My wife and I had the chance to visit Alaska! This trip was in our bucket list for a long time and did not think it would happen as soon as it did. But an opportunity presented itself and we took it.
The Alaska wilderness lives up to the visions we had. The wildlife was what we expected. The birds were not as plentiful because we were there during the tail end of the summer when most species had already flown south. Only the resident (perhaps the more interesting to me) were still there.
View of Boreal forest and glacier
The Denali Highway was opened in 1957, and was the first road access to the Denali National Park, which was then known as Mount McKinley National Park. The 137-mile road connects the towns of Paxson on the west end and Cantwell on the east end. Cantwell is located near the entrance to the Denali National Park.
The Deanli Highway is now little used and some sections are poorly maintained. The Highway is closed to all traffic from October to mid-May each year. We were there the last week of September! a week before the road closes for the season. It was a risky move, since early snow storm could happen in late September and we heard that travelers trapped in the snow have died from exposure.
The recommended speed limit is 30 mph. This was just fine. Going any faster would not pay justice to the stunning scenic beauty that surrounds the Denali Highway. The road goes through boreal forest of various floristic compositions, lakes, wetlands, and multiple Alpine habitats. Although they were not there in late September, I now know where Whimbrels, Surfbirds, and Wandering Tatlers breed. These are birds I regularly see in tropical regions as non-breeding visitors.
The forests were rather silent and only an occasional Black-billed Magpie, a group of Gray Jays, a Northern Shrikes, and Willow Ptarmigans crossed or flew across the road.
The 137-mile gravel road can be driven in a few hours at a fast and bumpy pace. We did it in two day staying the night at the lovely Alpine Creek Lodge located in the middle of the route.
Vegetation turning colors at the end of the Alaskan short summer.
We stopped to inspect every other lake and wetland, and explored roadside habitats every time we could. We were rewarded with Common Golden Eyes, Golden Eagles, a Northern Goshawk, Common Redpols, Boreal Cheekadees, Ravens and many more. The highlight bird of the trip for me was an unexpected Northern Hawk-Owl; a bird I wanted to seed badly, but thought I did not have a chance to find one. After a sharp turn of the road, there it was! perched high on a nearly bare tree. Another bird high on my wish-list was the Spruce Grouse, which I saw fly across a road just to be hit by the car in front of us. This happened on a paved road near Cantwell.
Alaska was incredible. We are told the scenic beauty of Alaska is only rivaled by that of the Patagonian and Antartic region in extreme South America. May be in the future I will get to write about king and Emperor Penguins, and South Polar Skuas.
I grew up in Alaska, but hadn’t returned since I got into birding until this last summer. It was as great as you say in this post! I drove along the Denali Highway early enough in the summer to see Arctic Warblers, Arctic Terns, Blackpoll Warblers, and many other incredible birds, but Northern Hawk-Owls were my highlight as well.
So glad you made it up to that northern wilderness! I still need to experience Alaska some day.
Pat, it is worth every mile! A truly beautiful place!
Grrrr Teale, I missed all those birds. If I ever get the chance to do it again, I should go earlier.