Considering that Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas, deciding what to do and where to stop at can be overwhelming. If you’re considering visiting Denali National Park, here are some tips that I feel is important that you should know:
1.) Expect to do a lot of driving. Alaska is a big state. Everything is spread out, and it will take time to get from one destination to the next. Fairbanks to Denali National Park is a 2-hour drive, if there is no traffic or construction delays. From Anchorage to Denali National Park it is a 4 – 5 hour drive without traffic and stops. Due to a short summer season, road construction will most likely continue throughout the entire summer. Expect delays if you plan on driving. If you don’t prefer driving, and would rather sit and enjoy the scenery, the train does run all the way through from Anchorage to Fairbanks stopping at Denali National Park. Although this takes a little longer than driving, it may be well worth it being able to enjoy the scenery rather than having to focus on the road or worry about construction delays.
2.) Driving to Mile Marker 15. Once you’ve entered the park, you will be able to drive down Park Road up to Mile Marker 15. Only authorized vehicles are allowed beyond Mile Marker 15. Private vehicles are not allowed. Park Road goes deep into Denali and ends at Mile Marker 92. In order to get there, you will either need to book a shuttle bus or a tour bus to get a chance to see the infamous Mount McKinley.
3.) Decide on taking the Shuttles bus versus the Tour Bus. Once you’re inside the Denali National Park, you have 2 options to get beyond Mile Marker 15. You can either book a shuttle bus or a tour bus to take you inside the park. Let’s start with the shuttle bus. Shuttle buses are designed to pick up and drop off visitors to destinations of their choice. There are a few stops you can choose from ranging from 2 hours to 6 hours one way. Visitors taking the shuttle can get off at any stop and jump back on any shuttle, if a seat is available. Shuttle buses are a first come first serve basis when it comes to hopping back on. All shuttle buses are green, as oppose to the tan colored tour buses. If a seat is not available, you will have to wait for the next shuttle to jump back on. Shuttle buses are on a timed schedule. Shuttles will stop for bathroom breaks, wildlife, as well as campgrounds to pick up other visitors. At each stop, the driver will let you know how long you’ll have before you must get back on the bus, if you chose. If you plan on getting back on, you can leave your belongings so that others won’t steal your seat. Also plan on bringing enough food and water for the duration of the ride. There will be no food and drinks available after you leave the Wilderness Access Center. Although drivers on shuttle buses are not required to narrate throughout your trip, our driver narrated and answered questions for us. She was very helpful with pointing out wildlife and giving a little history of the park. The shuttle bus is ideal for hikers and mountain bikers allowing flexibility. As of 2015, these are the prices for each destination for the shuttle bus:
|Destination||Season||Adult fare (16 years+)|
|Toklat River||May 20 – Sept 17||$27.50|
|Eielson Visitor Center||June 1 – Sept 17||$35.00|
|Wonder Lake||June 8 – Sept 17||$48.25|
|Kantishna||June 8 – Sept 17||$52.50|
|Camper Bus||June 8 – Sept 16||$35.00|
Unlike shuttle buses, tour buses do not have a set schedule. They do, however, have a naturalist-driver who will narrate your entire trip, giving you informative information to enhance your experience of Denali. Keep in mind that the tour bus is a little more expensive than the shuttle, but snacks and/or lunch, as well as beverages are provided for those on the tour bus. There are tours ranging from 4.5 hours to 12 hours depending on how deep you’d like to explore into the park. On tour buses, you won’t be able to leave and explore on your own. Hiker and bikers are better off taking the shuttle bus, but if you’re not interested in venturing out on your own, or even worried about bringing your own lunch, than the tour bus is definitely the way to go.
4.) Choosing the Best Stops. If you decide to take the shuttle bus instead of the tour bus, you’ll have to decide which stop you’d like to take. Here is what I suggest. At he bare minimum, take the bus to Eielson Visitor Center. From Polychrome Pass to the visitor center – this stretch of road is probably the most scenic portion of the entire ride. Make sure to sit on the left side of the bus headed up there, and the right side of the bus heading down. If the sun is out, you must take the shuttle down to Wonder Lake and, or Kantishna. Taking the shuttle to Wonder Lake Campground will give you an incredible view of Denali on a cloudless sunny day. If you like learning the history of Denali and how the indigenous people lived, I recommend going down to Katishna. From there, you can learn how to pan for gold and even grab lunch at the Kantishna lodge. from Wonder Lake to Kantishna, ask the driver if he or she can stop briefly at Reflection Pond. This is the most iconic photo you see when you see a photo of Denali and it’s reflection in the pond. The pond is not too far from the campground along Wonder Lake. Please note that if you choose to go either to Wonder Lake or Kantishna, it will be a long day of riding. Expect a 6 hour ride to Kantishna. That’s 12 hours round trip. If the sun is not out for the day, Wonder Lake and Katishna is not on the priority list. You won’t see anything anyway with the cloud coverage, so save some money and time.
