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"Grizzly bears, also known as brown bears (Ursus arctos), once ranged over most of  
the northern hemisphere. Over the last few hundred years the grizzly's population has been  
reduced to a few, widely scattered, and isolated populations . . . In the 48 contiguous states
the grizzly is a species threatened with extinction; fewer than 600 remain. Alaska and  
northern Canada are the grizzly bear's last stronghold. There are few places in the
world where grizzly bears are encountered more readily than Denali National Park."
~ from a Denali National Park web page about bear encounters
Grizzlies are one of the main attractions at Denali and it is one of the park's primary missions to protect and preserve them (and other wildlife).

Today I learned first-hand the extent to which the rangers protect both grizzlies and humans to prevent harm to either species. Sometimes a bear encounter disrupts visitors' plans, including bus schedules and hiking opportunities. It was a day to remember.

This is the closest I've been to a grizzly bear so far at Denali; he was digging along the side
 of the road on the return bus trip this evening.  I was in the bus, about 20 feet away.


Jim and I enjoyed different activities today. Each was a memorable adventure.

In the last entry I wrote about Jim's scenic 46-mile bike ride between our campground at the park entrance and the Teklanika River Campground.

This entry focuses on my shuttle bus ride to the Eielson Visitor Center, second alpine hike on Thorofare Ridge (snowy this time, but still with views of Denali-the-mountain), a surprise delay due to a grizzly bear in the area, and the return bus ride to the park entrance.

Early glimpse of Denali at about Mile 10 on the park road

I took almost 500 photos today and have lots of journaling (neither fact should come as a surprise!) so this will be a four-paged entry to make it easier to load the pictures. Don't worry, I'm sharing "only" about a quarter of them -- and I had trouble limiting it to that!!

Denali is just awesome in autumn, especially after an early snowfall.

If you don't have time to read all the verbiage, just scroll through the virtual photo tour and enjoy seeing vibrant fall scenes from Denali National Park in the comfort of your own home or office. The rest of the photos on this page were on the outbound ride to Eielson.


The two previous shuttle bus rides I took with a "Tek Pass" from the Teklanika River Campground (Mile 29) to Eielson (Mile 66) and Wonder Lake (Mile 85) were shorter than today's 65-mile ride from the Wilderness Access Center near the park entrance to Eielson.

That was a total of 130 miles on the bus today, for anyone who's math-challenged. The shuttle buses are similar to school buses -- padded bench seats but not all that comfortable for so long.

My bus route today is highlighted in yellow.

I didn't notice the distance as much outbound this morning when I was rested and eager as I did on the return this evening when I was more tired. I didn't fall asleep like some passengers on my bus did -- the evening light was just gorgeous on the mountainsides and I didn't want to miss anything -- but I was mighty glad when we got back to the Wilderness Access Center.

It was a long day, only partly because of the bear delay.

I can't imagine riding from the entrance to Kantishna (Mile 92) and back in one day. One hundred eighty-four miles??!! That's a lot of sensory overload as well as tiring to sit on a bus for so long, even with periodic stops to get up and walk around.

Passengers stretch their legs near the rest area along the Toklat River at Mile 53.

If you're camping inside the park it's a much better option, in my opinion, to spend a few days at the Teklanika River Campground and get the multi-day Tek Pass.

Not only is it 'way more cost-effective, the bus rides are about 56 round-trip miles shorter each day!


I got up at 6 this morning to catch my shuttle bus to Eielson Visitor Center. I had a ticket for the 7:30 AM bus. It was only 43 F. inside and 34 F. outside. Brr!!!

I drove to the Wilderness Access Center, parked the truck, and was in the building at 7 AM. By the time I went to the bathroom there were already 20-25 people in line outside, waiting for the same bus as me. Consider this a warning if you purchase a shuttle (or tour) bus ticket.

Not only was I unable to get a seat near the front on the left side -- with what I consider to be the best views outbound -- the only seats left when I got on were toward the back.

