Alaska – Denali National Park

Introduction:

What? : This is one of the must visit places in Alaska, the bus day trip that will take you into the national park is long day ride but totally worth it.

 

Where? : The national park entrance is located on hwy 3, 240 miles north of Anchorage, 127 miles south of Fairbanks. The road is in very good condition although most of it is one lane in each direction so passing a slow car is difficult.

Google Map Link





 

Due note 1: It’s always a good thing to carry bear spray and know how to stay safe in bear country.

 

Due note 2: Bring with you pair of binoculars, very useful for animal viewing.

 

Due note 3: There are not many marked trails in Denali, and most of the trails here are short and near the park entrance section (where you can drive your car).

Unlike many other National Parks when you are visiting Denali you can hike off-trail, this is especially correct when you are taking the bus trip, you can get off the bus and hike into the open wilderness.

 

Due note 4: The day-long bus ride might be difficult for small kids, especially if you are planning for 4 hr ride in each direction, you can always shorten it and take longer breaks.

 

My thoughts: The visit here was one of our Alaska trip’s highlights. We saw many animals during the bus ride and fall in love with the park tundra and mountains landscape. Unlike my expectations to see tall pine woods, except the entrance section most of the park landscape is open tundra without any tree, only small bushes and grassland. This allow you to spot animal from distance…



 

 

The visit:

 

What you can expect to see on your Denali experience:

Amazing tundra open landscape, snowy covered mountain ridges, Denali, the highest mountain in America and many animal viewings.

We saw Caribou, Moose, Dall sheep, Fox, arctic ground squirrels and Grizzly Bears and even wolves are occasionally spotted in the park ( not by us :-( ).

 

Long day bus ride, some will find it difficult or a long and exhausting day but because you can hop off and get the next buss you can set it according to your needs.

 

Many other visitors, everywhere, unless you are doing backpacking hike into the wilderness you probably won’t be alone so do not expect for solitude experience….


 

Riley Creek Campground:

This is the recommended place to stay.

Has great center with a store and showers, walking distance from the shuttle bus station, no need to move your RV or car.

Must book camping site well in advance!!!

There are few nice trails that start from this location, so if you came at the early at the day or stay for few nights you can do the following hiking:

Short hike to the Nenana river below at the north side of the campsite (need to cross the main park road).

Hike the Triple Lake Trail along Riley Creek riverbed, you can hike as far as you want and go back when you had enough. We wend for few miles, cross underneath the tall train bridge, cross the hiker’s suspension bridge and hike one mile after it.




 

Denali Wilderness Access Center:

This is the terminal where all the shuttles are departing from.

 

Denali Visitor Center:

This large visitor center has a lot of exhibition about the park landscape, animals and history, this is the place for bus trip reservations (or get wilderness permits).


 

The Bus Tour System:

·       The road that is entering into the Denali park close to vehicle access after 14 miles at Savage River Loop Trailhead.

·       From that point the dirt-road is open only to the shuttle bus and for people that has campsite reservation at Teklanika campground.

·       The bus drive is a full day activity so bring light food and water with you for the day.

·       Be prepared for cold and even rainy weather so ware cloth in layers.

·       The shuttle bus driver will be your trip guide. They give explanations about what you see and stories about each location as well as their personal stories about Alaska, we found them very informative and interesting. They will also point you to animals (they exchange this information between drivers).

·       The bus rides are departing from the Denali Wilderness Access Center that is located at the park road entrance, the first exit on your right.

·       You are selecting your departure time and end destination.

·       Look for up-to-date Transit Schedule that provide both departure time and when it is arriving to each station along the way.

·       Try to find seats at early departure, early as you can, this will give you enough time to hike during your day.

·       Most people select their destination to be at Eielson Alpine visitor center (65 miles, ~3-4 hr drive) but you can keep going all the way to Wonder Lake.

·       The bus drive can stop at any location and you can go down and hike, but most people get off at the several stops along the way (locations that has restrooms).

·       This is not a reserve seat once you decided to go down and the bus departure you need to find another bus to hop in.

·       When going down for a short-stop make sure you know when the driver is departure, identify your buss when you are going down for the break so you can check it did not departure (you may have many other buses at the same parking lot).

·       Unless one of your group or family-member stay on the bas during break and make sure you are coming back take all your belonging when you departure the buss even for a short-stop. The bus may departure with your stupp onboard…

·       Buses arrive every ~30 minutes.


·       On the way back, you will need to get buss seat, check the specific arrangement in each location, you may need to register and wait for your turn.

·       At Eielson Alpine visitor center, where many are waiting for ride back, this was by registering and waiting for a bus that has available seat, first registered first serve. Please check how long is the waiting-list once you decided that you want to go back, this can be additional one hour of waiting.

·       When going off the bus for a hike or long stop be back at the Eielson Alpine visitor center at list an hour and a half before the last return bus scheduled.

