Today: 64 degrees, sunny and Denali is clearly visible. Alaska heaven!
“Denali is six million acres of wild land, bisected by one ribbon of road. Travelers along it see the relatively low-elevation taiga forest give way to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains, culminating in North America’s tallest peak, 20,310′ Denali. Wild animals large and small roam unfenced lands, living as they have for ages. Solitude, tranquility and wilderness await”
Creation of Denali National Park and Preserve
“Charles Sheldon was a hunter and naturalist attracted to Denali specifically by Dall sheep. He had traveled the world hunting sheep and was drawn here by the world’s only wild, white mountain sheep.In the winter of 1907-8, Sheldon observed over 2000 Dall sheep taken from the Denali area by commercial meat hunters who sold the carcasses to Alaska railroad workers and gold miners in Kantishna.
These two occurrences brought the first significant numbers of white men to Interior Alaska. Sheldon was astute enough to realize the hunting of wildlife and the fragile ecosystem would vanish under these kinds of pressures.Sheldon returned to Washington, D. C. and with the help of the Boone and Crockett Club, lobbied Congress to establish Mount McKinley National Park to protect the wildlife within. On February 26, 1917, President Wilson signed into law the bill establishing Mount McKinley National Park as a 2 million acre wildlife preserve.
Considering that at the time most people’s impression of Alaska was “Seward’s Folly, and the fact we did not reach statehood until 1959, it was a courageous act to protect such vast lands in what was then considered by many to be a remote and frozen wasteland.“
We entered Denali National Park after a long, beautiful trek on the unnpaved Denali Highway. Immediately, we saw a mom moose and her two twin calves next to the road.
Grilling our King Salmon steaks from the Haines Canning Company. Best Salmon we have ever had.
Despite my aversion to tourist busses filled with white (or no hair) retirees, we booked a tour, which is the only way to see the inner areas of the park as personal vehicles are prohibited for much of the park road. It turned out well.
We saw 80 or so Dall Sheep , Ptarmigans, snowshoe hares, a coyote, Arctic Ground Squirrels, many caribou, golden eagles, ravens, and black billed magpies, but regrettably for Shirley, no Grizzly Bears 🐻
For dinner, we grilled my Wyoming Elk steaks (New York strip cut). Yummy!
Dogsledding or “Mushing”
In a modern world filled with high tech solutions for everything it can be hard to comprehend why we would still actively choose to use traditional dog team travel rather than any of the modern alternatives. In fact, there are many reasons to choose sled dogs. TraditionDenali has had sled dogs since 1922. Our first Superintendent, Harry Karstens purchased the first seven sled dogs for use patrolling the newly established park boundaries. The park has maintained working dog teams ever since. Their job has evolved over time and they are no longer patrolling for poachers, they are still performing essential and inspiring work in protecting and preserving the unique character of Denali.
Sled dogs have hearts and brains that machines like snowmobiles and airplanes do not. Every kennels ranger has a story of wise lead dogs helping them navigate to a patrol cabin in a white out or to avoid dangerous ice obscured under snow. The dogs know this landscape so well they can provide invaluable wisdom that machines cannot. While a team of sled dogs is obviously far slower than an airplane or a snowmobile, they are arguably more reliable to operate in the extreme conditions of a sub-arctic winter.When it is 40 below zero it can be near impossible to try to start a motor, whereas a dog team simply needs a good breakfast and they are ready and willing to run.
Overflow is a common challenge on rivers and trails in Denali. Snowmobiles can get bogged down and sink in this slushy mess whereas a dog team can run right through it and roll in the snow to dry off on the other side. If a machine breaks down in the middle of remote wilderness like Denali you had better hope you are carrying the right spare parts and tools to fix it. However, if a sled dog gets sick or injured you still have the rest of the team to pull the sled while the injured one can run loose or ride in the sled until they are recovered.
