Touring through Denali is unlike other U.S. national parks because there is only one road, and few trails. This glorious park is well designed to preserve the park, protect the wildlife, and lighten the impact of human visitors.
Denali Park Road is 92 miles long, with only the first 15 miles open to private vehicles. Going deeper into the park requires park buses. Additionally, most of the park does not have trails; those that exist are less than five miles long and primarily near the entrance. This is to minimize maintenance in this extremely remote and unserviceable place.
There are 39 species of mammals, including caribou, moose, bear, wolves; and 169 species of birds. With over 650 plant species in an environment of forest, tundra, and glaciers, there are numerous habitats. In addition, majestic Mt. McKinley looms at 20,320 feet offering hiking, mountain climbing, and glacier exploration.
For visitors there are ecological options of courtesy, shuttle, or tour buses. Hiking is largely cross-country.
Green shuttle buses travel Denali Park Road, picking hikers up and dropping them off wherever they please. I noticed not many people did this. Alternatively, there are a few designated day trips available, or visitors can take a park bus tour. Learn more here.
One day we enjoyed a designated day trip to Wonder Lake. With views of Mt. McKinley and exquisite panoramas of the mountains and tundra, it was awesome. We did not spend as much time at the lake as hoped, because the mosquitoes were rabid.
One day we took a pre-arranged flight tour to a glacier at the top of Mt. McKinley. Spectacular! Read more here.
Several days we explored, on foot, areas we had researched, targeting wildlife and birds. We used the required green bus and boarded and de-boarded as we liked. One day the bus driver dropped us off, and as the two of us descended the bus steps he said, “Be careful, I’ve heard there are grizzlies around here today.” Off goes the bus, we are completely alone in this vast expanse, and I said, “What did he just say?”
A few hours later I had forgotten my fear about the grizzlies. We had hiked a few miles, taking photos and exploring, and then came across a delightful stream. After carrying loads of equipment, we decided to temporarily stash the scope and tripod under a bush; set the daypack down while we scouted out a picnic spot upstream.
Ten minutes later we returned to the daypack and found, disconcertingly, that it was moving. We ran at the backpack, and shouted at it. Out jumped a ground squirrel. Fortunately it was only a small mammal, and not something big enough to eat us.
One of the things I absolutely love about hiking and outdoor adventures, is that the conventions of household living are considerably looser. Here we were in the middle of 6 million acres of wilderness, no food shops for hundreds of miles. We needed lunch, but would there be any left? Fortunately, he had only eaten parts of our Fig Newton cookies. So we sat down, ate our pawed-over but uneaten lunch, including the untouched ends of the Fig Newtons.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander (except as noted)