Denali National Park & Preserve – McKinley Park, Alaska
Ever since I wrote an eBook on Alaska travel three years ago for a client, I have wanted to travel to Alaska. Reading about the cities, the sights and the wildlife had me in love with this state before I even saw it. The one place that has stood out in my mind since then was Denali National Park. Nowhere in the world can you ride on a green bus and see more wildlife, changes in scenery and experience varying degrees of weather than you can in Denali.
Because our trip to Alaska was basically designed as a road trip starting in Fairbanks and ending in Seward, we planned the trip to correspond with the running of the King Salmon. The King Salmon begin their run at the beginning of June. This put us at Denali June 6 & 7th.
Denali is huge and the only way you can see it is to take a bus tour, as personal cars are only allowed into the park for the first 15 miles, ending at the Savage River. The only time personal cars are allowed are in the fall and spring when people apply to win a chance to drive the park through the road lottery, which is definitely something I would be quite interested in doing at some point in the future. You have two bus options – the green bus and the tan bus. The tan buses are about 3 times higher in price than the green buses.
Our trip to Denali started the afternoon of the 6th. We stayed at the Denali Dome Bed & Breakfast and after we got checked in we went over to the park, which is about 20 minutes away, to catch the 3 o’clock dog sled demonstration. This is a definite must do for anyone and especially if you have kids. Denali is the only national park to use a dog sled team and the dogs are fantastic. They are very happy, personable and hard working. They’re all fun and games when it comes to visiting with the visitors and being “chosen” for the demonstration run, but when it comes time to get to work, the barking stops and off they go. Snow or no snow, they love their job. The demonstration is short, only about 45 minutes to an hour, but very informative and interesting. You can then take pictures on the sled and visit with the dogs again before making your way back to the shuttle bus. The shuttle buses pick up and drop off at the Visitor’s Center, not the Wilderness Access Center. Also, the guide says to be at the bus stop 40 minutes prior to the start of the show, but they actually have several buses running this route before the show, so even if you don’t make it there 40 minutes before you will still be able to get a ride to it. You can only take the shuttle, as there’s no parking for cars at the kennel.
The next day we took our tour into Denali. I chose the 12 o’clock Toklat tour. One reason is because I have a 2 year old. The second reason is because I have a 2 year old. Noon is about as fast as we can get around sometimes and anything earlier isn’t always realistic. I chose the Toklat tour because 6 hours roundtrip is about all he would be good for. That said, my little road traveler son did awesome. He sat in his car seat (they will provide one for you) and took pictures with his little Leap Frog camera (best gift we ever bought him). Sometimes he saw zebras and monkeys, but we actually did see a great assortment of wildlife including 8 bears, 3 moose (one with 2 calves), caribou off in the distance and three Dall sheep up close. We also saw a few marmot, squirrels and a coyote way off in the distance as well.
We also had one of the best guides a group could ask for. Our driver was Elton Parks. The man was an excellent driver and very informative. If you read about the driver’s on the Internet while planning, you’ll likely read that they don’t really give you must narration and information, but Elton was not like that at all. He was very personable and happy to tell you stories, talk about the animals and his experiences and even had Tootsie Roll Pops. He did say there are those drivers that don’t really talk much and just sort of drive and stop for the animals, but he was not like that at all. We felt very fortunate to get such a great driver. Saying that, you can pay about $120 per person and take the tan tour buses with a trained interpretive guide, but they see the same animals as the green buses and if you have a guy like Elton driving, you don’t really need the interpretive guide.
There were two rest stops along the way to Toklat and we took one on the way back. Be back to the bus on time or you might get left. Saying that, if you do get left or if you want to get off and do some hiking, you’re welcome to do that. Just let your driver know and he’ll let you off and then when you’re ready to catch a bus, just flag one of them down and they’ll let you on. Another advantage to the noon bus was that it was pretty empty. We started out with 13 and ended with 17. The early morning buses were packed. Some say it’s better to take the early buses to see more wildlife, but that’s not necessarily the case as we saw many on our afternoon trip.
Toklat was just a 30 minute stop. You can get off stretch, walk around a bit, use the restroom and browse the Alaska Geographic tent before heading back to the park entrance. There are longer trips into the park with the trip to Wonder Lake being an 11 hour round trip tour. This part of the road was actually closed the day we went and due to open the next day, so it wasn’t really an option for us anyhow. The weather can be unpredictable as we learned on the tour as well. Our first stop was nice, but the second stop was quite windy and Toklat was very windy and cold. The difference from the beginning of the park to Toklat was crazy. Plan accordingly on your trip and bring a jacket. You’ll also want to bring your own food and water, as it’s only available in the Wilderness Access Center and the restaurant at the Visitor’s Center.
Finally, the other main highlight of your trip will to hopefully see Mt. McKinley. You probably already know it’s the second highest peak in North America, but you won’t fully grasp that until you see it in person. It was rather cloudy at the beginning of our tour, but as the clouds cleared, “the mountain was out” as they say. It was amazing. It just floats above the other mountains with the clouds wrapped around it like it’s not even of this world. Then the driver tells you that there’s about 50 people try to climb it at that very moment and you can’t even comprehend how that is possible because it just looks so far away from reality. They say that only about 30% of the visitors to Denali get to actually see McKinley, so if you do, you’re lucky. We felt truly lucky to not only see the amount of wildlife that we did, but to also see the mountain.
The time spent in Denali was excellent. Part of me would have liked to take a little more time in the park, but overall if you have one day to one and a half days to spend like we did, take advantage of it. See the dog sled demonstration for sure and then take the longest tour you can. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with whichever tour you choose. We saw a bear and a moose before we even hit the first 15 mile mark of the park, so seeing wildlife is definitely possible.