Alaska Day 10 - Denali National Park - Riding the Park Road

Denali National Park Travel Blog

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The Sable Pass

Today would be the day of the Bus Tour into Denali. We had agreed we would not tour the whole 92-mile-long park road.. We are both totally not fans of sitting in a bus, and the complete tour takes 13 hours, round trip. We chose for the second shortest tour, the 8-hour round trip to the Eielson Visitor Center, 106 km (66 miles) one-way. This meant we could take one of the later busses which are usually less crowded and it would leave us some time to do a bit of hiking as well.

Well, maybe we left a bit too late. We aimed for the 11 am shuttle, but, when we tried to get tickets there was only one seat left. Like on an airport we were put on the stand-by list, but unfortunately there were two other persons on that same list. They made it, we did not. So, we ended up in a reservation for the 1pm bus.

The park road in on Polychrome Mountain
 This gave us time to do another small hike near the visitors Center, to a recently opened hikers suspension bridge. A nice tiny hike, just long enough to fill the waiting time of two hours.

As explained earlier, the park road is closed for private vehicles after mile 15. So everyone who wants to enter the park and is too lazy to hike or bike has to reserve a seat in the park busses. These are sturdy school bus like busses. At the bus station an airport-like announcements was made calling the passengers to board their bus. We left the "gate" with a slight delay. Bus driver Kevin explained the procedure, told something about the park, and encouraged us to yell "STOP" as loud as we could if we saw wildlife bigger than a squirrel.

The first 15 miles were rather known, although, being in the higher bus gave us some better views on the surroundings.

Even 50% of the moose's antlers is already pretty heavy! (photo: Stephan van Gessel)
 At mile 15 we passed a ranger checkpoint. It almost felt like crossing a border. The bus had to stop, a ranger came aboard and explained everything Kevin had just explained. And then, we got permissions to go. The paved road immediately ended and gave way to a (very well maintained) dirt road. Everybody paid attention because the impression was given that it would swarm with wildlife as soon as we passed the checkpoint... Well..., nothing! No problem for me, because the landscape; autumn-colored tundra with rocks, mountains, and rivers, was stunning as well. And besides that, The Great One, aka Mount McKinley decided to show itself, although, still with many surrounding clouds. Directly after that, the first wildlife was spotted. Not a moose, nor a bear, but a little bird! Alaska's official State Bird: The Willow Ptarmigan (also known as the Willow Grouse, in Dutch: Moeras-sneeuwhoen).
Toklat River
 

After 48 km (30 mile) we had our first stop at the Teklanika River. This is the part of the road that is open to private cars after the 1st of October. It offered a nice view over the river.
Near the Sable Pass, at 62 km (38 mile), we got a second wild encounter. Several dall sheep were on the steep rocks above us. Another stop was made at the Polychrome Overlook at 72 km (45 mile). The site gave a very nice view over the valley below us, colored by autumn, and the mountains around us, colored by specific minerals. At 85 km (53 mile) we had another stop at Toklat River. This is the end of the shortest (and cheapest) bus tour. The site has a small ranger station/gift shop. But much more interesting, a great view on glacier rivers. The rangers had put some antlers of several deer and moose outside the station.

3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
It is amazing how heavy these are!

During the ride to our destination, the Eielson Visitor Center, one of the passengers gave the bus driver a STOP yell. He remarkably spotted three grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis). The bears were too far away to see them well. The Latin word "horribilis" in the scientific name for the grizzly was assigned by mistake. The biologist who named the bear misunderstood the word grizzly (grey-ish) for Grisly (gruesome, terrifying). Given the fact that grizzlies are by far the most aggressive bears, the misunderstanding still makes sense.

Near the visitor center we had some more stunning mountain views. The snow on the peaks looked like powder sugar rather than snow.

