Almost everyone that contacts me about coming to Alaska has Denali National Park on their â€œmust seeâ€ list. It is no surprise, considering the tremendous number of images and advertisements that one sees that include Mt. McKinley and the spectacular wildlife that lives within the park. In addition, there has been some considerable publicity in recent years about the wolf packs in the park, and their habit of wandering outside the park boundaries, where several Denali wolves have been taken by trappers. Everyone seems to know about Denali, and they all want to visit.
Unfortunately for most visitors, the experience within Denali National Park is not as great as it once was. My first visit to the park was in 1985, and even at that time there were reasons for the visitor to leave Denali feeling that the visit did not live up to expectations. In the 21 years since, the annual number of visitors to Denali National Park has doubled, and there is no sign that the number of visitors is going to level off any time soon. A number of the larger tour and cruise companies have undertaken large construction projects in the past year to add hotel rooms at the entrance to the park. The growth in popularity of this already popular park is taking its toll on the visitor experience.
This is not to say that there isnâ€™t something to see and do in Denali National Park. There are few places in Alaska that are as readily accessible as Denali that offer such great wildlife viewing opportunities. The park is notable because of both the numbers and variety of wildlife that a visitor can hope to see here.
However, all of this beauty and wildlife comes to the visitor at a price; dealing with hundreds or even thousands of other visitors in the park at the same time. This may seem like a false panic in a park the size of the state of Massachusetts. However, for almost every one of those thousands of visitors, the path through the park is the same. Virtually all of the park visits originate at the park headquarters in the town of Denali Park, and almost all visitors enter the park either on a guided tour, or on the parkâ€™s shuttle system, known as the Visitor Transportation System, or VTS.
Whether on a tour or on the VTS, the experience is similar: the day starts with long lines of people waiting to get onto one of the buses. Once youâ€™re on the bus, you travel along the 90 mile Denali National Park Road, watching for wildlife and enjoying the scenery. If youâ€™re on one of the tours, you donâ€™t have the option to explore the park on your own. You do get off the bus periodically to stretch your legs and to take a bathroom break. The VTS offers a lot more flexibility; once you pass the Savage River, your driver will stop the bus wherever you like and let you off to hike, or do whatever it is you want to do within the park.
I strongly suggest to my guests that they choose the VTS over the tours, for a number of reasons. The most important is that the VTS allows you to decide what you want to see and do, and how long you want to stay in the park. In contrast, the tours are a fixed length, and if you want to see more of the park, or if youâ€™ve had enough and want to go back sooner, you donâ€™t have either option available to you.
Winter picture of Mt. McKinley taken in Denali State Park near Trapper Creek. This location is about 100 miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park.
The VTS is not the perfect alternative, either. While the drivers are knowledgeable and will answer your questions and provide a basic narration along the way, it is still just a bus ride, and youâ€™re best suited if you get off the bus and experience the park on foot. I am not the most eager hiker, and my first visit to the park was a bit intimidating, both because of the tremendous size of the park (a treeless vista of mountains, tundra and rivers that goes on for dozens of miles) and because of the small but nonzero chance of a wildlife encounter. I remember thinking that the view from my seat on the bus would be almost as good as the view from outside, and I didnâ€™t need to wander through the tundra singing to keep the bears away. For that reason, and many others, a lot of other VTS guests choose to stay on the bus instead of getting off.
I make it a point to follow up with my guests about their visits to Alaska, and I am proud to say that almost without exception, they rave about their experiences here. When I ask them for specifics, and they get to the part about Denali National Park, the raves are replaced with â€˜OKsâ€™. If there is a complaint, it is the experience with the crowds and the limited access to the park that is most common. This is unfortunate, because Denali really is a spectacular and special place. There just isnâ€™t a good solution for most visitors that want to experience the park.
Which leads me to the secret. In late April, early May and mid September, the park road is open to private vehicles as far as the Teklanika River, provided the road conditions allow safe passage. Youâ€™re welcome to drive the park road in your own car (or a rental car), stop anywhere you like, and enjoy the park on your own terms. If you have a bicycle, you can take the road past this point by bicycle. Unfortunately, there is nothing guaranteed about the road conditions; snow can occur in any month of the year, and as you might imagine, it is rather common in these shoulder seasons. However, in most years, you can generally get a day or two in the park by road.
I have made several trips into the park in April and May, as well as in late September and early October and Iâ€™ve seen bears, caribou, moose, fox, golden eagles, ptarmigan and other wildlife along the road. The park is interesting at those times of year for other reasons, too. In the spring, there are still patches of snow everywhere, and it is a great way to experience what winter in alpine Alaska is like, without having to brave numbing cold. The wildlife viewing is generally quite good, with caribou and ptarmigan being the most common animals. A couple years back we were driving through the park and watched a golden eagle as it hunted in the park. While bald eagles are the birds that most people are intent on seeing here, a golden eagle is an impressive creature, indeed â€“ they are considerably larger than bald eagles, and they tend to take on larger prey.
Last fall we drove through the park, and while we didnâ€™t see a ton of wildlife, the day itself was rather spectacular, with frost adorning all of the trees. We had heard rumors of bears around the Teklanika River, but we didnâ€™t see them.
The shoulder seasons are not without their challenges. There are no guarantees about the weather, and of course, wildlife doesnâ€™t stick to the script either. However, the park is amazing, especially when youâ€™re able to do it all on your own, rather than with a couple hundred of your closest friends. Because everything is iffy in the park in the spring and fall, it can be tough to plan a vacation around the shoulder seasons in Denali. But it might be worth a shot, if you want to explore on your ownâ€¦ and for some people, the shoulder seasons are when they can be here. For them, Denali should be a â€œmust-see.â€
Tundra near the Savage River in Denali National Park, September 2005.