Hiking Denali: Savage Alpine Trail

Busing Denali National Park is a good way to sample the park in a single day.  But to truly enjoy the wonder that is this stunning national park, one must slow the pace a bit and get out from behind dusty window panes.

For our second full day in Denali, we wanted to get our hiking boots dirty.  We knew we couldn’t venture beyond Savage River without a bus pass, but after the previous day, the last thing any of us wanted to do was sit on a bus again.   Continue reading

Busing Denali

Denali National Park is simply massive.  The park and preserve spans over 6 million acres.  This means, if you were to explore 1000 acres a day, it would still take you over 16.5 years to see it all.  How can one even hope to do a visit justice, then?  One option is to bus.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

There are two types of buses that service the park along its single 92-mile road: the tour and the shuttle.  The former is designed more for those who wish to sit back for the day (for it is an all-day commitment) and hear the guide narrate the trek.  The latter is as it sounds; it is merely a transport.  The shuttle caters to those who want to jump off for a hike or two along the way, to catch the next bus that comes along.  However, there are only two shuttles that run the entire route in and back, so if you miss that second bus, you’re in for a long walk home.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We aren’t generally ones for the touristy things, and we wanted to shave off a few bucks, so we opted for the shuttle.  However, we also didn’t want to jump off and risk missing our ride back, so we decided to stick it through to the end of the line.  We figured this would be a good way to get a sampling of the park’s main thoroughfare.

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Luck was with us, as we wound up receiving a free upgrade.  The driver assigned to our bus usually had that day off, and he typically ran the tour line, so he was used to chatting up his passengers.  It seems we’d get the tour info along with the ride into the park.  We were also fortunate to have the entire back of the bus to our little troupe.

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Our driver was an interesting character.  Ordinarily, I’m terrible with names, but that day, we were introduced to Oh.  Mar.  Omar.  He had an unusual cadence to his speech, taking odd breaks in the middle of his words for over-exaggerated emphasis.  He slowly enunciated each location upon our departure (which I could see being useful), and insisted we wear our “Seat.  Belts.  Seat belts.”  Every time!  We were too amused to be annoyed.

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Only the first 15 miles, to Savage River, are paved, and cars are not permitted beyond this point.  We stopped here to take in the sights, and we marveled at the expansive mountains and the beautiful puffs of fog.  The rivers wound off forever into the distance, ribbons of water decorating the landscape.

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Along the road, we kept our eyes peeled for any buses stopped ahead; this was an indicator of a wildlife spotting.  Our first sighting was a russet ptarmigan strolling the side of the road.  Fun fact: there’s an old mining town in Alaska called Chicken.  Apparently, the founders wanted to name it “Ptarmigan,” but they couldn’t agree on how it’s spelled.  They agreed “Chicken” was much easier.

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We were also super stoked to spot our very first Alaskan bear!  He looked like he had just come from a refreshing swim, but he was simply magnificent.  We all hung out of the windows excitedly (with regular “keep your elbows inside the windows” from Omar), our giant lenses propped on the open window panes.  The bear paid us no mind; he was just happily munching away at the lush grass.

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It was difficult to get a great shot, because Omar kept creeping the bus forward.. then backward.. and forward again.  Just sit still already!  I gave up after our bear friend was fully obscured by the bushes, and we trudged on.

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We stopped at the “Aisle… sun.  Eielson Visitor Center” at mile 66 for a longer respite from the dusty road.  We could stretch our legs and truly marvel at the jaw-dropping vistas, as we nearly tripped over ground squirrels.  We pulled out some lunch from our packs as we once more boarded (“Seat. Belts!  Seat belts.”), knowing we still had hours left to our day’s journey.

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As we continued, some folks departed for hikes here and there, and we espied swans and caribou.  We passed Wonder Lake (which was wonderful) and finally arrived in Kantishna – the end of the line.  There, we found an old cabin and a sign declaring our pitiful accomplishment.

