Oh my, did Jim and I build some lasting memories today on our first
shuttle bus ride through the park from our campground at Teklanika River
(Mile 29 on the park road) to Wonder Lake (Mile 85)!
mentioned previously that the park road is paved only to Mile 15 at Savage
River. The rest of it, all the way out to Kantishna at Mile 92, is dirt
-- nice, smooth dirt because so little traffic is
allowed on it and park personnel keep it well-maintained.
You can see the road on the map below. I copied the map from the
webpage above. The red line is the paved portion. The blue line is dirt:
During the summer season -- roughly late May through early September,
depending on snow levels -- private vehicles are permitted to drive only
the first 15 miles to Savage River.
About the only exception is campers who may drive their RVs to the Teklanika
River Campground at Mile 29. Once they are there,
they have to stay a minimum of three nights and cannot move their
vehicles anywhere until the end of their stay.
In 1986 a park management plan instituted strict limits on the number
of vehicles on the park road in an effort to minimize impacts to the
environment, including wildlife, from an upsurge in traffic and
visitation in the park.
Some visitors may find this to be a source of irritation. However, the
restrictions on the use of the park road are testament to the wilderness
preservation spirit that resides here. Inherent in the park's existence
is the challenge of balancing access to this wilderness landscape with
its preservation for the future.
Most national parks have this problem. Each one deals with it in some
manner to protect what it is that people come to see or experience. The whole
wilderness experience can be ruined by too many people loving the land at will
so some limitations are inevitable.
"Wilderness is a resource
which can shrink but not grow . . ."
~ Aldo Leopold,
So how does one explore the rest of Denali National Park?
On foot, bicycle, or one of several kinds of buses. Although bikes
are limited to park and campground roads, you can ride all the way out
to Kantishna at 92 miles if you want. And visitors are encouraged to
explore the park on foot either on or off-trail. Not many parks
encourage you to hike just about anywhere you want in the wilderness!
Denali is different.
I'll try to
explain the bus system on this page, including the very handy Tek Pass.
For more detailed information and prices, see the park's
website and call the park if you have more questions than you can
find answers for.
We had more questions about the
buses after we arrived in the park so we visited
the Wilderness Access Center a
couple of times while we were camped near the entrance.
You can order tickets in advance online or by phone or, once you're
in the park, you can get additional information and tickets at the
Wilderness Access Center about a mile inside the entrance.
The advantage of ordering tickets in advance is getting the type of
bus you want for the time and destination you want. The disadvantages
are possible changes to your itinerary (there's a fee to change or
cancel your reservation) and not being able to predict the
weather for that day.
Heading out on our first shuttle
bus ride with about three dozen other passengers
Hint: in the mountains, it's hard to predict the weather even
24 hours in advance and history has shown that Mt. McKinley AKA Denali
is more often obscured by clouds than not.
We ordered our Tek Passes by phone the first day (December 1) that we
could make campground reservations for this summer. We would have waited
for the tickets if we could, but we were advised by park staff to make
our bus reservations at the same time we made the Tek Campground
View of Denali from the Eielson
Visitor Center this morning -- it doesn't get much clearer than this.
Yeah, we're anal about some things! We totally lucked out, though, with
a near-perfect weather day today (the morning, at least) for our first shuttle bus ride.
How likely is that eight months in advance??
In the upcoming Eielson entry I'll show you graphically just how few
days Mt. McKinley AKA Denali is fully visible from the visitor center.
Our bus driver told us repeatedly how fortunate we were to see Denali
clearly today from several vantage points.
TYPES OF BUSES
There are two main types of buses that take visitors to the far
reaches of the park -- shuttle buses and tour buses. There are
several types of each.
In addition, there are free courtesy buses, Discovery Hike buses, and
"partner association" buses.
Sounds like a lot of buses on the park road, but they're usually
spread out and they drive very slowly past bicycles and hikers. It's
certainly preferable to passenger vehicles using the road past 15 miles.
