For anyone with an interest in nature, Denali National Park deserves a few days of exploring. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a few days so have to decide how to get the best experience in the shortest time. Although I can take different options because I’m there fairly often, I chose to take my group on the National Park Service’s Eielson shuttle. At $34 per person plus a $10 park entrance fee for an 8-hour trip, it’s probably the best bang for the buck in North America when it comes to wildlife, and the scenery is no slouch either.
It’d been years since I had been able to get the right front seat, the best camera position, but by showing up a half-hour early, I got it. The tradeoff to that seat is that you’re on the wheel hump, so legroom is very limited, but it got me the photos I wanted and that’s all that matters. We pulled away from the WAC (Wilderness Access Center) at 08:00 as scheduled. The first photo is at about Mile 11.
Our wildlife viewing got off to a great start with 4 caribou along the Savage River at Mile 14.
The Savage River Bridge at Mile 15 is as far as most private vehicles can go without special permits for highly-accredited professional photographers, and RVs with campground reservations at Teklanika.
The first rest stop is made overlooking the Teklanika River.
The restrooms at Teklanika are outhouses with no running water, but are very nice and well maintained.
The grizzly-proof restroom doors as seen from the inside.
It very quickly became clear that our driver knows almost nothing about the park. While doing a “tour” isn’t part of the job description for shuttle drivers, every driver knows that doing a good tour is what brings tips, and every one of the dozens I’ve been with have been very, very good. This guy didn’t even know how high Denali is 🙁 He was, however, a good driver – if not, I would have gotten off his bus as soon as possible.
Climbing towards Sable Pass at 09:45.
This shot was taken only a minute after the one above.
Another minute brought us to this sign, protected somewhat from bear damage by nails sticking out of it.
The most dramatic (some will use the term “scary”) few miles of the park road is the crossing of the shoulder of Polychrome Mountain, overlooking the East Forks of the Toklat River.
The view is impressive beyond words.
Coming around one tight corner, we came upon this wolf!
The wolf saw no way to safety other than over an extremely steep embankment that she was clearly afraid of. This may have been the best experience of the trip except for her reaction. I feel very bad about scaring her to that degree, as she could have been badly injured in a fall.
Another wolf appeared just a minute later. It looked to be a fair bit older, and took a much safer route down towards its pack-mate.
We made a short photo stop in the Polychrome summit area. There used to be outhouses at the Polychrome Overlook but they were removed in recent years. Another rest stop was made at the Toklat River at 11:00. A Ranger station and gift shop can also be found there.
This set of caribou antlers is a very popular photo prop 🙂
The weather forecast gave us absolutely no chance of seeing Denali, but when we crossed over Stoney Dome, there she was! Not a clear view, but far better than what I thought possible. Of her 20,237 feet (6,168 meters), most was visible or could at least be guessed at. For more than 50 years, the mountain was thought to be 20,320 feet high, and many books and Web sites still use that figure, but it was officially changed in 2013.
A broader view from the same spot. This is as far as the Tundra Wilderness Tours go – only the NPS shuttles and some buses from private lodges near Kantishna (the end of the road) continue on.
The view from the Eielson Visitor Center is the best in the park on a good day, but we arrived to clouds blocking the view. I wasn’t really disappointed, as I hadn’t expected to get a view at all.
This sign shows what the view looks like some days.
This display shows the grim reality of life in the wild. Two bull moose were fighting when a tine from one’s antlers went through the eye of the other, and then their antlers locked and they starved to death.
These folks were patiently waiting for the clouds to clear. I thought about waiting for a while and taking a later bus back, but decided that getting 6 seats on a bus could be difficult, and nobody else in the group was really interested in going for a hike.
It’s often said that only 30% of visitors see Denali and I always thought that was about double my luck. This sign at Eielson explains that the 30% figure is the percentage of people who see any of the mountain. Clear views occur for 13% of June visitors, 3% of July visitors, 10% of August visitors, and 29% of September visitors.
Mew gulls at the Visitor Center.
An Arctic ground squirrel.
A Ranger-guided hike heads into the high country above Eielson.
We left Eielson at 12:35, and half an hour later came across the largest herd of caribou I’ve ever seen in the park.
One of the “unsung heroes” of Denali National Park – the people who keep this road open. To get the road open in late May, crews have to start work in mid-March – 10 weeks or so to clear up to 20 feet of snow.
Back at the Toklat River rest stop, this is the interpretive center and gift shop.
Meeting another bus on the Polychrome section of the road.
The incredible views just go on and on hour after hour 🙂
One final excellent viewing at the Savage River – probably the caribou we saw this morning, now on the opposite side of the river.
There’s a good chunk of money being spent on the road, apparently replacing every one of the 178-odd culverts.
We got back to Wilderness Access Center at about 5:50pm – a fine almost-10-hour day.
Getting back to the Denali Lakeview Inn, we were disappointed to find that one of our 3 rooms hadn’t been cleaned at all, one was only partially cleaned, and neither of those rooms had been given breakfast for the next day. To top it off, somebody in a very noisy, very fast boat was tearing up and down the small lake, eliminating any hope of seeing the moose again. Oh well, early to bed for our rerturn trip to Anchorage and flights towards home tomorrow.