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Honestly, there wasn’t much beyond Eielson, but I’m glad to say we confirmed that firsthand.  Unfortunately the famed mountain was obscured by clouds, though we could barely see the base.  The trip back out was much the same as the way in, with a bit less history and far less energy.  We saw more caribou patrolling a distant ridge, an enormous moose blending into the rocks, and the same bear we saw on our way in (still bedraggled).

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And we were all too happy to shoot the entire way.

It was such a relief to hit the pavement once more!  We knew we were in the final stretch.  Who knew sitting on a bus all day could be so exhausting?

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By the time we reached the visitor center at the park entrance, we couldn’t even bring ourselves to take the slight detour the few hundred feet to where a moose was standing on the side of the road, just posing for the cameras.  We were too tired to care (and I’ve seen plenty already).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

It was a long day, for sure, but I don’t regret it.  We got a good sampling of Denali, and we got a fair introduction to Alaska’s wildlife (though one of our fellow photographers reported having seen so much more the last time he was there).  The clouds made for more interesting skies, and I couldn’t get enough of that fog (I’m a sucker for low-lying moisture).

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Next time, I probably won’t go as far, unless we’re staying at one of the campgrounds.  I’d also like to do a bit less busing and a bit more hiking, but it was a good introduction nonetheless.

And the photography was only just beginning!


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TWOI: 9/15/17

This week on Instagram featured another fun set.

This first one is from the eclipse.  Even with most of the sun obscured like this, it was nearly full daylight out.  It just goes to show how bright the sun really is!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Next is a shot from our Alaskan train ride.  Such a wonderful way to take in all that stunning scenery!  And I loved the reflection of the train from this angle.  You can read all about that journey here.

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This next one hits home – literally.  The northwest has been battling a number of wildfires in this dry season, and many of our favorite hiking trails have burned.  We’re all anxious for some rain.  This was from my response to this week’s challenge, “waiting.”

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This was the view from our secret cliff discovery.  The arches in that area are really interesting to photograph, and it was so cool to have the whole place to ourselves.

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Here’s another from Yosemite.  I am in love with this park – the waterfalls, the rainbows, even the snows – and I only saw a small fraction!  I’ll definitely be returning for some proper hiking.

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It was hard to decide which was my favorite between these last two.  I’m sad about the wildfires ravaging our Gorge, but the smoke did make for some fascinating pictures.  I tried for a different crop on this one; what do you think?

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

And finally, this was my submission for Leanne Cole’s Monochrome Madness last week.  I love the symmetry of the rows and rows of trees and the asymmetry of the lone tree that didn’t quite grow straight.  It reminds me that it’s beautiful to be unique.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2016

I post every day on Instagram.  Please say hi in the comments; I’d love to hear from you!


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The Alaskan Railroad

The first 24 hours of our grand adventure north was a tale of trains, planes, and automobiles.  So much distance to travel to reach the beautiful Alaskan wilderness!

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It began with a late night flight into Anchorage.  We managed to find flights at an insanely reasonable rate, but that price came only with one airline, and that airline literally had one flight to Anchorage a day, late at night.  I briefly considered flying in the night prior, as it wouldn’t require any extra days off from work (Friday night instead of Saturday), but I didn’t really care to putter around the city by myself for a day, and in the end, I was grateful for the extra day to finish pulling my things together.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

The craziest thing about that flight was the sun.  This far north, the sun sets very late; daylight clings on well past 9pm.  So when we took off around 9, the horizon still held a glow… and that glow just never went away.  When we landed several hours later, it was still dusk – well past midnight.

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The next day, we woke to drizzle as we packed our things, called an Uber, and made our way to the train station.  Checking our bags was considerably easier than in an airport (if a bit more wet), and we then waited for our train.

