Day 54: Into the Denali Wilderness

Day 54: Monday, July 8, 2013. Denali RV Park and Motel to Teklanika River Campground, Denali National Park, Site 27. About 40 miles driven.

Denali Park Road is the only road in Denali National Park and Preserve. Private vehicles can drive the first 15 miles. Within those first 15 miles are the Visitor’s Center, the sled dog kennels, a campground, a science and learning center, scenic turnouts, and many hiking trails.

Travel beyond the first 15 miles is limited to the park buses and private vehicles going to and from Teklanika River Campground at mile marker 29.1. The campground has about 50 sites and a few of them are quite large. There is a three night minimum stay required and once we set up in our campsite we could not move our vehicle until the day we left. When we checked into the campground we received a camping pass along with a vehicle pass which we showed a park ranger at the Savage Creek checkpoint at the end of the 15 miles. She asked if we had filled our fresh water tank and had food. When we replied yes we were on our way into the wilderness area of Denali National Park.

The first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road is paved. The rest is dirt. The 90 mile road has several rest areas and scenic turnouts for the buses.

The wilderness area of Denali is just that.  Congress designated Denali to remain a mostly primitive area. There are no maintained trails except for around the Eielson visitor’s center. Hikers can hike wherever they want. There are a few campgrounds for tent camping that can only be reached by riding the bus. Bicycles are allowed and we saw a few cyclists.

After setting up camp we walked to the bus stop to wait for a bus so we could see some of the Denali Wilderness. The buses start near the entrance to the park where visitors can board for a tour. The 20 people waiting for the bus at our campground were all hoping to get the next bus. Sometimes the bus is full and riders have to wait for the next one. Most of the riders are hoping to see wildlife and the protocol is to shout “STOP” if anything is spotted. The driver will stop the bus and, if possible, position the bus so there is a good view of the wildlife. Our bus had scheduled stops at Teklanika River rest area, Polychrome overlook, Toklat River rest area, and Eielson Visitor’s Center. The rest areas have pit toilets and the Eielson visitor’s center has rest rooms. At each stop the driver announces when he will depart. Riders can stay longer at any location and catch another bus later. Hikers can catch a ride on a bus by standing on the side of the road and waving their arms.

We rode the bus as far as the Eielson Visitor’s Center. Our two objectives were to see wildlife and hopefully Mt. McKinley. On a clear day the mountain can be seen from the Eielson visitor’s center. Unfortunately, it was not a clear day. We struck out pretty much on the wildlife sightings, too. There were several Caribou sightings and Dall sheep so high on the mountain they looked like white dots. No bears at all.

The rain started coming down as we returned to the campground. Our campsite was at the end of a row with trees and wildflowers surrounding us. The site next to us was empty and we felt like the only people there.