Shuttle Bus Ride Through Denali National Park
This post is about a very long bus ride…eleven hours to be precise. While that may sound like cruel and unusual punishment, it was actually pretty outstanding. If you have no interest in reading about an all-day bus ride, we promise there are plenty of pictures of you continue scrolling (and we know you like pictures more than words anyway).
Denali National Park is massive. Since the park is the size of Massachusetts and public vehicles are only allowed to drive 15 miles beyond the park entrance, the only way to truly experience Denali is to take a tour or shuttle bus into the park and explore from there. The tour buses are intended to be more informational and are guided by a naturalist on board. The shuttle buses, which are really just green school buses, are a more bare bones means of transportation within the park and allow riders to hop on or off anywhere they choose. We decided on a shuttle bus mostly since it was by far the cheapest option ($46.75/person) and guided tours just aren’t our bag. Despite not being an official tour, the bus stopped every time someone spotted an animal and the driver, while not a naturalist, still managed to narrate the entire 11 hours. We rode the bus from the Savage River Campground at mile 13 via the Park Road to Wonder Lake at mile 85 and back.
Views of Denali
They say that only about one third of visitors ever get to see the mountain, and quite frankly, missing out on that view would be a let-down of epic proportions. I couldn’t imagine flying across the country to visit a park whose primary attraction is a huge mountain, and then leave without ever having seen said mountain. Somehow we managed to have three perfectly clear days in the park and everyone we spoke with was raving about how these were the best views all year. At the beginning of the drive, the top of the mountain can be seen peeking over the tops of some of the smaller nearby foothills. Denali disappears for the next couple of hours but by the time you arrive at Stony Hill Overlook the views are mind-blowing. Between Eielson and Wonder Lake, you have completely unobstructed panoramic views of the entire Alaska Range.
The bus drivers in Denali try to stop every time somone spots an animal. In our case, our driver had a strange obsession with squirrels (and porcupines…long story) which we would have been perfectly fine with bypassing. In terms of quantity, we didn’t see quite as much wildlife as we had been expecting. While it differed from parks like Yellowstone where herds of large animals are fairly ubiquitous, the intermittent sightings were amazing. What was lacking in quantity was more than made up for in quality. Let’s review:
- Caribou – Probably 10-15 or so. Some were very close to the road.
- Moose – Four. Three of them were right next to the road.
- Grizzly Bears – Mother and two cubs about 100 yards away
- Dall Sheep – 20+. They were all way up on the ridges and you needed binoculars otherwise they just looked like golf balls.
- Wolf – One. This was extremely lucky since only about 3% of park visitors get to see a wolf. They used to be much more common.
That’s not a bad haul and by no means were we disappointed. We saw at least one of every animal we hoped to see so it’s hard to complain about that (a few more grizzlies wouldn’t have hurt though).
Since you can’t drive beyond mile 15 in a private vehicle, buses are the best way to see as much of the park as possible in a day. If you don’t feel the need to pay a premium for a naturalist, then the green shuttle buses will do just fine. Also, if eleven hours seems too long, you don’t have to buy a ticket all the way out to Wonder Lake. We would certainly recommend going all the way to Wonder Lake, but if not, you should at least go to Eielson Visitor Center otherwise you’ll miss out on the best views. While we treated the shuttle as a glorified North American safari, you can also just use it to get dropped off anywhere you want in the park. Since there aren’t many marked trails in Denali, many hikers have the shuttles drop them off on the side of the road and they hike out into the vast Denali backcountry from there. Just make sure to pack a lunch because food isn’t provided and you can’t buy food anywhere beyond the park entrance. If you have a few days in Denali, taking a ride on the bus should definitely be how you spend one of those days.
Next Stop: The Denali Highway