Similar to summer’s back-country rangers, kennels rangers on dogsleds contact winter recreationists and provide information on trail conditions, offer assistance, and monitor use in a low-impact style that preserves the wilderness spirit essential to Denali. The sled-dog trails made during winter field operations are used by winter recreationists who want to explore Denali on skis, snowshoes, or with their own dog team. In winter (November-April) you can use a map to track the travels of the NPS sled dogs and get updates on current conditions throughout the park.
No internet or phone service since Haines. Generally great weather. Occasionally it rained. Generally warmer (in the 60’s) than home in Colorado.
“The highway is now little used and poorly maintained, and closed to all traffic from October to mid-May each year. Only the easternmost 21.3 miles and westernmost 2.6 miles are paved; whether the remainder should be paved as well is a continual source of debate. Washboarding and extreme dust are common, the recommended speed limit is 30 mph
Winter travel on the Denali Highway is exclusively by snowmobile and dogsled. Automobile travelers are severely discouraged from attempting to traverse the road in winter; as recently as 1996 three persons died from exposure when snows blocked their progress. The road is cleared by DOT late in April and generally is passable by non-4WD from then until the first snows close it, usually late September on the eastern, tundra end and late October-early November on the lower, boreal forest western end.”
The description on the internet of the Denali Highway is scary, but the roads were actually better than the county roads to our cabin in Colorado!
Breakfast and Pie at the Alpine Lodge:
“We are a wilderness lodge in remote Alaska. We are open year round, every day. Alpine Creek Lodge is on the Denali Highway, so travelers can get there in the summer via a gravel road. 68 miles West of Paxson Alaska, and 67 miles East of Cantwell, Alaska. In the summer, we offer hiking tours, photography tours, wildlife viewing tours, gold panning tours, fishing tours and much more! Fully guided, or you can do it yourself! In the winter, the road is not plowed from October 15th to May 15th. During this period, snow machine, dog mushing, skiing, etc are the only way to get to us. Drop off and pick up are available in Cantwell, Alaska via snow machine or tracked vehicle. We are on the South side of the Alaska Range, in the Clearwater Mountains, and this is where you will find real Alaska!”
While we visited the Alpine Lodge, we spoke with the owner and hunters staying there who were harvesting excess grizzly bear (supervised by Alaska game and fish). Grizzlies had almost eliminated the moose population and cameras mounted on grizzlies had evidenced killing sprees of moose calves, fox, Trumpeter Swans, Ptarmigan, beavers and other game animals. The grizzlies killed without eating, then moved on to the next opportunity.
In the winter, the Alpine Lodge gets fresh food and supplies every couple weeks from Cantwell (67 miles to the west). They have a Jeep fitted with tracks (a $10,000 accessory) allowing then to travel the Denali Highway over the snow where otherwise only dog sled mushers or snow machines can go.
After disembarking from the Alaska Ferry and securing our campsite, we walked 50 yards to the Lighthouse Restaurant, where we met our wonderful waitress, Tiffany. This funny young lady recommended our best two meals thus far: A smoked salmon hoagie one night and incredibly wonderful salmon fish and chips washed down with an Alaska Brewing Company Amber Beer the next.
Haines is the “other” southeast town besides Skagway, having a connection to the road system. All other towns are serviced by ferry. Haines does limit cruise ships to a couple per week, so it’s much less cheesy than Ketchikan or Skagway.
Breakfasting at the Rusty Compass Café, Lee Robinson (son of Shirley’s friend Didi Robinson) served up one of the best caramel rolls we have ever eaten. Thick gooey caramel sauce, savory bread dough and a touch of cinnamon. After visiting a few museums and gift shops in town and purchasing my Alaska Fishing License (more on this later) we headed out of town to explore two nearby state parks Chilkoot and Chilkat, in opposite directions.
On the way to Chilkat we stopped at the Haines Packing Company (in operation since 1917), hoping to find local smoked salmon. To Ray and Shirley’s surprise, the woman helping us turned out to be Hawaiian from the big Island. What a sweetheart! Jolene taught us which salmon was the tastiest, fattiest and yummiest (King and Coho). We bought frozen King Salmon steaks for later grilling (we are too early for fresh salmon as the runs are typically June-September), Smoked Coho fillets and jarred Sockeye for gifts (we will see if any makes it home).
