Visiting Denali National Park in May prior to the start of transit bus service has become an annual tradition for me. Private vehicles are allowed on the park road up to mile 30, and the throngs of tourists have yet to arrive. Staying in the Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance is free until May 15 and the campground is half-empty outside the weekends. Inside the park, you'll find people driving the road looking for wildlife, enjoying the freshly thawed trails, biking the road beyond mile 30, and otherwise enjoying the park at their own pace. I continued my tradition this past week, spending a couple days photographing and hiking in the park.
My first day there I looked for wildlife and scouted a location to shoot the sunrise the next morning. I saw several caribou, sheep, and moose, as well as a couple grizzly bears strolling through the Teklanika Campground, but I didn't have much luck photographing the wildlife. Afternoon clouds made for some great landscape shots, however.
I stepped out of my tent in the Riley Creek Campground shortly after 4 a.m. the next morning. A few songbirds and an occasional passing vehicle on the nearby Parks Highway disturbed the silence as I loaded up my car. Several moose were feeding along the edge of the road as I drove into the park, including two big bulls with stubby velvet-covered antlers. A waning gibbous moon hung in the sky over the mountains to my left. As I passed mile 9, Denali came into view, looming over the sleepy tundra like a shadowy ghost.
With the temperature several degrees below freezing, I parked beside a hill with the best view of Denali from the first 30 miles of the park road and started hiking up with my camera gear. At the top I found a rabbit's foot, but not the lucky kind. I watched as the north and south peaks of Denali started glowing pink, followed quickly by the rest of the mountain.
During the 45 minutes I spent on the hilltop, only a single vehicle passed by. For all the people I see by day photographing wildlife or Denali in harsh light with their expensive camera gear, there are surprisingly few roaming the park in the early morning when the animals are generally more active and Denali is putting on one of the greatest shows in Alaska—what a waste!
When I returned to the road, I sought an obligatory shot of a ptarmigan. Male willow ptarmigan are readily obvious in the park this time of year due to their white plumage contrasting against the mostly snow-free landscape. They also have a good habit of standing still for the camera.
Later that morning, I spotted a grizzly bear lumbering across the Savage River plain. I watched the bear dig up roots for 30 minutes hoping it would approach the road, but it never came close enough for a good shot. Caribou grazing along the edge of the river kept an eye on the bear but did not appear particularly concerned. I left after a crowd of spectators formed, intending to hike the Savage Alpine Trail before rain arrived in the afternoon.
With the temperature still below 50 °F, I set out from the trailhead in short sleeves. The sun was shining bright and there was hardly a breeze. As I quickly made my way up the trail, the ridge I climbed a couple months prior stared at me from across the valley, conjuring memories of camping in subzero temperatures that seem so foreign now. When I reached the apex of the trail, I stopped for a few pictures of Denali. Another nature photographer, a woman from Canada, came up the trail behind me and we ended up photographing a lone Dall sheep ram together from close range some distance above the trail. With rain clouds forming to the west and the wind picking up, she turned back to the parking lot while I considered pressing ahead. Several more sheep were mulling around the trail another half-mile ahead, but shadows quickly started encroaching on the mountain and when it appeared rain was imminent I decided to turn back, too.
The rest of my time in the park proved unfruitful in terms of photography. I'm planning at least two backpacking trips inside the park later this summer, with the first coming in a few weeks. I'm looking forward to a greener landscape with less snow at high elevations, and a lot more hiking!