ALASKA Denali NATIONAL PARKS Wildlife

THE LOST ALASKA FILES | Denali National Park – Camper Bus to Wonder Lake

June 9, 2014

I have been meaning to ‘get around’ to finally posting a crapload of trip photos for, well, years – literally years, but, well, I have a habit of taking more photos on a single trip than a person does in their entire life span so they usually fall into the “I’ll get to it eventually” list. Needless to say there’s a lot on that list. And if you are OCD like me then you know that silly lists with unfinished things on them are exactly the stuff that keeps you up at night.

So forgive the onslaught of years-old photography-laden posts with what will most likely be very useless actual travel information. We have a few summer trips planned and I’m *hoping* I can cross a few of these older trips off my list so I can focus on one day posting in real-time. Fingers crossed anyway.


When we last left off on our Alaska travels years ago, we had already slept in an airport full of stuffed animals,  hiked through Alaska’s oldest national park, crossed a stream teaming with fish on our way to the raptor center, explored downtown Sitka, ate the best King Crab ever, slept in a cabin by a shrine, camped beside a glacier (and saw a bear!), took a death-defying puddle jumper to Gustavus and hiked to one of my most favorite places in the world, hopped on a  boat and spotted whales, seal, puffins, eagles, moose, bear, and calving glaciers,ate hands down one of the most memorable meals of our lives, got trapped in an airport for hours, then took a road trip up around the Kenai Peninsula, paddled down the Moose River (and saw a moose!), hunted for blueberries and stayed in a haunted hotel, and hiked up to Exit Glacier before making camp at Denali National Park.

By this point in the trip our heads were exploding with everything we had seen, tasted, and experienced, but that was only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Because we had just arrived at Denali National Park, a park so notorious that adventure wear companies name products after it.

A quick explanation of how to get around the park as this was something the confused me tremendously (I’m easily confused) prior to experiencing it myself: you are allowed to drive to a certain point within Denali with your own vehicle. After that point, you must see the park either by hiking, biking or via the bus. There are two buses that go inside the park — the camper bus and the regular bus, as well as smaller shuttles that take you around to campsites and spots near the entrance of the park. The buses have slightly different schedules and from what I recall, different pick-up points, but the camper bus has room in the back for gear, whereas the regular bus does not. I’ll explain a bit more about this in the details section, but for now, a few pix:

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If these photos look totally fake it’s because, well, Alaska looks totally fake. We were there at the end of August/beginning of September and already the leaves were changing, creating the most beautiful palette of oranges, reds, and golds to contrast the bright blue sky and powdery white snow-covered mountains. It was a total technicolor dream come to life.

We took the first camper bus which left around 6:15 am (check the schedule, this may have changed). Waiting in the parking lot with a small group of people we quickly realized we were the only ones with just a tiny tiny backpack and an equally small collapsible duffel of food. Everyone eyed each other curiously — some people had what was obviously brand new gear bought just for this trip while others had large rolling suitcases, the latter of which confused us. As expected, when the camper bus arrived there was a mad scramble for seats and some frenzy over luggage placement proving that even in the beauty of Denali the triviality of the modern world can still exist.

But I digress.

The way the bus works–both camper and regular–is that you can get on and off at any point. So if you want to take a day hike, you just tell the driver the mile marker where you plan to stop, get off, do your hike, then flag down another (green) bus when you want to go back. If the bus has seats, you can jump on. While on the bus, the driver does his/her best to stop the bus whenever s/he spots wildlife, but everyone on the bus is told to keep their eyes peeled and yell “STOP” whenever they see something.

We had the luck of traveling with a well-seasoned photographer — we knew this because he had the biggest and fanciest lens on board — who was masterful at spotting just the slightest flutter of color in the trees. The driver would be driving along at normal speed and then we would hear “STOP.” Then look…and look…and look…and then like a zillion miles off in the distance we would spot three tiny brown dots that, when viewed through high-powered binoculars, turned out to be grizzlies. It was amazing what that guy could spot in a flash of a second.

His best find was undoubtedly the Lynx. Once again he yelled “STOP.” We looked. Nothing. Then, “No, go back. Just a little more. A little more…a little more…STOP.” And holy crap he was right. It was a lynx already with his white winter coat, staring at us on a rock. Wild cats tend to be elusive and hard to find out in their real habitats, so spotting one of these was a total gift. We referred to him as our magical lynx and took at as a sign of good luck.

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After spotting the lynx, everyone on the bus was absolutely elated, and there was a new found sense of camaraderie as everyone shared binoculars and careful glances through fancy telescopic lenses. We saw tons of animals — lots of grizzlies, all kinds of awesome birds (which sadly most people seem to not care about), moose, Dall sheep, and mountain goats.