After exploring Chilkat State Park, we opted for a scenic dinner on the River.
Driving back through Haines we stayed at Chillkoot Lake State Park in campsites overlooking Chilkoot Lake. So far, Alaska campgrounds have not been crowded at all.
On our way north, we stopped at the Jilkaat Kwan Heritage Center (A Tlingit native culture center). A nice young Tlingit woman gave us an informal tour and shared native methods for processing traditional foods such as hooligan fish (similar to smelt), jarred moose meat, soapberry and seal oil. When attending college in Oregon, her family regularly sent her “care packages” of moose and seal oil. She likes seal oil on her potatoes!!
40 miles North of Haines, we crossed the border into the Canadian Province of Yukon Territory. We swiftly climbed above tree line into tundra and crossed Chilkat Pass.
A short hike to Million Dollar Falls on the Tokhanne River
The country here is unlike anything we have seen – Muskeg (soggy, springy, like a trampoline) bogs with a permafrost layer a few feet below the surface), stunted black spruce trees, 10-15 feet high, but looking in the photo like tiny plants
Tonight we camped at Discovery Yukon Lodgings, in Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory (YT). The showers cost $1 Canadian (a”Loonie”, as it has a picture of a loon bird on each coin). I had the cheapest shower – one loonie (1.5 minutes) where the others used three (6 minutes). I have found a compensation to having no hair!
Back into Alaska
After 200 lovely, friendly miles in the Yukon Territory we crossed the border back into Alaska near Beaver Creek YT
Passing through Tok, Alaska, we stopped at Donnelly Creek Campground for the night after picking up dinner from a Thai food truck. Tasty! Interestingly, Thai food can be found across Alaska and the Yukon – a culinary favorite!!
We met Ray & Shirley at the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry Terminal for our 3pm check-in. Then we sat in line until 5pm while they loaded the ferry with trucks, cars, campers, boats and commercial vehicles.
The Alaska Marine Highway System operates along the south-central coast of the state, the eastern Aleutian Islands and the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. Ferries serve communities in Southeast Alaska that have no road access, and the vessels can transport people, freight, and vehicles. AMHS’s 3,500 miles of routes have total of 32 terminals throughout Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. It is part of the National Highway System and receives federal highway funding. It is also a form of transportation of vehicles between the state and the contiguous United States, going through Canada but not requiring international customs and immigration.
M/V COLUMBIA IS THE LARGEST VESSEL OF THE FLEET. THE VESSEL IS 418 FEET LONG AND 85 FEET WIDE, WITH A SERVICE SPEED OF 17.3 KNOTS. THE M/V COLUMBIA IS DESIGNED TO CARRY 499 PASSENGERS AND 63 OFFICERS AND CREW AND HAS A VEHICLE CAPACITY OF 2,660 LINEAR FEET, WHICH IS EQUAL TO APPROXIMATELY 133 TWENTY-FOOT VEHICLES. THERE ARE 45 FOUR-BERTH AND 56 TWO-BERTH CABINS, AS WELL AS 3 WHEELCHAIR-ACCESSIBLE CABINS.
Amenities include observation lounges with comfortable chairs, a covered heated solarium, a snack bar, a full service dining room, a movie lounge, showers, coin operated lockers and laundry, writing and quiet lounges, and a toddler’s play area.
Walk-on passengers are welcome to sleep in lounge chairs, hang hammocks or pitch tents (using duck tape instead of tent stakes) to secure them to the deck.
On our first day we saw 2 pods of seven Orcas. One group was feeding on a freshly killed sea lion.
On day number two, having a six hour stop in Ketchikan, we decided to get off and explore town, 2.5 miles from the ferry dock. Unfortunately Ketchikan is incredibly touristy. In addition, three huge cruise ships disgorged their passengers that same morning. There were some nice gifts and nice views, but lots of “Authentic Made in Alaska” (China) native art and souvenirs, fast food joints, etc.
