Day 31: Denali Backcountry Excursion

ooof. That 5am alarm was brutal. But it was Denali day. We made sandwiches and packed up some snacks in my backpack. I grabbed my camera gear, extra batteries, etc. Sadly I had to leave the drone because it’s not allowed in the park, but would have made for some amazing photos. Kay packed up all of her stuff. It was the end of her bus journey. We walked to the local coffee shop right behind the bus and grabbed a cup of coffee/tea. Then it was a short walk across the street to our pickup at the Denali Chalet. We’d been told that it was a 6:15 pick-up but the bus didn’t show up until nearly 7. Darn, could have slept longer. Oh well. We had fun people watching as the various guests of the hotel filtered onto their buses for trips to Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, and other places. When our bus arrived they had Kay on the list but not me, but the bus driver was really cool and just told me to get on and we’d sort it out later. Awesome. On the bus there were only 4 empty seats. None by the window. And none together. Kay and I decided to sit across the aisle from each other so we could at least talk easily. We both ended up making friends with our seat mates and mine was really nice about letting me lean over and take photos. We headed into the park. We’d be going the full 92 miles to Kantishna, the very end of the road. Its a 13 hour tour on a school bus. All the tour operators use school buses because they are more rugged than the coach buses and can handle the rugged terrain. I found that to be interesting, and underscores my decision to build an RV out of a school bus!

The first 15 miles of the park road are paved and open to any visitor. After that, the road is gravel and only open to authorized vehicles. This cuts down on the traffic and disturbance of the local wildlife. The trip started out pretty slow for wildlife viewing. We saw some Doll Sheep that were about a mile away and looked like a white dot on the mountainside even with a telephoto lens. As we went deeper into the park the animals started to appear more frequently. We say more Caribou than I can count (and learned that Reindeer are the same animal, just the domesticated version) and that there are more Caribou in Alaska than year-round residents. The drive into the park was a little frustrating because of two factors: 1: I was on the wrong side of the bus for most of the viewing and 2: I wasn’t next to the window to take photos. Ideally you’d sit on the driver’s side going into the park and the passenger side leaving the park (more on that below). And the animals were really far away from us. Not that I expected to have a zoo experience by any means. We did see two young Foxes playing near their den while mom watched. And we saw a Grizzly bear up on a ridge. Our bus driver / tour guide was Earl and he was a wealth of knowledge about the geography and geology of the park. He taught us about ribbon streams, erratic rocks, and helped us spot a lot of the wildlife. After lunch I said goodbye to Kay. She’s staying at the lodge for two days and then headed back to Anchorage via the train for her flight back to Denver. I hopped back on the bus for another 6 hours on the return trip. The afternoon was a LOT better. First off, I snagged a window seat which made everything better. We saw Grizzlies pretty close to the road, we saw a ton of Caribou close to the road, and I feel like we stopped more often to take photos, which was great. Here’s a few of my favorite photos from the day:

A lot of the details of the tour were mixed up, so we didn’t realize they stop and serve snacks, coffee, and tea. They also served us lunch when we arrived in Kantishna. And their food looked way better than the now smushed sandwiches in my backpack. And there was a bar. This is definitely a great way to see Denali and better than the tours operated by the Park Service contractor. We were a little slow due to all the wildlife stops and didn’t get back to the bus until 8:30. Pepper was really happy to see me! By the way, the RV park offered a dog walking service, so they’d walked her a couple of times during the day. I didn’t leave her alone all day! If you go: I highly recommend the tour through Denali Backcountry Lodge. It’s a little more expensive than the one run through the Park Service, but it’s also a lot nicer and the lunch in Kantishna is fantastic. For more info check out their website: I’d also suggest finding out their first pick-up and going there so you increase the chances of getting a window seat rather than waiting for the last pick-up. And a lot of people get off the bus and stay at Kantishna so after everyone has disembarked for lunch put your backpack on the seat you want leaving the park.