2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
Runtrails' Web Journal
 
Previous       2012 Journal Topics       Home       Next
 

   DAY FIVE AT DENALI NATIONAL PARK:
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BUS SYSTEM

THURSDAY, AUGUST 9

 
"92 miles long, the Denali Park Road parallels the Alaska Range and travels through low
valleys and high mountain passes. It is the only road in the park. Along its route, beautiful
landscapes can be seen at every turn, and there are many opportunities to view
Mt. McKinley -- if the normally cloudy skies permit. Wildlife can often be seen, too, though
sightings cannot be guaranteed -- they are, after all, wild animals roaming an unfenced land . . .
 
We encourage all visitors to take some kind of bus trip while in Denali, as it is a great
way to experience the park and build lasting memories."
 
~ from the Denali National Park website
 
 
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)!

I've already 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, conservationist

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 reservation.


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.

Things can 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 bus schedule.

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 6 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 afternoon/early evening.


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 two hours.

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 Kantishna.  

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 road:


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.

2. 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 hours.

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.

"TEK PASSES"

These bus passes are one of the best deals at Denali National Park. We learned about them while reading the park website about 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 entrythe 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!

Happy trails,

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

Previous       Next

2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

-