Ronnie and I spent 6 days in the Denali National Park area waiting for the best, clearest weather day possible for our tour of the park. Looking ahead about 4 days, Saturday appeared to be the sunniest so we booked the shuttle bus to the furthermost reaches of the park: the Kantishna community. There is only one road in the Park and it can only be traveled by shuttle or tour bus once one is past the Savage River stop. Past that point there are a few campgrounds with limited hook ups that allow limited personal travel to and from the Denali village but otherwise to traverse the entire dirt road between Savage River and Kantishna, one must be on a shuttle, tour bus, bicycle or walk the road. This 92 mile drive took about 12 hours with limited water and restroom access. We packed plenty of snacks, water, a good lunch and full camera batteries. Other tourists must have seen the same weather forecast because when we boarded our shuttle bus, it was sold out. The next day, Sunday, looked good weather-wize at the time, so we also booked a second shuttle bus trip to the closer Eielson Visitor Center. That drive, only about 66 miles, took about 8 hours. The weather for our Eielson Visitor Center shuttle trip turned out a bit more cloudier but our animal experiences were better considering the temperatures were a little cooler. Below, I combined photographs from both shuttle trips to summarize our outstanding, unforgettable trip into Denali National Park.
Hooray! Our selected day for the best weather to travel into Denali National park turned out perfect. Our shuttle bus drive to the Kantisha stop was a fantastic experience. Our peppy shuttle bus driver, while also narrating the drive, was informative and funny! Wendy, a school bus driver from Wasilla, offered a lot of the Park's nature detail, facts and fascinating stories as she drove a bus full of tourists, hikers and campers. Ronnie and I scored the second seat from the front so we enjoyed an almost unobstructed windshield view. Several times, Wendy exclaimed this was the clearest day she had seen all summer! Enjoy it folks, she remarked, only 30% of the Park's visitors ever fully see Denali. So Wendy pulls the bus over and we all pile out to get that first photograph of the day: an early morning view of Denali. A mountain covered with snow, ice and glaciers, reaching 20,306 feet tall, greets us all with the cloud curtain pulled up.
Continuing on towards the end of the road at Kantishna, we pass several glacier fed rivers and washes. Everyone is constantly peering out the bus windows looking for wildlife. Wendy is very familiar with this road, having traveled it as a young girl with her parents many years ago. She tells us the Kantishna Shuttle Route is the only one she will agree to do, it is her favorite of the tours to drive.
Along the road side ditch, we see several families of ptarmigan. These photographs are zoomed in to describe the textures and colors of their feathers. These birds turn completely white in the winter to camouflage. Notice the heavy layering of feathers around their feet for protection from the icy snow.
Also visible to us are the spruce grouse, however it's hard for me to tell the difference between the two bird species. Our bus driver to the Eielson Visitor Center, Brian, describes the difference as the spruce grouse does not camouflage in the winter and uses the spruce forest almost exclusively as it's habitat. While the ptarmigan mostly lives in shrubby areas and the bleak tundra where it forages in those mostly open areas.
As we travel this highly scenic dirt road, the surrounding mountains are shining against that blue sky.
Polychrome Overlook is one of this road's many highlights. Polychrome Mountain reaches 5790 feet with some snow still in view. Wendy informs that snow is always on those mountains that measure 8000 feet or higher.
Look, our first animal sighting: below, a caribou running in the Toklat River.
Denali Mountain is not in view throughout the entire drive. When it does come in view, it is just awe-inspiring: the immense size with the heavy coating of ice, snow and glaciers is breath-taking.
As the road twists and turns throughout the valleys and mountain sides, we begin to have many animal sightings. Caribou munching on grass, bears dining on soapberries and blueberries, golden eagles soaring above the meadows and rocky outcroppings.
The Toklat River stop includes a National Park Ranger station, restrooms and more incredible views.
Informative displays inside the Park's Ranger Station (actually it was just a big tent that stays there permanently) included hands on experiences with various hides, antlers and rock specimens.
Denali National Park offers several educational programs that encourage individual creative growth and development using the inspiring nature surroundings. One program in particular, the Denali Artist-In-Residence Program, allows the artist to spend quality time within the park's limited access park road, as a way to be inspired and to also inspire others with the results of their creative research. Seen below, this artist spent a week studying the rocks and river patterns of the Toklat River. Her Denali inspired composition was this beautiful woven "felted" fiber sculpture representing the Toklat River.
This is a casting of a dinosaur footprint, one of many footprints just recently discovered within the 6 million acre boundary of Denali National Park. To learn more about this discovery, click here.
Look closely at this grizzly bear hide, I'm holding the bear's front paw.
|This is the grizzly bear's back foot and claws.|
Traveling on, we have have our first grizzly bear sightings. It appears to be a mother bear with her 2 cubs. Of course, I'm using my telephoto lens.
|Notice the mother bear's left claws where she appears to be licking her leg! Yikes!|
Continuing on through more spectacular scenery, Denali pops out from behind the lower mountain range. Wow, we suddenly see that iconic image of Denali found on map bookcovers and infamous photographs. Our bus driver Wendy pulls over so we can make our own photographic memory.
As we travel to the Eielson Visitor Center, we come up on more animal sightings, caribou standing in the road. Wendy just creeps the bus on slowly by as the animal gradually moves off to the side of the road. This maneuver happened several times on this trip and also on our excursion the next day as well.