Updated on February 17, 2021
Day 5 of 2020 Alaska Trip, Denali National Park
Fifth day of our Alaska trip. We would devote the entire day to a bus tour of Denali National Park.
Denali was probably the most craved national park for my friend, so he had been anticipating this day. And weather was certainly on his side, after days of gloomy and drizzly weather, we woke up to a shining sun with only patches of clouds this morning.
Most of the access into Denali National Park was through its 91-mile park road, the first 15-mile to Savage River was paved. With very limited exceptions, that’s as far as private vehicles can go. The park operated numerous tour and transit buses reaching deeper into the park, the latter being much cheaper than the former. (Some online comments mentioned there wasn’t that much a huge difference between the two, as far as sightseeing goes. Transit buses may have to stick more to a schedule, and may not linger as long when animals pop around the road, while tour buses feature more narrative, but I believe the difference is minimal.)
Bus Tour of Denali National Park
For the year 2020, due to COVID, the park’s bus schedules got greatly slashed. The farthest transit buses went was Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 for an 8-hour tour (tour buses didn’t even reach that far), and during our visit in late August, there were only three daily buses (in addition to schedules serving overnight campers), departing at 8/9/10am respectively. When we were booking our tickets, the 9am bus was fully booked, so we opted for the 10am departure.
As a sidenote, transit bus tickets usually allow its holder to hop on and off buses at will. This enabled one to explore hiking trails deep in the park. This year, with limited bus services the park required everyone to stay with their original bus, with an hour-break at Eielson Visitor Center for those to explore the surroundings.
Since Denali National Park was known to abound in wildlife, I switched to 70-200mm lens at the parking lot. A wise decision, only that I longed for 150-600mm even more after the day.
Our bus driver for the day was an old gentleman, who kindly gave us an overview of our day ahead, a Denali Park when mosquitos had left but snow hadn’t arrived, with changing colors and soothing breeze. Due to COVID, the buses were limited at half capacity, and with a few empty rows here and there, we were not half-full yet.
The top half of bus windows slide down, giving photo-lovers a better view outside. It did take me some time to figure out the locking mechanism though. Probably due to lack of funding, the bus felt pretty aged and timeworn, especially its interior. The seats and luggage racks were covered in dust, probably from the park’s gravel roads. Cleanliness-wise, it’s completely the opposite from our Kenai Fjords tour boat experience three days ago. (That’s certainly reflected in price.)
A series of rivers originated from glaciers in the Alaskan Range the flew towards the North. Savage River was the first of those during our bus tour. It’s also where stunning sceneries began to emerge.
Despite the abundance of mountain peaks to the south, only a few of them had names. I guessed people had been busy exploring and naming more magnificent peaks farther into the park.
An hour into our bus tour, we arrived at the first rest stop of the day, Teklanika River Overlook.
10 minutes later, we were on the move and crossed Teklanika River.
Not long after crossing East Fork of Toklat River, we were at Polychrome Pass, named for the vibrant colors of soil, created by volcanic activities. The pass was overlooking a valley, offering a front-row view various mountains to the South.
After that, we took a 20-minute break at Polychrome Overlook, with a short trail for those to explore.
At 12:40pm, we arrived at Toklat Rest Stop for another 20-minute break. This was another well-equipped rest stop, featuring a giant tent for exhibitions (that’s unfortunately closed due to COVID).
Not long after that, we reached Stony Overlook, named for the Stony Mountain to its North. However, this overlook was popular for its unobstructed views of distant mountains, including Denali. During our visit, parts of Denali was covered in clouds, but its peak was soaring above those, so our driver wisely stopped there for a 7-minute photo-op despite not being on the transit bus stop list. (Later when we reached Eielson Visitor Center the peak was behind clouds.)
It’s 1:55pm by the time we reached Eielson Visitor Center.
My friend and I opted to hike (a portion of) Gorge Creek Trail, before returning to visitor center for lunch.
If one prefers, the trail goes all the way to the river bar of Gorge Creek, or beyond. But my friend’s not in shape for hiking and we had to be back at Visitor Center before our bus left, so we only hiked for half a mile, till we reached the lair of this squirrel.
Both he and I could agree that the views on top of this rock were pretty. So while my friend and I were standing atop that rock for photos, he would retreat to a tiny hole in the rocks.
And whenever we stepped away for the briefest moments, he would return and reclaim his sovereignty over such rock.
After taking a few photos and saying goodbye to such cute squirrel, who lent us his roof, we headed back. Along the way, I spotted more squirrels.
Probably because they were cute and people at visitor center liked to feed them, squirrels abounded in the area.
After that, we went on the return trip. The sunny morning weather had turned into overcast, giving softer lights that were perfect for shooting snow-crested mountains.
Towards the end of the day, it even started to drizzle. It’s like, we experienced as much of Denali as possible in a day.
The various wildlife that one could spot is certainly a highlight of the trip. And I have to say, among the national park that I’d visited, Denali was the best for wildlife-viewing.
As our driver told us, usually the deeper into the park, the more likely we were able to see big mammals. One of the first sightings for the day was this moose at Polychrome Overlook.
But perhaps the biggest catch of the day happened after we left Toklat Rest Stop for Eielson. Just on the side of the road, our driver spotted a bear feeding on berries.
It’s so close to our bus that we could almost touch it through windows. I wasn’t even running my lens at its maximum 200mm. Here’s a video:
After being observed by us for more than 5 minutes, the bear finally had enough of its lunch, and dashed off towards the field.
Here’s a video of it leaving us, apologies for the shakiness.
Only 5 minutes later, we spotted another bear down the road. This time, it’s probably alerted by us, and dashed across the road before disappearing into the valley.
As for animal spotting, while our driver was experienced in scouting for animals ahead, he told us he relied on us for animals down the valley, or up the hill, or behind us, and we should yell “stop” when we spotted something. That’s when two old gentlemen on our bus carried the day, by making almost all “stop” calls for the day. (Later we learned they were ex-hunters.)
Like how they spotted these moose down the valley.
Or this pair of bears in the distance (I cropped the photo to 1000mm equivalent).
Or these groups of mountain goats up the hill.
I thought, maybe the tour company could set up an award for the most animal spots of each tour, that must be interesting.
It’s also thanks to them, that we spotted these two bears in the distance on our return trip.
Here are two video clips of them:
8 hours later, we returned to Denali Bus Depot, concluding this wonderful tour of Denali National Park. Both weather and animals were cooperating, and it’s an awesome experience to see the park in such dynamic colors.
Before heading to hotel for the night, we made a brief stop at an overlook along/across Nenana River, for some final colors of this season.