Before making a reservation for any type of bus trip
into the park, find out how many hours it usually takes from your
starting point and back.
happen to make the rides even longer. In addition to obvious glitches
like mechanical breakdowns and sudden weather problems, other things may
also occur in the wilderness that you'd never expect to upset the
Since I'm writing this entry months after being at the
park I can relate that I had a two-hour delay getting a return bus on our
second trip to Denali in late August/early September because a
grizzly bear was roaming close to the Eielson Visitor Center. Rangers
watched him forage but didn't do anything to encourage him to move along.
In an abundance of caution they kept all guests already there either
inside the visitor center or in their buses until the bear finally
wandered far enough away to be safe for visitors to walk to and from
their buses -- and even then we had to go in small, escorted groups
in case the grizz came back.
Other buses approaching the area during that time had to
either bypass the visitor center entirely or keep all their passengers
on board until the bear moved on.
I was glad to be inside the visitor center and not stuck
on a bus in the parking lot for two hours.
From an interpretive panel at the
main Denali Visitor Center
Bears rule at Denali. Humans adapt. This is a great example of the
wilderness spirit that prevails here.
Shuttle bus trips from the Wilderness
Access Center, where most people board their buses, typically take from
6½ hours (Toklat River) to 12 hours (Kantishna).
Some other types of trips are shorter, including those beginning and
ending at the Teklanika River Campground (more about that option later) .
If you can take more than one bus trip while in the
park, it might be a good idea to take a shorter one first to see how
long you're able to both physically and mentally tolerate the trip.
Half the people on our Wonder Lake bus, which turned
around at Mile 85, were dozing off or sound asleep after we left Eielson
Visitor Center at Mile 66 on the way back! Most woke up when wildlife
was spotted but they missed the different views and lighting in the late
Colors in the Polychrome area
were softer in the late afternoon light on our return.
We based our destination decision on how long we thought
Cody (our mature Labrador retriever) could stay alone in the camper
rather than the length of time we thought we could tolerate riding a
bus. We chose Kantishna but we were starting at Mile 29 at our campground at
Teklanika River, not the Wilderness Access Center at Mile 1.
Out and back to Kantishna from the entrance area takes
about 12 hours. We wouldn't have chosen that option if we had 56 more
miles to ride than we did. One hundred eighty-two miles and 12 hours on
a bus . . . that's too much for us, even with stops every one or
I'll explain in the next entry why we
decided to shorten it even more by turning around at Wonder Lake at Mile
85 instead of Kantishna -- it wasn't just the distance.
A preview of Wonder Lake
And no, neither of us dozed off on our 112-mile trip today. We
wanted to get our money's worth and didn't want to miss anything!
A. SHUTTLE BUSES
Green shuttle buses are less expensive and more versatile than the
tan tour buses. Passengers may get off the shuttle bus they originally reserved virtually
anywhere along the park road and re-board later shuttle buses on a space
available basis with a ticket for that day.
This feature allows you to spend time hiking somewhere, for example, or
riding your mountain bike farther back the park road. All you have to do
is let the bus driver know where you want out.
Note of warning: know when the last buses will be coming
back that way. Don't wait for the very last one or you may end up
spending an unexpected night in the wilderness if it is full!
There were three types of buses
at Toklat River this morning when we were there --
the red and white Kantishna
Roadhouse bus, several green shuttle buses,
and some tan tour buses.
Yes, there are a lot of bathrooms!
Shuttle bus drivers stop for wildlife and beautiful scenery (like
great views of Denali) so passengers can take photos. They also stop
every hour or two for bathroom breaks at major rest areas like Teklanika
River, Toklat River, the Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake, and
Although shuttle bus trips are not formally narrated, bus drivers
usually point out major landmarks and answer questions. Some are more
personable and loquacious than others -- they're the ones who
get the largest tips!
