Denali, Alaska We are going out strong on this mini series with one of the jewels of Alaska – Denali National Park and Preserve. Tundra, taiga, glacier, permafrost, wildlife, North-America’s tallest mountain – you name it, Denali has it all!
Charming, green shuttle buses
Denali has more than 400.000 visitors annually – so understandable you are not allowed to drive the Denali Park Road yourself, except from the first 15 miles that are paved. Allowing that would probably mean chaos and unnecessary wear and tear on the park and increased risk for the wildlife that often walks on the road. Instead you rely on shuttle busses or arranged guided tours. We decided to use the ‘charming’ green shuttle buses. The shuttle buses will stop at animal sightings if someone shouts ‘Stop the bus!’ and the driver usually provides some guiding over the load speaker as well. There are two planned rest stops where you can stretch your legs and use the rest room. You can get on and off the shuttle buses as you wish, there is one running every half hour to hour so you should’t have to wait to long for the next bus to pick you up should you decide to get off. But remember that once you get off you are out in the wild (bear spray recommended)!
The Park Road
The park road is fairly long, from east to west it measures 91 miles, all the time you will have the Alaska range south of you. The end of the road is at Wonder Lake (mile 85) and Kantishna (mile 89), you should estimate 6 hours one way to get to Kantishna. The road is only paved until mile 15, after that it is a dirt road. As we wanted to include a short hike we decided to get off at the stop at Eielson Visitor Center which is at mile 66. But much happened before we reached Eielson!
Mile 37 – Grizzlies!
We see the first grizzlies! It was an amazing encounter with a mother and her two cubs. We first spotted them on the hill side eating berries. Suddenly the mother started chasing a little ground squirrel or similar! You’d be amazed when you see how fast these bear can be. I’m not sure if she got it or not as she disappeared behind some bushed before she and both cubs crossed the bus in front of us and continued the berry feast on the opposite side of the road.
Mile 46 – Polychrome Pass
The next stunning experience was Polychrome Pass which is a narrow section of the park road with a long steep drop on one side of the road, I definitely had butterflies in my tummy driving through the pass! The bus stopped at Polychrome Overlook where we enjoyed the beautiful view over colourful rocks that surrounds you and the tundra below you.
Mile 50 – Denali
Our first view of Denali “the tall one” in the far distance, beautiful with its snow capped top! We were lucky to see it – only 30% of the visitors see the summit. The mountain is 6168m tall (above 20,000′) and our driver Ned said it seems like the mountain makes it own weather system and the summit is more often than not covered by clouds.
Mile 66 – Hiking Thorofare Ridge
If you are lucky and it is a clear day Denali (formerly Mt.McKinely) dominates the view from Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66. The visitor centre itself is built ‘into’ the tundra to make it blend with the landscape. There are park rangers here that will answer you questions and there are several options for day hikes from the visitor centre. The shuttle buses were based on old school buses that definitely served their purpose. Shaken and to prevent sleeping limbs we got off at mile 66 and hiked up to Thorofare Ridge which is on the north side of the visitor centre. From the ridge you have unprecedented views of the Alaska Range, Mt Denali and the west side of Denali National Park. The hike is a bit steep, but fairly short and rewarding. Maybe you’ll make friends with one of the local ground squirrels on the top. You need 2-2.5 hours on a return hike, and that includes plenty of time for enjoying the view and photographing Mt Denali.
On the return – Dall Sheep
On the return we hit the jackpot with wildlife sightings. We had seen lots of Dall Sheep on the way to Eielson Visitor Center, but they where only small white dots far up in the mountain side. But on the return just after Toklat River rest stop we spotted these white sheep in the mountain cliffs above the park road. They were probably as close as 50-75 meter away.
On the finishing line – Moose and Reindeer
On the last stretch before we reached Denali Visitor Center again we came across some beautiful reindeer close to the road. We had seen lots of them, but none that were this close to the road. In addition the sun had started to dip at this time and we got a great picture of ‘reindeer in sunset’. In the end we saw four out of the ‘big five’ in Denali – bear, moose, sheep and reindeer. The wolf was the only one who stayed elusive to us.
Denali exceeded our expectations, we can whole heartedly recommend visiting it! The next time we go here we hope to have more time so we can camp in the park, spend a few nights the lodge at Kantishna and do some longer wilderness hikes!
Thanks for following ‘Our Alaska Adventure – Denali to Kenai’