Our Visit to Denali National Park:
Denali is big and wild. It boasts the tallest peak in North America, but not often seen by tourists. It is shrouded in the clouds on most days. Tourists have only a 25% chance of seeing its peak, lower in the summer. At more than 20,000 feet, it creates its own weather pattern, catching the moist air from the ocean, forcing it up and creates clouds and rain.
We drove from Anchorage towards Denali on highway 1 and the scenery got prettier and grander as we pulled away from the relative hustle and bustle of Anchorage. Anchorage is a sleepy town by most US metropolis standards but has a rugged charm all its own. The people in Alaska really want to be in Alaska, and they are fiercely independent and tough. Anchorage exudes that frontier, tough feeling.
They were a mix of true locals and people here for seasonal work. Most seasonal workers were either true adventurers looking for something new, or people who just fell in love with Alaska. They were all a joy to talk to — genuine and friendly.
As the Denali range came into view, I said to Loretta: “Look at that peak over there, it looks like a pointy triangle. I wonder if that is the Denali peak.” I excitedly pulled into the North Viewpoint in Denali State Park, found the sign that pointed out the Denali peak, and proclaimed that we saw the peak! We took countless pictures and even a time lapse! The “peak” was playing peek-a-boo with us in between the clouds. For sure, we were the lucky few to see the peak on our trip! Feeling accomplished, we kept going. Even though it was after 7pm on this late May day, the sun was still high in the sky, and it felt more like 4pm.
After a filling meal at Prospector’s Pizza with excellent pizza and local beer (either it was real good, or we were just hungry), we went to bed, and it was still sunny outside! We had an early (so we thought) start the next day for our tour. We were told to be at the Wilderness Access Center (a.k.a the bus depot) at 6:10 AM for our Denali bus tour. Although they said to check 48 hours ahead for actual bus time, by the time I remembered, they already closed for the night.
(too early) Morning
We got up bright and early, took some deep breaths of the fresh air, and got to the bus depot at 6:10 AM right on time but found only a few other guests there. Our tour was scheduled for 8:05 AM! We milled about for a while, and decided to take a hike on the Jonesville Connecter Trail, a nice 30 minute walk in the woods in the brisk morning air. Well before the appointed time of 8:05, people started to line up so we followed the herd. A school bus looking vehicle pulled up and we all got in. One guy had to take a last minute pee so we waited a few minutes. I suppose it was better than the alternative.
First Wildlife Sighting
Bill, our tour guide / bus driver, has done this for 28 years! He was clear, articulate, knowledgeable, and safe. Bill told us where we were likely to see wildlife, the history of the park, and some science about the park. He asked for our help to spot wildlife by yelling STOP, not bear, or caribou, or moose since he could not tell if we saw one of those or just talking about it. Good point.
Soon after we left the bus depot, the bus stopped even though no one yelled stop. Bill was still the best wildlife spotter of the whole bus. There were a couple of snowshoe hare hopping around on the side of the road. The hare was in the middle of the spring color change from white to brown (white to blend in better in the snow, brown to blend in better in the summer). It seemed everyone pulled out a camera and took tons of photos.
Road for Expert Drivers Only
The paved road stopped at Savage River, about 15 miles into the trip. We were on graded gravel for the rest of the 53 mile trip to Toklat River. Parts of the road had several hundred feet drop on one side and several hundred cliff on the other. The road was just barely wide enough for two buses to pass. I sat by the window on the left side of the bus and I could not see the road, only the cliff! There were good reasons private vehicles were not allowed on these roads.
The scenery was stunning. The mountains were majestic, big, tall, and snow capped. On the side of the mountains, snow was still in the avalanche shoots, which made the mountain look like a zebra. There were rivers, glacier carved valleys, and vegetation that were just showing green leaf buds, waking from the long, harsh winter.
The bus came to another stop and off in a distance, close to a river bed, was a mama grizzly bear with her two cubs digging in some dirt, probably getting the last parts of a kill. The mama bear was golden white in color and the cubs were slightly darker. These cubs are large but the mama bear was huge! Everyone on the bus was excited! Binoculars, cameras big and small all came out. There were some on the bus with big ass telephoto lenses, just waiting to capture the moment.
The scenery was nice, and it was great to have someone else drive and narrate, but the real star of the show was the wildlife. Bill found many animals, and used his super zoom video camera to capture it and displayed it on the monitors in the bus, so if you can’t see it clearly for real, you could see it on the monitor.
People on the bus were amazing spotters. They spotted bears, caribou, moose, and Dall sheep, some very far away. Several times, someone yelled stop and then fell on their sword – it was just a snow spot, a tree stump, or a rock. I wanted to see the elusive wolf but no luck today. We saw 4 mama grizzlies, each with two cubs, which was considered a lot. None were closer than half a mile, which made pictures difficult.
As the day went along, some people’s interest started to wane. The people three rows ahead frequently opened their window, mostly to take photos, but sometimes they left it open as the bus drove on, with chilly wind coming through. An older lady behind us was clearly annoyed and it showed on her face. I wanted to open the window just behind us to take pictures but her eyes said I better not. I complied most of the time but there were a couple of times when the wildlife sighting was too good for photos so I just opened it anyway, then tried real hard to avoid her eyes after that.
The girl in front of us, about 10 years old, lost interest after a coupe of hours and started to play games on her phone the rest of the way, even while her mom tried to point things out to her. It was a lost cause.
