Denali Park, AK
August 13th, 2002
Ever since we began talking about going to Alaska, those who had been there
seemed to focus on one specific thing that was a "must see". That place is the highest mountain in North America with its south peak reaching 20,320 feet. It is also the mountain with the greatest vertical relief in the world, at 18,000 feet from base to top. It is, of course, Mt. McKinley and it is in the middle of the Denali National Park. Physically, it is located on the Parks Highway about halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The main entrance is near the little town of Denali Park. Back in 1906, a packer and guide by the name of Harry Karstens was determined to create a park around the great mountain. He would be the first person to make the assent on Mt. McKinley. He and Charles Sheldon, a naturalist and conservationist would get their wish in 1917 with the creation of the Mt. McKinley National Park. From the very beginning, the park was intended to be a preserve. In 1980, Congress more
than tripled the size of the park and renamed the area Denali National Park and Preserve. As access and visitation increased along the narrow graveled park road, the National Park Service put in a bus system in 1972 to protect visitors and reduce threats to wildlife while maximizing
opportunities to view wildlife. The bus system is now the only reasonable access to the park's interior. Typical of the modern NPS, nothing is free. That is, there is a $10 a day access fee for those who have not purchased a NPS annual pass. After that, walking and biking is free. You may also drive the first 15 miles in your car at no additional cost, or take a free bus to the sled dog show. There is also a 1.5 mile walking trail around the visitor's center that is nice, but any further activities in the park will require the service of the bus system operated by the park. The price per person ranged from $17 for the 47 mile trip to $33 for the 85 mile trip. The single advantage to this is obvious. The less the people go tramping up and down the road, the closer the wildlife will come to the road. The obvious disadvantage is that you are at the mercy of the bus, which can be filled several days in advance, requiring a multi-day stay for walk-in travelers. We went to the park on the day we got in, arriving around 2:00P, only to find that there were no buses available for the rest of the day. While standing in a 25 person line, we watched as the 9:30 buses for tomorrow were taken down off the board, having been filled. We bought seats on the next available bus, which left the next day at noon. Some of those who were in line behind us ended up selecting a seat on the following day.
The next day we got off to an early start, heading out for breakfast and a box lunch. Having acquired this, we were off to the park. The green bus arrived shortly thereafter and about 25 of us got aboard for the 6 hour trip up the mountains.
It wasn't exactly a clear day but it wasn't bad with visibility being about a mile. The road was gravel but mostly clear of potholes. We maintained about 20 to 25 mph. Mike, our driver, explained that the bus service in the park is owned by Denali Park Resorts, a private company contracted by the National Park Service to provide bus transportation in the park. Over the next six hours, he would make comments about the various things we would come across. His first instruction was that when wild life was spotted by anyone in the vehicle we were to shout, "STOP" and the bus would halt for a photo op. We were cautioned that noise, that is, talking while viewing animals, was to be kept to a minimum. The logic behind this unusual requirement, considering most of the animals we would see would be somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 miles away, was that there might be a grizzly bear hiding in the bushes and he would hear us. Since hikers are taught to use their voice as a defense against aggressive bears, any bear that get used to the sound of a bunch of loud tourist might become inured to the sound. We were also instructed that should we encounter a live animal, we were to keep at least 1/4 mile between it and us. Should the animal graze or wander closer we were to back up slowly and leave. On occasions in which such animal would wander closer
than 1/4 of a mile from the bus, we would not be allowed off. The bus was a large school bus type vehicle holding some 50 people or so. We rode in flat 2 person seats with seat belts, which we were told we had to fasten due to the
law. The first 15 miles is open to public traffic, after which we passed through a checkpoint. A very young ranger got on the bus for a few minutes to welcome us to the park, and of course give us a repeat of the basic warnings. It was at this checkpoint that we got to use our very first
"STOP". Of course we were already stopped but it was fun anyway. The particular creature that created this verbal outburst was well inside the 1/4 mile limit. Actually it wasn't more
than a dozen feet away. Affectionately known by the locals as the Denali couch potato, a marmot had climbed up on the bridge we were sitting on and stretched out on the warm concrete to sun himself. In this position, seemingly oblivious to all its surroundings, he fell asleep. So much for vicious animals in the park. The checkpoint marked the beginning of the restricted area of the park and is where the gravel road starts. We proceeded through the woods and up hills for an hour or so before taking our first break. We stopped at the Teklanika River having traveled about 29 miles. It is a high vantage point with plenty of sweeping landscape. The stop was for only 10 minutes as the bus system allows a person to get off the bus and catch the next one going in the same direction providing there is space available. Soon we were pulling away from the trees and up a steady grade into low brush. There were many
sightings of Caribou. We shouted for the first several, and after that just noted them as we passed by. They were never closer
than a 1/4 mile. At one point we stopped to photograph two Dall Sheep lying high on an outcrop, a mile or so away. It took a borrowed pair of 10 power binoculars to make out the faces. Our next stop was at Polycrome overlook. The road to this place made the Going-to-the-sun road in Glacier NP seem like an expressway, and loose gravel to boot. So tight are the turns that the drivers use radios to find out if anybody is on the road ahead. If there is and both go at the same time, someone will be backing up. It was around this time that we began to notice a marked reduction in visibility. It wasn't darkness or fog, or even clouds. It was a change in the direction of the wind and a nearby very large forest fire. This condition would increase for the rest of the day and into the night. By the time we reached our destination at the Toklat River, some 65 miles from the start, low visibility had eliminated the use of a camera for anything but neighborly pictures of the group. We took 30 minutes to eat our packed lunches and were on our way back. Mike graciously wandered off into the brush a short ways to acquire the basic food for bears. The soapberry. He brought back a handful and passed them out among the willing. Yuck, small, red bitter berries. Not the stuff you would want to make a pie out of. There were more sheep and
caribou on the way back but no bears. At one point Mike stopped the bus and we could find nothing moving, near or far. "There" he pointed at the sky, "is Mt. McKinley." There was nothing there. Just gray. He then congratulated us on being in the 90 percent class for seeing the famous mountain. Most of us had settled into a quiet lull as we bounced along without making much effort to look for the critters that abound in the woods. It seemed that Mike was picking up speed a little. All of a sudden he hit the brakes and we all shouted, "STOP". The huge caribou, that had wandered down onto the road looked at us with disinterest. He neither ran nor grazed. Just stood there, staring at us staring at him. It seemed that everybody got control at the same time and the cameras came out blazing. It sounded like a Presidential Press club. The caribou did nothing. Just stood there and stared. Finally when all the film had run out we pulled away slowly. The creature never moved or looked away. Just watched us depart until we were out of sight. So we had gotten our money's worth, and it was a good time.