The ladies enjoyed poking around the gift shops, we all enjoyed the history, diverse population, the refurbished “red light” district, Creek Street (“Where men and salmon came upstream to spawn”) and a quick lunch before returning to the ferry.
Onboard we met a national park ranger, Mike Thompson, who had worked all over Alaska. Over dinner he suggested quite a few scenic towns, campsites and backcountry roads which were not on the main tourist trail. We will report on them later on the trip.
Starting separately, we will meet Shirley and Ray for dinner with friends in Spokane Washington, then later again on May 17th at the Bellingham, Washington Alaska Ferry Terminal to load our campers on the ferry for the second leg of our journey.
After three days of coastal marine sightseeing, we will disembark in Haines, Alaska where we will connect to the Alaska Highway and begin our driving tour of Alaska and the Yukon.
Leaving Fort Collins, we camped the first night on Bear Lake.
Bear Lake is a natural freshwater lake on the Utah-Idaho border in the Western United States. About 109 square miles (280 km2) in size, it is split about equally between the two states.
The south end of the lake, in the area of modern-day Laketown, was the location of a rendezvous in the summer of 1827 and 1828. Mountain men, including Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger, gathered at this location, along with trade goods suppliers, and American Indians from several different tribes. The mountain men and Indians sold their furs in exchange for various store goods and supplies, and several weeks were spent reveling in assorted amusements and liquor.
We spent the second night at Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park, Utah.
The state park is the site of North America’s highest single-structured sand dune which is approximately 470 feet (140 m) high.[A] The park encompasses 4,800 acres and features the Bruneau Dunes Observatory, where visitors can use a telescope for stargazing.
On our way to our friends, the Millers in Spokane, we drove through the lovely Northern Idaho and Western Washington countryside.
After a stop with daughter Julie and family in Seattle, we meet the Yangs at the Alaska Ferry terminal in Bellingham on May 20th.
Since our grandson’s family would not be with us during this Christmas holiday, Sally proposed a road trip to celebrate her birthday and Christmas with her twin sister Julie in Savannah, Georgia. When older sister Jo disclosed her intention to also join us in Savannah, the trip plan was locked in.
Deciding to take our camper to make a grand sight-seeing / camping tour, we determined to stop in St Louis to visit friend Doris, re-explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and visit cousin Jackie in Tennessee. On the return from Savannah, we planned to bask in the sunshine throughout the warm sunny south, touring the Natchez Trace, antebellum mansions in Natchez itself and finally do some camping and hiking on the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas.
Most of our plans came to fruition however, due to unseasonable cold weather bringing snow and ice to portions of our intended route, we had to make some changes and regrettably our shorts and sandals never were unpacked.
Driving across Kansas and stopping in Saint louis, we spent a couple of nights with our friend Doris who lived across the hall from us in Shanghai, China.
Continuing on, we arrived in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as the temperatures began to drop and the clouds rolled in.
Taos is a town in northern New Mexico’s high desert, bounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s known for historic adobe buildings such as Taos Pueblo, a multistory adobe complex inhabited by Native Americans for centuries. A longtime artist colony, Taos also offers many galleries and museums showcasing regional artwork, including the Harwood Museum of Art and the Taos Art Museum.
Arriving in Taos, after checking in to our lovely “Casita”, we headed for Ranchos de Taos, south of Taos City proper, to the St. Fancisco de Assis mission church and a wonderful late lunch of chile rellenos (and the best red chili sauce I have ever encountered).
