Denali National Park and Preserve Bus Tour


My son and his girlfriend are in Fairbanks, Alaska, for the next few years for graduate school. We went up to visit them earlier this month.

Fairbanks is only two and a half hours away from Denali National Park. So we all piled in the car and went!

There is only one road in Denali, and you can only drive your car a short distance on it into the Park. After that, you take one of two kinds of bus: a free shuttle bus that will drop you off for a hike, or a tour bus with a driver-guide who will help you spot wildlife. This being our first time in Denali, we chose the wildlife tour bus.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Many, if not most, National Parks in the lower 48 have gone to this system because of the tremendous overcrowding that is set to destroy the very things we love most about the Parks — silence, wilderness, the sense of being alone.

But the whole thing had a very managed feel to it, something of the Disneyland experience. And that was a problem for me. I wanted to discover Denali, or any National Park, on my own.

One of the most common animals in Denali are moose. They thrive on the willow thickets that line the rivers. There are a lot of willow thickets.

Moose are possibly the most dangerous animals in Denali NPP. Bears, either black or grizzly/brown, will generally stay out of your way, as long as you don’t get between them and their cubs. Moose will stomp you to death just because they are feeling grumpy.

A little further on, we saw these Arctic fox kits, playing outside their den. It won’t be long before they join their parents for hunting outings.

Then we saw one of the parent foxes hunting something on the road in front of us. This is one of the advantages of not allowing private cars on the road — fewer chances of hitting animals. The animals aren’t as wary of the road and come closer.

Glacial rivers are often “braided”, meaning that they don’t have a main channel except when they are running high. This is because they suddenly go from steep slopes to fairly flat valleys. They don’t have enough energy on the flats to carry the sediments, so the sands, silts and clays build up as the river constantly looks for the easiest way down.

Here, you can see how muddy the river is below the glacier.

While stopped, I took the opportunity to get some close-ups of Arctic tundra plants…

This is Arctic sandwort, in the carnation family. Carnations are surprising well represented in tundra plants. Although it is just a few inches tall, it stands higher than most tundra plants in the Colorado Rockies. This was true of the tundra plants in general. The reason is that there is much less wind in the lower elevations of Denali, at least. That really surprised me.

A little further on, we saw a sow grizzly and her yearling cub. This was when I was glad we had taken the tour — I don’t think I would have seen the grizzlies without the driver pointing them out. But once I knew to look for blond, almost white, dots on the slopes, I saw them easily.

This was our best view of Denali. Most of the time, the Big Mountain is socked in with a weather system it creates all on it’s own. You can see what I mean by looking at the mountains in the foreground — each one has a puffy cloud above it, created by the humid air having to rise to get around the mountain. As the air rises and cools, clouds form. As high and isloated as it is, the moisture-laden air almost always get caught at Denali.

Our closest view, while not as clear as just a few minutes before, is still better than most folks get. Denali is the bit of blinding white under the red arrow. But it gives you an idea of just how much higher Denali is (20,310 ft, or 6190 m) than anything else around. It dwarfs the next highest mountain, Mt. Foraker (17,400 ft or 5304 m) in the Park, and pretty much anything else in North America including #2 in elevation, Mt. St. Elias (18,008 ft or 5,489 m) in Southeast Alaska.

From this overlook, we turned around.

A caribou, browsing on a willow thicket along the side of the road. Caribou are the wild North American version of reindeer. They are such unusual animals that I could easily do an entire blog on them. Among many other characteristics, they are unique among deer in that both males and females have antlers.

Caribou on the tundra with the Alaska Range behind them. This photo calls to my northern European Neolithic genes.

And just a few miles on, we spotted a grizzly taking a nap among blue chiming bells, literally just off the road. You can see how light their fur is.

Back at the Visitor’s Center I took more pictures of flowers. I’m not sure how I like this business of other people having cameras…

But I got a great photo of chiming bells, in the heather family. This charming plant was all over the lower part of the Park.

Final conclusions: Animals were closer to the road — in some cases on the road — than they would have been with people zipping up and down it. The driver-guide was able to spot wildlife we didn’t know how to see yet, and she answered questions about what we were seeing. The tour still had a slightly industrial feel to it, but it was a reasonable compromise to having hordes of tourists tromp across the tundra without being aware of it’s fragility, or it’s dangers.

About Amy Law

Amy Law is a science geek. She feels about science the way some people feel about music, or art, or sports – a total and complete emotional connection. She thinks in science. For Amy, there’s nothing better than helping people see the beauty of science as she does. She loves to untangle a complicated subject into its parts, explaining it so that anybody can understand what’s happening. Let her show you her world...
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4 Responses to Denali National Park and Preserve Bus Tour

  1. Tracy Abell says:

    I’m so glad you got to visit Denali and saw beautiful wildlife and flora! Were you able to spend any time at Wonder Lake? That’s where we camped when we lived in AK and I have fond memories of watching moose with water running off their muzzles as they waded in the water.

    We never took the guided tour but always rode the old schoolbuses. For future reference, those drivers are also good at spotting wildlife. This post has made me nostalgic. Thank you for sharing, Amy!

    • No, we didn’t get to Wonder Lake. They’ve upgraded the school buses to tour buses, too. Graduate school takes a long time; we’ll have a few more years to get up there, so next time that’s what we’ll take, and get all the way to the lake. 😉

  2. Alas, we have to take the bad with the good. Some amazing images, Amy. Well done!

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