Drivers also encourage passengers to announce the location of wildlife
(e.g., "caribou at three o'clock") so other visitors can see and photograph
them, too. Usually the stops are just a few minutes each, but our driver
stopped for at least ten minutes outbound this morning to observe a
blond-colored grizzly bear foraging near a creek about a hundred yards from the
This is why many tourists in Alaska have digital
SLR cameras with long zoom lenses --
that's about as good as I could get with my
16-megapixel, 16x zoom compact Sony.
The bear is the teeny white dot under the arrow. I
didn't zoom in on that picture.
Our driver could see several tan tour buses ahead of us (photo above) that were stopped
along the road to watch the bear. Drivers communicate with each other
when they spot wildlife or have other information to share.
To confuse matters, there are at least two types of green shuttle buses.
Fortunately, all of them have signs in front that say where they're going:
1. The majority of the green shuttle buses go out as far as Kantishna
at Mile 92. Fares are dependent on the turn-around destination you
choose. There are four options this summer -- Toklat
(TOK-lat) River at Mile 53, Eielson (ILE-son) Visitor Center at Mile 66,
Wonder Lake at Mile 85, and Kantishna (can-TISH-na) at Mile 92.
The Eielson buses are the most popular option with tourists for
several reasons, including time, cost, visitor center features, hiking
opportunities, and the superlative views of Denali on a clear day.
Current adult single fares range from $26.75 to Toklat to $50 to
Kantishna. Young adults age 15-17 are half price and youth 14 and
under are free. Tek Passes to any of these destinations are the most
economical option but there are caveats. I'll explain about them in
a little bit.
A green shuttle bus loads or unloads passengers at the
Wilderness Access Center.
Camper buses are primarily used by backpackers for access to
backcountry camping units or folks staying in tents in the Sanctuary, Teklanika,
Igloo, or Wonder Lake campgrounds. Camper buses are designed with
extra space for packs and bikes but backpackers,
tent campers, and cyclists can use any shuttle bus that
has enough space available for their gear.
Passengers on shuttle buses must take their own food and beverages on
these trips. You can get water at some of the stops, but not food or
soft drinks, coffee, etc.
B. TOUR BUSES
This is the second most-frequently seen type of bus in Denali.
Like shuttle buses, tan-colored tour buses stop for scenic
views, wildlife, and bathroom breaks. The main differences are
that they are fully narrated by an interpretive naturalist, they
include a snack or lunch and beverages . . . and
therefore they cost more.
Tour bus passengers also do not have the option of
getting off one bus to take a hike and get back on another bus.
Tour and shuttle bus tickets can be purchased online, by
phone, or at the Wilderness Access Center.
There are three different tours offered this summer:
1. Natural history tour to Primrose Ridge at Mile 17;
that one takes about five hours.
2. Tundra Wilderness Tour to the Toklat River at Mile 53;
length of tour = 7 to 8 hours.
3. Kantishna Experience to the historic gold mining area at Mile
92; includes a short walk and talk and takes about 12
C. COURTESY BUSES
These are free shuttles to access various places in the park
entrance area (Denali Visitor Center, Wilderness Access Center,
Murie Science Center, Riley Creek Mercantile, the railroad
depot, trailheads, etc.). The buses also carry passengers for
free to the Mountain Vista trail loop at Mile 13 of the park
road and the Savage River trails at Mile 15.
Courtesy bus stop for the sled dog demos
These buses are handy if you either don't want to drive your own
vehicle to these places or you are visiting the park without a
vehicle, such as folks who arrive by train or a Princess tour bus.
There are also several free buses dedicated to taking visitors
to the dog sled demonstrations three times a day. Boarding is at
the Denali Visitor Center 40 minutes before each demo.
D. DISCOVERY HIKES ON SHUTTLE BUSES
Rangers offer various types of guided hikes in the park.
There are free interpretive walks/talks every day from the
Denali Visitor Center and the Eielson Visitor Center.
