Posted by: kerryl29 | May 16, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 12: Prologue

After deciding to forego a day on the Denali National Park bus for a variety of reasons on Day 11, a decision that may have been our best on a trip that was filled with (arguably) good decisions, Ellen and I prepared for our first foray into the park on Day 12. It would turn out to be a day I doubt either of us will ever forget, unfortunately. But I’ll get to that later.

Since we had no bus passes, or a particular desire to secure them, for Day 12, we were limited to the first 17 miles of the Denali Park Road. That’s 17 miles of a road that runs approximately 93 miles in length. Here’s a little secret: while the interior of the park is astonishingly beautiful, the first 17 miles–the only part of the road accessible by private vehicle (extremely limited and broadly unobtainable exceptions notwithstanding)–is absolutely stuffed with marvelous photographic opportunities. We had seen this three years prior when Ellen, Debbie and I visited the park for several days–even if we hadn’t necessarily been there when Denali was at its most photogenic. That wasn’t a problem for us this time around.

It was mostly cloudy at sunrise, but we did start to see some breaks in the cover shortly thereafter. For the first couple of hours of daylight we moved back and forth between various shooting locations along the park road where it bisects a series of colorful meadows. As had been the case on the Denali Highway, we caught pretty much the peak of fall color during our time in the park.

Morning Light, Denali National Park, Alaska
Morning Light, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska
Meadow Morning, Denali National Park, Alaska

There’s a high spot along the road where, when clear enough, The Mountain is visible in the distance. There was just enough visibility in the proper direction to make that possible on this morning.

Mountain View, Denali National Park, Alaska
Mountain View Panorama, Denali National Park, Alaska

As late morning approached on what was shaping up to be a partly cloudy day, we decided to hike the Savage Alpine Trail. This trail starts at the Mountain Vista parking lot and runs a bit more than four miles, climbing steeply (over 1400 feet of elevation gain). The route is a bit unusual as it’s neither a loop nor an out-and-back. The end of the trail–at the Savage River–is about two miles by road from the start. (The park shuttle can be used to return to the parking area.) The trail climbs above the treeline quite rapidly but on the first quarter of a mile of the trail we stopped several times for photography.

The first stop was in a forested area, just across the road from the trailhead, when a colorful scene caught my eye.

Autumn Mosaic, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The second stop was a bit farther along, just before the beginning of the steep climb, at an open meadow.

Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The first 2-3/4 miles or so are steadily up, then you hit the high point and the final 1-1/3 mile (approximately) is relentlessly down. On the way up, we stopped a couple of times to capture the impressive views.

The Valley Below, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
The Valley Below, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
The Valley Below, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

There were a couple of wildlife photo ops as well. The first was when some people hiking in front of us spotted a pika. I quietly (and as quickly as possible) pulled out my camera with the long lens attached (once again, the two cameras strategy worked; if I’d had to switch lenses this photo series never would have happened).

Pika, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

Pikas, you see, are very small, skiddish and quick.

Pika, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The marmot we had an opportunity to photograph was more cooperative, sort of. He was happily sunning himself and showed no interest in moving. But he was far above our heads and getting a decent shot was a bit of a challenge. But we persevered.

Marmot, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
Marmot, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

It wasn’t long after the marmot photo op that we reached the highest point on the trail and were treated to a truly spectacular view. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that a great view doesn’t necessarily make for a great photograph, but, conscious of this maxim, I endeavored to turn it on its head. You can be the judge of whether or not I succeeded.

A Room with a View, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

We started to hear the odd rumble of thunder not long after the above image was made, and there was some real concern that we might be caught in a downpour (with possible lightning?) at a high point, utterly devoid of any shelter. So we moved as quickly as possible on the way down, with little thought of image-making. But the threat passed and, when we were most of the way down, I found myself standing face to face with an intimate scene that I felt compelled to capture.

Rocky Intimate, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

After we reached the bottom, we had a bit of a delay before the arrival of the next shuttle bus and I found a few things of interest, using a long lens, to photograph from the Savage River area.

Endless Meadow, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska
The Rock, Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park, Alaska

The shuttle took us back to the Mountain Vista parking area. It was late afternoon at this point and we decided to take the short walk down to the Savage River to see what we could find. The first thing we spotted on the way down was a rainbow.

Rainbow Meadow, Mountain Vista, Denali National Park, Alaska

Then we photographed a bit along the river.

Savage River Black & White, Mountain Vista, Denali National Park, Alaska
Savage River, Mountain Vista, Denali National Park, Alaska

We finished at the Savage River, got back in our vehicle, and meandered along the park road, in the direction of the entrance. I caught a glimpse of a colorful scene out of the corner of my eye and we found an unofficial pull-out so we could investigate. Getting close meant climbing down an embankment, which we did.

Fall Intimate, Denali National Park, Alaska

On the way back up, I noticed what appeared to be an interesting composition so I paused along the roadside to capture it.