We made several bathroom / rest stops along the way with some stunning scenery. The journey ended 53 miles into the park at Tolkat River. The only road in Denali National Park is 89 miles long but won’t be fully open for the season until June 8th. We missed it by 10 days. There were fewer stops for wildlife on the way back, since most were tired but we did stop for a while to observe three Grizzlies feasting on a carcass of probably a caribou calf. We also saw a mama Grizzly running after a caribou but the caribou was clearly too fast for her and she couldn’t leave the cubs behind. I can almost hear the dramatic chase music you see on National Geographic videos! It was super fun and re-energized the people on the bus!
Did We Really See the Peak?
After 7 hours of beautiful mountains, glacial valleys and pristine streams, we arrived back at the bus depot, tired but satisfied. The weather was excellent but not enough to see Denali peak. We stopped in at the visitor center and with much anticipation, I showed the ranger my picture of Denali’s peak. He looked at it, looked at it, and then said “I don’t think that is Denali Peak.” and showed me a picture on his phone of the peak. He said “it looks like a peak of the range in the foreground of the real peak, much taller and hidden behind the clouds that are behind the peak! When you see it, you will know it.” I’m still not convinced. Maybe it’s just a different angle. I still think we saw it. Look at the picture above and you tell me if I’m right – leave a comment below! Well, I saw it, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it! Of course, we will have to come back another time just to be sure, right?
The next day, we went to the only kennel in the National Parks system, where Alaskan Huskies are bred and trained to do real work in the winter. Most of Denali National Park is designated as Wilderness Area, which means no motorized vehicles are allowed. The only way to get supplies to some of the interior of the park is with dog sleds in the winter or by people in the summer. These are real working dogs that traveled three thousand miles last winter haulling supplies and construction material into the designated Wilderness Area.
We petted their thick, lush furs. The rangers put on a short show and as the show started, the dogs that were lazily laying there enjoying the warm sun suddenly came to life, prancing and yelping to have the chance to pull the demonstration cart. It was real clear their love to work and pull! They all wanted to be the lucky 5 that got picked for this show and tell. It was a lot of fun to see and to learn.
Savage River – As Far as Paved Road Go
We then drove to Savage River, the furthest allowed in a private car. While I wanted to do the 4 mile Savage Alpine Trail that went up 1500 feet with what must have been a fantastic view, we opted for the much tamer Savage River Loop, a 2 mile hike along the banks of the Savage river. My thigh was still hurting from the hike to the top of Flattop Mountain in Anchorage a couple of days earlier! The riverbank hike was real nice, again with dramatic scenery, constant sound of a rushing river, and multiple sightings of the Arctic Ground Squirrel. One particular squirrel stood on his hind legs and made a loud, high pitch sound as if to warn his clan that people were approaching. Lots of fun to see.
We did a quick, half mile long Mountain View Trail that circled the site of the first camp / accommodations of Denali back in the 1920s and 30s. People came by rail and stayed here as they explored Denali. The gentlemen in the photos were in suit and tie and the ladies were in dresses. How do you hike with suites and dresses?
The weather can change very quickly at Denali. In the space of 3 hours, I had on a ski jacket at times and just a sweatshirt at other times. It sprinkled a little here and there. When the wind was blowing and the sun behind the clouds, it was very cold, but when the wind stopped and the sun came out, it was down right hot!
Only One Road
An excellent two days at Denali. We are not skilled or equipped to go back-country hiking without marked trails so we didn’t try. Back-country hiking is actually a large part of what Denali is about. The park is vast but access without back-country hiking or a plane is limited to the 89 mile bus accessible road only.
Thought for Denali National Park:
The true substance is revealed when the obstacles are removed, just like the magnificent peak of Denali is revealed when the clouds are lifted.
Impressions of Denali National Park:
Denali scenery is fantastic, grand, majestic, stunning… words can not do it justice. The place feels truly wild and pristine, nearly untouched by human hands. We observed wildlife in its own world and on its own terms. It made me reflect on the role of people on this planet, how we’ve dominated this planet and what we have to do to be respectful of other species. Lots of food for thought.
Denali National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
|Element||Rating (out of 5 Stars)|
Guide to Denali National Park:
Top Attractions at Denali National Park:
- Tundra Wilderness Tour
- Wonder Lake
- Savage River Trail
- Eielson Alpine Trail
- Wildlife all over
One Day Visit Plan:
- If you only have one day, reserve ahead and take the Tundra Wilderness Tour
Practical Info for Visiting Denali National Park:
- Plan early – accommodations fill up fast. Reserve 6 months or more ahead.
- Bus tour is a great way to see the park and great way to see wildlife.
- Book your tour ticket early. It is frequently sold out during the high season. No real other way to see most of the park without bus tickets.
- Shuttle bus is good for people who want to explore without marked hiking trails.
- Bring binoculars and telephoto lens on the tour
- Nearly all marked and maintained trails are at the three visitor centers or Savage River.
- Be prepared, dress in layers
- Alaska is expensive, and Denali more so.
- OK to visit without cars. Local shuttles available from park to hotels, restaurants and within the park.
- Bathroom facilities are the best and newest of any park we’ve been to (those that are porta-potties)
Denali National Park Facts:
- Size: 4,740,912 acres, ranked 3rd
- Visitors: 642,809 in 2017, ranked xxth. 2017 was a record year
- Peak Month in 2017: 182,400 visitors in July
- Low Month in 2017: 725 visitors in January
- Entrance Fee: Included in the bus fees, which varies depending on the tour. If you have a pass, be sure to show it when purchasing the tickets to reduce your cost.
Date Visited: May 30 – 31, 2018