We were honestly not terribly excited leading up to our visit to Denali National Park. Well, we were, I guess, just with reservations. Between there only being a 20-30% shot of seeing the mountain unobstructed by clouds, having to pay to take an 8 or 11 hour shuttle out on the park road (meaning we would really only have one shot at a good weather day and have limited access to the park), and the crowds forcing us to make reservations ahead of time (which we never like to do), we were honestly expecting it to be more of a check off our list sort of thing than a fun time.
Where We Stayed
The only camping reservations we were able to make a month or two out were in Riley Creek, the campground right inside the park entrance. We were nervous about there only being 30 foot long sites available but were able to find a “B” site that just fit us. It really wasn’t a terrible spot and it was pretty nice being able to walk to the park entrance amenities and bus stops. Next time though, we would like to try Teklanika, about an hour onto the “restricted” park road, where only Tek campers are allowed to drive personal vehicles to this point. (The catch being you are stuck there for three days minimum.) There were several scenic, large pullouts on the side of the Parks Highway near the entrance that would probably serve as good spots, too.
Sled Dog Demos
Our first day was rainy off and on, so we attended the sled dog demonstration, which runs daily at 10, 2 and 4. Denali National Park maintains a year-round team of 30 sled dogs and these demos and daily walking keep them active and acclimated to people year-round. As advanced as technology is, these dogs remain the safest and most reliable mode of transportation for navigating the park in winter. Motorized vehicles just can’t be relied on as much as live, intuitive sled dogs, who can sniff out routes and may get hungry, but don’t run out of gas or stall out quite as easily as a snowmobile in potentially deadly winter conditions. In the early 20th century, sled dogs were heavily relied on to help navigate the park and to haul materials for building some of the park’s structures, and they remain an important mode of transportation in other remote parts of Alaska as well.
The demo was super quick, but it was awesome learning about how they train these incredible animals and how they do their jobs. The best part though was getting to pet some of these majestic beauties!
The main road into Denali National Park is very narrow, graded gravel, and climbs up a few guardrail-less mountain passes. The road used to be open to the public, but got so congested and full of people disturbing the wildlife that the park began only allowing buses and a few select vehicles on the road in the 1990s. Having seen the madness of Yellowstone, I can see this making perfect sense, even if it’s kind of a bummer not being able to take your time on your own schedule.
We bought our shuttle tickets for the following day upon check-in at the mercantile because the weather looked really promising. The time slots were already pretty limited so we were glad we got them early. We were slated to leave for Wonder Lake at 6:45am, for an 11-hour round trip haul. Fare was $46.50/person RT, though this was much cheaper than the private, narrated tours that NPS staff recommend avoiding because the only real differences are that you pay three times as much, get lunch and cover less ground than most park shuttles. (Speaking of lunch, there is no food sold out on the park road, so it’s imperative to bring some on the bus!)
We arrived at the Wilderness Access Center at 6:15am and got into the line of people already queued up to board our green shuttle. We weren’t first, but somehow were able to snag the best seat in the house right up front! Our bus driver – Tina P. – who we came to really like throughout the day, collected everyone’s bear spray to secure away as she had had the misfortune of having someone’s go off in the bus in the past (best would have been to bring a ziploc bag for it and to stow it away deep in another bag). And we were off!
Now that we were here, we were getting stoked that the weather looked absolutely perfect. Everyone reminded us of how lucky we were to get such a gorgeously clear morning, as Denali is so big that it creates its own weather pattern and is rarely completely “out”. If you think about it, 20,000-plus feet high plus the miles between you and the mountain does create a lot of atmosphere that needs to remain clear for visibility! And the fact that the highest elevation on the park road is only about 4,000 feet above sea level makes it that much more. Needless to say, we waited with bated breath for that first viewpoint of the “High One”…
It didn’t take long at all for the scenery to start to wow, and soon after, our first glimpse of Denali popped into view around Mile 8. By popped, I mean, it really jumped out at us – bright-white snow covered and contrasted against a crystal clear blue sky – some people actually gasped it was so striking! I definitely got some goosebumps, myself…
Once we reached Savage River Campground, it was “goodbye” to paved road and all other lay-person drivers. A narrow gravel road populated mostly by occasional buses and the sparse cyclist would take us out into the heart of one of the nation’s largest wilderness preserves.
