Denali National Park is simply massive. The park and preserve spans over 6 million acres. This means, if you were to explore 1000 acres a day, it would still take you over 16.5 years to see it all. How can one even hope to do a visit justice, then? One option is to bus.
There are two types of buses that service the park along its single 92-mile road: the tour and the shuttle. The former is designed more for those who wish to sit back for the day (for it is an all-day commitment) and hear the guide narrate the trek. The latter is as it sounds; it is merely a transport. The shuttle caters to those who want to jump off for a hike or two along the way, to catch the next bus that comes along. However, there are only two shuttles that run the entire route in and back, so if you miss that second bus, you’re in for a long walk home.
We aren’t generally ones for the touristy things, and we wanted to shave off a few bucks, so we opted for the shuttle. However, we also didn’t want to jump off and risk missing our ride back, so we decided to stick it through to the end of the line. We figured this would be a good way to get a sampling of the park’s main thoroughfare.
Luck was with us, as we wound up receiving a free upgrade. The driver assigned to our bus usually had that day off, and he typically ran the tour line, so he was used to chatting up his passengers. It seems we’d get the tour info along with the ride into the park. We were also fortunate to have the entire back of the bus to our little troupe.
Our driver was an interesting character. Ordinarily, I’m terrible with names, but that day, we were introduced to Oh. Mar. Omar. He had an unusual cadence to his speech, taking odd breaks in the middle of his words for over-exaggerated emphasis. He slowly enunciated each location upon our departure (which I could see being useful), and insisted we wear our “Seat. Belts. Seat belts.” Every time! We were too amused to be annoyed.
Only the first 15 miles, to Savage River, are paved, and cars are not permitted beyond this point. We stopped here to take in the sights, and we marveled at the expansive mountains and the beautiful puffs of fog. The rivers wound off forever into the distance, ribbons of water decorating the landscape.
Along the road, we kept our eyes peeled for any buses stopped ahead; this was an indicator of a wildlife spotting. Our first sighting was a russet ptarmigan strolling the side of the road. Fun fact: there’s an old mining town in Alaska called Chicken. Apparently, the founders wanted to name it “Ptarmigan,” but they couldn’t agree on how it’s spelled. They agreed “Chicken” was much easier.
We were also super stoked to spot our very first Alaskan bear! He looked like he had just come from a refreshing swim, but he was simply magnificent. We all hung out of the windows excitedly (with regular “keep your elbows inside the windows” from Omar), our giant lenses propped on the open window panes. The bear paid us no mind; he was just happily munching away at the lush grass.
It was difficult to get a great shot, because Omar kept creeping the bus forward.. then backward.. and forward again. Just sit still already! I gave up after our bear friend was fully obscured by the bushes, and we trudged on.
We stopped at the “Aisle… sun. Eielson Visitor Center” at mile 66 for a longer respite from the dusty road. We could stretch our legs and truly marvel at the jaw-dropping vistas, as we nearly tripped over ground squirrels. We pulled out some lunch from our packs as we once more boarded (“Seat. Belts! Seat belts.”), knowing we still had hours left to our day’s journey.
As we continued, some folks departed for hikes here and there, and we espied swans and caribou. We passed Wonder Lake (which was wonderful) and finally arrived in Kantishna – the end of the line. There, we found an old cabin and a sign declaring our pitiful accomplishment.
Honestly, there wasn’t much beyond Eielson, but I’m glad to say we confirmed that firsthand. Unfortunately the famed mountain was obscured by clouds, though we could barely see the base. The trip back out was much the same as the way in, with a bit less history and far less energy. We saw more caribou patrolling a distant ridge, an enormous moose blending into the rocks, and the same bear we saw on our way in (still bedraggled).
And we were all too happy to shoot the entire way.
It was such a relief to hit the pavement once more! We knew we were in the final stretch. Who knew sitting on a bus all day could be so exhausting?
By the time we reached the visitor center at the park entrance, we couldn’t even bring ourselves to take the slight detour the few hundred feet to where a moose was standing on the side of the road, just posing for the cameras. We were too tired to care (and I’ve seen plenty already).
It was a long day, for sure, but I don’t regret it. We got a good sampling of Denali, and we got a fair introduction to Alaska’s wildlife (though one of our fellow photographers reported having seen so much more the last time he was there). The clouds made for more interesting skies, and I couldn’t get enough of that fog (I’m a sucker for low-lying moisture).
Next time, I probably won’t go as far, unless we’re staying at one of the campgrounds. I’d also like to do a bit less busing and a bit more hiking, but it was a good introduction nonetheless.
And the photography was only just beginning!
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