The Burch Street Casistas
San Francisco de Asis Mission Church is a historic and architecturally significant church on the main plaza of Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. Built between 1772 and 1816, it is one of the finest extant examples of a Spanish Colonial New Mexico mission church, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
We just made it to the Ranchos Plaza Grill, before they closed on Sunday, for a wonderful meal of chile rellenos and enchiladas smothered in the most flavorful red chili sauce I have ever eaten. Although I am no expert on New Mexican Cuisine, the restaurant was recommended by the owner of our casitas (who happens to be a professional chef) as well as a number of knowledgeable local “foodies”. The famous heirloom red chilis come from the town of Chimayo. They are crushed rather than ground and are simmered for hours with fresh ground pork, yielding deeply complex flavors with just enough heat to keep things interesting 🌶🌶🌶
The old plaza and hacienda still stand next to the mission church. Today the Hacienda houses the The Ranchos Plaza Grill, a Northern New Mexican Restaurant.
After a stroll around the historic Taos Plaza to settle our dinner, we head back to our casita to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures: The Taos Pueblo, mission church and the Hacienda de los Martinez.
We booked a tour of the mission church and the Taos Pueblo with a young Taos Puebloan woman who provided her unique perspective on the Taos Pueblo, it’s history and the role of the Roman Catholic faith, historical relations with the Spanish and modern Taos Pueblo life.
Mission Church: The present San Geronimo, or St. Jerome, Chapel was completed in 1850 to replace the original church which was destroyed in the War with Mexico by the U.S. Army in 1847. That church, the ruins still evident on the west side of the village, was first built in 1619. It was then destroyed in the Spanish (Pueblo) Revolt of 1680 but soon rebuilt on the same site. St. Jerome is the patron saint of Taos Pueblo.
Taos Pueblo (or Pueblo de Taos) is an ancient pueblo belonging to a Tiwa-speaking Native American tribe of Puebloan people. It lies about 1 mile (1.6 km) north of the modern city of Taos, New Mexico, USA. The pueblos are considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. This has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Taos Pueblo is a member of the Eight Northern Pueblos, whose people speak two variants of the Tanoan language. The Taos community is known for being one of the most private, secretive, and conservative pueblos.
The north-side Pueblo is said to be one of the most photographed and painted buildings in North America. It is the largest multistoried Pueblo structure still existing. It is made of adobe walls that are often several feet thick. Its primary purpose was for defense. Up to as late as 1900, access to the rooms on lower floors was by ladders on the outside to the roof, and then down an inside ladder. In case of an attack, outside ladders could easily be pulled up.
The Pueblo is made entirely of adobe — earth mixed with water and straw, then either poured into forms or made into sun-dried bricks. The walls are frequently several feet thick. The roofs of each of the five stories are supported by large timbers — vigas — hauled down from the mountain forests. Smaller pieces of wood — pine or aspen latillas — are placed side-by-side on top of the vigas; the whole roof is covered with packed dirt. The outside surfaces of the Pueblo are continuously maintained by replastering with think layers of mud. Interior walls are carefully coated with thin washes of white earth to keep them clean and bright. The Pueblo is actually many individual homes, built side-by-side and in layers, with common walls but no connecting doorways. In earlier days there were no doors or windows and entry was gained only from the top.
Approximately 150 people live within the Pueblo full-time. Other families owning homes in the North or South buildings live in summer homes near their fields, and in more modern homes outside the old walls but still within Pueblo land. There are over 1900 Taos Indians living on Taos Pueblo lands.
Taos Pueblo Doors and Windows
Our guide informed us that the Spanish brought the technology to create the wooden doors and windows, which are now employed in the Pueblo. Blue doors welcome good spirits and influence, red doors ward off evil. I loved the variety of colors and textures.
Hacienda de Los Martinez
Martinez Hacienda, also known as Hacienda de los Martinez, is a Taos, New Mexicohacienda built during the Spanish colonial era. It is now a living museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located on the bank of the Rio Pueblo de Taos.
Now owned by the Taos Historic Museums, it is a living museum honoring the contributions of the early Hispanic settlers in the Taos Valley.It is particularly focused on life during the 1820s under Spanish colonial rule. For instance, the weaving exhibits display wool died with vegetable based tints. And the hacienda’s interior walls are white washed with tierra blanca, which is a mixture of micaceous clay and wheat paste.
