Wolf Song of Alaska News

Bus Goes Only So Far

To really experience wild Denali, you need to use your feet

Peter Porco / Anchorage Daily News / April 22, 2008

That seems to be the best advice for visitors to Denali National Park who want a taste of genuine adventure without climbing Mount McKinley or staying overnight in the Denali backcountry.

In other words, join a ranger-guided day trip -- known as a Discovery Hike -- or step off into the country on your own.

Clearly, hiking Denali's valleys, riverbeds and uplands -- all of it trailless -- is not for everyone. But it's also not that difficult, and the rewards are incalculable.

But first you have to bring yourself to leave the cage. That's how my family, who visited the park every summer save one in the years 1993 to 2003, came to view the tour buses.

Without question, the buses are an efficient, economical and ecologically respectful way to see the best of Denali. That's why more than 300,000 people rode on them in 2007 from May to September.
Denali National Park and Preserve may be 6 million acres but it's crossed by only one road, a 90-mile east-west ribbon that winds through the wildlife-rich heart of the park, crossing braided rivers and mountain passes and opening up unparalleled views of an astonishing countryside, even on heavily overcast days.
For the first 15 miles, the park road is paved and generally unrestricted. Beyond the 15-mile gate at Savage River, pavement ends and things get interesting. Visitors must ride the bus or have a reservation to camp at Teklanika, at Mile 29, a privilege with its own restrictions.

Past Teklanika, the gravel road narrows considerably. In some places, the buses climb grades and hug such cliffs that if heights bother you, it's better if you wear blinders.

For the new Denali visitor and the veteran both, the sights from the bus can be inspiring. We have seen a flock of Dall sheep, including about 15 lambs, bravely swim across a swift-moving river right alongside the road and then cross the road in front of us. We've seen a fox with its evening meal, a ground squirrel, in its jaws as it walked the ditch beside us.

Numerous times we've seen grizzlies alone or with cubs, some walking the road ahead of us or -- so accustomed to the traffic are they -- walking right below the bus windows. During a monthlong spell some years back, bus passengers were regularly seeing wolves take down caribou. In one remarkable instance, they saw a pack of wolves kill and eat two grizzly cubs.

Nevertheless, from the beginning, we felt a bit cooped up in the buses, as if we were the caged animals watching the lucky creatures roaming free. So we began -- in ever more manageable outings -- to explore the land outside the bus on foot.

Here's a bit of necessary background: Denali's tour buses, all operated by a concessionaire, are of two basic types. The wildlife tours (generally the tan buses) take riders to a specific point in the park and turn around, stopping every so often but keeping the entire party together. They provide box lunches and a tour narration and are more expensive.

The shuttle buses (generally green) are not tours officially but rather an informal transportation system that allows passengers -- here's the ticket -- to get off wherever they want.

That's right. You can ride a shuttle bus and get off wherever. After you're done exploring and you're ready to go back to your starting point -- usually the park entrance or one of the campgrounds -- you put out your thumb. If a shuttle bus headed in your direction has enough seats, it will stop for you.

You'll never be left in the park because there's always a bus coming by toward the close of the day with lots of empty seats.

The first year, when our daughter was 5 and her buddy, our guest, was also 5, we climbed some 500 feet above the Polychrome rest stop. I went a little farther to a rounded rock-strewn summit with sweeping views in every direction while my wife stayed back with the girls.

The next year, we did it again, all of us getting to the top of the same mountain. But this time we went down the backside, which added about two miles of travel to our day, including a long descent down a scree-loaded draw that felt like the dark side of the moon. For hours we were alone in a wilderness that couldn't be seen from the bus windows.

The next year, my wife's brother's family were our guests. We climbed the same mountain again but descended by a route that took us back to the road miles to the east of Polychrome. Before the end, however, as we rested high on a slope above the East Fork of the Toklat River, we saw a bear splashing around in a pond below us. The bear seemed to have no purpose other than the joy of a good swim. It was for us the first of numerous encounters with bears, caribou and wolves, some of them quite close, made while we were on foot.

Soon we discovered the Discovery Hikes. Limited to about a dozen people, "Disco Hikes," as they are known among the park staff, are free. The park once supported two hikes a day but now only one per day, according to Denali staff.

The ranger-led outings attract hikers from all over the world, from adolescents to seniors. You sign up in advance at the visitor center (or at Teklanika campground) and board a special hiker's bus on the morning of the hike. The hikes vary in length and elevation gain. Rangers, knowledgeable about the natural history of the park, identify wildflowers and the dwarf vegetation of the subarctic tundra. They might point out small animal bones in wolf scat or make plaster molds of bear prints in the mud of a river bank.

We have been on Disco Hikes that climbed 2,000 or 3,000 feet to a summit or ridge-top. We've also been on lowland hikes that followed creek beds for several miles. The rangers set a pace that usually accommodates all.

We have milked the Disco Hikes for as much as we could, signing up for two or three or even four on a single visit to the park. But eventually we tired a little even of them and began exploring more of the park on our own, as we did in the beginning. Our approach was always the same. We got on the shuttle bus and then got off at a spot on the road where we thought we'd find good traveling. But now we hiked farther. We climbed mountains and ridges, forded shallow creeks and skirted ponds. We continued to see as much wildlife and to enjoy the expansive views and special peace of the alpine meadows.

Exploring Denali's wild country is a manageable proposition, providing you take adequate clothing, are prepared for sudden changes in the weather, and carry enough food, water and first-aid provisions. In other words, you must know how to travel in Alaska's mountains.

Those who want to see Denali as comparatively few see it can always go backcountry camping, but that is somewhat limited since only a certain number of people, who must have permits, are allowed overnight in any one section of the park.

The other way is to get off the bus and take a hike.
Peter Porco is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage. *

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