We also saw the most elusive animal of all — Denali, also known as Mt. McKinley — and became official members of the “30% club.” Apparently Mt. McKinley is covered in clouds 70% of the time, leaving just a 30% chance of seeing the top. It can be sunny near the entrance of the park but cloudy over the mountains and vice versa. For us, it started off as a pretty cloudy day so we thought we would most likely fall into the 70% club. I guess we got lucky again (told you the lynx was lucky) because wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. And holy crap was it ever a tall mountain. It’s hard to truly gauge its size from photos alone but in real life it’s massive presence is just overwhelming and, for lack of a better word, awesome.

It takes about 11 hrs RT to get to Wonder Lake and back, but the trip goes by quicker than you’d imagine. Denali is teeming with wildlife so much of the time is spent with jaws dropped, snapping photos. In addition to any stragglers that are picked up on the side of the road, the bus makes three scheduled stops to a couple vista points/rest stop/book stores and the Eilson Visitor’s Center on its way to Wonder Lake where it turns around and loops back to the park’s main entrance. We got off at the Wonder Lake turnaround point, grabbed what little baggage we had, and headed off into the wilderness to set up camp.

DETAILS

  • There are several ways to explore Denali National Park — by the shuttle bus, either camper or regular, tour bus (narrated tour options)– or by independently operated tours, like the one that takes you to Kantishna Wilderness Lodge (too rich for our blood). Either way, you cannot drive your car into the park past mile 15 unless you have a special permit. There is still plenty to see in that stretch of 15 miles and they say that you can potentially view Mt. McKinley at mile 9. On the day we went there was a bit of cloud cover so there was no way we would have been able to see much of anything had we not taken the bus further into the park. For more info on all the various and confusing bus options, click here.
  • We chose to take the camper (shuttle) bus which was a camper bus that left early in the morning. I suppose you could take any bus at any time if you didn’t have too much stuff. Whatever bus you take just try to get the earliest one possible to avoid the crowds.
  • It is recommended that you book your bus tickets online. The fee seems rather steep but included the park entrance fee. Since we were camping in Wonder Lake AND had an America the Beautiful Pass, we bought the tickets online, then took them to the gift shop at Riley Campground where we purchased our backcountry camping pass and were refunded the national park entrance fee.
  • On the park website it states that shuttle bus drivers don’t necessarily give you a tour of the park in the same way that a narrated tour option would however we found our bus drivers to be extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the park and the wildlife. They were chock-full of information and loved sharing it. I’m sure the narrated tours are more focused and in-depth but the ‘regular’ shuttle buses that we were on were extremely informative and interactive.
  • Bikes can be taken on the camper bus if you call ahead.
  • If you are planning on staying at Wonder Lake or Teklanika campgrounds, book your campground BEFORE booking your shuttle ticket. Otherwise you may be on a bus going to a site that does not have availability.
  • If you get off the bus to take a hike etc, to get back to the park entrance just stand by a mile marker and wave down any green shuttle bus. If the bus has room (in our case we never left a hiker behind) it will pick you up. Otherwise you will have to wait for the next bus to come by to see if it has room. If you’re staying at Wonder Lake for a couple of days, all you have to do is consult the bus schedule (also posted at the bus stop/pickup/dropoff point at Wonder Lake) and catch any bus going back. Again, the bus we caught back was full, but still had room for us. The buses generally stop at the campground for a bit and turn around at this point so it’s not like you have to run after and try and catch a bus like in the city.
  • I highly recommend getting off the bus and hiking or backpacking. The backcountry is astoundingly amazing with hardly a soul in sight. I rarely saw anyone get off the bus so if you are willing, the park is yours.
  • Tip: pack the biggest zoom lens you have and a pair of binoculars. There’s lots of wildlife but most of it is very far away. Occasionally a bear or sheep will wander in front of the bus and everyone will go nuts, but I think is less common than seeing a bear munching berries way off in the distance. Pack a lunch and eat at the Eilson Visitor’s Center. If you’re lucky, this is the perfect spot to see Mt. McKinley.
  • This information was correct at the time we visited and reflects our experiences at Denali. As always, please check the park website for the most updated information.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Archana Sapkota August 25, 2016 at 12:47 am

    Thank you so much! I am planning a trip there next week and all the shuttle buses and tour buses were booked already. I wasn’t sure if I could hop on-hop off a camper bus for some day hikes if I had a camping reservation at Wonder Lake. Your post was very helpful in planning my trip.

    • Reply veronika August 25, 2016 at 8:56 am

      Hi! I’m glad someone finds my blog posts useful! Haha. If I remember correctly, they hold some of the bus spaces for walk-ins up until 2 days before the scheduled bus departure. In other words, if you weren’t able to get reservations, try to get them in person 2 days before you plan on taking the bus. I have also found that calling a park reservation’s center seems to yield better results than online. For example, every time we have stayed at Shenandoah National Park the reservation system said everything was booked. But when we called, they had quite a few rooms available. Maybe the same holds true for Denali shuttle buses? Worth a try!

      Have a great trip – Denali is so beautiful!

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