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How to Do the Denali Shuttle Bus Safari

The Alaskan park's bus service is an inexpensive wildlife safari and an easy way to get to open country for off-trail wilderness hiking -- with transportation always close at hand.

Denali National Park is managed the way a park should be: for the animals, not for the cars. That means a visit is different from what you may have experienced at other parks, requiring more planning and plenty of time. You reach the main part of the park by bus, with or without narration from a guide. If you don't want to ride the bus, you shouldn't go to the park. But if you do ride the bus, you stand a good chance of experiencing a remarkable wildlife safari unlike anything else in the national park system.

The high point of a trip into Denali National Park is the shuttle bus ride. It's an inexpensive wildlife safari and an easy way to get to open country for off-trail wilderness hiking -- with transportation always close at hand.

Choosing Your Bus and Destination

Decades ago, when the shuttle-bus system began, the idea was simply to provide inexpensive transportation into the park. That philosophy still prevails on the main shuttle fleet: Basic buses traverse the road and stop for wildlife viewing, but don't provide food or formal narration (although some drivers do a terrific job of their own narration). Passengers get on or off wherever they please for hiking or simply to enjoy the countryside. Now, however, options for those who want a tour rather than transportation are also available. The tour buses are a little more comfortable and have planned narration, but don't let passengers on and off for hiking.

Shuttle buses run frequently all day, making wildlife sightings and letting off park visitors along the park road. Shuttle tickets designate the farthest you plan to go, but you don't have to go to the end of the line. Any bus can bring you back. In the past, most buses turned around at the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles into the park, but during construction at the center (which has a hoped-for completion date in 2008) its services -- restrooms, a bus dispatch office, a bookstore, and so on -- are in tents at the Toklat (toe-klat) River, 53 miles into the park. Buses stop there, continuing to the Stony Overlook for a view of Mount McKinley before the end of the line at the Fish Creek Turnaround, at about 63 miles. Other buses continue to Wonder Lake at 85 miles, or Kantishna, which is farthest from the park entrance at 89 miles.

The Toklat/Fish Creek Turnaround option makes the most sense, balancing a desire to see scenery and wildlife with the need to preserve your rear end from too much sitting, while also saving time to get out and hike. That trip takes about eight hours, and the fare is about $24 for adults, half price for ages 15 to 17, and free for ages 14 and younger. No extra fee is charged for getting off the bus at almost any spot of your choosing for a hike or picnic and then flagging down the next bus to travel onward. Bring your own food.

All narrated tours use the same lightweight buses as the shuttles, which are similar to school buses but sized and outfitted for adult riders. However, the Doyon/ARAMARK tour buses have higher-backed cloth seats and those on the Tundra Wildlife Tour include closed-circuit video that allows the driver to zoom in on distant wildlife. However, none of the narrated tours allows you to get off on your own.

  • The Natural History Tour ($60 adults, half price age 14 and younger, including park fee) travels only 17 miles down the park road, barely farther than you can drive yourself, and misses most of what you come to Denali to see. It's best for those who simply can't tolerate a long bus ride. Reserve through Doyon/ARAMARK.
  • The Tundra Wildlife Tour ($91 adults, half price age 14 and younger, includes park fee and lunch) travels to Toklat when Mount McKinley is hidden by clouds, and 9 miles farther, to Stony Hill, when it is visible. This route hits much of the best habitat. Reserve through Doyon/ARAMARK.
  • Kantishna Wilderness Trails (tel. 800/942-7420; and Denali Backcountry Tours (tel. 888/560-2489) both cover the entire park road with a 190-mile, 13-hour marathon that includes lunch and activities at the halfway mark at the Kantishna area (private land within the park). Either option costs $130 plus the $10 park entrance fee. There is no discount for children, nor would I recommend taking a child on a 13-hour bus ride.

Staying Sane in the Park with Kids

Denali can be a challenge for families. Young children tend to go nuts when subjected to an eight-hour bus ride, and they aren't often able to pick out the wildlife. The park isn't like a zoo and most animals blend in with their surroundings. Likewise, even older children have a hard time keeping their patience on these trips, as do many adults. The best solution: Get off the bus along the route and turn your trip into a romp in the heather. After you've had a chance to revive, catch the next bus. Remember: Just because you buy a ticket to a certain turnaround point 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 it along on the bus, too.

Getting Ready

Reserve your shuttle ticket for as early as you can stand to get up in the morning. This strategy allows more time for day hikes and enhances your chances of seeing the mountain and wildlife. During peak season, the first bus leaves the visitor center at 5:15am and then 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.

