Denali, the big mountain in the clouds

Denali is the big mountain in the clouds

Denali is huge, more than 20,000 feet tall, and most visitors to Denali National Park never see it. Did we see it? How can you be sure to see it during your visit?

No reason to be coy, you already know that we saw Denali during our visit based on the above picture. The big mountain was there, right behind the trees, behind our RV the whole time. But we were never sure about our plan or if our plan would deliver the desired results. For our entire stay, we didn’t really know where to look. We dedicated twelve days hoping to get a cloud-free picture of Denali and were rewarded during the morning of our last day.

How you can be certain to see Denali

I don’t have any tricks to be certain to see Denali. If you want a higher chance of success you probably need to time your visit at the end of June (we did) and stay for about two weeks (we did that too). Most visitors to the park fail to see Denali and among the ones who see Denali, most of them only get a partial view of the mountain.

Anderson Riverside Park was the first place in Alaska that we might have been able to see Denali.
Anderson Riverside Park was the first place in Alaska where we might have been able to see Denali. We were the only people there. There were some other RV sites in the park besides this one but we were the only people camping there that night. We didn’t see Denali because of the clouds and rain. The view was nice but the mosquitos were terrible.

Only 30% percent of visitors see any part of the mountain while at Denali National Park. In the park, a partial viewing is considered a success. Nearly everyone will see pictures of the big mountain when in the park. Some will even buy the tee-shirt that says “I saw the mountain”. I bet that many visitors buy the tee-shirt and the only thing they saw was a photo.

This was the first (good) picture of a big mountain that we took while in Denali National Park.
This was the first (good) picture of a mountain that we took while in Denali National Park. Am I even pointing the camera towards the Denali in this photo, I don’t know, we haven’t seen the mountain… yet.

So how many visitors only see part of Denali peaking from behind the clouds and call it a success? I can’t say. I am willing to bet that the total number of visitors who see Denali on a blue sky day numbers about 5% of the total number of visitors. For us, we had a blue sky day on one day out of twelve and that blue sky disappeared that afternoon. If you have a blue sky day and are anywhere near Denali make sure you go to a well-known viewpoint. Blue sky days are rare and that doesn’t mean that the sky will be blue for the entire day.

Denali National Park is a sightseeing paradise

Denali National Park is a sightseeing paradise, really it is, but it is the only National Park that I know about that most visitors do not get to see the number one attraction. I am going to guess that every visitor to the Grand Canyon gets to see a view of the Grand Canyon. A view of Denali is not easy to get. A view of Denali without clouds is extremely hard to get.

On June 23 we took the park shuttle bus tour 43 miles into Denali Nation Park. So far even though we could have seen the Denali it was in the clouds for the last four days.
I have a copy of this picture without the darker sky but I edited this photo to have fun to darken the sky and I like the effect.

On June 23, three days after we started camping in the park, we took the park shuttle bus tour 43 miles into Denali Nation Park. Even though we could have seen the Denali before our bus ride, it was always in the clouds.

Yes, the park is named after the mountain, but the park was initially established to protect the Dall Sheep. We didn’t see any Dall Sheep. Actually, I think I saw and even photographed some Dall Sheep but they were well more than a mile away. In a photo of Dall Sheep, from more than a mile away, all you see are white dots.

As we got deeper and deeper into Denali National Park on the shuttle bus the pictures of mountains but the big mountain was still in the clouds.
As we got deeper and deeper into Denali National Park on the shuttle bus we got some nice pictures of really pretty mountains but the big mountain was still in the clouds. The white dots that I think are Dall Sheep are not in this picture or any of these pictures.

Dall Sheep are very much like other sheep that we have seen during our travels. The difference is that Dall Sheep are completely white. In the Yukon, we saw some Stone Sheep and have a picture of them. Even if you don’t care about the sheep, you should check out the pictures of a stunning lake. Stunning Northern Rockies on the Alaska Highway

You have to take the bus, unless

Private cars are not allowed beyond mile 15 into Denali National Park. Except during shoulder seasons when the bus does not operate. In the summer, you have to take the bus to go deeper into the park. The only exception is for campers with reservations at remote camps.

