An American Safari in Denali National Park

After our quick trip to Katmai National Park, our next destination was Denali National Park, about four hours north of Anchorage.  As with everywhere we went in Alaska, the journey there had almost as much pretty scenery as the destination.  Seriously, if there’s an ugly part of Alaska please tell me about it, because we went all over the state and barely saw anything I wouldn’t put in the category of “stunning.”  We must have pulled off the Parks Highway at least 50 times for photo ops.

IMG_9392The primary way most visitors see Denali National Park is by taking a shuttle bus tour along the 92 mile long Denali Park Road, since individual passenger cars are not typically allowed past the 15 mile marker.  If you’re adventurous, there a few other ways to explore the park, including backcountry camping and flightseeing, but we stuck with the shuttle bus. We had our shuttle bus excursion planned for the next day, but when we arrived at the park in the late afternoon, we figured we would drive in the 15 miles we were allowed to and see what we could see.  The weather was pretty poor and Denali itself (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) was all socked in, but, in addition to the famous mountain, Denali is also very well known for its wildlife, particularly large mammals including grizzly bears and moose.  On our short venture into the publicly accessible areas of the park, we lucked out and spotted a female cow moose grazing by the side of the road.  I immediately hopped out of the car and approached the moose to get some photos.  I did have a telephoto lens with me but I got really close to the moose (way, way too close, I later learned – apparently moose, especially cow moose, are more dangerous than bears).IMG_9434After our thrilling moose sighting, we headed to our hotel to settle in and rest up for our 5:15 (!) am shuttle bus into the park.  Our hotel, McKinley Creekside Cabins, wasn’t anything particularly special, but it was clean, comfortable, less than 15 miles from the park entrance (which is pretty close – hotels 50 miles or more away bill themselves as “Denali Park hotels”) and reasonably priced considering the proximity to the park.  It also had pretty good food on site and overall served our needs well.  The view from our back porch was also pretty nice.

IMG_9456The next morning we were out the door around 4:30 am to drive to the shuttle bus meeting point.  Anywhere else, we would have left our hotel in the pitch black, but this being Alaska in July the sun was already creeping above the horizon.  There are two main types of paid bus tours that will take you all the way into the park: the park-operated shuttle buses, which say they stop for wildlife and scenery but don’t include narration, and more expensive private tour buses that include narration and lunch.  Only the park shuttle buses give you the flexibility to get off, do some hiking, and get back on a different bus.  We opted for the park buses since we wanted the “hop on, hop off” freedom, and we figured that animals don’t need that much narration and our hotel could pack us a boxed lunch.  Having taken the park shuttle bus tour, I find it hard to imagine that the private tours are worth the money.  I was incredibly impressed by our shuttle bus drivers, who not only did a fantastic job of spotting wildlife and stopping appropriately for scenery, but also provided an incredible amount of commentary about the wildlife, the park, its history and pretty much everything else under the sun.  I’ve certainly been on organized tours with far inferior narration.

We opted to buy a ticket to go as far as the Wonder Lake campground, 85 miles in to the 92 mile road (although of course we were free to turn around whenever we wanted).  We did this for a couple of reasons.  First, the longer your bus trip is the better chance you have of spotting wildlife (this was also our rationale for going out on the 5:15 am bus, the first bus of the day).  Second, from Wonder Lake you can hike to Reflection Pond, which is supposed to be a gorgeous view on those one-in-ten or less days when Denali is out in all its glory.  I think it’s certainly worth it to buy a ticket all the way to Wonder Lake, since it’s only minimally more expensive ($13 in 2015) than a ticket to Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66, which has spectacular views and is absolutely a must visit.  That way, if you’ve had great wildlife sightings in the first 66 miles and/or the weather isn’t great, you can turn around or use the extra time for a hike, but you have the option to continue on if you aren’t satisfied with what you’ve seen so far.

As our bus began its journey into the park, we had gorgeous views of the sun rising over the Alaska Range out the back.

IMG_9466 It was still pretty dark and there wasn’t much wildlife to see yet, so our bus driver Mike chatted about park history and the wildlife we might see.  Many people refer to Denali as an “American safari” and it has its own big five: moose, caribou, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, and wolves.  He also warned us that many of our animal sightings would be from far away and we should count it as a success if we could see the animals, we probably wouldn’t get close-up photos of the most of the animals.  I believe his exact words were “None of that Nat Geo stuff” (except with a slightly more colorful word for ‘stuff’).  I was actually very pleased with how close we got to many of the animals, but I appreciated his attempt to moderate what were surely everyone’s very high expectations.

Our first 30 minutes or so on the bus were pleasant but nothing particularly exciting.  We stopped at a couple of scenic viewpoints and we spotted moose, caribou and Dall sheep, but as Mike had warned, they were in the distance and very hard to photograph, even with my 400mm lens.  We did enjoy some nice mountain views.  I was really struck by the contrast between the lush green grass and the snow-capped mountains.

IMG_9487However, shortly after pulling away from this scenic viewpoint, Mike slammed on the brakes and told us all to look to the left – right by the side of the side of the road was a large bull caribou with spectacular antlers.  He ended up trotting across the road right in front of our bus, giving us all a spectacular view, at one point turning and looking straight at us before continuing on his way.

IMG_9501IMG_9502IMG_9509Our next big stop was the Polychrome Overlook (mile 46), which had stunning vistas of the park.

