2-Week Grand Alaska Road Trip with Kids - Day 7: Denali River Rafting

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Start of our trip:

2-Week Grand Alaska Road Trip with Kids - Intro

Day 1: In Search of Gold

Day 2: Meeting the Reindeer

Day 3: First Hike on a Glacier

Day 4: Our Favorite Day of the Trip

Day 5: The Longest Drive

Day 6: Meeting Santa Claus

 

The morning started with a 5:30AM alarm. This was one of the earliest wake-up days during the trip; however, for a good reason. I had booked a 7AM Denali bus tour to get deeper into the park where personal vehicles are not allowed. There are several tour options, but I picked the simplest one – East Fork Shuttle. It is not exactly a narrated tour bus rather a transit bus that picks up and drops off hikers along various points in the park. Most often, the bus driver also gives a little narration and stops for wildlife sightings. That was all we needed. The round-trip ride to mile marker 43 (km 70) and back takes about 4.5 hours, so we prepared some snacks and coloring books for the boys and headed to the park to board the bus.  

Denali Bus Depot had a Starbucks café which was sooo perfect this early in the morning! It definitely helped us perk up and it did not feel so early anymore. 

Another cool thing I noticed was the water bottle filling station at the Bus Depot. The water here came straight from the nearby Horseshoe Creek – no purifiers, filters or chemicals needed. The purest glacier water, billions of years old. From here on out, this was the only place we came to get our water while in Denali.

Coffee and water aside, we were finally ready to board the bus to go see some animals. And hopefully – the Denali BIG 5. Yes, just like there is the African BIG 5 (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, rhino), there is also Denali BIG 5 – moose, bear, Dall sheep, caribou, wolf. 

I guess having problems starting the bus should have been an indication of what’s to come… Once the driver actually got the bus going, we did not get farther than 8 miles up the road. Pedal to the metal and the bus’s max speed was about 15mph barely making it up little hills. Our driver eventually called it quits and stopped at the side of the road. 

We had to wait for another bus to be sent our way which took about 40 minutes. Now, I am not complaining as it was a beautiful sunny morning, and everyone was on the lookout for wildlife (didn’t see any here). However, at this point we were pretty much leaving together with 8AM bus tour which kind of lost that early morning wildlife viewing opportunity for us. 

Nonetheless, none of the bus troubles could overshadow the absolutely amazing sight we got to see! The morning was so crisp and clear that the Great One (Denali) was completely exposed! What a view!!! And just like that, we became members of the exclusive ''Denali 30% Club''! Why, might you ask? Because only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park actually ever get to fully see the Denali peak. It is the highest peak in North America at 20,310 ft (6190m), and it is so tall that it has its own climate – usually engulfed in clouds 70% of the time even during summer. Therefore, actually seeing the white snow-covered peak is very special!

After tons of photos (and a long wait), we were finally rolling! There weren’t that many hikers to pick up, so the ride went smoothly and was moving forward at a good pace. Our first animal sighting was a lone caribou standing on a snow patch. I guess it was looking for a cool spot to rest. 

Our first longer stop and bathroom break was at Teklanika River Campground which also had a great overlook platform. 

After a short break we boarded the bus again to complete the remaining 15 miles (25km) to the Pretty Rocks landslide area. Unfortunately, our wildlife sightings were extremely minimal. We saw 1 gold eagle that sored by within a few seconds and a group of Dall sheep (or mountain goats?) who were so high up in the mountains that even with binoculars we had trouble distinguishing who they were exactly. They just looked like little white dots. Can you even spot them? And this is with a full 300mm zoom lens. 

Once we reached mile 43, several riders got off the bus to head on a hike to see the landslide; however, we opted to not hike and just ride the same bus back. There weren’t any additional animal sightings on the way back. Our bus driver said that these ''tours'' have been really odd this year as most of the wildlife can be seen past the mountains behind the landslide. That’s where bears, wolves and foxes were mostly seen before. With that portion of the park inaccessible for at least a few years, we just had to take what we could get. And if not for the animals, at least we got to experience a little part of Denali’s backcountry scenery – rivers, forest, tundra and mountains. 

After the bus ride we drove over to the Denali Visitor Center to explore the exhibits and pick up Junior Ranger Books for our boys to complete. They were very excited about the opportunity to earn their Denali badges.

From here, we headed to our last Denali activity for the day – the Denali Sled Dog Kennels and demonstration. The pups here were absolutely adorable and you could even pet them if they chose to come up to you.

These dogs are actually real working dogs and dog sleds are the main means of transportation around Denali in winter due to complete lack of road network in the park. The dogs (+sleds) help deliver supplies to rangers, scout for illegal hunting, and help bring aid to mountaineers in trouble if needed.

We could freely roam the kennels and then were invited for a short cart demonstration with lots of interesting information about Denali sled dog and ranger life here at the park.

