Alaska - Week 4
July 17, 2022
Gold mines, old-timey Alaskan towns, Denali National Park, and a camper roof auto lift system failure. Need us to say more? It’s been a week, and the adventure is always afoot.
Monday: Palmer to Hatcher Pass (35 Min / 20 Miles)
After a restful night at Matanuska River Park in Palmer, we started making our way to Denali National Park through the scenic Hatcher Pass. Our first stop was Independence Mine State Historical Park, where traces of the gold rush era were carefully preserved.
We had known little about the mining history in Alaska, so the mining camp and the well-placed interpretive signs made an informative self-guided tour. According to the record, the mine produced $24 million worth of gold in today’s dollars before World War II halted the operation.
Next to the mining camp are a few stunning treks to alpine lakes, which probably helped maintain the sanity of the miners back then. We took Margo on a short and steep two-mile hike to Gold Cord Lake, where arctic ground squirrels were abundant.
Afterward, we decided to drive back down the road and camp at a trailhead parking lot with a strong cell phone signal to finish our last week’s blog post. Overlanding is not always about amazing campsites! 😅
Tuesday: Hatcher Pass to Talkeetna (1h30 / 70 Miles)
A heavy thunderstorm swept through the area last night, and we woke up on Tuesday with a malfunctioning camper roof that wouldn’t respond to the controls.
It was the first time that we had any issues with the camper since we’ve been on the road, and the incident made what it meant to be an overlander more real to us. Our equipment is going to break at some point, no matter how well made it is at the beginning, and we have to learn to problem solve as we go.
First, some background on our camper. We have what is called a “pop-up” camper, which means the roof needs to be raised in order to make the camper usable. Pop-up campers are usually more manageable on and off road than hard-sided campers because they have a lower center of gravity and are lighter. Our camper is also equipped with an auto roof lifting system, meaning that we only have to press a button to raise or lower the roof automatically. The feature comes with plenty upsides: quick setup, happier body muscles, and of course, lazier (and thus happier 😛) campers. The downside, though, is that if the system breaks, it’s not easily fixable by us because we aren’t electricians.
Our hypothesis of the problem was that the heavy rain overnight somehow got into the electrical components of the auto lift system, causing each actuators to respond to the control differently. When we attempted to lower the roof in the morning, one corner would start to lower while the rest remained stuck in place. After a few system resets, we were somehow able to get all but one corner of the roof lowered in place.
We reached out to Overland Explorer Vehicles, the camper manufacturer, via Instagram for help. As we waited for their response, we decided to head towards Anchorage for better mechanical diagnose and fix.
To our amazement, Mark from Overland Explorer Vehicles called us within 30 minutes and walked us through how to manually crank the roof down. He agreed with our hypothesis, and offered to swap the faulty actuator if we could stop by their shop in Red Deer in Alberta, Canada on our way back to Utah. That was some solid customer service — we were so grateful for the prompt response, and couldn’t be happier that we chose their product to overland with. Thank you, Mark!
We were quite relieved that the roof was at least manually operable, so that we didn’t have to cut our adventure in Alaska short. We were also crossing our fingers that perhaps the electric system would dry out in the coming days and the auto lift system would magically work again.
With the crisis averted, we were too tired to think about camping or anything else for that matter, and rented an Airbnb in Talkeetna, a small town south of Denali National Park for the night. At the very least, we didn’t have to cancel the precious camping spot in Denali for the next few days!
Wednesday: Talkeetna to Denali National Park (2h30 / 150 Miles)
Our prayer was answered. The auto lift system started working again after a night of dry weather! 🥳 Though we weren’t sure how long it would last, the discovery was a much needed mood booster. We took the morning to visit the quirky town of Talkeetna, treated ourselves with spinach bread and Korean rice bowls (That’s right, we deserved double lunch!) and headed to the renowned Denali National Park with a full belly.
Thursday: Denali National Park and Preserve
The vastness and wildness of Denali National Park and Preserve can’t be understated. The 6-million-acre stupendous landscape was a sight to behold — there is only one road through the park, and after mile 15, one can only rely on the bus system to get around to protect the park’s pristine environment. There aren’t many established trails as one gets deeper into the park either. To fully apprehend and appreciate Denali, one ought to bushwhack in the bear country.
It wasn’t rainy on Thursday, though the clouds and smoke from the nearby fires veiled the tallest peak in North America from our view. And we were surprised to learn that a landslide last year destroyed the only road at around mile 48, so the buses were only able to take hikers about half way through the park. We were of course disappointed, but that that didn’t stop us from admiring the view and searching attentively for wildlife.
Friday: Denali National Park to Denali Highway (1h / 60 Miles)
We scored a three-night camping permit at Teklanika River Camp, and Friday was our last full day inside the park. We went for a hike by Savage River before giddily arriving at the sled dog kennels for our most anticipated activity in Denali: the sled dog demonstration!
The Alaskan Huskies are bred and raised inside the park by the rangers, and they are truly colleagues. In the winter, sled dog teams reliably bring supplies to assist mountaineering expeditions, patrol the backcountry, and help with scientific research when motorized vehicles fail to work in sub-zero climates. Fun fact: the sled dogs pull ATVs, set in neutral or first gear, around the campground in the fall to help them get in shape for the winter. Can you imagine pulling an ATV for exercise?
Kuan could have spent hours at the sled dog kennel, but we had to hit the road. Since the weather has been rather rainy and gloomy, making hiking and wildlife viewing less than ideal, we decided to leave Denali earlier than planned and seek new adventure.
Saturday: Denali Highway to Glennallen (5h / 200 Miles)
The 135-mile Denali Highway is named one of the best drives in the world, boasting glacier views along the way, so we were excited to check it out. Thanks to the rain clouds, we didn’t get to see any glaciers but we still got glimpses into the rural Alaskan life and nice views of the sprawling mountains above the tree lines.
We pulled into Glennallen, a quiet town south of the highway junction, for a quick load of laundry and camped by the Tazlina River boat launch parking lot at the end of the day.
Sunday: Glennallen to McCarthy (3h30 / 120 Miles)
Our goal was to make it to McCarthy, an epitome of remote Alaskan village in the middle of the biggest national park in the U.S.: Wrangell-St. Elia National Park and Preserve. The park is bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite and Switzerland put together!
The drive to McCarthy was bumpy but rewarding. The sun broke through the clouds in the early morning, gifting us with breathtaking views of the majestic glacier-covered mountains in the far distance. That’s the Alaskan view we have been waiting for! Plus, we spotted three bald eagles along the way!
To visit the town of McCarthy, visitors must park their vehicle at a paid parking lot before crossing a foot bridge. Then, the town is a 0.75-mile walk or a free shuttle bus ride away. The inaccessibility perhaps added to the lure of McCarthy. If one takes the effort to get here, one is rewarded with witnessing a lifestyle that’s truly slow, and off-the-grid. We saw locals driving a truck-full of jugs and containers to the stream to fill up drinking water. The buildings in McCarthy look like they come straight out of old-timer movies. Old Ford mobiles, along with broken-down trucks line up by the side of the road.
When the drizzle started in the afternoon, we retreated to our campsite with the view of the spectacular Root Glacier for some quiet writing time.
Tomorrow, we hope to visit Kennicott, the neighboring mining town next to McCarthy for a tour of the mine, and our adventure will continue west from there. There is more rain in the forecast, and we’re wearing winter layers every day. That’s what they call summer in Alaska. 😭
See you next week!