Your visit to Denali will likely revolve around a ride on the shuttle bus into the park to see the wildlife and to stop for a walk in the wilderness. Some planning will make it a more successful trip.
Shuttle-Bus Etiquette -- It's common courtesy on the shuttle bus to yell out when you see wildlife so others can see it, too. The driver will stop and everyone will rush to your side of the bus. After you've had a look, give someone else a chance to look or get a picture. Be quiet and don't stick yourself, your camera, or anything else out of the bus. You will scare away the animals or worse, help habituate them to humans.
Bus Concerns & Complaints -- The Denali concessionaire uses only school bus-type vehicles for shuttles on the park road, which are not as comfortable as highway motorcoaches and do not have bathrooms onboard. Safety concerns permit only these tough, lightweight buses to operate on the narrow, gravel park road. Some of the Tundra Wilderness Tour buses -- unlike the shuttles and camper buses -- are tricked out with higher-backed cloth seats and video monitors that allow the driver to zoom in on wildlife, but the basic bus is essentially the same. (They sell DVDs of the onboard video after the ride for $40.) The road itself can be an issue, too. I've heard from visitors complaining of white knuckles. The buses act a bit like mountain goats on the heights of Polychrome Pass and near Eielson Visitor Center as the road climbs without guardrails. If you're afraid of heights, you might not like it.
Choosing Your Destination
You can buy shuttle tickets to the Toklat (Toe-klat) River, 53 miles into the park; Eielson Visitor Center, at around 66 miles; Wonder Lake, at 85 miles; or Kantishna, at 89 miles. On any day trip, you have to go both ways, so you're in for a long ride. If you don't get off the bus along the way, the round-trip takes 5 hours to Toklat, nearly 8 hours to Eielson, 11 hours to Wonder Lake, and 12 hours to Kantishna. You must bring your own water and food.
In choosing your destination, you need to balance your stamina, your desire to save time for a dayhike, and your desire to see wildlife. There are no firm rules about where wildlife shows up, but my own observations are that in the early morning, you can often see moose on the first part of the road; in midsummer, brown (grizzly) bears seem to appear most in the higher country, beyond Toklat, which also is the best area for caribous; and in the fall berry season, the grizzlies show up all along the drive.
The best views of Mount McKinley show up beginning around Highway Pass at the east side of the causeway at about mile 58, beyond Toklat (where the mountain cannot be seen at all). The mountain is most likely to be visible in the morning, as clouds often pile up during the day. Going all the way to Wonder Lake provides more amazing views, including the land-covered Muldrow Glacier and many classic images of Mount McKinley. There's really no reason to go as far as Kantishna unless you are headed to a lodge there. In general, I think Eielson Visitor Center is the best destination for most people, offering them the chance to see the mountain and some wildlife while leaving them time to get out and walk. (I've included ideas on where to hike later.)
You won't be able to time your trip for good weather, as you need to book ahead. But don't despair if it rains -- the sun may be out at the other end of the park. The best weather for wildlife sightings is cool, overcast skies without rain. One trick of the system that allows visitors to wait for sun is to stay at Teklanika Campground. If you drive to a campsite there, agreeing to stay for a minimum of 3 nights, you're eligible to buy a special shuttle ticket that's good for rides deeper into the park the entire time you're staying at the campground ($32 for adults, half price for children ages 15-17, free for children 14 and under). Wherever you stay, you can buy a three-trip pass for the price of a two-trip pass.
Denali can be a challenge for families. Young children will go nuts on an 8-hour bus ride and often can't pick out the wildlife -- this isn't a zoo, and most animals blend in with their surroundings. Older children also have a hard time keeping their patience on these trips, as do many adults. The only solution is to get off the bus and turn your trip into a romp in the heather. When you've had a chance to revive, catch the next bus. Besides, just because you buy a ticket to Wonder Lake doesn't mean that you have to go that far. Keep in mind, too, that if your child normally needs a car seat, you must bring the seat along on the bus.
The park has alternatives to the shuttle bus, with commentary, more comfortable seats, and other amenities. Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Venture operates two narrated bus tours, booked mostly as part of package tours. The Denali Natural History Tour provides just a taste of the park, going 17 miles down the park road, but also includes a cultural component, with a film, a history talk at a cabin, and a presentation by an Alaska Native, which could include singing, storytelling, or information about living off the land. The Tundra Wilderness Tour goes to Toklat when the mountain is hidden by clouds, and 8 miles farther, across Highway Pass to Stony Hill, when it is visible. Programmed commentary provides background on what you are seeing. Food is provided, but you can't get off the bus along the way (that's the fatal flaw, in my opinion). Three narrated tours go all the way to Kantishna, a 13-hour, 190-mile round-trip to the far end of the park road. One is operated by the park's concessionaire and the other two by lodges that have the right to use the road because of where their land is located. The park's concessionaire-operated Kantishna Experience picks up a ranger at Wonder Lake to provide commentary and to lead a hike and a visit to a historic cabin in Kantishna. The tour costs $159, half price for children 14 and under, including lunch and snacks. The private operations, Kantishna Wilderness Trails (tel. 800/230-7275 or 907/683-1475; www.seedenali.com) and Denali Backcountry Adventure (tel. 888/560-2489 or 907/683-2643), run similar tours, but with bus drivers doing the commentary and with different activities at the far end: gold panning (with either) and a sled-dog demonstration (with Kantishna), or a hike (with Denali Backcountry). In any event, it's a marathon and you can't get off the bus along the way. They charge $149 to $169, with no discount for children. But I wouldn't take a child on a 13-hour bus ride and expect to remain sane.