IMG_9523IMG_9527IMG_9546Shortly after we left this overlook, Mike told us there were some bears way in the distance.  They were impossible to photograph, and I’m not even sure I saw them, but it wasn’t a huge disappointment since we had just had such incredible bear sightings in Katmai.  Still I wanted to check off as many of the Big Five as possible, and felt like I couldn’t count these bears since they were basically indistinguishable from rocks to my eyes.

The next stop (and the destination that is at the end of the shortest bus journey) is Toklat River rest stop (mile 53).

IMG_9549After our initial incredible caribou sighting we were fortunate enough to see many other caribou up close, including this herd of female caribou with a baby!

IMG_9573Our next stop was Stony Hill Overlook (mile 62).  If Denali is visible, this is the most iconic view of the mountain, and one you’ve probably seen in postcards and magazines.  Denali was unfortunately still under almost total cloud cover (as you can see from my photos, the skies were sunny and fairly clear on the ground, but apparently the weather patterns are totally different at 20,000 feet and Denali is regularly covered in clouds when its perfectly clear at sea level), but even without the mountain it was still a nice panoramic viewpoint.

IMG_9587IMG_9588Shortly after we stopped at the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66), which not only has nice views but also has informational displays about Denali and the park.

IMG_9595IMG_9598The next stretch of our journey was probably the longest continuous time on the bus.  From Eielson (mile 66) to Wonder Lake (mile 85) we didn’t stop at any viewpoints, but we still enjoyed lots of nice scenery from the bus.  We also spotted a bull moose with large antlers, although he stayed largely hidden in the bushes.

IMG_9630IMG_9638IMG_9651Suddenly, Mike pulled the bus over and started shouting “There it is!” Everyone looked around expecting to see a grizzly bear or maybe even a wolf, the only one of the big five that had so far (technically at least) eluded us.  But Mike was pointing up at the sky.  We looked out the window and it turns out the clouds had parted and the peak of Denali was visible.  To be honest, it didn’t look different or higher to me than many of the other mountains we had seen that day, but I’ll take Mike’s word for it and tell people that I at least caught a glimpse of the summit of the Great One.

IMG_9658We finally made it to Wonder Lake, which was a bit of a letdown in comparison to all the great scenery we’d so far.  It was also, without a doubt, the most mosquito-infested place I’ve ever been.  The air was positively thick with them and it seemed like you could raise your hand and hit 100 mosquitoes, although weirdly I don’t think I got a single bite.  I’d heard that the mosquito is Alaska’s state bird but this was the first time I really experienced it.

On our return journey, we got off at Eielson Visitor Center to walk around a bit.  We didn’t do any serious hiking, but it was nice to be out in the fresh air soaking up the views instead of riding on the bus.  It was a tough decision to get off our original bus, because Mike had been such a fantastic driver who was both funny and informative, but the change in bus must have brought us good luck, because shortly after pulling away from the visitor center, some sharp-eyed passengers spotted a grizzly bear hanging out by the side of the road.  He wasn’t super close, but at least I could tell he wasn’t a rock.  We watched him amble along for a while, grazing on plants, until all of a sudden he started galloping!  We realized he was chasing a caribou that was pretty far away. Although he chased the caribou for a bit, animal lovers will be relieved to know that he eventually gave up and lay down on the ground, without ever gaining much ground on the caribou.  He looked pretty lazy and like he was better-suited to life as an herbivore.  It was pretty thrilling to see a bear chasing prey, even unsuccessfully.  In the last photo you can see the bear on the left and the caribou all the way to the right, if you look closely.

IMG_9704IMG_9715IMG_9726After seeing many beautiful vistas, seeing Mt. Denali, and having so many great wildlife sightings, I felt like I had seen what I “had” to see in the park and spent the rest of the bus ride relaxing and taking in the beautiful views out the bus window.  I put away my DSLR and snapped occasional photos with my point and shoot out the bus window, but also spent plenty of time looking out the window without my camera in front of my face.  I love taking pictures and photos are such an important way for me to remember my travel experiences, but sometimes its nice to put the camera down and just soak in all the beauty around you.

P1010040Of course the wildlife and mountain views are a huge part of what makes this park worthy of a visit, but one of the things I loved the most about Denali was how small I felt compared to the vast park.  I’ve been to a lot of beautiful National Parks and have been to some of my favorites, Yosemite and Acadia, many times.  As beautiful as those two parks are, they are both so crowded and Yosemite especially can have a bit of a Disneyland feel with tourists queued up to a snap a single photo at some of the more popular viewpoints.  Denali was the opposite of that, and it was nice to remember that there are still places in the world – in my own country even – where you can really get away from it all.  I wasn’t expecting this, perhaps because I thought riding on a school bus with a bunch of other people would feel hokey and touristy, but it really didn’t.  The second we got off the bus everyone spread out and nobody was jostling to snap the same view, and most of the time it would have been hard for me to get people in my photos if I’d tried.  I really felt like all six million acres of the park were mine alone to explore, and I hope I can hold on to the memory of that feeling.

4 thoughts on “An American Safari in Denali National Park

  1. Pingback: Glacier Kayaking in Kenai Fjords National Park | Destinations & Desserts

  2. Holy cow, even with a telephoto, it looks like you’re close enough for that moose to eat you for breakfast! I’ve actually only ever seen a moose in the wild once (in Glacier National Park) but they’re at the top of my wildlife-to-spot list =)

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