George Parks Highway (AK-3) once we were out of the city. Connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks and providing the major access to Denali National Park, George Parks Highway is one of the most important roads in state Alaska. However, the mountain range around the area is mild and the road side view is less dramatic compared to the Richardson Highway.
We reached Nenana at the noon time. This is a small town 55 miles south of Fairbanks, at the juncture of the Nenana River and the Tanana River. The discovery of gold in Fairbanks brought prosperity and train access to the town, but it had no road access to Fairbanks until the bridge was constructed in 1968. The completion of George Parks Highway in 1971 gave the town a direct route to Anchorage. We made a brief stop at the railway station and a gift shop in the town.
it’s been cloudy all the way since we left Fairbanks. At about 1:30pm, we entered Denali National Park and Preserve area. Only 1 mile north to the park’s entrance, overlooking the Nenana River, there is a large area full of lodging and restaurant options. It has maybe the only traffic light in the whole stretch of the George Parks Highway. We took a quick stop and decided to see the park first before going to our lodge.
We picked up our tour ticket for the next day at the Wilderness Access Center and stopped by the Denali Visitor Center. They are located at the beginning of the Park Road. The first 15 miles of the Park Road is open to private vehicles. We came to Alaska in late tourism season in September, which sees more rains, but also offers unbeatable view of fall colors and tundra field. A couple of miles into the park, we found ourselves surrounded by the seemingly endless red and purple sea of tundra. Tundra is dwarfed shrubs adapted to the short growing season. They blossom in August and turned to brilliant colors in the fall.
It’s a good decision to see the park first. It started raining at the time we turned back at about the 12 mile mark. Our lodge, McKinley Village Lodge, is 7 miles south of the park entrance. It’s a large facility with multiple buildings. The lobby was warm and cozy. The lodge was built along the Nenana river bank. One of our rooms got the river view.
Our Denali National Park bus tour started at 7:30am the next day. We waited at the Wilderness Access Center half an hour before the shuttle bus came to pick us up. We chose the tour that reaches Eielson Visitor Center that is located at Mile 66 of the park road. The round-trip time is about 8 hours. It’s a good duration considering that we had to keep some strength to drive back to Anchorage at the night. The furthest point that the shuttle bus can take you is Kantishna at Mile 92, but most visitors who are willing to go that far probably camp at Wonder Lake at Mile 85.
The sighting is generally better if you sit on the left side of the bus, which offers more open views of the river and the valley on the way going into the park. It’s also more “scarier” when the bus runs on the cliff at some section of the road. On the way back, you would most likely fall asleep anyway. Our guide was funny. He almost keep talking all the way without stop. The tour is somewhat disappointing mainly because of the weather. We had a grey day and animals were rare. We didn’t see Mt. McKinley at the Eielson Visitor Center because of the cloud. (The rangers also kept us inside because some bears were around.)
We returned to the Wilderness Access Center a little before 4:00pm. We left the park immediately – we had 240 miles to drive to get to Anchorage. The rain stopped and started. It’s raining very hard near Wasilla. Somehow we managed to beat the time to step into the VIP Korean restaurant that we liked so much before its close. (We ordered the food while driving as we were approaching Anchorage).
We had some time to stop by the University of Alaska Anchorage in the next day morning, before we took the flight heading home at noon.