Hiking the Highway: An Hour Alone on Denali’s Scenic Park Road

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Driving in Denali is one thing. Riding a shuttle bus is another.  But there’s another way to experience Denali’s scenic park road: just get out and walk it.

Does that sound boring?  I mean, just walking along a road?  What’s the point?  Why would you do that?  Hiking a trail, sure, that makes sense, but hiking on a road?

That’s what I thought, when I first started planning a trip to Denali.  But once I got there, I soon realized that hitting the park road on foot is one of the most thrilling (and scariest) things you can do.

My Visit

When I was ready to leave Eielson Visitor Center, I signed up for the next shuttle.  I was told that the next bus wasn’t departing for another 45 minutes or so.  That’s when I had an idea.  I’d just start walking, and then catch the bus when it went by.

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When you’re riding a shuttle bus on the Denali Park Road, at any point, you can ask your driver to stop and let you off.  You’re free to do whatever you want, for as long as you want, and when you’re done, you can flag down the next bus, and hop on.  The same thing goes for departing Eielson.  Sign up for the bus, and tell them you’re going to start walking.  When the bus catches up with you, flag it down.

Leaving Eielson, the road climbs slightly, and takes you around a nice curve…

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… which serves as a viewpoint for looking back on the visitor center.  Beyond that curve…

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… the road was slightly muddy, but the scenery was beautiful.  After a gloomy morning, it was turning into the most beautiful part of the day…

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… with some blue sky breaking through the clouds.  And best of all, I wasn’t stuck inside a bus, trying to take a picture out a window while moving.

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Clouds were still hanging around the mountain peaks to the south, but at least I could zoom in on them and get a good shot, without being jostled by the bus.

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I can’t believe more people don’t think of doing this.  It makes so much more sense than sitting around at Eielson, waiting for a bus.

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I had hiked about a mile when the bus finally arrived. I flagged it down and hopped aboard.

While on the bus, I took a few more pictures out the window, but it wasn’t as great.  I rode for a while…

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… but I felt like I was missing a lot.

I did have a couple of wildlife sightings while on the bus.  I’ll show them to you on the Denali Shuttle Bus Ride page.  Being on the bus for these wildlife encounters is much safer than being on foot.  Keep in mind, the driver will not allow anyone to get off the bus after a wildlife sighting, for at least (if I remember correctly) a half-mile.

I resolved to get off the bus at Polychrome Overlook.  This beautiful high-point on the road also served as a rest stop on the outbound trip, and I figured the bus would stop there once again on the return.  But, it didn’t.  Polychrome passed so quickly that I didn’t have the opportunity to ask for a stop.  And just after Polychrome, we stopped to view some wildlife. So, I was stuck on the bus for a while longer.

I was finally able to get off the bus, about two-thirds the way down the hill, approaching the East Fork River.  And let me tell you, it’s a strange thing, to step off a bus and watch it drive away.

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Almost immediately, I began questioning my decision.  As the bus grew tinier in the distance, then circled a curve and vanished, I felt more alone than ever before.   I was 23 miles from Eielson, 28 miles from pavement, and 43 miles from the Parks Highway.  The next bus wouldn’t come along for about an hour.  This was it.

Up ahead, the road continued downhill towards the East Fork river.  Behind…

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… I could still catch a glimpse of the colorful mountains visible from the Polychrome Overlook.  The weather wasn’t quite as good as it had been earlier, when I was walking.  It was cold, dreary, lonesome, and peaceful.  And there wasn’t another human in sight.

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Getting off at Polychrome would have been great for another reason: either direction I chose to hike would have been downhill.  Now, the road bottomed out at East Fork, elevation 3,061…

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… where this bridge crosses the braided creek.

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It was a beautiful spot.  I could have climbed down to the creek, but I decided to keep walking, uphill now, as the road began to climb again.

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Soon, that added elevation gave me a better view to the west, looking back at the area where I stepped off the bus.  Beyond it, beautiful Polychrome.

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I made it to the next little bridge…

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… and to a mile marker.  Now just 42 miles to the main road.

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Panoramas seemed like the best way to photograph this landscape.  However these pictures don’t do it justice.

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I made it up further, and around the next curve after that second bridge, before I heard an engine grinding, a mile away.  Just as predicted, the next shuttle bus rounded that distant curve, crossed the bridge at East Fork, and came up the hill to meet me.

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When I got on, it was quite a surprise: I was the only one on the bus, besides the driver!  I had traded in a crowded shuttle bus, filled with people who complained about me opening a window (to fight off motion sickness), for my own privately-chauferred tour of the park road!  My driver, Glenn, had been driving the park road for years, and said this was the first time, ever, that he left Eielson with an empty bus.  He was preparing for a very quiet trip back, but instead, we got to talk the whole way — and he told me some amazing stories about the wildlife he’s seen along the road.  I’ll share more of that part of the story on the Shuttle Bus page.

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