It is one of the few remaining Spanish colonial haciendas that is open to the public throughout the year in the United States.
It hosts the annual Taos Trade Fair in late September to reenact Spanish colonial life and celebrate the trade among mountain men, Native Americans and Spanish settlers. Demonstrations are performed of blacksmiths, wood carvers and weavers.In addition to a working weaving room, there is also a blacksmith shop within the museum.
We found the displays fascinating and clearly depicted the deprivation, hardship and hard work to survive and thrive in New Mexico during Spanish colonial times.
Taos Art Museum at Fechin House
Taos Art Museum opened in 1994. Eight years later it moved to the beautiful and historic Nicolai Fechin home. The Museum is dedicated to the art of early twentieth century Taos. The museum is housed in the studio and home that artist Nicolai Fechin built for his family between 1927 and 1933. Fechin, born in Kazan, Russia in 1881, carved and molded the adobe buildings into a fascinating, harmonic marriage of Russian, Native American, and Spanish motifs. Fechin’s heirs have entrusted many of his art works to the care of Taos Art Museum.
The heart of the museum is a collection of paintings by the masters of the Taos Society of Artists. This group was prolific from the arrival in Taos of Blumenschein and Phillips in 1898 through the 1930s. As a result of the acclaim these artists and their associates achieved, many more artists migrated to Taos, continuing a tradition of creativity into the twenty-first century.
Chokola Bean to Bar is a small-batch, organic, crafted, bean-to-bar chocolate maker in historic Taos, New Mexico.
So reads the promo material in print and on-line, that proprietors Javier and Deborah (Vincent) Abad Etxaniz have used to describe the incredible new shop (and bespoke chocolate maker) they recently opened on Juan Largo Lane.
Each hand-made bar of decadent deliciousness comes with this descriptive wording, along with an artist statement provided by the artist du jour whose work graces the packaging – currently (former Taos resident) Erin Currier. Deborah’s background in Art History has compelled the couple to support (New Mexico/Taos Artists) by featuring their work on their packaging.
The material goes on to inform us that “every morning, the pure Alpine air is laced with the rich aroma of our freshly roasted cacao beans, inviting Taosenos and visitors to our Chokola store (just off the plaza).” This is not an exaggeration.
From San Sebastian – Basque country – in Spain, Javier and his wife Deborah (her father was from Taos, her mother is South American) are dedicated to educating people about the “Food of the Gods” and dispelling the notion that chocolate is mere candy.
Besides the house-made bars, Chokola makes delectable bon-bons, tiny pastries, mousse and hot chocolate (to go, or to sip/eat at the tables in or outside) from high-end, imported confectioners chocolate. The mousse (I tasted it too), is out of this world. Addictive even, so do be careful. Light as a feather on the tongue, but brings to mind the old dictum; a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.
That said, chocolate – especially chocolate of this quality – is loaded with antioxidants and magnesium and is very good for you. It’s the sugar that can be a problem and if so, go darker!
Mousse and bon bons aside, the emphasis at Chokola is definitely on the in-house production of the chocolate they make from the ethically sourced aforementioned beans. Run, don’t walk to this fabulous new addition to Taos’ artisanal community, and stock up on the hand-crafted bars. If you don’t eat them all yourself (not hard), they’ll make brilliant gifts to have on hand.
A family-run café in El Prado, about two miles north of the plaza, Orlando’s doesn’t cook anything too flashy, but what they do, they do well—witness the dozens of awards on the walls. Red and green chile are the standouts, but the carne adovada and taco salad are also popular with the crowds that pack the place at lunchtime. One way you can tell it’s authentic New Mexican cooking is that they serve posole (hominy stew) instead of rice on the side.
Regretfully, we leave Taos for commitments back in Colorado
NOTE: items in quotes (such as this note) are taken from reviews, promotional materials, Wikipedia, etc to provide background information on attractions we have visited. Photographs are my own.