Denali National Park is home to North America’s highest peak Mt McKinley, a mountain also known by its native name of Denali, and sits deep within the Alaskan wilderness
Looking over this sweeping wild landscape with the beginnings of summer color, and across the soft tundra to the countless pure white peaks leading up like stairs to the great mountain, I am in awe. Being so very high that the mountain top is hidden by swirling clouds, it is easy to see why the imposing Mt McKinley is nicknamed The Great One.
Running through the National Park is the ninety two mile long Park Road. Those who dream of driving the full length of the Park Road in their own vehicle will need to win the Park Road lottery - that’s how sought after this experience is.
Riding the green shuttle bus to Eielson Visitor Centre
We haven’t won the lottery, so we take the old school style green shuttle buses run by the Park and make the four hour trip to Eielson Visitor Centre at Mile Sixty Six in early June, where we spend at least three hours hiking and trying to comprehend the scenery.
The views from Eielson Visitor Centre across the valley and Alaska Range to Mt McKinley are epic, on a scale of which I had never witnessed before. Studded with countless mountain peaks jutting out from all directions, the landscape just takes your breath away.
We walk across the spongy tundra, lie on colourful wildflowers, trying desperately to soak in this place and be in the moment. We get bitten by strange insects. Alaska is not a forgiving landscape and I am reminded as beautiful as it is, there is always a sense that it could decimate you if you dare underestimate it.
The Government have played a part in protecting this place and only limited places are available on the green shuttle buses through the Park. Booking online almost six months ahead to secure a place on one of the earliest departing buses may not have been essential, but was worth it to guarantee our early morning seat.
Many visitors on organised tours are forced on organised coach tour buses which don’t allow their passengers to jump off the bus at any point and cost much more. The beauty of the Park’s green shuttle buses is that you can get off the bus anywhere you wish and hike in the National Park as long as you want, then simply stand along the road and wait for the next bus to take you back.
Alaska and its big animals are a major draw card for riding the shuttle. The bus drivers are trained through experience to look for animals and pull over whenever they spot any. Driving Alaska and through Denali in your own vehicle or in a bus is essential to see more of the National Park if you only have a few days travel time.
The old school-like shuttle slides to a stop as a magnificent bear comes into view. I stick my head out of the window and feel my heart rate increase as the teddy like grizzly wanders the valley, scrimmaging for food. Little does the bear know, but two wolves are stalking him. The encounter begins with one of the wolves making a determined rush for the bear and the grizzly running for its life. Seconds later, the grizzly charges the grey wolf, while the brown wolf stands guard.
The bus driver who had well and truly turned off the bus by this stage is ready to stay there as long as it takes to give his passengers every opportunity to observe this extraordinary sight. He says he has been driving this route for years and has never seen a bear versus wolves encounter like this.
The macho charging finally ends in a truce. The bear and wolves realize that neither of them will be easy prey and give each other a final ‘okay it’s over now/not worth it’ look, before gradually parting ways. Once the animals wander out of sight, the old green bus starts up again and chugs down the rocky dirt road.
The Park Road is the golden ticket to Alaska’s big five: Moose, Caribou, Grizzly Bears, Wolves and Dall Sheep. Earlier in the morning we spotted Dall Sheep playing vigorously on the mountain.
Driving and Hiking in Denali
I want more. The next day we drive our rental car to Mile Fifteen at Savage River, as far down The Park Road as a private vehicle is permitted to go. Hiking the tundra, we soon get stuck in muddy stringy ground, and quickly head back to hike the more accessible Park Road. We are alone in six million acres filled with wild bears, moose and wolves. I won’t lie, I am a little apprehensive, but my love of this landscape spurs me on.
Through extensive education throughout Alaska, we have learned that it is important to sing or talk loudly when walking in areas that have blind corners or thick forests. Many tourists buy bear bells to warn bears they are coming, in the hope the bear will move away. But the Alaskans laughingly call this the dinner bell. Since discovering that little Alaskan joke, I have left the dinner bell back at our lodge.
The sky flushes a pretty pastel blue against the Alaska Range, and I charge ahead toward Polychrome Pass feeling a sense of boundless exhilaration. The Park Road is empty and there is no-one to be seen, except for the odd shuttle bus and a brown and white round bird perched on the side of the road.
Alaska’s National Bird, the Ptarmigan, sits in quiet determination. A shuttle bus flies by on the dirt road, no more than a metre away from the beautiful bundle and it stays sitting - this is one brave bird.
The remarkable Ptarmigan is actually acting as a decoy, to ensure any predators take him instead of his partner who is hiding on her nest nearby - all men please take note.
After most of the day walking the Park Road through Denali National Park, dark storm clouds gather in a matter of minutes and abruptly slide across the baby blue sky leaving a thunderous looking canopy above us. Seconds later the rain comes down. The weather here can change in a heartbeat, but we have come prepared and quickly pull our raincoats from our packs. It’s time to head back to Savage River and the safety of the car.
By the time we make it back to the car park, the rain has stopped and the vicious sky has departed, leaving a softer blue cover. As we drive back down the Park Road, I suddenly slam on the brakes and pull over to the side - there is a moose through the trees. I am thrilled that my moose spotting skills have dramatically improved over the last week.
We get out of the car and quietly make our way in the direction of a male moose, his massive thick antlers looking too heavy for his head. He senses a presence and looks up quickly, still chewing. We stay very still and he returns to eating grass and leaves. Delighted beyond belief, I feel my insides soar with happiness. Walking along the Park Road we follow him quietly as he nibbles at nature.
There are very few cars on the road, but we are quick to learn that every time one has pulled over, it is a sure sign there is a bear, moose or caribou, and we stop too.
The female moose seem shy, while the males demonstrate a bolder demeanour. Finding and watching the wild moose secretly through small openings in forested areas is a thrill.
Before we depart Denali and Alaska, I purchase moose tea towels, moose napkins, moose magnets, moose caps and moose bottle openers. It is official, I have become obsessed.
As we turn off Park Road back onto the main highway, my heart feels a little heavy. It is hard to leave a place so wondrous and inspiring. I feel as though I have left a little of myself back there. Denali National Park, you may not remember me, but I will never forget you.
THINGS TO DO IN DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE
- Visit the Sled Dogs and see a demonstration at Denali at no charge( includes free transport to Sled Dog Centre in Denali National Park, and departs from the Visitor Centre). Make sure you visit the new puppies in the Kennels.
- Eielson Visitor Centre has great views of Mt McKinley (via Shuttle bus)
- Wonder Lake (get there via Shuttle Bus along the Park Road)
- Guided Hikes
- Go it alone and hike your own route (get on/off shuttle anywhere to hike)
- Take the green shuttle bus down Park Road and back - full day trip (book in advance)
- Drive your own car to Mile 15 and hike or search for moose
- Flightseeing over Denali National Park and Mt McKinley
- Denali Visitor Centre (also see a film about Denali - free of charge)
- Spot and/or photograph wild animals including bear, moose, Dall Sheep, Wolves, Caribou, and the Ptarmigan