide from the original car was actually from New Jersey too! Dunellen to be exact. What a crazy coincidence! He was telling us about how he had lived in Barrow, Alaska which is a place I’ve been interested in going to ever since I was in Ushuaia, Argentina. It’s so remote over there that they only get one shipment of gasoline A YEAR.

Anyway, we finally made it to Denali National Park, which is truly beautiful.

Seriously, this place is beautiful. Come here now.

It really is awesome.

Tomorrow we enter the park in search of Mount Denali itself, the tallest mountain in the world. Yeah that’s right, it’s taller than Mount Everest. Google it if you don’t believe me.