Here's a checklist for preparing the night before you catch your morning shuttle bus:

  • Lunch (several restaurants pack them) and plenty of water
  • Sturdy walking shoes and layers of warm and lighter clothing with rain gear packed
  • Binoculars or a spotting scope
  • Insect repellent
  • Camera and plenty of film (optional)
  • A copy of the mile-by-mile Denali Road Guide, available inexpensively at the park bookstores (optional)

For extensive hiking, a detailed topographic map ($9.95 at the visitor center) and a compass (not necessary if you're just walking a mile or two off the road)

Spotting Wildlife on Your Way

The shuttle bus has no reserved seats, but if you arrive early, you can find a place on the left side, which has the best views on the way out. Bus passengers often see grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and occasionally wolves (but it's all up to chance -- some see no wildlife at all). Calling out whenever you spot any wildlife is common courtesy on the shuttle bus so that others can see it, too. The driver stops the bus and everyone rushes to your side of the bus. After you've had a look, give someone else a chance to look out your window or to take a picture. Try to be quiet and don't stick anything outside of the bus, because that can scare away the animals.

Hiking and Backpacking from the Shuttle Bus

Walking away from the road takes a little courage, but doing so may be the best chance you ever have for experiencing a place like this on your own. The major risks of hiking are avoidable. It can get cold and wet in midsummer, so you need to be prepared with layers of warm, waterproof clothing to avoid the spiraling chill of hypothermia. The rivers are dangerous because of their fast flowing icy cold water. Experienced backcountry trekkers plan their routes to avoid crossing sizable rivers.

For a first foray beyond the trails, consider joining one of the hikes guided by a park ranger. One or two daily Discovery Hikes take off from spots along the park road. One hike goes well inside the park, toward the Eielson Visitor Center, and the other stays closer to the entrance end of the park. A ranger leads only 15 hikers while teaching about the nature of the surrounding terrain. Plan for a 5- to 11-hour day, including the shuttle ride. Actual hiking time is about four hours. The hikes generally aren't too strenuous for families with school-age children, but inquiring about how steep the hike will be is wise if you have any doubts. Hikes cost no more than the price of your shuttle ticket. You need to wear hiking shoes or boots and bring food, water, and rain gear. Reserve a place in advance, because hikes fill up in July, and you'll need to know when and where to catch special buses.

Here are some good hiking areas along the park road shuttle-bus ride by milepost. You don't need a permit for any day hike:

  • Mile 34: Manageable climbs on Igloo, Cathedral, and Sable mountains take off along the road from Igloo Creek to Sable Pass.
  • Mile 53: The bed of the Toklat River is a flat plain of gravel with easy walking. The glaciers that feed the river are 10 miles upstream.
  • Mile 58: Highway Pass is the highest point on the road. In good weather, dramatic views of Mount McKinley start here. The alpine tundra from here is inviting for walking, but beware of holes than can turn an ankle.

Imagine backpacking alone in your own area of wilderness, without trails, limits, or the chance of seeing other people. Retracing your route to get back to the bus isn't necessary: Anywhere you meet the 89-mile Denali Park Road, you can catch a bus back to the world of people. Any experienced backpacker should consider a backcountry trek at Denali.

There are planning issues and outdoor risks in this open country that make setting up a trip more challenging than on an ordinary trail. (This section is about overnight trips, not day hikes; going for the day requires little planning and no permits.) You need to be able to find your own way without a path, know what hazards to avoid (such as crossing rivers or climbing on slippery loose rock), and take care of yourself without expecting a lot of other people to come along to help.

Permits for wilderness overnights in the park are issued at the CCC//" target="_blank">Backcountry Information Center near Wilderness Access Center, open summer daily 9am to 6pm. Although you can prepare in advance for a trek, you can't choose a backcountry unit to explore before you arrive at the information center and find out what's available. That means you must be flexible about where you're going and what kind of terrain you will travel.

Information on what's available and a map of the units are posted at the center. Hikers can reserve permits for overnight backpacking only two days in advance; although you're unlikely to get one for the day you arrive, you can reserve permits for continuation of your trip for up to 14 days at the same time. The first night of a trip is the hard one to get -- for one thing, you can reserve only units that are contiguous to the park road for the first night -- but after that, each night gets progressively easier. Rangers are available to help you through the process.

Before you go, buy the Denali National Park and Preserve topographical map, published by Trails Illustrated, available for $10 from the Alaska Natural History Association (tel. 907-683-1272 summer, 907-683-1258 off-season; You'll also want a copy of the book Backcountry Companion, which describes conditions and routes in each area and is published and sold by ANHA. You'll also find both for sale at the visitor center.

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