Folks with serious camera equipment like the big 'ole lens above
were closer to the front of the line -- and, consequently, front of the bus.

I decided to take the left back window seat, the same location where Jim and I sat when we went out to Wonder Lake. We could see out the side and back windows, no one was sitting behind us, and those seats were fine except for the long time it took to get off at all the stops.

That didn’t work so well today and I had a somewhat miserable time on the way to Eielson.

Above and below:  views of the gorgeous terrain and glimpses of Denali
helped to compensate for the uncomfortable ride the first couple of hours.

The main problem was the heater. It was right behind me. It was so loud I couldn’t hear all the information the bus driver was giving us. Although I have been on two bus rides in the park before, and Jim and I have driven the first 39 miles of the road in our truck, I hadn't heard any driver narrative between the entrance and the Teklanika River CG before.

Still haven't.

In addition, the folks in the back got hot while people in the front were complaining about being cold. The driver refused to turn the heater off even though we couldn’t hear, we were uncomfortably hot, and the windows stayed steamed up for many miles.

I guess the reason this wasn’t a problem on our bus rides from Tek was because the buses were already warmed up by the time they got out that far. It was also colder today.


Above and below:  two views of the Savage River at Mile 15


We could still see the lower part of Denali near the Primrose Overlook at Mile 17.

Our bus was also thirty minutes late. We didn't get rolling until after 8 AM.

Apparently something happened to the original bus because the one that came didn’t say Eielson on the front and all the windows were filthy. Drivers usually make sure the windows are clean at the beginning of the day.

Passengers continually got out to clean the outside of their windows at stops but they’d get streaked again every time we put the top window down to take clear photos. We had to keep wiping moisture off the windows, too. At least the bus driver passed around two rolls of paper towels for us to use for that purpose and there were squeegies at two of the rest areas with bathrooms.

View of colorful fall leaves across the Teklanika River at Mile 30; all the streams
are very low this time of year, which makes it easier to hike in the riverbeds.

The driver was the same woman who drove the Eielson bus I rode from Tek when I went out to do the same thing I wanted to do today – hike up the alpine trail to the top of the mountain (Thorofare Ridge) behind the visitor center. She wasn't in as good of a mood today.

Because our bus was half an hour late at the start, the driver hurried all the stops so we wouldn’t be so far behind. Instead of arriving at Eielson about 11:30 AM, we got there at 11:45. She made up fifteen minutes by limiting the photo and bathroom stops on the way out.


The park road is particularly scenic between the East Fork of the Toklat River and the Toklat itself, approximately miles 40-55. There are numerous feeder streams visible from the road, miles of snow-covered mountains in the Alaska Range to the south, and the aptly-named Polychrome Mountains next to the road on the north side.

The main differences today from my two previous rides in this section are the vivid fall colors and snow that reaches farther down the mountains:

Approaching the East Fork of the Toklat; lots of sun to the north

Lots of deep reds and yellows in this sub-arctic valley through which the forks of the Toklat flow;
it got increasingly cloudy to the south and west as we headed toward the Eielson Visitor Center.

There is a large network of streams in the valley visible along the road as it rises a couple hundred feet above the valley to Polychrome Pass.

You can see some of them in the next photo:

There was hardly any snow on these mountains two weeks ago!

Our driver stopped at the pass for about ten minutes, which was less than the last two times I was here.

I rushed to get some pictures from the road level and up the steps at a higher overlook:

I zoomed in on two glaciers in the mountains across the valley. One of them is Polychrome Glacier but I'm not sure which:


The next three photos are of the Toklat River, where there is a rest area and ranger station.

We had to be quick there, too. I got the first photo from the bus as we approached the bridge and the next two while I walked in the parking area above the riverbed:

View to the west shortly before we reached the river; there was no snow on these peaks two weeks ago.

