Day 7 Grand Alaska Adventure: Denali Bus Tour

Tuesday morning we awoke to an overcast sky and snow-capped mountains. Despite the cold morning it’s supposed to be a beautiful day and perfect for our bus trip further into Denali.

The only way to tour the park is by bus. You can sign up for a narrated bus tour (beige bus) which includes a box lunch or you can pay a fraction of the cost and purchase a seat on the regular shuttle (green) bus. You can get off the green bus at any stop and simply pick up another one going in your direction. Only issue is whether the bus has seats. Mostly the tour buses appeared to be full of cruise passengers and those with very limited time in the park.

As a camper in the Tek campground we’re allowed to purchase a Tek Pass. This is a discounted bus ticket that allows you unlimited use of the buses from Tek further into the park for your entire stay at Tek. A great deal. You’re not allowed to return to the front of the park with the pass. You can return, but then you’d have to purchase another ticket to return to Tek.

We’d experienced the bus game while waiting in the cold and rain for a bus after our Discovery Hike. You’d hear the engine of a bus drawing near only to groan as it was a beige tour bus.  The game was repeated while we waited at the Tek bus stop for our morning bus to Kantishna, the end of the Park Road.

Due to the snow and poor road conditions, the buses were running nearly an hour behind schedule so our 8:55 pick up was closer to 9:45 am. We spent our time chatting with other campers and enjoying what was turning into a beautiful day.

Soon our bus arrived and we lucked into the last couple of rows on the bus. Our bus was equipped with a wheelchair lift so the back had several rows removed which gave us a great place to stand and the opportunity to view wildlife from both sides and the rear of the bus. What luck! Finally, hopefully, fingers crossed we’ll see some wildlife.

After what felt like only moments we had our first encounter!

A mother bear and two cubs were walking across the road. They didn’t appear too distressed by the bus and simply ambled into the brush on the roadside and continued their foraging.  Mamma bear looked a bit on the thin side so hoping she’s able to pack on enough weight to see her through the winter.

We made a few stops along the way for restroom breaks or to simply admire the scenery. Another lucky point with our bus was that due to its design we packed on less mud on our windows. Didn’t stop it all so during the stops Bill took it upon himself to clean our windows.  It greatly enhanced our viewing pleasure!

Each stop offered breathtaking views. Below is a view from the Toklat River area toward the hillside. Simply gorgeous.

And the Toklat River itself.

Other wildlife we encountered included another mother bear and cubs, a large male bear, and some grazing caribou in the distance. Below are a few more pics on the way to the Eielson Visitor Center.

The Park Road winds through the mountains and valleys of Denali offering visitors an opportunity to be amazed. 

Each turn of the road brought you something that defied description.

The Eielson Visitor Center provided great views of Mt. McKinley which teased visitors with glimpses of its magnificence.  The surrounding mountains are stunning. Ranging from 8 – 17,000 feet.  Then there’s the North and South Peak at 19,470 and 20,320 feet respectively. You’re still around 30 miles away and it dwarfs everything in its vicinity. Those “little” mountains you see in the forefront are over 12,000 feet.

We couldn’t let the opportunity pass so we of course took a group photo in front of the mountain which can’t be seen behind us, but we know it’s there!

Within Eielson Visitor Center there are great displays of native arts, animals, climbing gear and kiosks with area history and information. The center itself is relatively new and is built to be sustainable and provide minimal impact to the environment and the views. Here’s Linda in front of the center.

The real draw though are the views which can be admired from several viewing platforms or the hiking trails scattered around the area. The photo below was taken from the upper viewing platform which featured several antler racks to perfectly frame a scene.

And how could I not share another.

And since I couldn’t decide which photos to use, here’s another incredible view of the mountains.

We spent around 30 minutes at the Visitor Center. Unfortunately, mom and dad had some problems with the generator in their RV so decided to head back to have enough time during the quiet hours to charge up their house batteries.

Bill, Annie, Linda and I continued our journey. As we left Eielson the scenery continued to impress and we even had a bull moose sighting along a hillside.  I thought it was a couple of sheep so called out. Turned out it was a rather large bull moose with his polished antlers reflecting the sun.

We passed by Wonder Lake but stopped for a quick photo-op at the aptly named Reflection Lake.

Soon we reached Kantishna. The end of the line.

Kantishna offers visitors a small airstrip and several lodges, a couple of them run by the local tribe. This area was known for its mining in the past and as home to some famous area homesteaders. All of this we had learned a few days prior at the Denali Visitor Center.

Walking around the area was a great way to stretch our legs after sitting for so long.  After 15 – 20 minutes it was time to get back on the bus and begin the journey back.

We spotted a few moose in the distance on the way back to Wonder Lake, where this time we’d stop for a few minutes. As our bus made the turn toward the lake we were quickly flagged down by a few hikers. They had decided to go cross-country toward Reflection Lake but gotten turned around and spent several hours wandering lost until they found the road. They were definitely glad to see us and lucky we had a few open seats on the bus.

Lesson learned – don’t wander unless you know what you’re doing and have a compass. They were relying on the compass on their iPhone . . . yep! Have I mentioned yet that once you’re a few miles into the park all cell services are lost? Your GPS apps won’t work. This is why I have a $5 compass clipped to my backpack. At least they were wearing proper clothing and had water.

We pushed on back toward the Eielson Visitor Center which was now sporting “Bear Closure” signs on all the hiking paths. 

For the most part we were ready to be back at our camp. The scenery was wonderful, but we’d by now been on our bus for nearly eight hours.  Wildlife sightings did perk us up, such as this bear that I somehow managed to spot on the hillside . . far away on a hillside. My camera couldn’t quite zoom in enough. This was one large bear! Our driver believed either a male or a pregnant female.

Back at Toklat River we found yet more bear closure signs posted. After another hour or so, and a few more animal sightings we were back at the Teklanika River bus stop around 6:20 pm. A long day!

We chose to depart the bus here and walk a little over a mile back to the campground. They do make a stop at the Tek Campground bus stop but we needed to walk! It definitely felt good to stretch our legs after sitting for so long.

We wrapped up the day with yet another great dinner sharing our stories from the afternoon.  Mom and dad encountered more bears and other wildlife on the way back, but we were all lacking a wolf sighting. A man we spoke with at the bus stop that morning had a long encounter with one from his bus the day before. We were not so lucky, but had a fabulous day in Denali.

We’ve decided to leave a day early and head down to the Kenai Peninsula for our last experience of Alaska. Having an RV is definitely a plus and makes changing plans so easy!

While at the Eielson Visitor Center on the return trip Linda and I cancelled our participation in tomorrow’s Discovery Hike so that others can take our coveted spots. While we’ve been thrilled with Denali, it’s time to experience a different side of Alaska and the Kenai is one of my favorite areas.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings!

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