Home > Uncategorized > Day 71: One word – Denali

Day 71: One word – Denali

Location: Near Cantwell, AK

Miles Driven: 200

Total Miles: 17,268

It’s a small world.  My dad has a friend, Frank, who’s sister, Betty, and her husband live in Alaska.  Several months ago, while I was still in Georgia, my dad had sent me some CDs with video clips and pictures of their visits to Denali National Park.  Visiting Denali was just a pipe dream at that point, but here I was, only about 2 hours away in Fairbanks.  I had the chance to talk to Betty on the phone before leaving for the park, and got some great recommendations on what to do.  Denali is a little tricky compared to other national parks I’ve visited in that you can’t take your car on the 90-mile main road that goes through the park (outside of the first 13 miles).  The park holds a lottery each year where a select number of cars can go out on the main road, in September, but everyone else must travel via the park’s extensive bus system.  It sounded a bit unnappealing at first seeing the park via a bus, but I did know I’d have the chance to see a lot of wildlife and get outside now and then; in fact, the buses run in such a way you can get off one bus, do a hike, and then flag another down for the way back.

After talking to Betty, I purchased a ticket online for the “Eielson Visiter Center” bus tour, which goes 67 miles into the park, and then turns around.  Eight hours round trip.  Also had heard another friend from back home, Nate, took this bus tour and he said it was very enjoyable.  It was a $46 ticket, but confident the cost would be well worth it.  Thanks for all the tips, Betty!

I checked out of the hotel and got on the road around 10:30.  I was slow-moving that morning and cut things a bit close, Denali being a 2 hour drive from Fairbanks (not including road construction in some areas), and my bus tour was scheduled to start at 1PM.

I was undaunted, however, and looked forward to the drive.  I view any day less than 300 miles of driving as an “easy day.”  Also, the scenery on the way south to Denali was beautiful.

The road to Denali

I got to the park with just minutes to spare.  Quickly threw on my hiking boots, packed up my backpack, and then caught the bus just as they made the last call for passengers.  Phew.  I got to sit next to a polite little 4 year old kid, Caleb, who was there with his family – residents of Palmer, AK.  I shared a majority of the bus ride out to the Eielson Visitor center with them, and also got some recommendations of sites near Palmer to check out.

On this 8 hour bus trip, the expectation was we’d see a variety of wildlife – grizzlies, caribou, moose, sheep, and maybe even some eagles.  In addition, we’d be able to enjoy the natural scenery of Denali National Park (a park the size of New Hampshire), and perhaps get a glimpse of Denali itself (Mount McKinley), the tallest peak in North America.  In the Athabaskan language, spoken by the natives of northern Canada and Alaska, Denali literally translates to “The high one.”  In a bit of controversy, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names officially changed the name of the mountain from Mt. McKinley to Denali years ago, but the US Board on Geographic Names never has, hence you’ll see it as McKinley on maps.

My National Parks book said only 1 in every 3 visitors to the park gets a clear look at Denali since it is often covered in clouds, but the book did say August might be one of the best months to see it.  The book cautioned “don’t count on it,” though.

We had a great bus driver, Travis, who advised us to holler whenever an animal was spotted in the wild, and he would subsequently pull over so everyone can look/take pictures.  We weren’t far into the park when a passenger with eagle eyes spotted a bull moose far from the road.

enormous, and this was from a distance of at least 75 yards

I think it was just about 90 minutes or so into the trip and I was treated to my first view of Denali.  Picture-perfect clear to see.  I’ve benefited from some lucky timing on this trip.  Here in Alaska it has been unseasonably rainy, but the day I head out to see Denali I get this amazing view of the mountain.


This was still early into the 67 mile outbound trip, and our drive would take us closer to the mountain.  So the hope was the clouds wouldn’t roll into the mountain by the time we got nearer.  The weather can change fast here; the saying is “Don’t like the weather in Alaska?  Just wait five minutes.”

The scenery we got to check out along the way was absolutely outstanding.  Unreal.

dude from the bus checking out the view

Another great view of Denali

Great views, and we weren’t even near the visitor center.  But can’t forget about the wildlife.  The first grizzly I ever saw:

Another big, big animal

Those things are huge, but they move really well in the brush.  I understand why park rangers advise you to never run from a bear, since it will easily overtake you, no matter what obstacles might be in the way.

A little later, after driving along some narrow roads with no guardrails, we had some closer views of Denali.  Each view kept on getting better than the last.

Yours truly in front of Denali. The wind made it pretty cold out there

Not long after we arrived at the Eielson Visitor Center, our turnaround point.  We had 20 minutes to mill about, so I grabbed a few more shots of Denali, here at our closest point to the mountain.

Mount Brooks on the left, Denali on the right

Just stunning.  I was giddy, just standing there smiling, looking at this mountain that not all park visitors get to see…even the ones who sign up for the bus tours.

It was time to head back towards the park entrance.  I hopped up back on the bus, and we even had some better wildlife viewing along the way back.


Dall Sheep. A moment before this picture was taken, these two butted heads

Had some more great view of the landscape on the drive back, as well.

The road was a bit narrow at times

And even more wildlife:

big moose

A Grizzly not far from the bus

The bear was the last animal we saw before arriving back at the park entrance.  Before I knew it, 8 hours had passed, and it was after 9PM.  What a great bus tour.  Next time, maybe I’ll take the 12 hour one-way, 92-mile tour to the end of the park road.  What an amazing park.

Although it was after 9PM by the time I got on the road, I still had a couple hours of daylight ahead of me.  So I figured I’d work my way south a bit in the direction of Anchorage.  The plan is to arrive in Anchorage on Monday and I’ll meet up with a friend, so driving a bit this night would make it easier in the morning.

Once again, great scenery on the drive.

Just an incredible day.  Tomorrow – Anchorage, and more of this amazing place.


  1. August 10, 2010 at 2:09 am

    Wow! Very cool.

    • August 10, 2010 at 2:21 am

      Thanks man. How lucky I am to be here.

  2. Sean Jones
    August 10, 2010 at 2:19 am

    Keep pluggin along, Joe – all of your pictures are fantastic!! Let me know if you need anything!


    • August 10, 2010 at 2:47 am

      Thanks buddy, appreciate that

  3. Jonathan
    August 10, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Joe, you have to tell the story behind the name Denali. I had never heard that name before. Thanks for the great pics.

    • August 10, 2010 at 3:12 pm

      Oh good call – I added a few sentences on that early in the post

  4. Colleen
    August 10, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Incredible. Think the grizzlies are good cuddlers? They look quite friendly. Amazing pictures!

  5. August 10, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    I read the posts out of order and read Day 72 first. So you encountered multiple bears in Denali. Great views. Unbelievable.

  6. The Mommie
    August 11, 2010 at 8:32 am


    It is written that there is a peace beyond all understanding. You have found a piece of that peace…where man and beast will roam freely together.

    Nice to be along for the ride. ‘Tis a highlight,of my 62 yrs on earth,to have these glimpses.

    Lots of hugs.

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