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Denali National Park-Part 3. The Shuttle Bus Safari to Wonder Lake

June 27, 2010

As I mentioned earlier, Aaron and I had 8:25am tickets on one of the many Park Shuttle Buses all the way out to Wonder Lake located at mile 85 and just about at end of the road.  Remember that private vehicles are not allowed past mile 15 unless you are camping at one of the campgrounds further inside the Park and once you get there, you are not allowed to use your vehicle again until its time to head back out.  Since thousands of people visit the Park on a daily basis (most of them never get too far past the Park Entrance), the shuttle bus system was adopted to cut down on the negative footprint this amount of continual visitors would have.  There is a great map of the road and the various places I’m mentioning on the Park’s website, www.nps.gov/dena.

The bus ride out and back from Teklanika is about 9-10 hours, which is why I’ve never done it.  I mean really, who wants to sit on a bus all day?  Since neither Aaron nor I had ever been passed mile 15, we had agreed to bite the bullet and “do the shuttle” during this visit and boy, are we ever glad we did.  Like I said, I felt like I was back in Africa on safari.  Everyone on the bus had cameras and binoculars slung around their constantly swiveling necks with eyes glued to the  landscape keeping a close eye out for anything with four legs, two wings, or the 20,320 ft tall mass of snow-covered granite called, Denali.

“Caribou, 3 o’clock!”    “Bear, 8 o’clock!”    “Sheep, 2 o’clock high!”  What fun!  Anyone who saw (or thought they saw) something would shout it out along with its general direction.  The bus driver would stop and everyone would clamber over to the appropriate side of the bus jockeying for position.   We had about a half-dozen or so grizzly bear sightings all of which were a bit too far away for a good photo, but were fun to watch through binoculars.  I think the best was a sow with her two Spring cubs which were running and playing and cutting up and not paying any attention to their mother who was obviously trying to get them to come on.  We also had multiple Caribou sightings.  Many of these guys were down in the riverbeds, but one guy (or gal.  It’s hard to tell which since both genders have massive antlers) was up on a hill lying in a patch of snow cooling off while this one below was totally focused on caloric intake.  Eating is serious business for animals in this part of the world since they only have about 3-4 months during the summer in which to consume the majority of their nutrition and calories for the entire year.

Dall Sheep, a cousin of Big Horn Sheep are prevalent in Alaska so it’s not surprising we saw several bands.  During the summer months, the males and females separate for reasons having to do with the kids, but I’m not sure exactly why.  In an earlier post, I showed a picture of a male band high up on a mountain which is where they are most protected from their primary predator, the wolf.  It was a bit unusual therefore to see a band of females and kids down on the riverbed since here they are most vulnerable to attack.  Our driver thought they might be crossing from one mountain to another.  Hope they all made it.

I guess my favorite animal sighting had to be the wolf pack including a mother wolf with her 4 pups.  Wolf sightings are not too common, so we were really lucky with this one and then again later with a lone wolf who decided to trot right by our bus, stop to hunt and catch some sort of rodent and then trot away again.  See if you can spot the two adult wolves as well as the 4 pups in the photo below.

While all of the Park is beautiful, I think the Polychrome Pass area is my favorite.  In fact, Aaron and I took a second shuttle another day out to the Pass so we could hike up Polychrome Mountain and enjoy the area on foot.

Polychrome Pass got its name from the colorful rock bands which are actually bands of hardened lava that had erupted roughly 80-100 million years ago.  This area experiences frequent earth quake tremors as the plates along the Denali Fault grind together.  It is estimated that the last glacial advance through this valley was some 10,000 years ago.

The Eielson Visitor Center is located at mile 66 and offers the closest view of Denali from anywhere on the road.  Unfortunately, by the time we got out there, the mountain was shrouded in clouds and remained so for the rest of our visit.  It is said that only about 1/3 of the folks who visit the Park…or Alaska for that matter will catch sight of the Mountain.  Fortunately for Aaron and me, we’ve seen it many times from Anchorage and Talkeetna etc, but it sure would have been nice to see it up close and personal from mile 66.   While at the Visitor’s Center we learned that there were 354 climbers on the mountain that day and that there had been 72 successful summits so far this season, which started in mid-late May.  Climbers usually fly onto the Ruth Glacier high on the mountain from Talkeetna, AK and begin their ascent from there.

Just 19 more miles and we were out at Wonder Lake.  I think the main reason to go out there is to get different views of the mountain.   Since it wasn’t out, we were treated to a view of a loon on her nest and dozens of mosquito bites.  20 minutes later, we were thankfully back on the bus and away from the swarms of aggressive biters and were headed back down the road.  What a day.  Admittedly, the bus ride back didn’t have quite the appeal as the bus ride out, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.  The scenery and animal sightings made it completely worthwhile.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2010 8:45 pm

    I just love the wolf photos. You are very lucky to capture those. Perhaps you have good karma?

  2. Lucinda Denton permalink
    June 27, 2010 10:08 pm

    Oh how I wish we had your travel log BEFORE we went to Denali! We were there is May and saw Denali every day with the highlight of landing on the glacier where a base camp was manned for the season. You have the best of all possible worlds returning to Dora after each day trip. I eagerly anticipate the next journey!!!

  3. Ann Moore permalink
    June 28, 2010 12:25 pm

    Got your blog address from Elo and am enjoying your travels from afar. The 4 of us have become real National Park lovers and hope to visit Denali very soon. Keep sending those good travel tips because I’m taking notes! And keep posting the pictures to entice the planning.

  4. Jimmy permalink
    June 28, 2010 8:06 pm

    What a way you have with the pen Margie. Very good reading. Ever think about writing a book?

    • Lucinda Denton permalink
      June 28, 2010 8:13 pm

      Jimmy, I was just assuming that Marge’s adventures are definitely the basis for a book. I hope she will confirm!!!

      • June 29, 2010 10:50 pm

        I sure thank all of you who think I should write a book or submit articles or the like. Very flattering. Wouldnt’ that be amazing? It definitely had not crossed my mind, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.

  5. Suzanne permalink
    June 29, 2010 9:23 pm

    Margie – your blog is awesome! Hey – I thought of you tonight when I was listening to Miranda Lambert’s newest cd. You need to get it and listen to the Airstream Song. If you do, let me know what you think.

    I guess your dogs had to stay in the RV when y’all went wanderin’ around? With all those predators about I’m sure they couldn’t be outside….. What a lovely adventure…… keep it coming!
    Suz (aka Hoover)

    • June 29, 2010 10:46 pm

      Hey Hoover! Good to hear from you. I just love all the comments.
      Yes, the dogs had to stay in the RV while I was gone though I did get a fellow campround person to let them out on our 10 hour shuttle bus day. When I was “home” they were supposed to be leashed at all times and not go anywhere but on the park road or campground roads…no trails or backcountry for them even though I did take them back to the river and let them off leash multiple times. Shhhhh, don’t tell.

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