Once you drive into a remote camp, you are not allowed to drive around inside the park, nor are you allowed to drive back out and then return back to your camp. Our camper wouldn’t fit in these remote campgrounds anyway. If you have a smaller RV then perhaps you could drive in and then camp in the remote campgrounds and then use your bikes to move around the more remote areas of the parks.

You don’t have to take the bus. You could walk, but 43 miles is well outside my range for walking. Or you could ride bikes. Perhaps I could go 40 miles but that would be a round trip range. You could also combine walking or bike riding with the bus but you have to have a bus pass to make a combination trip.

Be careful, however, with the bicycle idea, bears love a nice chase before they have a people snack. You will not be able to outrun a bear so don’t try. Bears consider running an invitation to chase you and teach you that you cannot outrun a bear.

At mile 45 the park road had a huge landslide that closed the road at mile 43. We got off the bus and were treated to some more fantastic views of pretty mountains and in this case the river valley, after being carved by a glacier becomes the East Fork of the Toklet River
At mile 45 the park road had a huge landslide that closed the road. The road at mile 45 is continuing to slide down the side of the mountain. At mile 43 we got off the bus and were treated to some more fantastic views of pretty mountains and in this photo, the river valley. This river valley was carved by a glacier and the water eventually becomes the East Fork of the Toklet River

The bus ride was tolerable. It had much nicer seats than the similar ones that they use to transport prisoners from one jail to the next. It had typical school bus windows. Do prison buses have windows? Anyway, we had a great driver who told us stories the entire way. Drivers don’t have to say anything, but ours was a talker. I really enjoyed it.

By this time on the 43 mile long bus trip we were pretty much convinced that we were not going to see Denali that day because it was completely covered by the clouds.
By this time on the 43-mile-long bus trip, we were pretty much convinced that we were not going to see Denali that day because it was completely covered by the clouds.

Seeing Denali

On our bus trip, we saw the big mountain. Good thing the driver pointed it out, I probably would have missed it and the following picture. I didn’t know where to look or even what I was looking for. Without the bus driver, I would have dismissed the view of Denali in the following photo as just another cloud.

This was our first view of Denali. It is about sixty miles away. This picture proves that we are in the lucky 30 % of visitors that get to see the big mountain. Our bus driver congratulated us for taking the afternoon bus ride. Visitors on the morning bus didn't get to see the big mountain.
This was our first view of Denali. It is about sixty miles away. This picture proves that we are in the lucky 30% of visitors that get to see the big mountain. Our bus driver congratulated us for taking the afternoon bus ride. Visitors on the morning bus didn’t get to see the big mountain.
This picture is the same as the previous picture, this time with a little more zoom. In this picture you can tell that it isn't just a cloud.
This picture is the same as the previous picture, this time with a little more zoom. In this picture, you can tell that it isn’t just a cloud.
Here is a picture with even more zoom. The peak to the left is the one that is more than 20,000 feet high. It is still in the clouds.
Here is a picture with even more zoom. The peak to the left is the one that is more than 20,000 feet high. It is still in the clouds.

About climbing Denali

Because of the wind and weather, Denali is a very hard mountain to climb. The wind, weather, and bitter cold turn back lots of climbers. Unlike most huge mountains, Denali is in the far north latitudes and it is very cold. Can you say arctic? The only thing about climbing Denali that makes it slightly easier than mountains in the Himalayas is that you don’t use oxygen during the climb. Climbing big mountains is never easy.

After seeing part of the big mountain on the previous day we went out again, as far as you can get in a private car and were treated to some more pictures of pretty mountains.
After seeing part of the big mountain on the previous day, we went out again, as far as you can go in a private car, and were treated to some more pictures of pretty mountains.