The three Grizzly Bears we encounter on the way back
After a quick bite we headed to he bus dispatcher to check if there was any room on the returning bus leaving after our own bus. He told us we were good to go. And while our bus was boarding we stepped on the park road and started hiking. Even while we walked on the road it felt like a real hike. The thrill that a grizzly could be around added to the excitement. We now had all the time to stop and take pictures. Just perfect. 

We kept looking for bears as well as for the bus. If we missed this bus it would mean, spending the night on the road. Not a very tempting idea! After having hiked exactly 5 km (3 miles) the green bus appeared behind us. Perfectly in time because the road was about to ascend steeply. We waved it down and found, to our delight, it only filled for about 33% of its seat capacity.

Denali / The Great One / Mount McKinley revealed

At the location we had spotted the three grizzlies earlier that day the bus driver spotted the bears again. In the meantime they had migrated to the other side of the road and were much better visible. Short after that another grizzly was spotted, this one was right next to the road and crossed it right in front of the bus. We had more surprises: Denali (Mount McKinley) had decided to strip completely and was now fully visible. Mighty! The park feasted us on some more sightings, several dall sheep and, a moose couple. The latter, unfortunately quite far away.

The sun started to set, allowing us one more view on the Great One. At about 22:00hrs the bus delivered us at the bus station. We were tired and hungry. Fully inspired by the grizzlies, who adore salmon, I ordered a delicious salmon filet.

For a nice historic picture of the parkroad see here.  More (of my) pictures below.

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The Sable Pass
The Sable Pass
The park road in on Polychrome Mou…
The park road in on Polychrome Mo…
Even 50% of the mooses antlers is…
Even 50% of the moose's antlers i…
Toklat River
Toklat River
3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
The three Grizzly Bears we encount…
The three Grizzly Bears we encoun…
Denali / The Great One / Mount McK…
Denali / The Great One / Mount Mc…
During our wait hike: below the …
During our 'wait hike': below the…
During our wait hike: the Alaska…
During our 'wait hike': the Alask…
During our wait hike: the Alaska…
During our 'wait hike': the Alask…
During our wait hike: the hikers…
During our 'wait hike': the hiker…
During our wait hike: the hikers…
During our 'wait hike': the hiker…
During our wait hike: the hikers…
During our 'wait hike': the hiker…
A park bus
A park bus
A park bus
A park bus
On the park road, Mount McKinley s…
On the park road, Mount McKinley …
Autum colored tundra
Autum colored tundra
The Ptarmigan, Alaskas State Bird
The Ptarmigan, Alaska's State Bird
The Sable Pass
The Sable Pass
The Park Road
The Park Road
Dall Sheep (digitally zoomed)
Dall Sheep (digitally zoomed)
Dall Sheep
Dall Sheep
A park bus on Polychrome Mountain
A park bus on Polychrome Mountain
View from Polychrome Overlook
View from Polychrome Overlook
View from Polychrome Overlook
View from Polychrome Overlook
Toklat River
Toklat River
Even 50% of the mooses antlers is…
Even 50% of the moose's antlers i…
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Our bus heading back. We stay be…
"Our" bus heading back. We stay b…
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
Near Eielson Visitor Center
3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
3 miles from Eielson Visitor Center
The three Grizzly Bears we encount…
The three Grizzly Bears we encoun…
The Grizzly Bears that came close …
The Grizzly Bears that came close…
Mid-way
Mid-way
Mid-way
Mid-way
Dry river bed
Dry river bed
Dall Sheep
Dall Sheep
Getting darker
Getting darker
The moose couple we encountered
The moose couple we encountered
Getting darker
Getting darker
Getting darker
Getting darker
Down below the sun has set. But Mo…
Down below the sun has set. But M…
The Boarding Card
The Boarding Card
GPS route of the one-way Park Road…
GPS route of the one-way Park Roa…
GPS Height profile of the one-way …
GPS Height profile of the one-way…
Our time in Denali well spent! Fou…
Our time in Denali well spent! Fo…
Denali National Park
photo by: Vikram