My first trip into the park, the Ranger warned us that we would fall in love with Denali. I could tell her sincerity wasn’t manufactured, it was that kind of genuine love for something that can make cynical people feel a bit embarrassed, but I was careful to temper my expectations nonetheless. By the end of the trip (who am I kidding, more like after about 20min), however, I was ready to write my own effusive love note. Denali is unlike any place I’ve ever been, and I hope I can share a small fraction of what seeing it in real life is really like, and offer a few tips for anyone planning their own trip.
The first thing to understand about the park is that it is managed quite differently than most other national parks in the country. Unlike say Yellowstone where private vehicles, service vehicles, and tour buses clog the roads, in Denali private vehicles are only allowed for the first 15 miles of the park. To see the other 77 miles you’ll need to take a bus. Buses come in three forms: Private tour buses offered by the hotels and resorts at the road’s end in Kantishna, NPS tan buses that offer interpretive, structured tours, or the NPS green buses that function like city transit buses.
There are four possible destinations you can bus to in the park: Toklat at mile 53, Eielson at mile 66, Wonder Lake at mile 85 and Kantishna at mile 92. Out of my four separate trips into the park, I traveled as far as Eielson (8 hour round trip) twice and Wonder Lake (11 hour round trip) the other two times.
Choosing which destination you want to go to is a matter of price, travel time, and priorities. My experience was that although Wonder Lake is beautiful, unless you can camp overnight, or have additional trips into the park planned, it wasn’t worth the full day trip. Instead, I would suggest spending more time off the bus at an earlier stop like Eielson. The only exception would be if the weather is completely clear and your goal is to get phenomenal views of Mt. Denali, in which case continuing on to Wonder Lake is absolutely worth it.
If you’re balking at the idea of being stuck on a bus, I hear you, and based on the feedback I’ve already gotten I know that a “terrible bus ride” is a lot of people’s impression of what visiting Denali is like. But there are three reasons to embrace the bus. The first is the whole reason for their existence: keeping people on buses rather than personal vehicles keeps wildlife safer. Look no further than they annual stories out of places like Yellowstone to appreciate how necessary this is. Second is that with more eyes you’re much more likely to spot wildlife, especially small or cryptic wildlife. And lastly, and this is the real beauty of Denali, when I said that the green buses function like city transit buses I should have included “but better” because you can request to get off anywhere outside of Sable Pass which is a wildlife protection area.
Coming from Washington, it was a bit hard to understand why my Denali-based colleagues couldn’t offer very specific hiking suggestions. My entire outdoor life has been ruled the the trail, so I was baffled when inquires about trail names were met with blank stares. It wasn’t until I actually got onto the tundra that I appreciated the possibility of a trail-less adventure. Of being able to shout “Stop!” at the first beautiful area that struck me and having the driver pull over to let me off. If the brush is high you can walk the road, taking in the scenery at your own pace. If it’s low, as it is between Toklat and Eielson, you can easily range off road and as deep into the park as you like. With 6 millions acres at your feet, it would take nearly a lifetime to explore everything.
Once you’re done, you head back to the road and flag down any green bus. If you’re heading out of the park, there’s no need to even show them your ticket. Alternatively, you can get on a bus heading to your ticketed destination if you want to maximize your wildlife mileage as I did on a number of occasions. As long as you’re attentive to the bus schedule and prepared to wait for an empty bus, you ping-pong back and forth like this as many time as you can fit into the day. Although it adds up to a lot of driving, it can be one of the best ways to see wildlife because you’ll hit the park at different times of day and you can get a lot closer than you can on foot.
With so much flexibility to explore such a beautiful area, it’s no mystery why people fall in love with this place so easily. And we haven’t even gotten to the wildlife yet. For that you’ll need to stay tuned for Part II…