A Day on the Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park

Yesterday was our day in Denali Park, on the 8-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour (TWT). The weather started off ragged, but the forecast was good. This is Mount Healy, right above our hotel.

Mount Healy, Alaska

The lobby area of the hotel is a busy place in the morning, with hundreds of people waiting for their various buses. I went for a quiet walk around the back of the property.

McKinley Chalet

When our bus arrived, it was already almost full from other hotels, so we got the rear seats – I was at very back. At 7:30, we headed into the park (ours was the 11th Tundra Wilderness Tour bus of the day – they start at 5:45).

We got a lot of rain as we drove up the park road, and at 9:00 the view from our first rest stop, the Teklanika River at Mile 29, didn’t look very promising. You can follow along with this map of Denali.

Teklanika River rest area

The windows were very muddy. Our driver was the only one who washed windows – on the other buses, the passengers did it themselves if they wanted to see anything (there was a bucket of water and squeegees in the parking lot). This is the third trip I’ve made with Clay Walker as driver/narrator, and he’s very good.

Washing bus windows

The Tundra Wilderness Tours are about 3 times the price of the park shuttle buses (see the bus fees), and this video system is one of the reasons. It’s incredible telephoto allows you to see the animals (caribou in this case) up close. The narration can also only be expected on the TWT – until a month ago, every one of the park shuttle bus drivers I’d been out with did good narration, but the guy we were with in June, though he did talk a bit, knew virtually nothing about the park.

Video system on a Tundra Wilderness Tour bus

The view from Polychrome Overlook at 10:10. We could see fresh snow on some of the peaks through breaks in the clouds.

The view from Polychrome Overlook, Denali

Nanook at Polychrome Overlook.

Nanook at Polychrome Overlook, Denali

Just before our stop at the Toklat River at Mile 53, there were 2 Dall sheep rams on a rocky bluff right above the highway. In all my trips, I don’t recall ever seeing sheep there before.

Dall sheep ram in Denali

The TWT buses used to turn around at the Toklat River unless Denali (Mt. McKinley) was visible, but now they go to Stony Hill. The best grizzly viewing in the park is usually between the Toklat and Stony Hill. We saw a distant sow and 2 cubs just after leaving the Toklat, and 10 minutes after that, met this bear crossing the road.

We made a U-turn at Stony Hill and by the time we got back to the Toklat River at noon, the clouds had started to break.

Toklat River, Alaska

The rest areas are very well set up. Wen I started doing these tours in 1990 the facilities were pretty basic.

Toklat River rest area

The video made it much easier to see these gyrfalcon chicks trying out their wings.

gyrfalcon chicks

The crossing of Polychrome is very impressive. No guard rails and it’s a very, very long way down.

The view from Polychrome Overlook, Denali

These caribou are up on the snow to get away from bugs. On a hot day it’s also cooler there, but this day was far from hot, except inside the bus.

Caribou on a patch of snow in Denali

This is the interior of our TWT bus…

TWT bus interior

…and this is the shuttle bus sitting beside us back at the Teklanika stop.

Shuttle bus interior

As we drove along after the Teklanika stop, Clay was replaying some of the video he’d shot, because wildlife is seldom seen in that area. Seldom, but this large bull came trotting down the middle of the road towards us! Being at the back of the bus I just caught a glimpse of him until he was far off to the side.

Caribou in Denali National Park

We got back to our hotel at about 3:30 – everyone seemed to be pleased with the day. For dinner, I fired up the bus and took most of the group over to the Salmon Bake, where we had lunch the day before.

At 9:00 this morning, we’ll be leaving Denali, headed for Anchorage for 2 nights.

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