Sitting at the back of an old, refurbished school-type bus, we stare out the windows as we slowly make our way along the single dusty, dirt road of Denali National Park.
Six million of acres of wild land surround us. Initially, I’m surprised by what I see. The landscape is not the jagged, snow-capped mountains I was expecting. Instead, it is far more colourful and diverse.
As we watch the landscape transition from forested taiga to treeless tundra, we are constantly on the lookout for wildlife. Soon, we spot a group of Dall sheep grazing in a meadow high on the hill.
Not long later, we encounter a herd of caribou casually roaming the tundra. A young moose even decides to cross the road right in front of our bus!
As thrilled as I am to be seeing all this wildlife, my fingers are crossed we’ll spot a bear.
Soon, far off on the distance, I see a patch of brown moving across the slope of a hill. Yes, it’s a bear! A grizzly no less! I try my best to get some photos, but even with my long lens zoomed all the way to 400mm, the bear is not much more than a speck. Still, I can’t believe I’m watching a bear roam around, carefree, in its natural habitat.
As our tour continues further into the park, my excitement from seeing a grizzly slowly is replaced by disappointment. The thick clouds and fog I was hoping would clear by afternoon, are still hanging around. Deep down I know that we are not going to be able to see Denali (Mt. McKinley), North America’s highest peak.
Sure enough, as our driver pulls up to the viewpoint, all we see is a wall of white cloud. Now, more than ever, I am thankful to have seen such great views of Denali the day before, during the drive from Anchorage.
We may not see the “High One”, but another intriguing landscape is just up ahead- the Polychrome Pass.
Stepping off the bus, the dreary day is instantly brightened by the colourful rock layers of Polychrome Pass. The bands of yellow, brown, tan, white, orange and even purple, are a reminder that I’m standing on volcanic debris spewed 50-60 million years ago.
As I stare across the glacier carved valley towards the Alaska Range, I see the effects of the year’s dry weather. The rivers that normally course through the valley are not much more than a bed of silt. It feels so deserted, so isolated and I hope the animals are still able to find enough water to thrive.
Leaving Polychrome Pass, I am thankful that this wilderness area is being protected, not only for the enjoyment of future generations, but also for the wildlife that call it home. Denali National Park is a rich ecosystem, one that remains largely undisturbed, a remarkable feat in today’s age of over-development. Denali really is a living masterpiece.
Interesting Facts About Denali National Park
- In 1917, the United States Congress passed a bill to establish Mount McKinley National Park. It was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve in 1980 and expanded to be larger than the state of New Hampshire.
- There is only one road into Denali National Park. The 92-mile park road was constructed between 1923-1938.
- The tour bus program began in 1972 as a way to lessen traffic and minimize visitor impact.
- Denali is home to more than 160 species of birds, 37 species of mammals and hundreds of species of plants.
- While wildlife populations can fluctuate, Denali is currently home for more than 1,900 moose, 1,700 caribou, 2,500 Dall sheep, 300-350 grizzly bears and 100 wolves.
- Denali is the only national park patrolled in winter by dog sled.
More Photos of Denali National Park
Tips for Visiting Denali National Park
- Denali National Park is about 386 kilometers north of Anchorage and 193 kilometers south of Fairbanks. The nearest year-round community is Healy, 19 kilometers away. The park entrance is along Alaska Highway 3 (also called the George Parks Highway).
- Summer is the main visiting season (late May- early September). During the rest of the year, access to the park is limited and dependent on weather conditions.
- In the summer season, the park’s visitor centre is open daily, 8:00 am – 6:00 pm.
- Private vehicles may only travel along the first 24 kilometers of Denali Park Road to Savage River. Beyond that, you must use the park bus system.
- There are two types of bus service in Denali- shuttle and tour. Shuttle buses allow you to disembark/re-board anywhere along the road. The buses stop for wildlife viewing and restroom stops, but are not narrated, like tour buses. Tour buses do not allow people to disembark as they wish, but stop for wildlife, scenery and restroom breaks. They also offer a narrated program and include a snack or boxed lunch.
- There are three different options for tours of the park. We did the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which was an 8-hour journey along the Denali Park Road. The bus drivers are certified naturalists and provide in-depth information about the park. We were given a boxed lunch and water to drink throughout the day. My only complaint was that the small, school bus type windows were not the best for scenery viewing. I also found it frustrating to try and take pictures without any control of the viewing angle I got. I was at the mercy of where the bus driver stopped (or didn’t stop)!
- For more information about bus fees and reservations, visit the National Park Service website.
- There are some campgrounds in Denali, but most people stay in lodging outside the park. We stayed in a lodge not far from the park on Alaska Highway 3. The two big lodges there are owned by the cruise companies and are often full as part of their Land & Sea Alaska Cruise packages. Make sure you book your accommodations many months in advance.
- The park entrance fee is $10.00/person (age 15 or younger are free) and allows access for 7-days. The fee is collected when you buy a bus ticket or campground pass, otherwise you can pay at the Denali Visitor Centre upon arrival.