5.) Plan to see the Big 5, or better yet, the Grand Slam. Your driver, whether you’re taking the shuttle or the tour bus, will stop for wildlife. We were fortunate enough to see the Grand Slam on our first day inside the park. Keep in mind that this is extremely rare to see the Grand Slam all in 1 day. For some they say may take 1 year in order to witness the Grand Slam. So, keep your eyes peeled. Let the guide know when you see something. You can yell “stop!” if you see something. The driver will turn off their engine if the animal is close by. Here are the Big 5 wildlife to look for while inside the park.
- Caribou. Caribou are abundant inside the park. I don’t think you’ll have any issues with spotting any of these. We saw over 40-50 of them while inside the park. Caribou is another name for reindeer. Which I did not know until this trip.
- Moose. We saw about a dozen or more of moose throughout the entire trip. I don’t think you’ll have an issue spotting any moose. Keep your eyes peeled. They may not be close to the road.
- Bears. We saw about a dozen of Grizzly and Black Bears. A lot of the Grizzly bears were blonde in color, which was something that I had never seen before. The blonde makes the bears stand out, so spotting them is pretty easy, especially considering their size. Apparently the bears in Denali eat mostly of berries, making them a bit smaller than the bears you find along the US Pacific Coast.
- Dall Sheep. Dall sheep are easy to spot if you know what to look for. Typically they stay high in the mountains, and they stick together in groups for 4-5. If you look up the mountain and see little white dots moving along the mountain ridge, those are white Dall sheep. Bring your binoculars and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
- The fifth and final one is a tough one. According to the driver, they had only seen 1 the entire year. The day we went we saw 3. I’m referring to Wolves. We saw 3 wolves hunting a group of caribou. It was like watching something from Animal Planet. We were only able to spot them because of a moose. The driver had stopped because we spotted a moose. The moose got spooked and started running, behind the moose we saw a group of caribou also sprinting. Right behind the caribou, we little tiny white spots. With my binoculars, we were able to identify that we were witnessing a pack of wolves hunting. You can see their strategic maneuvering as they zeroed in on one caribou. Unfortunately they didn’t catch anything. The caribou sprinted off to high ground and the wolves receded.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see the big 5. We saw the big 5 within the first 2 hours into the park, even before we reached Eielson Visitor Center. To make it a Grand Slam, it must be clear skies. If you can see any part of Denali, that is a win! Apparently only 30% of the people that go to Denali will see actually see Denali. We were able to see majority of Denali minus the very tip. Seeing Denali was unexpected considering on August 8, 2015 it was overcast. There was a short window of time where Denali was visible. Luckily we took the earliest bus to Eielson. That was the only time we saw Denali throughout the entire day.
6.) Hiking, Biking and Shuttle Schedules. There are several major trail heads that start at Eielson Visitor Center. A few are considered back-country hiking and some are well-paved trails. If you’re looking to do some hiking, the Eielson Alpine trail is a popular one. If you don’t prefer the crowds, hike the opposite direction of everyone else, going back towards Polychrome Pass. This is the most beautiful portion of the entire park. If you’re looking for something a lot more challenging – look into hiking Denali or Mount McKinley. This is the same mountain rising at over 20,000 feet in elevation. Be prepared. Do your research. Do not attempt this if you’re not an avid hiker or have any experience.
If you’re taking a bike with you – this covers a lot more ground, but keep in mind that not all shuttle buses have bike racks. Check the shuttle times and look for the bike rack symbols next to it. If the handicap spots are not being used, than you can actually have your bike in the back of the shuttle. Make sure that when you’re scheduling your shuttle times, you let them know that you plan on bringing a bike. They will print you a separate pass for the bike in order for drivers to allow the bike on their shuttle. Last and more important tip is: sit on the left side of the bus while driving into the park, and sit on the right side of the bus if while leaving the park.