Denali’s mission to preserve the natural wilderness has its roots back to 1906 when the idea of a park to protect the Dall Sheep was championed by Charles Sheldon. Originally called Mount McKinley National Park, it was renamed Denali, the “High One”, as it was known by the Athabascan natives. The area also includes a Preserve and Denali State Park.
Understanding this mission is important because the National Park Service has purposely limited vehicle access to much of the park so planning a trip to Denali requires factoring in extended trips by the park’s bus transportation network. A single road winds 92 miles into the park, but private vehicles are only allowed to travel the first 14.8 miles without a special permit. Campgrounds within the park are also limited and are in high demand during the summer. (The park is actually open year-round for those who want to experience Denali in winter.)
We probably waited too long to make our reservations so we ended up camping four days separated from our traveling partners. Frank and Gloria King, started out in Teklanika (“Tek”) River Campground, 29 miles into the interior of the park along Park Road. They were able to travel beyond the 15-mile checkpoint in their truck but only going into their campground and to leave the campground at the end of their stay. They bought a shuttle pass to go into the park further, but could not drive their vehicle back out to the entrance or local town. We stayed in Riley Creek CG near the park entrance and had the flexibility to tour the surrounding areas. We decided to extend our stay and were able to book additional days for ourselves and the Kings in Riley CG for the second half of our stay so they could see what we saw, too.
Viewing wildlife is best done from a park bus. On our second day in the park we chose to take the 11-hour, round-trip “green shuttle bus” from the Visitor Center for 89 miles to Wonder Lake. (The Kings booked the same trip from their campground so we picked them up at their CG.) The more expensive interpretive tour bus trips may have rangers on board describing the natural resources of the park, but the shuttle drivers do a great job of describing what we were seeing and, if it was safe, would stop any time someone on the bus yelled “STOP!” if they thought they saw some wildlife. (See below for wildlife we spotted on the trip.) The shuttle buses also go much further into the park’s interior than the interpretive tours. Logistically, rest stops are scheduled every hour or so, and you must provide your own food and drink. After sitting on school bus bench seats for all those hours, the stops were very welcomed.
The Visitor’s Center near the park entrance and the Eielson Visitor Center further into the park by bus provided valuable displays that put Denali’s resources in prospective. Life-size animal models, floral samples and video displays informed us of what life was like year-round in the park. We even got to see the swearing in ceremony for some new Junior Rangers who had completed their “studies”.
National Park Service Dog Sled Teams
Another popular demonstration is at the Dog Sled Kennels where the Park Service maintains a year-round kennel of 30+ Alaskan Huskies used for winter patrols and for hauling to remote park locations during the winter. During the summer the dogs are walked by volunteers and are visited by the tourists who are encouraged to pet and handle the dogs in their pens which Luke enjoyed. (Don’t tell Star, our Shepherd/Dingo mix.)
The rangers also give a presentation on how the dogs differ from the racing dogs we’ve seen elsewhere and then they hitch up a team for a demo run.
This NP Service website photo was much more dramatic than my shots.
The Mountain Was “Out”
I mentioned seeing “The Mountain” is also a major goal for most visitors. Mount McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America but park rangers (and everyone else) admit that only “30 percent” of the visitors get to see the 20,320’ peak towering over the Alaskan Range. Cloud cover obscures the views most of the time and observation points along the Parks Highway, inside the park and as far away as Anchorage use the phrase “weather permitting” when referencing the views. We are happy to report that we were among those who can say “the Mountain was ‘out’ for us while in the Park. (We also saw the mountain from Talkeetna after we left the park.)
With such a highly quoted statistic, you can believe the local gift shops had souvenir t-shirts for both the 30% AND the 70% groups.
Tourists Come By RVs, Cars, Buses, and Train
The RV rental business is BIG in Alaska. The campgrounds were full of rented 20-30’ Class C motorhome rentals and Truck/Camper set-ups. We also noted a number of car/tent campers who braved the often wet weather and the possible wildlife visits to stay within the park. Most of all we were really surprised by the number of tourists who arrived by train. It was actually the construction of the Alaska Railroad that opened up the access to Denali way before there was a roadway system.
The Train Depot, located next to the Visitor’s Center, is a hub of activity twice a day when the train arrives. Powered by engines from Alaska Railroad, the train we saw actually included single and double-decker cars from ARR plus three cars (and crews) each from Princess Cruises and Holland Tours. The trains were then met by a fleet of buses and company tour guides that took the new arrivals to the various lodges around town.
Beyond the Park
Once we had taken our wildlife bus tour, stopped by the exhibits at the Visitor’s Center and Train Depot, and shopped the Mercantile and in-park gift shops, it was off to see the surrounding communities of Denali Park (the commercial district just east of the park entrance).
Souvenir shops, adventure trips (ATV, rafting, etc.) and restaurants serve the tourists all summer long. The ice cream store was a big hit with our group.
When Frank and Gloria returned to our campground we had to show them around town and our favorite view of the area from the Grande Denali Lodge that can be seen for many miles.
We decided we deserved a white tablecloth dinner so we had window seats to take in the sights. Luke had King Crab Mac and Cheese! Food was great, but we had a terrible waitress. Oh, well…. it was a nice treat.
As mentioned above, seeing wildlife was one of our goals while visiting Denali National Park. While we did see most of the expected animals, we were actually disappointed we didn’t see more than we saw. Besides taking the 11-hour shuttle bus 89 miles into the park, each evening we also took our car the permitted 14 miles to the Savage Creek turnaround looking for wildlife. Here are some shots of the wildlife we saw:
My favorite: This Momma Moose and calf walked in front of the car during one of our evening drives.
Mama Grizzly and her two cubs (3 or 4 years old) were seen from our bus both going and coming back. The “blond” color is common among Denali brown bears.
These two Caribou were seen along Savage Creek every evening. Wolves (which we did not see) are their predators.
It is supposedly rare to see a Lynx in the park, but we saw two. This one was strolling along the road in front of the Tek CG bus stop. We watched it go into the brush, catch a mole, and off it meandered. The second one we saw crossed the road just in front of the car but the camera shot was poor.
This Porcupine was easy to capture a photo of as it took its time passing our car while we had stopped to look at the nearby caribou.
You have to look closely, but there is actually a herd of Dall Sheep on this mountain. Look for the white spots!
There were also sightings of Golden and Bald Eagles, Trumpeter Swans, Ptarmigans, Snowshoe Hares, and lots of squirrels that drove Star crazy.