Reserve your shuttle ticket for as early as you can stand to get up in the morning. This strategy will give you more time for dayhikes and enhance your chances of seeing the mountain and wildlife. Many animals are more active in the morning, especially on hot days. During peak season, the first bus leaves the visitor center at 5:30am and then one leaves roughly every 15 to 30 minutes in the morning. A few buses leave in the afternoon, mostly to pick up stragglers on the way back, returning late under the midnight sun.
By taking an early bus, you have more time to get off along the way for a hike, walking back to the road and getting the next bus that comes along with a spare seat. Time it right, and you could have more than 8 hours for hiking plus a tour of most of the park road before returning on a late bus. (To be on the safe side, don't push it to the very last bus.) The sun won't set until after 11pm May through July, and it will be light all night. If you need to get back to the park entrance at a certain time, leave yourself plenty of time, because, after getting off your westbound bus, you can't reserve seats going back the other way, and you may have to wait an hour for a bus with room to take you.
Before you leave for the Wilderness Access Center to get on your shuttle bus, you'll need a packed lunch and plenty of water. You should wear sturdy walking shoes and layers of warm and lighter clothing with rain gear packed, you should have binoculars or a spotting scope at the ready, and you should have insect repellent. You may also want a copy of Kris Capps's worthwhile booklet Denali Road Guide, sold at the Denali Visitor Center bookstore and published by Alaska Geographic. It provides a milepost commentary you can follow as you ride. Alaska Geographic also publishes guides to Denali birds, mammals, geology, and trails. If you'll be doing any extensive dayhiking, you may also want to bring a detailed topographic map printed on waterproof plastic (published by Trails Illustrated and sold from the visitor center or by ordering from Alaska Geographic), as well as a compass; if you're just going to walk a short distance off the road, you won't need such preparations.
Denali Park Road Bus Facts
Note: WAC is Wilderness Access Center. All prices rounded to nearest dollar.
Riley Creek Loop -- Links facilities within park entrance area Visitor facilities, learning center, Riley Creek Campground, rail depot Continuous loop Free
Savage River Shuttle -- Public transport to hiking and picnicking near the Savage River, which can also be reached by car From visitor center to Savage River Day Use Area, about 14 miles into the park Peak season every hour 9am-9pm Free
Camper Shuttle (Green Bus) -- Access to campgrounds and backpacking beyond the park entrance From the WAC to Wonder Lake Campground, 85 miles into the park Several times a day $32 adults, half price ages 15-17, free 14 and younger
Shuttle bus (or just "the shuttle"; Green Bus) -- General access to the park and wildlife viewing; limited commentary, depending on the driver; no food or water From the visitor center as far as Kantishna, 91 miles away through the park Every 30 minutes to Fish Creek/Eielson, every hour to Wonder Lake, 4 times daily to Kantishna $25 to Toklat, $32 to Eielson, $43 to Wonder Lake, $47 to Kantishna; half price ages 15-17, free 14 and younger
Natural History Tour (Tan Bus) -- 5-hour guided bus tour at the edge of the park From the WAC 17 miles into the park Three times daily $64 adults, half price ages 14 and younger
Tundra Wilderness Tour (Tan Bus) -- 7- to 8-hour guided bus tour with lunch provided; passengers may not get off en route From the WAC to the Toklat River or Stony Hill, 53-61 miles into the park Twice daily $108 adults, half price ages 14 and younger
Kantishna Experience -- 13-hour guided tour and hike to the end of the road From the WAC to Kantishna One daily $159 adults, half price ages 14 and younger
On Your Way
There are no reserved seats on the bus, but if you arrive early, you can find a place on the left side, which has the best views on the way out. Bus riders often see grizzly bears, caribous, Dall sheep, moose, and occasionally wolves, but, as one driver said, the animals aren't union workers, and it's possible that you won't see any at all. Of course, you have to stay on the bus when animals are present.
The shuttle-bus drivers often offer commentary about the sights on the road, but they aren't required to do so. Some do a great job and some don't say much. The tour-bus drivers do a formal presentation, but you can't get off the bus on the way.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.