Denali Road Guide - Alaska Scenic Byway
One wonderful option for seeing Denail is to ride the Park Shuttle Bus!
Park shuttle buses leave throughout the day from the Visitor Center, near the park entrance. You may take the 8-hour round-trip excursion to Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles into the park, or the 11-hour round-trip ride to Wonder Lake, 86 miles into the park. Limited bus seats are available in advance by phone reservation. Call 800-622-7275 to tell the operator which trip you are interested in taking. Reservations can also be made in person at the Visitor Center, which is open daily from 7 a.m. - 6 p.m. These tickets will be issued up to two days in advance. There is a reservation fee of $4 for all tickets, in addition to the entrance fee. Throughout the summer, demand for shuttle seats is quite high, so be prepared to enjoy activities in the park entrance area for a day or two before venturing farther west. Note that people westbound from Savage and Teklanika campgrounds must have a ticket to get on the shuttle bus.
Although parking is limited at the Visitor Center, there is a satellite lot at Riley Creek Campground. A free mini-shuttle will transport you from the campground to the Visitor Center where you will pick up your shuttle bus to Eielson or Wonder Lake. Be sure to bring the following items along with you, making sure that they will fit beneath your seat: lunch and a drink; warm jacket, hat, and raingear; camera; binoculars; insect repellent; and walking shoes.
During your trip, the bus driver will stop for wildlife viewing when conditions are safe. While observing the animals, stay quiet so that they may continue their activities undisturbed. Bus drivers do not give guide tours; however, they are very knowledgeable about the area and can answer your questions concerning the park's cultural and natural history.
The park road runs through some of the richest wildlife habitat in Denali. Riding on a shuttle bus enhances your chances of spotting wildlife, since there are many pairs of alert eyes concentrating on the landscape rather than just your own. Keep in mind that the more time you spend in the park, the better your chances for seeing animals.
Feel free to get off the bus and explore at your own pace. If a few buses pass you by, don't panic! Eventually, one with available seats will stop for you. Remember, the more you explore, the higher your reward.
The following guide is based on a 47-page book called The Denali Road Guide, by Kim Heacox, available through the Alaska Natural History Association. Since Denali's animals are wild, they may not always be found in the places indicated by this guide. If you stay alert during the entire trip, you will be more likely to find both the commonly seen animals mentioned below, as well as more elusive ones like wolverines, lynx, and unusual birds. Hopefully this description of the road will give you an indication of what awaits you during a journey through Denali!
Park Headquarters to Savage River - Erratics: Two huge boulders near the top of the long, sloping ridge south of Park Headquarters. These erratics were carried there by glacial ice and deposited when the ice retreated. Taiga: You will be traveling through the taiga—a circumpolar boreal forest. Moose raise their calves in the shelter of these white and black spruce trees. Taiga/Tundra Ecotone: Gaining elevation, you enter a transitional zone between the taiga and the tundra. Here, spruce give place to dwarf willows, and caribou become more common than moose. Denali (Mt. McKinley): At mile 9.4 look to the southwest where, if the day is clear, you may catch a glimpse of Denali framed by Double and Sable Mountains. From this point Mt. McKinley is about 70 air miles away.
Savage River to Teklanika River - Savage River Bridge: Beyond this point, road travel is restricted to protect wildlife and habitat from the pressures of unlimited traffic. You will notice a smooth, U-shaped valley to the south through which the river runs. This riverbed was carved by a glacier that advanced no farther than the bridge. On the north side, the river runs through a sharp, V-shaped canyon carved by water without the help of ice. Caribou: Along the Sanctuary Flats, you may catch a glimpse of caribou passing through as they migrate north from calving grounds in the Alaska Range. Drunken Forest: After crossing the Sanctuary River, the road climbs, offering a view to the south of taiga trees leaning at all angles. The "drunken" effect is caused by the sliding of water-saturated soil, which pulls the poorly rooted trees downhill. Teklanika River: Rivers carrying glacial outwash typically run in several channels rather than in the deep, single bed of a meandering river. Since the various channels weave back and forth across the U-shaped valleys, they are known as braided rivers.
Igloo Creek to East Fork Bridge - Dall Sheep: After you cross the Teklanika Bridge, Igloo Mountain will be seen on the right and Cathedral Mountain on the left. Often, bands of Dall sheep can be spotted on the slopes of both of these mountains. Without binoculars, they usually appear as small white dots. Grizzly Bears: The Sable Pass Critical Wildlife Habitat Closure consists of five miles of prime grizzly habitat which, except for the road, is closed to humans. Denali's grizzlies tend to have very light colored coats and weigh an average of 200-400 lbs.
Polychrome Pass to Divide Mountain - Wolves: Although wolf sightings are rare, some visitors are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of these shy and intelligent predators. Denali is one of the few places in the world where wild wolves and their prey interact without human interference. Kettle Ponds: Scattered across the Plains of Murie, below the Polychrome Rest Stop, you will see small ponds formed by large blocks of ice deposited when the glaciers receded. Toklat Bridge: Below Polychrome Pass, the Toklat River forks around the flanks of Divide Mountain.
Toklat River to Eielson Visitor Center - Highway Pass: At 3,980 feet above sea level, this is the highest point on the park road. Stony Overlook: On a clear day, Denali, only 36 air miles away, rises above the Alaska Range. Eielson Visitor Center: Named after Alaska's pioneering aviator, Carl Ben Eielson, this facility has restrooms, water, a bookstore, and exhibits. The view of Denali and the Alaska Range is spectacular when the clouds lift.
Eielson to Wonder Lake - Muldrow Glacier: Visible from Eielson Visitor Center, this glacier winds 32 miles down from the heights of Denali. Rock and sediment have provided a surface on which plants can grow, disguising the ice as hummocky tundra. Beaver: From the road, you can see beaver lodges and dams on the numerous tundra ponds. Waterfowl: Watch especially for various species of waterfowl, which raise their young in the wet tundra near the ponds. Wonder Lake: 4 miles long and 280 feet deep, Wonder Lake is home to loons, grebes, and mergansers.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication