We had booked spaces on the 8:00 a.m. shuttle bus into
Denali. We were not
overly keen on the idea of riding a bus, but it is the only way to
get into the park past the 15 mile point.
Riding the shuttle is the best way to see wildlife,
especially brown bears, and you can ask the driver to stop and let
you off anywhere you like to go hiking.
On our previous trip to Alaska so many people had told us
what a wonderful experience it was that we decided to give it a
try, only to find that we had missed the last day the buses ran
for the season - by one day.
So this time, being earlier in the year, we had booked
shuttle tickets well in advance. We
were eager to hike in Denali’s interior, and figured it would be
worth riding the bus.
boarded a bus that went as far as the Eielson Visitor Center, 66
miles into the park. Following
the advice Joyce had given us at breakfast, we planned to ride the
bus all the way out to Eielson, checking out which areas we liked,
and then get off to hike on the way back.
Fortunately our shuttle, a repainted school bus, was not
too crowded. Our
driver, Kat, seemed nice but somewhat controlling, and the longer
we were with her, the weirder she seemed.
She was very strict about no talking when the bus stopped
to view wildlife, even if it was a moose half a mile away.
She treated us a bit like children, probably because she
drives a school bus nine months of the year.
saw ptarmigans by the road and several caribou in the distance.
road was well maintained but winding, and the bus went slowly.
Much of the first section of the road was through
forest, though we had occasional vistas of open tundra and rolling
on the bus searched for wildlife, but windows soon became
splattered with mud from the road, making it hard to see.
We passed an old cabin, which Kat
told us had once been the home of Olaus and Mardy Murie, some of
Alaska’s earliest conservationists.
The road climbed up over Sable Pass, a beautiful area which
was closed to hiking because there were so many bears there.
Sure enough, near the pass we saw a blonde grizzly
with two cubs, though unfortunately they were quite far from the
road. And then twice
more we saw a brown bear; one walking along the river and one
digging on the floodplain. Kat
would pause for a few seconds for us to take a look, but she
seemed more interested in making good time than in letting us view
wildlife, and it was frustrating that we couldn’t stop to watch
the bears for a while.
We checked out places for hiking along the way; we were
looking for scenic areas in open country above the treeline.
The bus stopped at the Polychrome Pass Overlook for a short
break - it was spectacular, and we put it on our list.
We stopped at
the rest area beside the wide many-channeled Toklat River for a
bathroom break; there was a big tub of water with a bunch of
squeegees, so I took advantage of the opportunity to clean the bus
long before getting to Eielson we traversed a particularly scenic
area known as Stony Dome, where we decided we would get off to
hike on the way back.
Eielson Visitor Center is a large complex on the shoulder
of a mountain, at mile 66 of the park road.
A broad river valley stretches below it, and a range of
rugged mountains beyond. The
center has an impressive view and nice displays, including a huge
three-dimensional topo map of the park showing various routes up
Mt. McKinley. On the
wall was an amazing handmade quilt depicting Denali and all of its
wildlife. After a
thirty minute stop we were back on the bus heading toward the park
entrance (other buses went as far as Wonder Lake at mile 90).
Looking out from the Eielson Visitor Center.
asked Kat to stop near the top of Stony Dome.
After some four and a half hours on the bus, we couldn't
wait to get off it and go hiking.
We were surprised that more of the passengers hadn't
planned to get off the bus to hike, but apparently the vast
majority of Denali visitors just ride the buses out through the
park and back again.
We hiked up a gentle slope to the
top of the hill, then across a wide expanse of blueberry fields
and wet tundra to a plateau overlooking Stony Creek.
In Denali there are few hiking trails; you just make your
way across country in the vast trackless land, picking a point and
heading toward it, exploring as you go.
We worked our way up a series of benches, climbing
steadily. We stood
looking out over the valley; the slopes had taken on a red hue as
autumn colored the blueberry bushes, and mist clung to the
mountaintops. We were
exhilarated - we felt free, part of the wilderness. The
bus ride had been oppressive and frustrating, but it had been
worth it for the chance to hike in Denali’s wild country.
Hiking from Stony Dome.
We came to a high saddle, with stunning views in all
directions. We felt
like we were on top of the world.
On one side was a wide floodplain, surrounded by tall
mountains, the road winding through it like a ribbon far below.
The other way we could see up the river valley to white
snowy mountains beyond. A
golden eagle wheeled and soared overhead.
It was quite windy and cold up on the saddle, so we dropped
down a ways and sat behind a knoll to block the wind, and ate our
lunch - peanut butter and apricot sandwiches, with Cadbury’s
chocolate for dessert. Two
ground squirrels watched us, sitting up like little prairie dogs
and whistling at intervals.
made our way down the steep side of the ridge toward the river,
passing through gullies and patches of thick brush.
We were debating about whether bears would come on this
slope since it had no blueberry bushes, but I had read that they
dig up burrows to get the ground squirrels.
Sure enough, just then we came to a spot where a bear had
excavated a ground squirrel nest.
An area about ten feet across was completely dug up, and we
could see fresh claw marks. We
looked around warily. “Hello
We passed three or four more
ground squirrel tunnels that had been torn open and completely
plowed up. Seeing
such fresh bear signs made us a bit nervous; we had enjoyed
encountering the black bear in the blueberry patch while hiking at
Twin Lakes, but we did not want to get that close to a grizzly.
We skirted around the burrows, trying to stay in open areas
and keep up a steady stream of conversation.
“Hello Mr. Bear!
Don’t worry; we won’t eat any of your ground squirrels!
We promise! Really!”
After all, we didn’t want to end up like that poor
the bottom of the slope, we followed a little game trail through
the willows. We
passed a small tent and campsite, but there was no sign of the
owner. Finally we
came out to the broad rocky riverbed.
Being late summer only a small stream flowed through it,
but during spring snowmelt it would be a surging river.
We walked along the riverbed, searching for pretty stones
as we worked our way up the valley toward the snowy mountains.
We wished we could just keep going.
We envied whoever owned that tent; we could have spent days
exploring the valley. When
it was time to head back we stopped and built a cairn of stones,
then we turned around and followed the river trail back toward the
As we neared the road we could see a bus stopped on a far
bend, and we wondered what they were looking at.
As it pulled away we could make out something dark beside
the road. Was it a
bear? Getting out the
binoculars we could see that it was indeed a bear, a grizzly,
about a half mile away. We
needed to get closer!
walked up the road a ways, then climbed up a slope through dense
blueberry bushes to a small knoll where we had a much better view
of the bear, now about a quarter mile from us
Well, maybe a little less.
We watched with binoculars as the bear moseyed up the slope
on the far side of the road.
As he moved away we went closer to the road for a better
view. This was great!
How close is too close?
We watched the bear until he moved out of sight, and then
went down to the road to flag a shuttle.
Before long a park service car pulled up beside us, and a
young ranger named Chad got out and introduced himself.
He politely told us that a bus driver had reported two
hikers getting too close to a bear in this area.
Who, us? We
assured Chad that we had not been too close, and showed him where
we had been relative to the bear’s position. He
agreed that we had acted appropriately, and said that certain bus
drivers are more cautious (alarmist?) than others.
He was very nice, and we chatted with him for a while.
We learned that he lived in Fairbanks, and that this was
his first season as a park ranger.
Chad confirmed the story of the bear eating the
photographer the previous summer.
He also told us about a group of eight Israelis who had
encountered a bear at Eielson earlier that week; after being rude
to the rangers all day, they had gone up a closed trail and gotten
too close to a bear, and then they ran about like idiots.
He said that the bear didn’t eat them, but it should
A shuttle stopped to pick us up.
As we started to board, the bus driver, Kim, stopped us;
she said our bear spray must be in a plastic bag.
We stowed the spray in a bag and went to step on the bus,
but again Kim halted us; the pepper spray, now in its bag, also
had to be inside our packs! Finally
we passed inspection and were allowed on the bus.
we had thought Kat somewhat odd this morning, Kim was downright
whispered over the intercom, seemingly addressing herself.
And she allowed NO TALKING on her bus, whether stopped or
moving. We kept
getting in trouble. At
one of the rest stops Jineen asked her a question about bear
hibernation, but she refused to answer.
“I’m on break now,” she told us.
“I will answer you later.”
But she never did.
From the bus, we saw a grizzly sow with two yearling cubs.
We passed a fox digging on a hilltop, and two caribou on a
magpies fluttered past, and a merlin flew above the plain.
As we neared the park entrance a large bull moose was
standing beside a pond. I
thought I spotted a porcupine in a tree but it turned out to be
just a clump of brush - then five minutes later a real porcupine
ran across the road in front of us.
It was after nine by the time the bus got back to the park
entrance and to our car. We
went back to the cabin and had Chinese leftovers and wine.
The bus ride had been a drag, especially on the way back,
but the hiking was superb. All
in all, a great day.