When my parents came to visit me in Canada, I started researching trips within a few hours flight of Vancouver that I hadn’t already done. San Francisco – check, Las Vegas – check, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, Tofino, check, check, check, check, check. I also wanted to make sure it was going to be a trip my parents would enjoy.
Like most Australians, my family love wildlife and beautiful scenery, so Alaska seemed like the perfect option. I didn’t know much about Alaska prior to going, only that it was filled with glaciers, grizzly bears catching salmon and big mountains.
I found it difficult to research this trip in the same way I would research others because I was relying on different travel sources, given I was going to a place where twenty-something females rarely go. Tours to Alaska generally fall into the retirement age bracket. That’s not to say retirees are the only ones who should visit Alaska, I would go back in a heart beat.
So to start my research, I grabbed a copy of a Lonely Planet on Alaska. On the cover of the Lonely Planet was a picture of a blonde coloured grizzly bear standing in front of a snowcapped Mt. McKinley. In doing further reading I learnt that Mt. McKinley was part of the Denali National Park which is basically in the middle of Alaska.
It was July, we planned to arrive in Alaska in approximately 5 weeks. It was difficult to find accommodation. However I was lucky that one website, just outside the main accommodation area, had two cabins left – thank goodness! The cabins were in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness with mountain views seen from their restaurant.
What to do in Denali National Park?
While in Denali you will have a number of outdoor activities to choose from to take in the beautiful scenery. These could include:
- Sight seeing shuttle
- Visit to the dog sled kennels
- Cycle through Denali Park Road
- Learn about the park at the Visitor Centres
- White water rafting
The main road that travels through Denali Nation Park is Park Road. As there is no public access on Park Road, therefore if you would like to go through the park it is advised to choose one of the shuttle options. The shuttle buses are basically old American style school buses, painted green. There are four shuttle options through the park, leaving regularly throughout the day, opening at different times throughout the season. These shuttle options include:
- Tokolot – 6.5 hrs return. Cost is $27.00
- Eielson Visitor Centre – an 8 hr tour to the Eielson Visitor Centre and back. Cost is $34.50
- Wonder Lake – an 11 hr return journey to the picturesque Wonder Lake with views to Mt. McKinley. Cost is $47.25
- Kantishna – a 13 hr trip to Kantishna and back. Cost is $51.50
On top of the four schedule, shuttle buses there are also shuttles that drop off and pick up hikers and campers. These include:
- Discovery Hike – register in person at the Denali Visitor Centre Campus for a registered guide to lead you through the Denali Wilderness (see my notes below about the Discovery Hike)
- Camper Bus – a shuttle for those camping within the Denali National Park
Which Denali shuttle to choose?
I struggled with deciding which option. There wasn’t a lot of information to go off online and there were a few conflicting reviews. My dad and I decided on the Eielson Visitor Centre option with the logic that:
- Eight hours on a bus is plenty
- Adding a few hours doesn’t necessarily mean we will see more wildlife
- I had been leaning towards the Wonder Lake option. The half way point of the shuttle route is the Wonder Lake where on a clear day you can see Mt. McKinley in the distance. However, only 30% of visitors actually see Mt. McKinley, if it was going to be a cloudy day is it worth three hours?
How do the Denali shuttles work?
There is a driver, who will give you some history of the park, tell some interesting stories etc. However our driver made it clear that it wasn’t her job to spot the wildlife, it was ours, which is how all of the shuttles work. It is the drivers job to drive through the park, making sure passengers only leave the bus at designated areas. You could choose to stay longer in these designated areas to take in the scenery and simply catch the next shuttle to come by, should there be room.
When wildlife are spotted by passengers, the driver will stop the bus for a few minutes, giving passengers time to take a photo before continuing through the park.
So what it worth it?
It was so incredibly worth it! We took the earliest Eieslon shuttle out at 6.30am. It was an early start, however it was suggested we do this as wildlife are most active early in the morning. It paid off! Within minutes down the road we saw three moose about a hundred metres off the road, just hanging out, eating, not bothered by the big green school bus.
We continued on our journey, on the look out for the “Big Four” animals of the National Park – moose, grizzly bear, caribou and dall sheep. Shortly after, our driver stopped when she saw a grizzly bear right on the road, within a few metres from the bus. As we stood with our faces pressed up against the window taking as many photos as we could of our first grizzly bear. We then started to see movement behind the bear, a bear cub, and then another. The three of them slowly moved passed the bus within 10 metres from us, eating roots and berries as they passed us. The bear cubs then began to play as they picked up the pace and ran down the road following their mother.
Without a doubt, seeing the mother bear and two cubs within metres of us was the highlight of our trip. We continued along the road to the Eielson Visitor Centre spotting wildlife along the way capturing views of Mt. McKinley as we went. Turns out we were some of the 30% lucky enough to see Mt. McKinley! Once at the Visitor Centre we learnt more about Denali National Park, got some photos in front of Mt McKinley and continued back towards the Wilderness Access Centre where we started our journey.
At the end of our outing we tallied up the animal sightings for the day with 14 grizzly bears, two moose, half a dozen dall sheep and countless caribou. And to top it all of we saw Mt. McKinley – we really got it all!
What I heard about the Discovery hike
Along the journey back from Eielson, we picked up several hikers who had done the Discovery Hike shuttle with a private guide. They had spent four hours hiking through the forest looking for wildlife in the heat of the day, to see nothing. When we were nearing the end of the road out of the park, the hikers shrieked when they saw the top of Mt. McKinley, about a quarter of what we had seen at the Eielson Visitor Centre. They all got off for a photo while the rest of us who had been on the bus all day, stayed inside, the view was by no means worth getting out in comparison to what we had seen all day.
- Book accommodation at least six months in advance if you can, the small tourist window means that summers are very busy and book up fast.
- The small tourist window often means that seasonal services increase their rates. Less known rental car companies are encouraged to save a bit of cash.
- Bring snacks with you. Convenience stores are extremely overpriced and by no means fresh or healthy.
- I highly recommend the Eielson Shuttle. Get the earliest shuttle you can when the animals are most active early in the morning.