Views of Denali came and went as we skirted the Alaska Range throughout our drive. Our driver almost always stopped for a couple of minutes at opportune times for photo ops, especially as clear weather can be fleeting.
Even when we couldn’t see the mountain, the rest of the scenery more than made up for it. Seriously, the most gorgeous, grand mountains we’d ever seen whose color photos or words can’t accurately describe, beautiful, wide open plains of tundra, and oh…there’s wildlife out here! It really felt like a whole other world, even being crammed on a shuttle bus…
Our first major wildlife spotting was literally right in front of us. As we turned a corner on one of the higher, narrower passes of the drive, we came upon a gigantic caribou trotting right down the middle of the road. Tina tried to keep as respectful a distance as possible as he scampered along until a spot came up where he could escape the road. We got some dreamy views of this incredible animal in the meantime, though, especially from our front row seats! Caribou were the animal I was most excited to see and we sure got a show of this one!
By the way, did you know that caribou are the only member of the deer family in Alaska? (Reindeer are also caribou, but domesticated.) Tina delighted us with factoids like this throughout the drive, in her awesomely soothing voice that was perfect for sharing information without being overwhelming or exposing nearby wildlife to human noise.
We saw many more caribou from there throughout the day, as well as several up close moose, dizzyingly high up Dall Sheep, various bird species, tons of ground squirrels, and most excitingly, three grizzly families off in the distance. Stops were made as were safe for photo ops of all of these animals, too, which was really great. Well, with the exception of some of the caribou – there were just too many to stop for! All in all, we saw the “big 4” animals, with the exception of the elusive wolf, whose population is currently way down from what it used to be.
Another interesting fact Tina shared with us was that the strongest theory for why interior grizzlies were smaller and lighter colored than coastal brown bears was that “Denali blondes” survive mostly on berries, whereas coastal brown bears feast on fish rich in omega-3’s that turn their fur a darker brown. Since grizzly cubs are that dark brown color as well when they’re receiving their mother’s milk – also rich in omega-3’s – this definitely seems to make sense! If you look really closely at these pictures, you can see the darker color of the cub we saw here:
Time seemed to fly as wildlife sightings, restroom breaks, and jaw-dropping scenery around every turn really broke up the long drive. By the time we reached Eielson Visitor Center 4 hours later, a few clouds had started to roll in, but the views were spectacular nonetheless.
We had the option to get off of the bus at any time to explore the wilderness on foot or spend more time at any stop, since other green buses will pick up passengers along the road as space allows. Since the buses stopped running fairly early and it was a long day already, we just stuck with our girl, Tina. This meant a sparse 30 minutes at Eielson and Wonder Lake, but it was enough to soak in some of the views – what we could comprehend of them, at least.
We were glad to have taken the bus all the way out to Wonder Lake, but if we were to do it again, we’d probably get off earlier and explore a little. Or suck it up and camp out at Wonder Lake RV-less to be able to have time to explore the area and get some of those classic views on some of the trails or the other side of Wonder Lake. We only had time to get to a slightly obstructed view near the shuttle stop, but even that was just unreal. The grandest alpine scenery we’d ever seen, you’d think we were right up on it; but no, it is just THAT big and majestic. And as usual, photos do no justice…
The drive back had many napping and getting antsy, but I honestly continued to soak it all in until we reached pavement again. I apparently took over 2,000 pictures that day but it seemed like nothing. Looking back, I’m still blown away by just how wild everything looked and felt in the park and am really glad that we are still able to preserve such incredible wilderness. Turns out the inconveniences of the national park paled in comparison to what we got in return and I also doubt we would have spotted half the wildlife we did without 40 pairs of eyes…
We spent the rest of our time in Denali doing some of the shorter hikes in the front end of the park, while getting another great weather day and a few more peeks at an “out” Denali from the Savage Alpine Trail just in time for my birthday! Capped off by a delicious dinner at surprisingly modern and pretty, yet rustically decorated 49th State Brewing Co. in Healy, I don’t think I could have asked for more…