Alaska - Western Canada Journey

Day 10

Denali National Park and Preserve


Seldom on this long road trip that we had a singular objective such as on this day - the only thing we did was to ride the shuttle bus to the end of the park road. We had a great time, with many opportunities to observe wildlife at a distance. Despite the light rain that started the day, we were lucky enough to catch a glimps of the shy Mount McKinley.

Day Journal

After asking the ticket agent many questions the day before, we settled on purchasing shuttle bus tickets to Wonder Lake, some 86 miles on the Denali Park Road. There is a llarge array of choices on how to visit the park that may be confusing to first time visitors. It bores down to two kinds of bus services - bus tour or shuttle bus, and many destination choices. On bus tours, the driver also functions as the interpretive tour guide through the entire tour. Customers must stay with the tour/guide through the trip. This type of arrangement is best for those who wish to sit back and relax to enjoy the view and learn from the tour guide. Shuttle buses tend to be less structured, with the driver doing the talking only when necessary such as when encountering wildlife. Passengers can disembark at various points, and can choose to hike and catch a different bus on the way back. So the choice of tour or shuttle was clear for me who tend to travel with the least amount of formality. The next question was which destination. There are several destinations for the shuttle at different lengths, and could present different opportunities for wildlife viewing or hiking. Not really sure which one is best, we picked the one traveling almost to the end of the park road, that is Wonder Lake. That route gave us more vistas of the park at the expense of staying longer on the bus - thus missing opportunities to hike around. Another choice could have been better but we were happy with the choice.

The day started with light rain to our dismay. So we wore several layers of clothing and brought along some rain gears. That made our travel with camera gears rather cumbersome and therefore reduced our desire for any long hikes. The shuttle bus system has perfected the process to a science with great efficiency. There were different lines for different destinations and passengers were asked to queue up when their time came near. Our bus started on time and made several stops along various campsites along the way to pick up additional passengers. Buses also made many rest stops to allow passengers to stretch their legs and do their things. Our driver did a great job of spotting wildlife and explaining what we saw. Passengers were also enlisted to spot wildlife and that was definitely important with such a large environment to look out for wild animals and also to keep focus on safe driving. Due to permafrost, the road inside the park was mostly unpaved, except mainly for the first 15 miles where private vehicles are allowed. Just the drive itself was an experience to behold, especially that we were passengers - driving a large bus on narrow road with cliffs dropping off steeply would not be my idea of fun. There were sections where the road was narrow enough for buses to take turn driving through. Our drivers both into and out of the park were both excellent.

This day was mostly about enjoying the scenery and photography, so here are a few of the hundreds pictures we took. As evidenced by the photos, buses into Denali have a clear focus on wildlife, with cursory attention paid to scenery and really only focused on Mount McKinley. These bus trips are also not designed for serious photographers. We must stay on the bus the entire time except during rest stops. With the constant vehicle vibration due to the running engine and people moving about, it was not the best setting for using telephoto lenses. On a whole, we saw a good number of wildlife, from Dall sheep to grizzly bears, caribou and moose. We even caught glimpses of more elusive animals such as lynx and wolf. Despite the rain and gloomy weather for most of the day, the sun broke out a few times to let us admire Mount McKinley, and that was a majestic sight! While not as majestic as the view of McKinley, the Alaska Range offers beautiful views of mountains, glaciers and valleys.

For a bit of history about the park, it was once two different parks - Mount McKinley National Park (1917) and Denali National Monument (1978). In 1980, both were incorporated into Denali National Park and Preserve. The Alaska Board of Geographic Names renamed the mountain back to Denali (meaning "The High One" in Athabascan language), while the federal level retained the name McKinley. At over 6 millions acres for the size of the park, our full-day travel into the park only gave a small glimpse what what could be seen. By the way, in the event you plan to visit later in the year, bus services end by the middle of September.