Fairbanks, Alaska - Part II: Denali (March 2014)

... continued from Part I...

On Sunday night we didn't go out to look for the aurora, so feeling rested with an uninterrupted night's sleep, we took a flight-seeing trip to Denali. The two hour flight, through Northern Alaska Tour Company at the Fairbanks Airport, offered unique and breathtaking views of the massif and surrounding mountains of the Alaska Range. Our 1982 Piper Navajo aircraft held 8 passengers, 9 if someone rode shotgun in the co-pilot seat, and every seat was a window seat.

Mike with our tour aircraft
Fairbanks airport just after take-off

First view of Denali from the air

Denali up close

Our pilot, Andrew, at work

The mountains near Denali

Our flight path from Fairbanks to Denali and back

As stunningly beautiful as this flight was, it didn't quite match up to the experience we had on our flight out of Haines in 2009. A high-wing plane definitely affords better visibility for a flight-seeing trip.

The flightseeing trip apparently didn't totally satisfy our need to see Denali because Mike woke up Friday talking about taking a drive to the National Park. I was on board with the idea immediately. On our way out of town we looked one direction to see an outdoor thermometer reporting 22F. When we looked the other direction, we saw a guy on a motorcycle!

Brrr, 22 degrees on a motorcycle

We stopped in Nenana to see about buying a Nenana Ice Classic ticket at the little visitor center we'd stopped at in '09, but it, as well as the whole town, was deserted. At least we got to see the famed tripod on the river.

Nenana Train Depot

Parks Highway Bridge, Tanana River, and the Ice Classic breakup Tripod

Susan with the Ice Classic sign and tripod, along with our car

A few miles south of Nenana we spotted a bump near the top of a dead evergreen tree and we knew it must be one of our target birds, the Northern Hawk-Owl.  The previous Saturday at Creamer's Field we learned from Mark that the birds perch high and look like a ball this time of year.

Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)

Turning the car around and pulling off the busy Parks Highway as far as possible, we got a good look at him through the window. When Mike stepped out to get closer the bird not only didn't leave, but responded to our iPhone app's bird call with repeated vocalizations. Finally he flew right over our heads, landing on a power line post across the way. What a great encounter!

Northern Hawk-Owl leaving its perch...

... for its new perch

View of Denali from the George Parks Highway

On arrival at Denali National Park and Preserve we learned that the Murie Science and Learning Center serves as the Denali visitor center in winter. We saw our first Boreal Chickadee just outside before heading down the 15 miles of recently plowed (and paved) road.

Boreal Chickadee

Along the road we stopped to walk to the Savage Cabin where an artist-in-residence was staying. Then on the way back we walked the Mountain Vista Trailhead which led to some nice views of Denali.

View of Denali from near the Mountain Vista viewpoint

Gray Jay near Savage Cabin

Mountains to the east of Denali NP&P

Mike along the Denali Road

Thinking back about our time in Denali in the Summer of '09 and how difficult it was to see the mountain due to clouds, we couldn't resist driving on to the south viewpoint under the non-stop sunny skies. The parking lot was not maintained in winter, so we pulled off and walked on in on snow-packed trails. The claims that the views from here are unparalleled are not exaggerated.

Denali from the Denali South Viewpoint

Panorama shot from the Denali South Viewpoint; frozen Chulitna River in foreground (click to enlarge)

Random iPhone snapshot out the car window on the way home

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