·       If you are traveling with a large group of people using the bus system can be challenging. You need to make reservation in advance for your big group departure (your way in at the morning) and go all the way to your end destination on the same bus (can take the BIO break but come back on time). On your way back you will probably need to split into smaller groups that fit available seats on the back going bus.

The landscape at Denali park is different between the visitor center section to the remote inland sections.

At the park entrance you can see the large pine woods and as you get into the park the trees are getting smaller up to a point, 10 miles into your drive, where the landscape completely changes into open tundra without any tree. “Just” mountains, valley, grassland and vast landscape view.

This open view landscape help to find and spot the grazing animals from far distance.

 

Whenever bear or other interesting animal is being viewed nearby the bus driver will stop for picture taking and keep moving after few minutes…

 

Savage Alpine Trailhead (mile mark 12):

This trail can be done with private car access to TH, we did it the day after our bus trip.

This is relatively strenuous hike. It’s only 4 or 5.5 miles, but there’s 1,500 feet of elevation gain. While hiking you will explore the lower forest and the open hills landscape and will also get some high point viewing.

The Savage Alpine Trail is one of the best ways to spend half a day in Denali National Park.

Park your car at Mountain Vista Picnic Area (recommended) or at Savage River Loop Trailhead (small parking lot that may be full).

Starting from Savage River parking lot, cross the main park road and continue past marked signs for the trail. Trail starts flat parallels a Braided stream for approximately 1.5 miles, gradual up-hill that turn into switchbacks climbing onto the mountain slop on your left. You will reach the top point of the hike, here you can rest enjoy the vista below you.



From this viewing point you have 2 options:

1. The option we did: Turn around and go back to the parking lot at the same trail. This option is 5.3 miles long.

2. From the ridge viewing point keep walking down at steep slope toward the Savage River below. This is 4.3 miles long hike.

If you went all the way to Savage River Trail Head than you need to hike back 2 miles on the road to the starting point or you can wait for a shuttle bus that will take you back.

 

Savage River Loop Trailhead (mile mark 14):

This short easy 2-mile trail where you stroll along the river and go back to the car.

This trailhead is located at the end of the open road at Denali park, from here you need to use the bus shuttle.

The problem at this parking lot is that it is small and can be full when you are arriving (especially if you are with RV).

The trail goes nearly 1 mile into the valley before crossing the river with a bridge, returning to the same parking area.


 

 

Short description of places you pass with the bus ride:

 

Teklanika Rest Stop (mile mark 30):

The first stop for river viewing, not a lot to do here except BIO brake or if you are going to the campground.


 

Polychrome Overlook (mile mark 45):

From this viewing point you will see the colorful mountains that are on the other side of the valley. This road section is relatively narrow, elevated and twisted with sharp corners section.


 

Toklat River Contact Station (mile mark 53):

A stop with restrooms at the wide-open valley of the Toklat River.



 

Eielson Alpine Visitor Center (mile mark 65):

This is the main endpoint stop for most tourist.

At this stop you find a large visitor center with daily ranger-led programs, a small gallery of art inspired by Denali's natural wonders and the view of mount Denali above you. When we visit there, it was all cloudy and we couldn’t see the Denali mountain at all.

When going off the bus for a hike or long stop be back at the Eielson Alpine visitor center more than an hour before the last return bus is scheduled for the best chance of securing a spot. Buses arrive every 30 minutes.



 

There are few options to hike here and you can easily spend here few hours.

 

There are many bears viewing opportunity in this area.

While we were still on the bus, we spotted group of grizzly bears in the meadows 1 mile before reaching Eielson Alpine visitor center.

We got off the bus I hiked back along the road and went down into the meadows so I can get near them, keeping myself in a safe far distance. They completely ignore me and it was fun watching their behavior for long time.

Denali sets a minimum distance to keep away from bears as 300 yards (270 m), I was around half a mile away.


 

Hiking options at Eielson Alpine Visitor Center:

Eielson Alpine Trail:

Follow the trail up the face of Thoro Ridge for nearly 1,000 ft of climbing in just under a mile. Along the way, enjoy plenty of flowers, wildlife sightings, and impressive views on a clear day.

From the ridge top views of Muldrow Glacier, Denali mountain (when it’s out and not covered with clouds) and the amazing vast wilderness all around you. When done resting from the climb and enjoying the views, hike back down to the visitor center.

When I went to my “bear hike” my two kids (22, 13) went all the way up the mountain. It was cloudy that day, so the view was limited to the lower valley sections.



 

Eielson River Trail:

The Tundra Loop is around a third of a mile long, close by to the visitor center. There is an additional trail off the Tundra Loop.

You can also hike down to the Gorge Creek Trail that descends all the way to the creek in the valley below.

 

Wonder Lake Campground (mile mark 88):

This is the last stop of the bus shuttle.

I did not visit this place so I can’t tell much.

 

 

www:

https://www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm

 

Map:

http://npmaps.com/wp-content/uploads/denali-map.pdf

Pictures:


































































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