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Our accommodations in “Adventure Class” aboard the Denali Star were quite pleasant.  There was no wireless aboard, and we were lucky to even get signal when we passed a town here and there.  However, there was more than enough room to spread out, and some chose to take advantage of that, sleeping away much of the trip.  I, for one, couldn’t fathom sleep when there was so much to photograph.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

I wandered back and forth, from the dining car to the car with the viewing bubble, filming clips (Aaron insisted I do a bit of filming in his absence) and snapping interesting vantages.

But my favorite spots, by far, were those between the cars.  These were open air, bare to the cool wind and the crisp air, and with unhindered views of the passing landscapes.  I’d shoot from one side, then dash to the other, then race to the far end of the dining car to get a different view of the cars both forward and back.  And just when I would tire of a view and return to my seat for a bit of a break, I’d notice something new that tickled my fancy.  Or I’d race back to my seat to change out a lens.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

And all throughout, our conductor (in an honest-to-goodness train conductor hat) would pop on the intercom to announce a passing site or point out spotted wildlife.  There’s a moose, or here you can espy the “Dr. Seuss Tower.”

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

Along the way, we passed lakes, rivers, mountains, and marshlands; the famed Hurricane Gulch Bridge 296 feet above the creek.

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We even passed Summit, which is the highest point of the rail and where it claims to cross the Continental Divide.  However, in attempting to verify this, maps of the Great Divide show it actually snakes much farther north through Alaska, so I don’t understand how we could have been anywhere near it south of Denali.  I’m calling baloney on that claim, but if you happen to have any information on this, I would love to hear from you!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

We also passed a recreational park where a line of kayakers saw fit to drop their drawers and give the passing train a bit of moonshine.  I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to catch that… but you’re probably thinking that’s a good thing!

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

All told, we rolled into the Denali station about 7.5 hours later, tired from the journey, and hungry for some real food.  Fortunately, Healy was more than happy to offer us the 49th State Brewery, where we returned each night for their killer frozen margaritas.

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Day 1: train: achievement unlocked!

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Stay tuned next week for Day 2: bus!


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TWOI: 8/11/17

Before getting to the pictures, I wanted to mention something about this day.  Today is a special day.  It’s my baby kitty’s birthday.  She was my 16th birthday present, and she was only a month shy of turning 15 when we had to say goodbye to her two years ago.  She was my favorite photographic subject, and though I miss her, I smile at all the happy memories.  I’m making a conscious effort to remember her birthday and forget the worst day of my life, so happy birthday, Zoe!  You can read all about her here.

As for Instagram, I have quite the variety this week.

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Costa Rican Shows

This is my last post on Costa Rica; stay tuned for my series on my Alaska trip next! We’re also still posting a bit more from this trip on our travel blog if you haven’t gotten enough of this tropical adventure.

When we travel, we usually try to make our dollars (or colones) stretch as far as possible.  This was a special occasion, so we splurged on the Doubletree Resort in Puntarenas.  We were surprised by how much it actually offered!  Besides air conditioned rooms (which alone were worth the price), it had several pools, three excellent buffet-style meals every day, and unlimited beverages.

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It also featured nightly shows.

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WC: In the Details

I simply love details.  All too often, we race through our daily lives – our traffic jams and our lattes – and we miss the tiny elements that form the world around us.  How often are you caught by surprise when all the trees around you are suddenly awash in autumn colors, never noticing the initial hints of transition?  Do you remember the color of your toothbrush?  Do you actually know all of the lyrics to your favorite song?

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TWOI: 8/4/17

My home is seeing record-breaking heat this week, but we’re doing our best to stay cool.  And though I have pictures this week from frozen Yosemite and some refreshing beaches, it’s hard to imagine my being cold.

This week sure was difficult to rank – I love all of these photos!

Let’s start with a beautiful Costa Rican sunset.  We lucked out catching a couple of truly stunning evenings from our resort in Puntarenas.  The heat and humidity and haze really provided the perfect canvas for brilliant colors.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2017

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