Descriptions of these hikes say they
range from short, easy loops to longer, more challenging
explorations on uneven terrain, through streams and dense
vegetation, up and down mountains, etc.
On my Denali bucket list: hiking the alpine
ridge north of the Eielson Visitor Center
We learned today that the Eielson hike to the alpine ridge above
the visitor center begins about noon and is limited in size. I
think hikers must sign up when they arrive at Eielson, so they
have to carefully choose which shuttle bus to take to arrive in
time, then hustle inside quickly to get on the list.
Discovery Hikes require a bus ticket to the area where the hike
is held and they are limited to 11 people each. All hikers must
sign up in person one or two days in advance and be prepared for
a challenging hike off-trail in unpredictable weather.
Information about the hikes can be found at the main Denali
visitor center near the park entrance.
E. PARTNER ASSOCIATION BUSES
Alaska Geographic operates a science-based tour called
Experience Denali that includes a bus trip to Savage River. Some
other bus operators like the Kantishna Roadhouse, a private
lodge at the end of the park road, are also allowed to drive the
length of the park road.
These bus passes are one of the best deals at Denali National
Park. We learned about them while reading the park
camping at Teklanika River Campground at Mile 29 on the park road.
Only folks who are camped at Tek can purchase these tickets.
It's one reason we decided to spend four nights there. That gave
us the opportunity to take up to three, day-long rides farther
back the park road -- for the price of just one ticket
each. You can do that from the park entrance but you'd have to
pay three times as much.
We purchased our Tek Passes when we made our campground reservations.
I'm not sure if that is the only time you can buy them or if you
just have to have proof of your campground reservation and can
buy bus tickets later. I recommend getting one for each person
in your party at the time you reserve your site, however, in
order to get your first choice of shuttle bus time and destination.
Here's the drill. You make just one shuttle bus reservation for each person,
preferably for the first full day you're at Tek, and then you
can ride any available shuttle bus each of the subsequent days
you're at Tek. Depending on how long you're camped at Tek, it's
a very economical way to see the park.
We're here four nights and already wish we'd made it a longer
stay. Our first full day is today, so that's when we reserved
our bus seats. We'll go out again at least one more of the
remaining two full days we are at Tek.
Our very own little bus stop at Tek CG
The first bus you reserve is guaranteed to have a seat for you
when it gets to Tek at Mile 29 (most people board at the
Wilderness Access Center near the park entrance.)
On subsequent trips you may have to wait for one or two buses to
your intended destination in order to board. Although all buses
start with four empty seats to accommodate park employees and
visitors getting on after the entrance area, the first bus that
comes along that's going to the destination you choose may not
have a seat for you or enough for your whole group. There are a
lot of buses running during the full season and even the
"shoulder seasons" so you'll get on one eventually.
The Tek Pass is designed for visitors to explore farther back in
the park from Mile 29 to 92. You cannot use it to go anywhere
from Mile 29 back toward the entrance area. If you do, you'll be
denied entry to a bus going back to your campsite at Tek unless
you purchase a new ticket.
Our site at Tek
For some people the biggest downside to staying at Tek is that you are pretty
much forced to stay out there (or beyond) for the entire length
of your campground reservation. That wasn't a problem for us
since we were well aware of the rules when we chose to camp
there. In fact, we liked the isolation and the opportunity to
explore the park by bus and bike from that location.
Another advantage of the Tek Pass is that you're starting your
bus ride from Mile 29, not Mile 1.
Yes, you might miss some wildlife sightings in that part of the
trip but you've already seen the scenery from the entrance to
Teklanika River when you initially drove out to the Tek
campground and you'll see it again on your last day at the
campground. The long trip out to Wonder Lake or Kantishna and
back to Tek is 56 miles shorter from Tek than if you start at
the Wilderness Access Center.
Next entry: the first of several pages
describing our first shuttle bus trip from Teklanika River (Mile
29) to Wonder Lake (Mile 85) and back to Tek . . . 112
miles of Denali National Park splendor!
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil