“This is a driver’s worst nightmare”, our shuttle driver exclaimed when a yearling caribou wandered onto the road in front of the bus. Denali National Park and Preserve is 6 million acres of wilderness divided by a single road – this road – which after Mile 15, can only be traveled by tour buses. It’s this lack of vehicles and roads that keeps its animals wild. And clearly, free to roam wherever they please.
As we idled behind the meandering caribou, the road narrowed to a single lane. Other buses began pulling up behind us. We were in a traffic jam in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. But that’s the balancing act of Denali National Park – to preserve wilderness, all human visitors have restricted access. Yes, the shuttle bus will be packed and the trails will be well-trod, but to find the true pleasure of the park, just go along for the ride.
Mile 1 – Denali National Park and Preserve
The small town outside the park entrance is exactly what you’d hope it would be: log cabin style hotels, wooden bear burls greeting you at all the shops and fresh salmon on every menu. For breakfast, the Black Bear Coffee House has housemade granola and chia pudding, single varietal coffee, and really strong wifi. For dinner, Prospector’s Pizzeria is likely the best in town – 49 beers on tap, decent wine menu and build your own pizzas with local ingredients. We went there twice because we could build the weird pizzas that fit our dietary restrictions (meat but, no dairy, no wheat) like a reindeer sausage, kale, dairy-free cheese on a gluten-free crust.
Mile 3 – Dog Sled Kennels
You hear it before you see it. The howls, yips and barks of 30+ Alaskan huskies. We arrived moments after their last demonstration of day; they were amped up. The communal voice of the pack grew as rangers let this year’s puppies out of their pen. I’m sure the sled demonstration was incredible, but I’d rather see husky puppies play.
Mile 14 – Savage River Loop Trail
What’s a hiking couple to do when one member of their party has a knee injury preventing any strenuous hiking? The gentle Savage River Loop Trail hugs the water’s edge for a mile upstream, continuing over a small wood bridge and returns in the same fashion on the other side. Look up, while you walk, to try and spot wildlife in the rocky outcrops on both sides of the valley, like a stray moose or two.
Mile 15 – Entering the ‘Restricted Section’
Our second day in Denali was dedicated to the all-day bus ride. Shuttles depart from the Wilderness Access Center about every 45 minutes in the summer months. Reserve your ticket and time of departure in advance to guarantee your spot on the bus. I hear they sell tickets there, but every bus we saw (including ours) didn’t have a seat to spare.
A few things to consider:
- Be sure to dedicate at least a full day to the bus trip: The park is large, like 6 million sq. acres large. For example, one of the most scenic destinations, Wonder Lake is at mile 85 along this 92 mile dirt road. And with frequent stopping for animal sightings, it’s slow going. So be prepared – pack in extra food and water.
- Just accept you’re on a safari tour: While the Los Adventures crew always breaks for scenic vistas and fog shrouded mountains, the bus passengers only want to stop for large land animals. Your landscape photos will be taken from the same vantage point as everyone else unless you choose to hike along the road. That being said – your chances of seeing bears, moose and lynx shoot way up when there’s 40+ sets of eyeballs trained on the horizon for movement.
Mile 46 – Polychrome Overlook
One of the few non-bathroom, non-bear stops made along the Park Road is to take in the vista view at Polychrome Overlook. Several streams cut across a wide open plain, surrounded on all sides by steep valley walls or mountain foothills. Straight across, small glaciers peek through the sides of a multi-colored mountain range. It’s beyond serene.
Along The Road
On the road between Polychrome Overlook and Eielson Visitor Center is where the safari truly begins. The German tourists were the first to spot them – a mother bear and her two cubs walking along the hills to our right. A salt-and-pepper hunter was the one to spot the Dall sheep, because of course he did, those tiny white specks high up on a mountain side were easy to miss to the untrained eye. Next a group of hikers waved us over and raised their hands, fingers spread, to each side of their heads – the sign for a moose spotting. There they were – two bull moose, wading through one of the many branches of the Tolkat River. And the caribou, they were all over. They’re so plentiful that both our bus drivers that day announced after the 10th or so spotting that we only be “waving to the caribou” from now on and stopping for more rare animals.
Mile 66 – Eielson Vistor Center
The final destination for Los Adventures was the Eielson Vistor Center. Unless you’re traveling on to Wonder Lake, the Eielson Center is the first and only stop where you have an extended time to explore. We picnicked while taking in the panorama view, warmed up inside while perusing the exhibits and then set off to the short loop hike instead of the ridge trail (see knee injury from before). Although clouds had rolled in obscuring the view of Denali, we can’t complain about the epic views of the surrounding tundra and glaciers.
View of ‘The High One’
It’s more common NOT to see Mount Denali, meaning ‘The High One’ for Athabascan Indians of the Alaska Range. You need a clear sky otherwise the 20,320ft peak is shrouded in clouds. We never saw it from inside the park. It, thankfully, was a cloudless day on our way out of the area to Anchorage. We came around a bend on the George Parks Highway and there they were, the all white peaks of Denali. Everyone else seemed impressed because we and the two cars in front of us all pulled off the road immediately for photos.
To visit Denali is to experience it on its own terms. With patience, respect and a little luck, you’ll see all the wonder it has to offer.
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