Thursday, September 20, 2012


We had set aside three full days to explore Denali National Park (DNP). We thought a good way to begin our park exploration would be by seeing the park on the shuttle bus. DNP is huge and a paradise for backcountry explorers. The park has only one motorable road, 92 miles long. Private vehicles are not allowed beyond mile 15 but shuttle buses ferry visitors to the interior areas of the park.

Day 2 - We had booked tickets in advance for the 6:45 am shuttle bus to Wonder Lake. The journey to and back from Wonder Lake is estimated to take about 11 hours, restroom, wildlife and wilderness viewing stops included. It was going to be another long day!

We had a quick but hearty breakfast at the Subway across our hotel and headed to the park's Wilderness Access Center (WAC) to catch the shuttle bus. Our bus arrived on time and boarding began promptly. We grabbed seats on the driver's side (left hand side) of the bus for better views (a neat tip gleaned from Alaska travel forums). Once boarded, our driver - Ned, introduced himself and gave us an idea about the trip, what to expect, and do's and don'ts. The park shuttle buses reminded me of the no-frills state transport (ST) buses in India. 

At the WAC waiting  for our shuttle bus

Like most bus drivers on national park shuttle buses, Ned was extremely knowledgeable and well versed with the history, geography, flora and fauna of the park. He provided us with informational titbits throughout the trip. 

Not long after the bus started moving that sleep overcame us. It must have been a combination of the cool weather, change in schedule and being in a moving vehicle. As much as we tried, we drifted in and out off sleep, perking up every time the bus slowed or stopped for wildlife viewing. Snacking seemed to help in staying awake and warm. So we kept our mouths busy. A thermos of hot chai would have been the perfect accompaniment on this trip. Note to self for next time.

Bus drivers going in the opposite direction often paused briefly and exchanged notes on wildlife sighting info. Sometimes somebody on the bus would spot something. Our first wildlife sighting was of Dall Sheep. A group of females were high up on the cliff. Good thing we had our binoculars with us. Later we also spotted a pair of female caribou. 

Dall Sheep (male)

Inside the park - View from the bus

The scenery along the route was grand - imposing mountains and valleys, vast meadows and rivers gushing with glacial water. The park road runs parallel to the Alaska range and so these mountains were our constant companions. The one view that everybody was waiting for was that of Mt. McKinley. 'The high one' is visible from several locations on the Park Road on a clear day. Ned informed that  'a clear day' was an extremely rare occurrence. Today certainly wasn't going to be one. So when we saw only the tip of 'the high one' from one vista point, Ned asked us to take it in/capture it in as many frames as we wanted. This perhaps would be all that we saw of the mountain. We continued to see the tip of the mountain for a little bit. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it disappeared behind a shroud of clouds, never to come into view for the rest of our stay.

Partial view of Mt. McKinley
Famous Mt. McKinley vista point (alas the mountain was now completely behind clouds)

We reached Wonder Lake in the afternoon and were swarmed by mosquitoes as soon as we got off the bus. We could hardly enjoy the view as our primary focus was to fend off the mosquitoes. On the return journey, we bid Ned goodbye and decided to spend some time at the Eielson Visitor Center. We did a small hike along the trail going down from the visitor center. The weather was cold and not very conducive to hiking. We also had to plan for getting a ride on an alternate bus. The on-site bus co-ordinator put our names on the bus wait-list and we waited to be put up on a bus. On our journey back we spotted a mama bear with her two cubs. They were far away but we were excited for our first real bear sighting! :) We also spotted caribou again; a male this time, right behind our bus on the park road. We were back at the WAC by about 7:30 pm.

Male caribou on the Park Road

Although long, the bus trip was worthwhile for the wildlife sightings and the views. We learned a lot about the park just by being on the bus. I was also impressed with how well run the trips were. However, in hindsight, I think going up to Eielson Visitor Center (mile 65) would have been good enough, Vs going up to Wonder Lake. (mile 85). This would have allowed us to do some reasonable hikes near Eielson without compromising on sightseeing on the bus.

For the next three days we had reservations at the White Moose Lodge in Healy. Before heading to Healy we decided to have dinner near the DPL area due to the multitude of restaurant options. We ordered dinner at the Thai food truck opposite DPL. Yess! imagine a food truck in interior Alaska! The food was spicier than what we were used to. We also had the same experience at the restaurant in Anchorage. We made a note to ourselves to ask for the spice level to be reduced a notch if we ever ate again in an Alaskan Thai restaurant.

Post dinner, we drove to Healy and checked into our hotel. The woods surrounding the property and the lovely flowers all around the property made a good first impression on us. Our room was simple but well appointed. Once settled into our room, we decided to call it a day and slept with no plans of waking up early in the am.

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