Looking north

View to the south

Five days ago a backpacker was killed by a grizzly bear in the Toklat riverbed three miles upstream (south of) this rest area. It was the first death by a bear in Denali National Park in its modern history (the past 95 years).

I didn't hear anything about it on my bus and didn't mention it to anyone around me. I thought about it each time we crossed the river, though.

As we climbed higher between the Toklat River and Stony Pass we weren't just looking at snow on the mountains -- we were looking at snow right next to the road:


Between the snow and the clouds, I began to wonder if I'd be able to do any hiking at Eielson. The trailhead for the Alpine Trail is at about 3,800 feet elevation, not much lower than this area.


In addition to shorter stops at the usual rest areas outbound this morning, it also “helped” to save some time that we saw only four critters in 65 miles. That's rather pitiful by Denali standards and our previous rides. The driver advised us to take pictures quickly so she could continue forward to make up time.

Reminds me of Relentless Forward Motion (RFM), a term we often used in ultra-distance running.

Fortunately, all four animals were on my side of the bus so pictures were easy for me to take during our quickie stops, just marred by dirty, foggy windows.

  • We saw a grizzly bear in the distance soon after the Teklanika River:

Grizz sighting #1

  • a female moose that was fairly well hidden in the willows between Polychrome Pass and the Toklat River:

  • a hungry Arctic ground squirrel that posed for us by the side of the road before Stony Hill:

  • and a red fox that I noticed first.

“Fox at 11 o’clock,” I reported loudly as passengers are supposed to do when we spot an animal. The front of the bus is 12 o’clock, the back is 6.

We were stopped at a popular overlook at Stony Hill and everyone was looking out the other side of the bus at Denali. The mountain was partially “out” most of the way out to Eielson, to everyone’s delight.

I’ve seen Denali quite a few times so I didn’t rush over to that side of the bus to take more pictures. In addition, the view wasn't nearly as clear from this vantage point today as it was on August 9 when I got some great shots of The High One.

While I was sitting there I noticed a critter with a bushy tail walking across the road about a hundred feet in front of the bus and reported it.

To my surprise, most people forgot all about The Mountain for a couple minutes and watched as the handsome fox walked up the drainage ditch and along the entire length of the bus:


People snapped photos until he went around a bend and we couldn’t see him any longer. I got some pictures, then moved aside to let a Honduran couple and another guy to my right get some photos from "my" window.

I give the driver, who was under pressure to get us to Eielson ASAP, credit for allowing us to watch the fox until it was out of sight.

Although I couldn't hear most of what she said the whole way out to Eielson I did hear her wryly comment after the brief stop to see the Arctic ground squirrel that she wouldn't be doing that any more! I'm sure the only reason she stopped for it was because we'd seen so few animals.


The folks around me on this bus were like the ones near us on the two previous trips – courteous enough to let folks on the other side of the bus take photos out their windows.

On the return trip on a different bus I discovered not everyone plays so nicely with others.

Still some bits of remaining snow on the road as we approach the 
Eielson Visitor Center;  Denali is partly under clouds to the far right.

I enjoyed talking with the passengers around me going outbound.

The couple in front of me from Minnesota had all sorts of questions about living in our RV most of the time. I was happy to share information with them about the logistics of extended-travel or full-timing in a camper.

A 40-something Honduran couple was also very nice, although we didn’t talk a lot.

The other three folks in the back seats were young Australians who are working at Banff for two years on a work visa. It was interesting to hear the differences in trying to obtain a work visa in Canada vs. the U.S. (almost impossible in the U.S., easy in Canada). I also had interesting conversations with several folks while we were waiting patiently in line to board the bus this morning.

View to the mountains south of the visitor center; note the people walking on the lower loop trail.

The ride “home” would have been nicer if I’d been on the same bus with these people but I’m glad I was able to get off for a few hours to hike.

That almost didn’t happen.

Continued on the next page -- the Eielson Alpine Hike with snow on the trail and Thorofare Ridge

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil