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Denali National Park, AK
Sunday, July 16, 2006 - 12:00pm by Lolo
230 miles and 5.5 hours from our last stop - 2 night stay
Everyone we spoke to about traveling in Alaska said that we absolutely had to visit Denali and that doing so meant making reservations well in advance. So, Denali became our first stake in the ground around which we planed the rest of our itinerary.
Denali does not allow private vehicles beyond the first 15 miles of the park road, because they really are trying to preserve it as a pristine wilderness where the wildlife are the most important inhabitants, not the tourists. That's the good part. The bad part is that the only way to get into the remote interior of the park is to ride one of the green shuttle buses, loaded to the brim with camera-wielding tourists, for up to 11 bouncy hours--not exactly, Herb's idea of exploration. However, since this was the only way to see Denali, and see Denali we must, we decided it would be worth it.
The first thing I did was book 3 nights (the minimum required stay) in the Teklanika River Campground, which was the furthest you could go into the park in an RV. Reservations in this campground allowed you to pass the vehicle restriction area and drive another 15 miles into the park. The only requirement was that once you're in the campground, you're not allowed to move your vehicle again until you leave. This was fine though because everywhere from this point could be reached by shuttle.
Once you have a campground reservation, you need to reserve a Tek Pass (shuttle pass for Teklanika Campground) for your first full day in the park. This saves you a space on the green shuttle bus that stops right at the campground. It also allows you to ride for free the next day, if you can find room on a passing shuttle. My advice is to book a time as early in the day as you can because that is when the wildlife is best. It also gives you some extra time if you want to get off the bus and take a hike or just get away from the crowds for awhile. We booked a 7:45 shuttle, but if I had to do it again, I would go even earlier.
On our drive into the campground the first day here, we stopped at a scenic viewpoint overlooking a valley and were immediately rewarded with the sight of 2 grizzlies. This was quite promising. We had only been in the park a ½ hour and already we were seeing grizzlies. Although they were quite a distance away, Herb managed to get several pictures of them with his new telephoto lens. The family favorite by far was a classic shot of a bear lifting its tail and dropping a turd, which Herb's camera managed to capture in mid-air. National Geographic had nothing on us.
We got to the Teklanika River Campground late that afternoon and the boys wanted to go for a run, once again raising the question as to the prudence of running in bear country. Everyone we spoke to said it should be fine as long as they ran in the middle of the road, made noise, and stayed alert. Neither Tommy nor I were totally thrilled with this approach, but Herb and Andrew thought we were being overly cautious. The boys compromised and agreed to do loops within the campground where there were plenty of people wandering around. Tommy did come back earlier, however, so he and I hid a walkie-talkie in the bushes next to our site. When Andrew returned, we growled into it. I don't think he really fell for it, but hopefully it got him thinking.
The next morning we got up bright and early and lined up with the other commuters at the bus stop on the road outside the campground. Our bus was actually late, but at least they had a good excuse--something about stopping to view wildlife along the way. We climbed onto the bus and plopped down in the only 4 remaining seats--they really did fill these buses to capacity. Everyone on the bus was quite enthused, ready for a good day of wildlife viewing.
After about ½ hour of bouncing along with no wildlife, I began to get concerned. The boys hadn't been that excited about the prospect of spending 11 hours on a bus in the first place, but I had convinced them that it probably took that long because the bus would have a hard time getting around all the bear and moose that would be blocking our way. Finally, the bus driver, whose name was Barr, pulled over and started pointing off to the right. Everyone on the left side of the bus dutifully got up to sneak a peak out the windows on the right. At last, I thought with relief, only to discover that people were now snapping pictures of two ground squirrels.
It might have been a slow start, but things definitely picked up and it did turn out to be a fabulous and worthwhile experience. The first real non-rodent wildlife Barr pointed out was a pack of wolves running along a streambed. They were quite a distance away, so the binoculars and telephoto lens definitely came in handy. One of the wolves was pure white. She, Barr explained, was the alpha female of the pack.
After moving on a bit further, one of our fellow passengers yelled out to stop. This is what everyone on the bus is supposed to be doing--looking out for wildlife. With all those eyes on the bus watching, it is much more likely to spot wildlife than if you are doing it on your own. Barr pulled over and we got to watch three large caribou gingerly make their way down a steep ravine right towards the bus. They practically brushed against the bus before crossing the road and disappearing again.
We also had several good grizzly bear sighting throughout the day. My favorite was the grizzly bear that kept running and running along the river. It didn't look like he was moving fast, yet he was keeping up with the speed of the bus. He must have run for about a mile or two before we lost sight of him in the bushes.
Besides the wildlife, the other reason people come to Denali is to see Mt. McKinley, which is visible only one day out of three in the summer. Unfortunately for us, the day was cloudy and overcast and our chances of actually seeing the mountain were quite slim. However, when we were almost all the way back to the campground, and practically lulled to sleep by the rocking of the bus, Barr pulled over one more time. This time we were rewarded with a glimpse of the mountain peaking out of the clouds.
