A Day at Eielson

Jul 7, 2015 | 0 comments

You know you work in a big park when it takes you 3 months to even make it out past the first 60 miles. I am rather ashamed to admit it’s taken me this long to go out to Eielson Visitor Center, but alas, it is the truth, and so I’m going to own up to it.

Last weekend I finally took the plunge and rode 4 1/2 hours out to Eielson for a day trip to see what all the fuss was about. It was a long, but beautiful 4 1/2 hours, where I sat packed like a sardine in the back of a full bus.
Polychrome Pass, looking like a painting again

The hoards of tourists detract a bit from the view…

It was the first sunny day we’ve had in about a week and a half; the smoke from all the wildfires had finally moved on, and the clouds broke for a good portion of the day to reveal spectacular views of the park’s crown jewel, Mt. McKinley.

When you awkwardly post for a photo when you’re traveling alone
I have certainly gotten to see Mt. McKinley a lot since I’ve been here, but I’ll tell you what: there is nothing like seeing it up close. Er, if you can call 33 miles “up close.” As we rumbled up the road passed Toklat, the colossal giant came into view, magnified 10 times the size it appears from the entrance area. I can’t imagine what it looks like from the base!
Oh! It IS kind of big.
Our bus was running well-behind schedule, but fortunately we made it to Eielson around 11:40, just in time for me to eat my packed lunch and join the ranger guided hike up the Alpine Trail. While the visitor center was swarming with tourists — most speaking a plethora of foreign languages — the alpine hike was a welcome relief from the cacophony. 
Our hike group
Just 6 of us had signed up for the hike, which was being led by one of my friends, a ranger from the west side of the park. It’s always fun to go on other ranger’s hikes and see how they lead them, and Naomi certainly did a commendable job! The trail was steep, narrow, and a bit tiring, but there were gorgeous views all the way to the top and different flowers blooming than there are on the east.
Bee visiting some wild geraniums
The hike finished at the top of the ridge, and from there I continued on my own, following along the top of the ridge line. The further I got, the fewer hikers there were, until I found myself hiking near two older ladies. 
“Are you going all the way to Marmot Valley?” asked one of the women, who was wearing these cool insect earrings.
“Oh no, I’m just exploring,” I replied. “How about you?”
“We’re just wandering too!” she laughed, and then added “Now there’s the killer shot. Want your picture there?” 

Picture taken by the lady with the insect earrings 🙂

She must have seen me eyeing the gorgeous sun rays falling through the clouds to the valley below us. She took my picture, I complimented her earrings, and we parted ways.

Not long after, I found a comfortable spot in the rocks to rest. I set up my camera to take a timelapse, and then promptly fell asleep for about 20 minutes while it did its job.

Panorama of the view from my ridge

By the time I got back down the mountain to the visitor center, I was pretty tired, but I stayed for about another hour and explored some more before catching the 4:20pm bus back to east. 

This bus happened to hit the jackpot of wildlife sightings. We spotted 3 grizzlies on the way back, plus multiple caribou and a number of grouse families.

The highlight of the wildlife sightings for me though, was a red fox that someone spotted coming up to the road. We stopped to watch it, and it came out right next to the bus, prowling with intense focus and taking no notice of the vehicles that had stopped for it.
The fox trotted along the roadside for a while and we followed at a distance. All of the sudden, it disappeared into a ditch, and a family of ptarmigan exploded out with the fox in hot pursuit! A bunch of people on the bus screamed and were immediately shushed by everyone else on the bus.
Fox flushing out the ptarmigan
Mr. Fox followed the panicked ptarmigan at a trotting pace for a few seconds, but didn’t pursue them when they disappeared into the brush, and he didn’t manage to catch even the chicks. He continued on along the road, stopping to sniff things, and eventually our bus driver drove passed to keep us on schedule.
Surprise bear!
Incredibly, less than 15 minutes after we saw the fox, the bus driver had to jam on the breaks when a huge grizzly came out of the bushes on the road at Sable Pass! Again, more people on the bus screamed, and more people shushed them. It was an excitable group, I guess.

Gyrfalcon flying over the Plains of Murie

My other favorite sighting of the day were the gyrfalcons by Polychrome Pass. The gyrfalcons are nesting in the rocks right by the road, but this was the first time I’d actually seen one, and one of them took off and flew a short distance while we were stopped to watch them. They are the largest member of the falcon family, a relative of my favorite bird (and the smallest member of the falcon family), the American Kestrel!

The last charismatic megafauna we saw on the trip was our resident Ridiculously Photogenic Caribou at the Savage Check Station. As per usual, he was picking his way down to the road when we rolled in, and trotting down the center lane and then down to the river. What a show-off.

Ridiculously Photogenic Caribou

Needless to say, I quite enjoyed my day out at Eielson although I hope that I’m done with long bus rides of a while (probably not though, since I want to go backpacking again this weekend!). 


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