My favorite place in the Denali front country is the Sled Dog Kennels where the happiest employees in the world appear to live. The Denali sled dogs do most of their work in the winter pulling supplies back to different locations in the park for summer repairs. With no snow in the summer, they rely on presentations for tourist for their opportunity to hook up to a sled and run!
I was disappointed, however, when a ranger brushed off a question asked by a man in the audience. He had asked which dog was the leader of the pack, which the ranger promptly answered that none of the dogs were. I thought this was a valuable answer to explain, as many people get their ideas from things they read, such as Jack London’s fiction, and that so much about visiting Denali is about animal behavior and the history of human interaction. Dog sled teams are an integral part of much of Alaska’s culture, and it is obvious that if each pack in history had a dog as the teams leader he culture of dog sledding would never have developed. To have a good working dog team the dogs must believe that the musher is the leader of the pack. It is as simple as that.
I recommend visiting the dog kennels. The dogs appear to be unable to receive enough attention and visitors are allowed to walk right up to the dogs and pet them to their hearts content.
There are many other places to spend your time in the front country. The Denali Visitor Center provides information about the landscape and animals in the park, ranger talks, and art work displays from the Resident Artist program.
We stopped by the Murie Science and Learning Center for an opportunity to look at detailed research findings from everything from wolves to glaciers. Dinosaur fossils have been found in the park and the staff at the center are ready to answer all of your questions.
We spent sometime at the Backcountry Information Center near the Wilderness Access Center, as we needed to obtain our back country permits. Even if you do not intend to stay overnight in the back country, I recommend that you walk in and ask to see the video about wildlife encounters and river fording . You can day hike from any location along the Park Road that you would like , without a permit, and there are bears, rivers, caribou, and wolves along the road. The Backcountry Information center is the only location I found that adequately discussed safety when faced with these wilderness experiences.
The Wilderness Access Center (a.k.a. WAC) is the transportation hub where you will make final arrangements to explore the park itself and catch the bus. We discovered lockers where we were able to store anything we didn’t want to pack with us. Sometimes the front country buses are a little off schedule, so take the opportunity to relax.
We discovered that we had over prepared for our trip by reserving campsites at Riley Creek. Apparently the campground holds several walk in sights for people who come out of the backcountry, so you don’t need reservations for these sites. The problem with this is that these are the sites with bear boxes, which are needed by people like us who show up at the park without a vehicle to store our food in. We had reserved sites for our first and last nights, thinking that we wanted to guarantee a place to sleep when we showed up. I am not sure why this was so confusing to the cashiers at the campground. I would imagine that anyone coming out of the back country that doesn’t have a car in the front country started out just like we had from the train or an airplane.
From Riley Creek you can easily walk into “town” for an Alaskan meal by taking the Jonesville Trail to the Nenana River Canyon. I hear that there are several great places to eat in the area, but we simply visited The Salmon Bake. The food was delicious. Order the salmon.
I was a little disappointed with some food in Alaska. First of all, you can find steak on the menu, though beef is challenging to raise in Alaska. I expected a bigger variety of meat to sample. The reindeer sausage was good, excellent actually, but all the reindeer sausage I ate on my trip seemed to be the same and I suspect had pork in it. I’m not sure where Alaskans raise pork, but if they made a point of telling me that beef was expensive because it is hard to raise cattle on permafrost, I would think that pork might be expensive too.
From Nenana Canyon, a shuttle runs north and south along highway 3. You can catch this shuttle right outside The Salmon Bake and they will happily drop you off at Riley Creek.