August 3rd…Sunday. Sunshine! A what a great day for sunshine! The previous evening I had reserved 3 seats on yet, another bus. The tan shuttle bus in Denali National Park. Scheduled for departure at 11:30 a.m. with a 6 hour un-narrated 53 mile drive into the park. We decided against taking the longer, or narrated bus that drove deep into the park with a 12 hour return schedule.
Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses just over 6 million acres of unspoiled Alaskan land; larger than the state of Massachusetts. Within the park is the mighty Mt. McKinley; the highest peak in North America. Rising 20,320 feet into the sky! The “great one”, as named by the Athabascan Indians, has now been referred to as Mt. McKinley, and as “Denali” by most Alaskan people of today. This massive eruption of mammoth rock, covered by continuous snow, low temperatures, and high winds, is also considered the most challenging to climb due to its vertical sweep from the tundra floor. A thermometer, left at 14,500 feet on the mountain, then found in 1913, untouched, registered 95 degrees below zero. “Denali”, or Mt. McKinley occupies the focal point of the region, and without question is the most impressive feature of the Alaskan Range which extends over 600 miles up from the Aleutian Islands.
With a packed lunch, 3 cameras, and an anxiousness to see the park, we hopped on the 11:30 bus which would turn around at mile 53, at a location named Toklat. No cars are allowed within the park after mile 15, so therefore the bus is the only way of travel.
We were hoping to spot wildlife, besides witnessing the beauty that this park beholds. Shortly into the bus journey, the bus driver stopped the vehicle for all us amateur photographers to capture a grizzly bear, about 100 yards to the right, intent on eating the short green bushes. The bear hardly looked up from his buffet of berries and greens, while all cameras clicked and clicked through the lowered windows of the bus. Departing the bus was a big no-no, unless we stopped at a specific rest area or destination.
Onward, to see more!
Next we reached an area of the park that only on a clear day one could spot Mt. McKinley. Today was it! Our second clear day near the mountain and with a view from about 60 miles away, we were fortunate to see the “great one”, again! The bus stopped…windows lowered….and the camera clicking began all over again!
The gravel road, which now only the park buses travel on, was narrowing. The eastbound buses had to yield to the westbound buses, letting them pass. There were no guardrails. There was only shear cliffs with drop offs just a foot or two from the edge of buses tires. Our bus driver would pause at the sharp u-turns in the road, waiting to see if another bus was coming around the same curve. Finally we made it around Polychrome Pass; approximately at 3500 feet of elevation. Before reaching our destination of Toklat, we also spotted Dall Sheep, caribou, and a fox with her young. I was so hoping to see another grizzly.
Our stop in Toklat was a brief 30 minutes which gave us an opportunity to stretch our legs, look through the viewfinder of a park telescope, and meander through the one and only seasonal structure placed there…a small book and Alaskan trinket shop.
The return trip went by rather quickly…not as many stops, and without seeing much in the way of wildlife. Our experience in Denali was somewhat brief, although fulfilling. The vast and unspoiled land of wilderness beauty offered much more than what are 6 hours could hold. Hikers obtain permits for days in the park, which would offer them a true sense of a wildlife and wilderness adventure. Since we choose not to partake in hiking, traveling through the park by way of bus, with occasional sightings of wildlife and the total beauty of tundra and the mountains, was our experience of Denali. We left there more knowledgeable of the land, and the animals we sighted, and with greater respect for the unspoiled beauty of the wilderness of Denali National Park.