Alaska 5/8: The Wonders of Denali
Fairbanks served it's purpose on our trip. When I first started writing this, I was going to actually skip right over Fairbanks due to the fact that it wasn't the Alaska I was yearning for. It was urban and central and a little dry. But, Fairbanks actually had quite a bit to offer as far as a city goes. Their farmers market was excellent, there were a few good restaurants, and I was able to find a campsite within city limits quite easily. They had at least one used book store (which, along with libraries, is a great way to stay inside and keep entertained when you are camping and are searching for respite from the outdoors but don't want to be in another restaurant or museum). And of course, they had the famed Pioneer Park. Pioneer Park was built in the 60's as a 100 year celebration of Alaska's purchase form Russia. It celebrates the rich Alaska history while creating a fun environment for everyone. There is a small "train" you can ride around the park, many museum exhibits, a playground, and even an ancient carousel for the kids to ride. There are also artistic vendors and of course, food- lots of food. It was definitely a huge Gaia favourite, and a great way to spend an afternoon.
After a couple of days catching up in Fairbanks, we continued down towards Anchorage. I'd done a bit of research on Denali National Park and knew that I would want to camp nearby. As we headed South an ominous group of clouds was forming so I decided to find the next available campsite and set up as soon as possible. We found "Denali Raft Adventures" and picked a site. The campsite was great. The tent sites were set near a lake for canoeing/kayaking, and availability for river rafting was at your doorstep. Due to Gaia's size and age, we weren't able to go rafting, but when we go back, we will make sure to add it to the list. There were quite a few restaurants just off of the highway so we went into "town" to enjoy a nice dinner.
The following day we located the park office to see what we could organize for a trip into Denali. Denali National Park is unique in the sense that the bus drivers are trained naturalists who give you a narrated tour as you cruise the single road in and out of the park. To enter the park, after the 15 mile mark, you must either catch a bus or hike/bike in, there is no public access road. You can choose between a 4.5-12 hour return trips, and you are given the freedom to hop off the bus whenever you want. There are a few designated campsites, but you may also camp anywhere within the park with a permit. All you have to do when you want to head back to civilization is stand on the road and wait for the next bus back. You are even able to hike in and see the bus from "Into the Wild" - just be prepared for a long gruelling hike, on average, one group of hikers a year have to be rescued from this famous location. Also, if you are a nervous person, a fair warning that the road is only wide enough for one bus and sits cliffside, but the bus drivers are incredibly skilled and the communications between drivers is great.
Since we had been doing a lot of driving and the day was getting late, Gaia and I chose to take the shortest tour. I was skeptical of what a bus tour into a park could offer me, but wanted to give it a chance. It was a choice I will never regret. Denali stole my heart with its untamed wilderness and majestic views.
Highlights: Pioneer Park, Forget-Me-Not Books, Tanana Valley Farmers Market, Denali National Park, Denali Raft Adventures.