A Bus Trip into Denali National Park (and back)

DENALI, ALASKA- There are two different kinds of bus tours you can take in Denali: the National Park Service shuttle bus (cheap option), and a narrated day tour (expensive option). The Parks Service shuttle bus, pictured at right, will let you off anywhere you please along the side of the road, and pick you up wherever you are thumbing a ride. The driver will stop and let you take pictures of animals, and will likely provide commentary about the park history, weather conditions, life during the winter, animal migration patterns, and anything else you might have a question about. The narrated tour will serve you lunch, and cost you more money. Other than that, there is little practical difference, and virtually no reason for me to distinguish between the two.

 The NP bus, racing down the only road in the middle of the park

The NP bus, racing down the only road in the middle of the park

 

The park road (not to be confused with the George Parks Highway) is the only way you can get a vehicle into the park. You can drive your own car up to 15 miles on this road before it transforms into a dusty pile of gravel blocked off by Park Rangers, where only buses are allowed to pass through…so yes, you can take a little trip in your rental car, and have a chance at seeing Denali, but that’s just for a bit of the afternoon (see below for a photo of the mountain from mile 13). If you want to see the whole of the park, you need to get on a bus, and you’ll need to get on a bus pretty early in the day.

 

 Snow-capped Denali, in all its glory

Snow-capped Denali, in all its glory

 

The bus ride will take you past scenery you’ve likely never before laid your eyes upon…over 92 miles you will twist and turn around hairpin turns like to leave you a little queasy if you’re predisposed to that sort of thing. Keep your eyes peeled for the length of the journey, since there is wildlife all around you: the big four to keep a lookout for are Grizzly Bears, Moose, Caribou, and Dall sheep. It’s likely someone will tell you that you’ve hit a Grand Slam if you see all four in a single day.

 

You’d be part of a lucky few if you had the chance to see wolves, lynx, or bald eagles. Many people come to Denali with the expectation that the animals will be on display for their pleasure, and this is certainly not the case. You are taking a trip through wild terrain, and would be quite fortunate to see any animal at all--it is, after all, a National Park dedicated to preserving untouched wild. It is not a zoo.

 

 Denali, encircled in clouds—and framed by the antlers of a caribou

Denali, encircled in clouds—and framed by the antlers of a caribou

 

However, as much interest as people have in animals, the crown jewel of the park is the mountain itself: Denali. Shockingly, only some thirty percent of visitors to the park have the chance to see the mountain itself. So large that it creates its own weather patterns independent of the rest of the area, it’s often shrouded in mist or simply covered by the clouds (see the photo to the right for what the mountain looks like when hidden). It’s the rare individual that gets the chance to see “the Great One” in all its glory: against a backdrop of blue sky, the sheer verisimilitude of the North Face rising up some twenty thousand feet miles across the tundra. It’s truly a sight to behold.

 

You will likely pass your thirteen-hour bus ride gazing out the window in awe, or, in many cases, boredom. The landscape can become repetitive, and this is only exaggerated on a rainy, cloudy day where you can barely see out the window. Some folks just don't like sitting on a bus for that long, but if you're lucky, you just might see what you came to Denali for--a grand slam, or the ultimate home run: Denali itself.

 Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley

Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley