Home Charles Wohlforth
All rights reserved. Click at left to learn more.

Denali Travel

By Charles P. Wohlforth

All rights reserved.

Originally published in Alaska Airlines Magazine, February 1997


No language conveys excitement better than German, and as we come in view of a pair of sparring moose, our bus roars like a Berlin soccer stadium. The converted school bus leans left as everyone crowds to the windows with telephoto lenses and binoculars. Magnification is unnecessary -- the bulls’ combat is as close as a ringside seat could allow.

I had expected to get some sleep on this part of the ride. After many trips to Denali National Park, I knew that the safari-like bus ride was best very early in the morning, when the wildlife is most active. But I’d also come to expect that most animals don’t show themselves until after the checkpoint at mile 14 of the gravel park road, where the National Park Service turns back all private vehicles. I thought I’d be able to parlay the quiet part of the trip into a post-dawn nap.

This autumn morning, however, a pair of moose meet for their jousting here, just a few miles past the visitor center and park hotel. In late August, the willow and tundra are turning neon yellow and rusty red, but it still is early for serious bull brawling. This is a warm-up bout. The moose crash their antlers together, then languidly tangle and crack wood on wood, then slowly separate. The power of their massive bodies -- as tall at the shoulder as a large man -- is impressive. One could only imagine the force when they really fought full-force for the right to mate.

The bus moves on. The German travelers sit down. I shut my eyes, but don’t sleep. Come to think of it, I never have been able to sleep on one of these buses. And when I’ve tried, I’ve often gotten the feeling from fellow passengers that I was committing a sacrilege, as if I were trying to grab a nap during a tour of the Sistine Chapel.

That attitude of reverence is understandable. For almost everyone who goes, these bus rides become a truly special experience. It’s likely there is no other place in the world where, for minimal expense, anyone with the patience for a day-long bus ride can see such grand wild mammals in their natural environment and behaving in their natural way.

The uniqueness of Denali National Park owes to the park service’s decision to deny open access to the backcountry. By keeping private vehicles out, essentially from the beginning, the park service succeeded in keeping the behavior of the wildlife wild and the country unspoiled. Although biologists say large animals are relatively scarce in Denali compared to other parts of Alaska, your chances of seeing them are better here than anywhere else most people can afford to venture. On the bus rides, operated for the park service by a concessionaire, it’s common to see brown bear, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and even wolves. There’s no guarantee you’ll see any of these -- weather and luck play a big part -- but in half a dozen recent trips, I’ve never missed the first three on that list.

Most people use the bus as a safari ride, but originally it was intended to provide access to the park. The drivers stop and let passengers off for day hikes almost anywhere along the road. Millions of acres of utterly unspoiled mountain and tundra beckon for casual exploration. And if you start to feel lonely under that huge sky, with no sign of mankind’s doings anywhere on the horizon, you can always walk back to the road. A bus will pass by to pick you up in 30 minutes.

Naturally, seats on the buses are in high demand. Visitors should make their reservations well in advance. With around 500,000 visitors each year from all over the world, the human-populated parts of Denali can seem awfully crowded during the mid-June to mid-August high season. This popularity has created mounting pressure for the park service to allow more access. Now, even on the most crowded days, the backcountry vistas are free of other people. Adding more visitors could destroy the very thing we all come to see.

The German tourists and I are on another kind of bus; we’ve found one way around the park’s system. The main exception to the rule about private vehicles past the 14-mile checkpoint is for businesses in the Kantishna Mining District in-holding near the mountain, at the other end of the road from the park entrance. Court decisions and grandfather rights allow three wilderness lodges in the area to carry their passengers over the road. These trips cost more, but allow visitors to bypass the frustrating park service reservation system and stay in good accommodations within the park’s boundaries.

Our bus is bound for the Kantishna Roadhouse, an attractive, rambling collection of buildings nestled in a valley just out of sight of the mountain. Some of us are going for lunch, to return to the park entrance at the end of a 12-hour traveling day. Others will spend the night in the lodge’s comfortable cabins along a stream. But despite the higher cost of the trip, we don’t have the luxury of getting off along the way for a tundra ramble, as the park service buses do.

No one minds. The Germans are in heaven. Driving through Sable Pass, we pull up behind another bus that’s stopped to watch wildlife. We quickly spot a mother grizzly and a pair of cubs on the hillside above the road. The cubs romp their way down the hill until they’re right by the bus, then stop to take a look at us. Film and video tape are churning through dozens of cameras. The cubs are as charming as if they know they will be stars of slide shows all over the world. Then they walk up to the other bus and repeat the show. Finally the mother bear descends to take charge. Our bus moves on, allowing one of the buses coming up behind to have a look.

As we drive on, the sense of satisfaction on board is palpable. One of the great, classic moments of an Alaska vacation has just been fulfilled in a way few will ever forget. Now just one more trophy picture remains to complete the perfect photo album page on Denali: Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, in its full glory. Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t look promising. As we rise up the cliffs of dramatic Polychrome Pass, it begins to snow. At least I remember the view as dramatic -- today we can’t see much more than the falling snow.

Snow at the beginning and end of the season -- which lasts from mid-May to mid-September -- is not unusual at Denali. Still, these are the least crowded days, and in many ways the most beautiful. As for the chances of seeing McKinley, the only sure-fire time of year is in the deep cold of mid-winter, when the park is almost completely depopulated and the road closed.

Of course "The Mountain," as it is simply known in the park, is Denali’s star attraction. But during the summer, many visitors never see it. Clouds pile up around McKinley as it creates it’s own daily weather pattern, and it is visible at all only about a third of the days in the summer. Visitors can enhance their chances of seeing McKinley by taking a flightseeing ride -- often it rises above the clouds -- or by spending time to the south of the park. There are good views of the mountain from Denali State Park and from the town of Talkeetna on the George Parks Highway towards Anchorage. But the mountain isn’t visible at all from the park entrance, and the chances it will be out in full glory on the day of any particular bus ride aren’t all that good.

But our luck is exceptional today. As we near Kantishna, at the end of our ride, holes in the clouds make a temporary window on the huge white triangle of McKinley. With a gasp, we realize that where we had assumed was the sky, the mountain has been looming over us behind the clouds. Another Denali axiom is reconfirmed: in a park the size of Massachusetts, you never know what the weather may be like on one side from the other. Or what else may happen, for that matter.