Near the Mountain View campground, we again saw the big mountain. This time we knew what to look for. The Mountain View campground is quite the appropriate name for this campground. Again the mountain was covered in clouds but at least we had two days in a row that we could see it. At this time we were feeling pretty special.

Again, Denali is here in the picture and the south peak is covered with clouds.
Again, Denali is here in the picture, and the south peak is again covered with clouds. From this photo spot, the mountain is about 100 miles away. The zoom lens on the camera is doing a pretty good job.
Here is a second picture of the same view with more zoom and a few more clouds.
Here is a second picture of the same view with more zoom and a few more clouds.

It is hard to believe that we saw the big mountain on two consecutive days. Good thing we saw it, it was our last day in the park. That was the bad news. We didn’t have to leave but instead, we had a different goal. If we drove about a hundred miles to the south there was another viewpoint and next door there was a great campground.

All the previous views were from the northeast side maybe we could get lucky on the south side. So the next day we left the National Park and moved into a State Park. Our stay in the National Park was six days. We were going to be at our next campground for five days.

K’esugi Ken Campground

K’esugi Ken Campground is up the hill from a Denali Viewpoint South inside Denali State Park. This offered more chances to see the big mountain from a different perspective. However, we didn’t expect the weather to improve. Rain was in the forecast. Unlike our previous stop except for getting a great view of the mountain, there wasn’t that much to do except wait for the mountain to make an appearance.

These craggy mountains are viewed from Denali Viewpoint (South). I think they are called the little Switzerland. They are south east of Denali,
These craggy mountains are viewed from Denali Viewpoint South. I think they are called Little Switzerland. They are southeast of Denali. We couldn’t see them from the campground but they are obvious from Denali Viewpoint South. When you can’t see Denali, these mountains really catch the eye. When you can see Denali, it seems that they disappear.

From K’esugi Ken we scheduled an airplane ride up towards Denali including a landing on a glacier. This would have been fun if the weather was good. The weather however wasn’t good and for this reason and the fact that we had to drive to Talkeetna, which was on the far side of the river, we first postponed and then cancelled the flight. Anyway, it would have been a long drive only to find that the weather there wasn’t great either. I will tell you the other reason we canceled our flight next week.

Other than a drive to Trapper Creek one day to pick up the mail we sat with occasional short drives over to the viewpoint only to take a couple of pictures of clouds and come back and sit again waiting. One cool thing was that during our drive to Trapper Creek is that we saw a wolf. He was moving fast so there was no chance for a picture. At Trapper Creek, we were looking for our mail. It was a real hunt. We started at the post office. The post office suggested that we try the gas station. She was right. Trapper Creek is a tiny town and we were running out of places to look.

On day number four at K'esugi Ken we got a peak of the top of the south mountain. 20,318 high and even though we couldn't see most of the mountain you can tell that it towers above the mountains in the foreground.
On day number four at K’esugi Ken we got a peak of the top of the south mountain. 20,310 feet high and even though we couldn’t see most of the mountain you can tell that it towers above the mountains in the foreground.

The weather finally cleared at K’esugi Kenon after four days of rain. We got to see Denali in good weather with a blue sky. The weather at our campsite was good and I first went to check to see if the mountain was visible or if again it was covered in clouds. Hoping for a great view I drove towards the viewpoint in our car. Before I got out of the campground I circled around again to go pick up Tami. The weather at the mountain, about a hundred miles away was perfect.

On our final day at K’esugi Ken we were rewarded with a perfect view of Denali. Also in this picture to the left are the Little Switzerland mountains.
On our final day at K’esugi Ken, we were rewarded with a perfect view of Denali. Also in this picture to the left are the Little Switzerland mountains. Did you see the little Switzerland mountains right away, I told you they seem to disappear when you see Denali.

