A school bus is waiting to take you on the field trip of a lifetime, in the middle of Alaska. If you want to travel deep into Denali National Park, you’ll need to prepare for a day on a bus, traveling an extraordinary road towards The Big One itself — Denali, formerly Mount McKinley. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see the mountain itself, but you’ll almost certainly have some memorable wildlife sightings.
A trip on Denali’s shuttle buses begins at the Wilderness Access Center, or WAC — a bus terminal near the entrance to the park, along the park road. You can choose from several destinations: Toklat (53 miles), Eielson (66 miles), Wonder Lake (85 miles), or Kantishna (the end of the road, 92 miles).
Only the first 15 miles of the park road is open to private vehicles. You are allowed to drive out to Savage River, and there are numerous wildlife and scenic opportunities along the way.
First off, a word of advice. This was my second trip on the Denali shuttle bus to Eielson Visitor Center — the first took place almost exactly one year earlier, in 2015. On that trip, I had better weather. On this trip, I had an exceptional brown bear sighting. I’d suggest reading that page and this one, to get a full appreciation for this wild journey. Also, you’re allowed to drive the first 15 miles of the park road in your own private vehicle — so I’ve covered that part of the park on another page.
The bus ride begins at the Wilderness Access Center. Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you’ll pass through the WAC and get in line.
On this day, I was lucky to be aboard one of the newest buses in the park’s fleet. Those are actual air conditioning vents in the ceiling! The previous year, I was aboard buses that only offered heat — and if you wanted cool air, you had to crack your window, annoying everyone behind you.
Because of the stuffy conditions and constant motion of the bus, I quickly became carsick on my first bus ride. This time, I had learned my lesson. I took some Dramamine before the ride. The added ventilation helped, too.
Around the Savage River crossing (mile 15, the end of private vehicle access), passengers noticed some caribou hanging out along the river banks. At any time during the ride, anyone can call for the bus to stop — either for a wildlife sighting, or to get on or off the bus.
And when the bus stops, everyone will try to look out of one side. You should probably try to snag a seat on the left side of the bus, behind the driver, for the outbound trip. This will put you on the south side of the bus — the side that has the most expansive views.
Teklanika River Rest Stop
The ride out to Eielson is an 8-hour round-trip, so thankfully there are a few rest stops along the way. The first one is at Teklanika. If you want to spend some time here, you could hike down to the water and explore the valley, then return to the rest area and catch the next bus. However, almost everyone seems to use the restrooms, enjoy the view briefly, then continue the trip.
Back on the road, someone called for the bus to stop. Sometimes someone thinks they see something when they really don’t — but that’s not the case here. Look very closely, at the center of the photo, and you’ll see a well-camouflaged creature sitting on a rock. I think it’s a hoary marmot. Or maybe it’s a more virtuous marmot.
One of my favorite stops along the Denali Park Road is Polychrome Pass. At 3,695 feet, it’s one of the highest spots on the park road. It also has one of the most beautiful views…
… as you look south across the valley towards Mount Pendleton. On clearer days, these mountains are amazingly colorful, but on this day, everything was grey.
Since photographic opportunities weren’t as great as they were the previous year, I used the 10-minute break to climb the short trail above the road…
… which takes you in a short loop…
… and provides some nice views — at least, as good as the views can get during cloudy weather.
Back on the bus, we stopped briefly to check out a band of Dall Sheep. These creatures (and not the mountain itself) were the reason environmentalists first pushed for national park status for Denali. Because of their bright white color, they were very easy to see, and to hunt. The population dwindled around the turn of the 20th century, until the establishment of Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 provided protection for the species.
Toklat River Rest Stop
The next stretch-your-legs opportunity is at Toklat River. You’ll find restrooms here, along with a tent run by Alaska Geographic. On rainy, windy days, it’s a dry, warm refuge, and it’s filled with nice souvenirs.
After Toklat, my bus had some of the best wildlife sightings you could hope for. First, we spotted and photographed a couple of lazy caribou, chilling on the tundra near the road. But then, a bit further…
… our bus driver hit the brakes for this guy. That’s a brown bear (the same thing as a grizzly bear), just down the hill from the side of the road.
Most of the time when you see a bear in Alaska, it’s halfway hidden in brush, but this guy was out in the open, and very easy to photograph. And then he made it even easier.
He walked right up to the road, and by the side of the bus…
… all while munching on grass. Our driver told us the brown bears in Denali are usually much smaller than the ones you’ll find in other parts of the state, because the supply of meat here is low, so they mostly eat fruits and veggies.
That bear is pretty darned close to the bus.
And then, after we all got our once-in-a-lifetime photos, the bear walked on, like it was no big deal.
Eielson Visitor Center
By the time I reached Eielson Visitor Center (66 miles out the road), I was beginning to realize that the very best part of the day was going to be the bear sighting. The weather was terrible here — for a moment, I had a view of the valley to the south, and then it disappeared in the drizzle and fog. It was far too cold and rainy to consider any hiking here (although there are a couple of nice, relatively short trails). So, I headed inside.
Eielson is perched on a mountainside (the building is partially buried, making it easier to operate in this environment). Large windows provide a view to the south, and markers on the floor show you exactly where to stand…
… if you want to see the mountain on a cloudy day. Those outlines on the glass give you some idea of where the 20,310′ peak would be, if you could actually see it. Maybe this is meant to satisfy visitors, but for me, it only added to the disappointment.
There are some interesting exhibits at Eielson, along with art produced by artists-in-residence at the park. You can also watch a movie about what it takes to climb Denali. During my visit, the theater was standing room only. Everyone was avoiding the weather. I sat on a windowsill and watched it rain.
On the 3+ hour ride back, admittedly I fell asleep for a while. The only thing that caught my attention…
… was another bear — or more likely, the same bear, still hanging out by the side of the road. He gave a lot of park visitors a thrill that day.
The Bottom Line
The Denali Park shuttle buses are an excellent way to see the park and its wildlife. If you’re prone to motion sickness, take precautions. Bring a camera with a good zoom lens, to catch great photos of wildlife along the way. If you’re lucky, you’ll have great weather, and catch some amazing views of Denali.
Here’s a time-lapse look at the drive down the first 15 miles of Denali’s park road — the only area open to private vehicles:
[su_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRKnmdCaTw4″]< video >[/su_youtube]