The one thing I do regret is not getting off the bus and taking a hike through the wilderness. Shuttle passengers are allowed to get off at any of the stops the bus makes and go off on their own. There are no trails, but you can hike along riverbeds or ridges or wherever else you want. Then, when you're done, you can just flag down a passing shuttle and hope that there's room. Since our bus was so packed, we were a bit worried that once we gave up our seats on this one, we would have a difficult time finding space for four on a later one, so we didn't do it. Too bad. It probably would have been a very different way of experiencing the wonders of this park.
The shuttle bus tour really was a great thing to do, but none of us wanted to repeat it the next day, even though our Tek Pass was still good. We had seen what we had come to see--much wildlife and the mountain itself--and were anxious to move on and see what else Alaska had to offer. So, we cut out a day early. On the way out, we did stop and catch another view of Denali and even managed to get a family portrait in front of it--perhaps our Christmas card this year.
Before leaving the park, we made one last stop near the park headquarters to see one of the sled dog demonstrations, which are given at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day. There was quite a crowd gathered already by the time we got there. The rangers who are responsible for the dogs gave an informative talk on the history of sled dogs in the park and how the dogs are bred and trained. The whole time the rangers spoke, the dogs lay nearby while other ranger stroked them to keep them calm. Then came the moment everyone--especially the dogs--was waiting for. Six lucky dogs were selected and hitched up to a sled on wheels. I couldn't believe how excited they were at the prospect of running. Then off they went at breakneck speed around the gravel track. The whole thing lasted probably less than a minute. I felt bad for the dogs as I'm sure they wanted to do a lot more running than that.
After leaving the park, we headed back down the Georges Park Highway towards Anchorage, retracing the route we had taken to get here. Hopefully, this time we would get a chance to see Denali from one of the many scenic viewpoints along the way. Although the elusive Denali once again evaded us, we did have our best bear sighting to date, better by far than anything we had seen in Denali. As we were sitting at a traffic light on the highway, Herb told me to look out my window--I am the absolute worst when it comes to animal sightings. No more than 10 feet from the RV was a Mama black bear teaching her three cubs how to dig under rocks for bugs. The cubs were so incredibly adorable and totally unphased by the traffic jam they were causing. You really have to keep alert for wildlife, for in Alaska they are everywhere.
Denali National Park, one of the few Alaskan parks reached via highway, is about a 4 ½ hour drive from Anchorage and 2 ½ hours from Fairbanks. It is Alaska's most famous tourist attraction, drawing over half a million visitors a year, who come to see the abundant wildlife and hopefully catch a glimpse of the elusive Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America.
In an effort to decrease the impact of tourism on this pristine and remote wilderness, the National Park Service made the decision to limit traffic by prohibiting private vehicles beyond the first 15 miles of the park road and providing access only aboard one of the green shuttle or tan tour buses. The shuttle buses depart from the Visitor Access Center just inside the park entrance. You can buy shuttle tickets to the Toklat River (53 miles into the park), the Eielson Visitor Center (66 miles in), Wonder Lake (85 miles in), or Kantishna (95 miles in). The trip to Wonder Lake and back takes about 11 hours. It is recommended that you reserve shuttle tickets well in advance (www.nps.gov/dena), because if you just show up at the visitor center, you will probably have to wait a day or two to get a ticket for the shuttle. The earlier in the day you go the better, as there is a better chance of seeing wildlife and the mountain. Once aboard the shuttle, you are free to get off anywhere along route and flag another one down (if there's room) when you are ready to get back on.
Highlights along the park road:
- Savage River (Mile 15) - this is the furthest point visitors can travel in their own vehicles on the park road. The trailhead for the 2-mile Savage River Trail is here.
- Teklanika River (Mile 30) - rest stop overlooking the braided Teklanika River flowing through the glacier-carved terrain
- Polychrome Pass (Mile 46) - spectacular views of the Alaska Range and glaciers. Caribou and bears can often be seen wandering on the river bars below. The ridge behind the rest area is a good spot for a day hike.
- Toklat River (Mile 53) - braided glacial rivers and cliffs where Dall sheep, grizzly bears, caribou, and wolves are often seen.
- Highway Pass (Mile 58) - highest point on the road. Dramatic views of Mt. McKinley start here.
- Fish Creek (Mile 63) - spectacular views of Mt. McKinley and wildlife
- EielsonVisitor Center (Mile 66)
- Wonder Lake (Mile 85) - the closest road point to Mt. McKinley, which is 27 miles away.
- Kantishna (Mile 90) - primarily a destination for lodge visitors and backpackers headed for the backcountry
Many of these stops are good places for a day hike. However, except for some short hikes near the park entrance, Denali is essentially a trailless wilderness in which you are allowed to hike almost anywhere--along river bars, to the tops of mountains, across the tundra, etc.
There are three RV campgrounds within the park. Riley Creek Campground, located just inside the park, is the largest and most accessible with 100 sites and a dump station. The 33-site Savage River Campground is 13 miles from the park entrance and a bit more remote. There is a good possibility of seeing moose and bear here. The 53-site Teklanika River Campground at Mile 29 is the only RV campground beyond the vehicle restriction checkpoint. There is a required 3-night minimum stay during which you are not allowed to move your vehicle. Campers at Teklanika can purchase a TEK pass, which allows them to ride the green shuttle buses throughout their stay. Reservations for Teklanika River Campground are needed months in advance.
Denali National Park location map