In the above photo, you get a perspective of how Denali is almost twice the elevation of the surrounding mountains. The large snowy peak to the left in the above picture is Mount Hunter. For perspective, Mount Hunter is 13,965 feet high. To add perspective on how big Denali is, Mount Hunter is nearly as tall as most of the highest mountains in Colorado. Denali really is a huge mountain

This photo is again from K'esugi Ken Campground viewpoint. It is a seperate photo but at the campground you loose some size perspective that you get with the normal picture taken from Denali Viewpoint South.
This photo is a separate photo from the previous one. Photos taken at the campground lose some size perspective that you get with the picture taken from Denali Viewpoint South.
This photo was at maximum zoom on my camera and also cropped in my computer to get even closer to the top of the south peak of Denali. To get a picture better than this you would need a lens about the length of my leg and a tripod to hold it up. as for me I set the camera on a bench.
This photo was at maximum zoom on my camera and also cropped on my computer to make the picture bigger to focus on the top of the south peak of Denali. Unless you are in an airplane, to get a picture better than this you would need a lens about the length of my leg. You would also need a tripod to hold that huge lens. Additionally, you would need a day with less haze in the air. I didn’t see any haze but it is there. For me, I set my camera on a bench at maximum zoom.
Tami and Scott doing a selfie in front of Denali on a perfect day.
Tami and Scott doing a selfie in front of Denali on a perfect day.

What is next?

What did we do during the twelve days of clouds and rain while we were waiting to see the big mountain? We explored and kept a vigilant lookout for the large animals that Denali National Park is known for. While there we saw and got some good pictures of both Grizzly bears and moose. The other thing we did was nurse some illnesses, allergies, head colds, or was it Covid. Maybe it was Covid. If it was Covid we survived as you can tell by the pictures. Don’t miss our next blog post where we will show off some great photos of really big animals and tell the rest of the story.

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As you know, our blog income is zero – this allows us to be independent and just tell the truth.  We do not get income or commissions. No, we don’t make paid endorsements.  We don’t make recommendations but instead, we will tell you what we like (or dislike). The links are only provided as a quick reference to help our readers.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park Tour Bus Information

Alaska wildlife guide to Dall Sheep

Riding bicycles in Denali National Park

Climbing Denali Alaska Mountaineering School

K’esugi Ken Campground

Denali Viewpoint South

Denali State Park

Note, the three previous links all use the same photoshopped picture at the top. The picture is perfect except for the size of the mountain. The above selfie will give you a more realistic view. After all the mountain is more than one hundred miles from the viewpoint.

13 thoughts on “Denali is the big mountain in the clouds”

  1. Happy Birthday 🎂. We saw Denali from Talkeetna when we checked in at the B&B on our first visit. We bought a large photograph (had to have it shipped home) of The Mountain. Are you going to Kodiak? I want to go back before I’m too old.
    Safe travels on your journey.

  2. 1996 late may. No shuttle buses. Drove as far as one could. Saw sheep wolfs and grizzlies.

    Never went more than a few feet from car being safe you know. Denali was crystal clear and beautiful.

    Went all over Alaska from Seward to Fairbanks. Walked on glaziers. Saw lots of sea life killer whales otters etc. 3 weeks every day was a great day.

    The mountain that makes its own weather!

  3. Glad you enjoyed K’esugi Ken…we also had great mountain views there.
    We did a hike there, and on the way up, I kept asking my husband why he was huffing and puffing so much….yep, it was Covid. We think we picked it up two days earlier on the Denali Park bus ride. Hunkered down and nursed each other the entire week at the state park.

    Happy Birthday!

  4. Amazing trip and photos. I have always wanted to go to Denali. I love the history there. Thank you for sharing your adventures with us and have a very Happy Birthday.

    Angie from Dan Nicholas Park Salisbury NC. Maybe you will come back through her again.

  5. I’m re-experiencing our trip reading your clear descriptions. We spent 11 days at Denali, but didn’t see the mountain until into our second week. Thank you for these great descriptions of your trip.

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