Ghost Clouds, Denali National Park, Alaska

After producing the photograph above, I took another look at the elements. I grabbed the telephoto rig (two cameras again!), moved a bit to my left and flipped the camera to a portrait orientation. I liked what I saw–it had a very graphic feel, when considering a black and white treatment in post-processing–and fine-tuned the comp on the tripod.

Ghost Clouds Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

The view above was east-facing. To the west, clouds were dominant. It was now early evening and it was clear that there would be no sunset. We decided to head back to our lodgings. So, we made our way to the park exit, turned right (i.e. southbound) on the George Parks Highway, preparing to make the 20-odd-minute drive back to Carlo Creek.

Less than two miles up the road, we spotted a moose, only 20 or 30 feet off the shoulder to our right. We drove past–it took some time to slow down without screeching to a halt–turned around on the empty road, and drove back and approached slowly. There was the moose, happily munching on foliage, utterly undisturbed and uninterested in our presence. Given how close the moose was to where we were now parked (two tires on the paved shoulder, two tires on the gravel off the shoulder, about 15 feet out of the northbound traffic lane), this looked like a very nice cap to our already very pleasant, productive day of photography.

But that was before all hell broke loose.

To be continued….


  1. šŸ‘šŸ‘šŸ‘šŸ“· beautiful nature … I have to get there someday.

    • I hope you get the chance to do so.

  2. The Savage River Trail is a visual treat. And we did it in the right direction with the easier ascent (in my opinion) than starting at the other end which seems to be what most people do to climb to the top and turn around and go back. I was just thinking how much I am missing the “look forward to it” part of that trip. Hard to believe it has been a year since we were still in the throes of deciding whether to go or postpone again. So very glad we went…perfect timing for fall color and unbelievable experiences.

    • No question, the Savage Alpine Trail is less steep from Mountain Vista than from the Savage River. And some of the best image opportunities were on that side of the trail, so I’m really glad we went the way we did.

      I think it was just about exactly a year ago that we effectively committed to making trip in 2021. I guess *that* was the best decision of all.

  3. Such lovely fall colours and enjoyed seeing the parts of the Savage Trail, especially the view at the top , or near the top. Fantastic views!

  4. My husband and I did a cruise of the Inside Passage after we got married. Next time, I want to do the interior of Alaska, including Denali. You seemed to arrive at the heart of the fall color season. When do you recommend people go there to see this? In Colorado, where I live, it’s the last two weeks of September.

    • In my experience, timing fall color is a perpetual guessing game, pretty much regardless of the location. I’ve seen peak color vary by more than two weeks from historical norms; I’ve also seen no peak at all. (This is essentially what happened in northern Illinois last year.)

      That said, there *are* historical norms, and if you have to plan a trip in advance–pretty much de rigeur for the Alaskan interior–it’s all you can go on and hope it’s not a year with prone to significant variation.

      It’s also worth noting that the Alaskan interior literally covers a tremendous amount of ground and color timing can and does naturally vary tremendously depending on elevation (as well as latitude). And, of course, different vegetation peaks at different times. In Alaska, tundra vegetation typically turns before birches in the same area.

      Having said all of that, here are the historical peak times, as best as I’ve been able to determine.

      The central Brooks Range can be expected to peak most years over the last 10 days or so of August. In the unlikely event that you’re going to head that far north, I’d try to center my visit around Aug. 25 for fall color.

      The Denali Highway tends to peak right around the end of August/beginning of September.

      Denali NP typically peaks from the very end of August to the first week of September. Higher elevations in the park’s interior can be expected to peak in late August.

      • Thank you! That’s great to know! I could do fall in Alaska, then return to Colorado in September. BTW your photos are beautiful.

        • Thanks very much!

          Yeah, no question, the Colorado fall color season, even at the earliest locations, won’t have begun until it’s all over in central Alaska. It would be a much closer call for spots further south in AK, closer to Anchorage.

  5. Kerry,
    I’m loving this extended series of posts about your and Ellen’s trip. Feels like we’re going with you! In this post, I especially appreciated the Autumn Mosaic and Ghost Clouds B&W images. Both have particularly strong compositions, IMO. Can’t wait to hear about your moose adventure in the next post!

    • Thanks, Steve. I’m pretty fond of both of the images you mentioned myself.

      The extended moose experience was…let’s just say it was quite something. Hopefully I’ll do it justice in the forthcoming post.

  6. A cliff hanger ending! Gorgeous photos, Kerry – I find the colors to be almost shocking in their intensity and contrast. The green of the pines in the Endless Meadow photos are such the perfect contrast in shape and color. But I think my favorites are those intimate closeup photos – they seem almost tender somehow in the midst of that vast landscape.

    • Thanks, Lynn. It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact of the colors if you catch the peak of autumn in the Alaskan interior, as we did, repeatedly, on last year’s trip.

      Truth be told, I’m pretty fond of the intimates in this series as well. They’re almost always more intricate, and require more effort to tease out, than the grand landscapes…and that may in fact be the reason why I often prefer them.

  7. […] left off the narrative of Day 12 with seemingly little to say. It was, perhaps, 90 minutes until sunset on what had gradually become […]

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