• Jessica Stough

Alaska - Denali National Park and Fairbanks - Days One & Two

Day One


When a flight lands at a destination at 7:00 at night, it makes it tough to do much exploring before bed. However, we made the most of it. We made a quick stop at one of our favorite places, REI, before they closed. Then, we made a quick trip to Walmart before grabbing some pizza and heading to our hotel.

 

Sunday morning, I was up at the butt crack of dawn - 3:30 AM - ready to do some exploring! I looked through the plethora of travel guides we snagged at the airport while drinking my morning coffee. Soon enough, we were off on the trek toward Denali National Park.

Along the way, we made a stop in Talkeetna, proclaimed “the gateway to Denali.” The town was adorable, and since we chose a shoulder season for our visit, it was pretty low-key. There were not a ton of crowds, so we were able to peruse shops along main street easily without running into a lot of people.


They had a short town loop walk set up, with a gorgeous view of Denali and information about the history of the town. There were lots of other options for things to do and see in Talkeetna, but after a short exploration of the town and a stretch of the legs, we were ready to head toward Denali National Park.

Our stop in Talkeetna did initiate a conversation with a sweet local shop owner, and she mentioned a few people had recently told her that Denali National Park had closed down due to the weather. Zac and I both had been frantically watching the Denali National Park news over the last few weeks, and hadn’t seen anything stating that yet. Thus, we decided to take the trip anyway (after all - that’s what we had come in this direction for!).

 

Coming in a shoulder season, we knew that there was a possibility the park would close down. Thank goodness, the local shop owner was only somewhat right. The park had shortened the amount of road that visitors could drive on from 43 miles into the park down to 15. In addition, the visitor center was closed down, with just a park ranger and some maps standing outside to greet visitors instead.

All that being said, the good news was that the majority of the park’s trails are on the first 15 miles of the drive. The even better news was that the sled dogs’ kennels were also on the first 15 miles of the drive.


Our first stop was the visitor center for some maps and a quick chat with the park ranger. I asked which trails he would recommend if he could only do a few, and he talked through those with me. I must’ve looked like quite the ameteur hiker, though, because he also pleasantly reminded me to be careful, because most of the trails have snow on them.


After the visitor center, we stopped at the best place in the entire park - the sled dogs’ kennels! They have a team of twenty-seven sled dogs and just brought in a new teeny, tiny pack of puppies to join the crew. We got to see all of them, and even pet a few. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I think I found my calling because there were volunteers there who got to run with the sled dogs to get them their exercise. I mean, come on. That sounds incredible.

After Zac peeled me away from the sled dogs, we were out to explore the rest of the 15 miles of road. Both of us kept our eyes glued to the surroundings in hopes to see a moose or two, but we didn’t have any luck on our first day. The chances of seeing them out and about right now seem pretty high because there were signs everywhere warning us to stay on the road only due to the moose rutting season.

 

Finally, we turned around and headed to our home away from home for a few days - the Frontier Blueberry Cottage! We took a cute wintery drive to get to our cottage, and were welcomed with a warm, cozy cabin when we finally got inside. For some, a place with power but no running water may seem scary or a bit out of their comfort zone. For tent campers like us, though, we both knew immediately it was a great choice.



 

Day Two


Monday started at the butt crack of dawn once again - 3:30 AM. Apparently, I have a really hard time adjusting to the time change. Anyway, I got a chance to drink my morning coffee while doing some blogging and some reading, taking in the incredible atmosphere of our little cabin.

After Zac woke up and we ate breakfast, we were off for the next adventures! We started the day with a stop at the local grocery store for some hiking snacks, then headed back to Denali National Park. By 10:00 AM, we were out hiking to Horseshoe Lake. The hike was short and sweet - and very very cold - but absolutely beautiful. There is nothing quite like the views of a river running through frozen beaver dams, snow, and icy dew.


When our hike was over, we headed toward the sled dogs! I was crushed to find out that the public is only allowed to love on them Saturdays and Sundays - and that they are in training Monday through Friday. I had half a mind to sneak in through the gate - the dogs were all howling and clearly wanted our attention - but figured breaking and entering at a government-run facility to pet some dogs probably wasn’t my best idea.

 

Instead, we decided to make our way north - all the way to the North Pole! Okay, it wasn’t technically the North Pole, but we did visit North Pole, Alaska. The town is fairly small, and didn’t have a ton of options for exploration, but was adorable for a few reasons:

  1. They had Christmas and winter-themed road names: Snowman, Santa Claus, etc.

  2. Their street lamps were shaped like candy canes.

  3. They had Happy Holidays signs up everywhere, even in September.

By that time, it had warmed up a bit, so we were off to Fairbanks for some more hiking. We landed on the Boreal Forest and Seasonal Wetland trail, which did not disappoint.

I had always thought that Colorado had the best fall colors, but I think that Alaska truly gives it a run for its money. The Boreal Forest trail took us through trees losing their leaves, and along bridges right through the wetlands, covered by more birch trees shedding their fall colors.

We also came across a friendly walker, who stopped us to tell us he had seen a woodpecker and point it out to us in the distance. He then began to tell us about some of the history of the trail, why the wetlands were expanding and the bridges for the trail were necessary, and that he actually led nature tours along the trail in the summer.

We talked to him for quite a bit. He reminded us to make sure to look up when hiking because we could potentially catch a glimpse of an owl or even a lynx. He also told us that if we really wanted to catch a glimpse of a moose, he recommended some trails behind the University of Alaska.


Before parting ways, he let us in on another trail he highly recommended, Wander Lake trail.

I am so thankful he mentioned it to us, but especially for two specific reasons:

  1. The trail was less than a quarter mile from the Boreal Forest trail, and we wouldn’t have even realized it because we had missed it on our trail apps.

  2. The pictures online simply did not do the lake or the trail justice.


 

Finally, after exploring around Fairbanks, we made our way on the curvy, windy roads back to our cottage in Healy. Now, we’ve had dinner and are doing some lounging before heading back out later tonight to hopefully catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Apparently, the chances of seeing them tonight are pretty high, so we’ve got our fingers crossed!


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