Of course, once the demo was over, the boys just begged us to go back to the kennels for more dog petting. That’s all they wanted to do! Unfortunately, we were on a slightly limited timeline as we had an exciting evening activity booked and still needed to get lunch in between. 

Once the word 'food' was mentioned, the boys agreed to trade dog petting for lunch. We picked the 49th State Brewing Company, mostly because it was conveniently located right across the street from our lodge. This was actually our first decent sit-down meal in several days as lately we had only managed quick grab-and-go type dinners or gas station food. It was nice to slow down and get to enjoy a meal for a change. 

The restaurant property had several games to play in the yard which my boys took the opportunity to do. 

Also, there was 'Bus 142' from the movie Into the Wild. I am aware of the story of Chris McCandless and his tragic fate, yet I had no idea that the Magic Bus was available here to see. After restaurant stuff informed me that this particular bus was a movie replica (used for filming), I felt more at ease exploring it. Inside, the bus was laid out in a way the hunters found it after Chris’ death and it contained photos and extracts of his diary pages.

After our lunch, yard games and bus exploration were complete, we still had some time to kill. So, we decided to take it easy and returned to the hotel where kids finally got to watch some cartoons, but my husband and I basically crashed and fell asleep almost instantly. 

Luckily I had set the alarm, however, it was still so extremely difficult to get up. I have no idea why we were so exhausted. I could have stayed there and just slept right through till next morning. Yet, we had to get ready for our 6:30PM river rafting tour! This was a first for all of us. We have done lots of activities in and on the water but neither one of us had actually ever gone river rafting. We were looking forward to it but I also felt a little uneasy about our 2 little boys. Although I had picked the easiest run / tour with only Class I and II rapids, accidents do happen. But isn’t that a chance we take no matter what we do?! And I was sure that following our guide’s directions would be the key to us having a good time.

Once we arrived at Denali Rafting Adventures office, we were fitted with space-like dry suits, booties and life jackets. We could barely move. Our 4-year-old looked like a roly-poly snowman because the suit was 2x too big on him! 

A short drive on a bus took us to the boat launching area on Nenana River. Everyone got split into smaller groups, matched up with their guide and our first ever rafting adventure had officially started! 

The first few minutes were a little uneasy over the bumps and rapids - just getting the feeling for the ride. But soon after we were fully trusting our excellent guide and had a fabulous time. And who would have thought that our 2 little boys would be the ones requesting the guide to take us through any bigger rapids they could spot on the river! I though I would have to hold their hand and keep them calm, yet they were the ones laughing out the loudest as the raft hit a rapid, bounced in the air and near freezing water came gushing in and over us. Those little boys took the front row seating and had the time of their lives. ''Go over the big one there!'' they yelled, and the guide obliged. They were crazy! 

And the guide was also great at telling us where to hold on, when to hold on, where and how to sit or lean to make sure nobody bounced out of the raft.

And thank God for the dry suits! We were completely soaked from the outside yet dry and comfy on the inside. 

The ride was over 10 miles (16km) in length and lasted over 2 hours. We had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, watch for wildlife, listen to our guide’s stories and adventures, and our boys even got to paddle the raft (with guide’s assistance, of course). It was definitely a great experience and went so much better than I could have ever anticipated. It was a great fun for everybody.

By the time we got back to the Denali Rafting office and got out of our dry suits it was past 10PM. I don’t know if I was still high on rafting adrenaline or it was the afternoon nap keeping me awake, but I had this crazy idea to head to Denali and drive the Park Road again. As I said – I wanted to take advantage of every wildlife viewing opportunity! And what better time there would be if not late at night?!

My husband looked at me a little sideways, double checked if I was sure about it, and then steered the car towards Denali. The road was as quiet as you would expect at 10-11PM. And that had its benefits. With the day’s heat gone and peacefulness all around, the animals were out. We saw a fox running along the road before it quickly jumped into the bushes. And a porcupine was on its nightly patrol strolling along the roadway.

And then there was a moose – crossing the rocky riverbed and stopping by a stream for a drink of water before slowly disappearing back into the bushes. 

Still no bears, but it was more than what we had seen so far. I am sure the bears will be somewhere eventually…. hopefully.

By now the boys were basically asleep in their car seats, and once we got back to the hotel, they did not even care to wake up anymore. It was midnight, but thankfully we had an easy morning coming up with no scheduled activities planned. That meant, we had plenty of time to sleep in.  

 

Continue reading:

Alaska - Day 8: Hiking with a View of Denali

Alaska - Day 9: I Finally Met the Bears!

Alaska - Day 10: The Magic of Fjords, Glaciers and Wildlife

Alaska - Day 11: There Can Never Be Too Many Glaciers

Alaska - Day 12: Mountains, Gold and Elves

Alaska - Day 13: The Moose are Everywhere

 

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