A National Park with a difference.

The second part of our Alaska vacation was a trip to Denali National Park, some 240 miles north of Anchorage. Denali is known primarily as home of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, which measures 20,320 feet tall. McKinley (named Denali by the native people) is usually hiding in the clouds, so it’s not often seen by tourists. The park, however, offers many opportunities for seeing wildlife, including grizzly bears, Dall sheep, and caribou.

We took the train from Anchorage to Denali. Although the Alaska Railroad runs perfectly good train cars daily, we upgraded to the McKinley Explorer deluxe dome cars. Each passenger is given an assigned seat on the second floor of the train car, with excellent views in all directions. At mealtime, passengers come down in groups to eat on the first floor of the train car, which is set up as a dining car with waiter service.

Alaska RailroadMike and I soon realized that the best place on the train — weather permitting — was the open area between the train cars. There was generally enough space for two people on each side (right and left) of each car at each end. This place was perfect for shooting photos of the train as it wound around the track or for some of the scenic views we passed.

View from the TrainMike and I had very high expectations about the train ride, primarily because everyone kept telling us how great it was. As a result, we were disappointed. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a really great trip and one you should not pass up if given the opportunity. But it is about seven hours long (each way). Although there are plenty of incredible views, there are also a lot of boring stretches when there’s nothing but trees on both sides of the train. A one-way trip is enough. I wished we’d either flown or driven a rental car one way and taken the train the other way. Fourteen hours on a train (in the span of 3 days) was a bit much for me.

Mt. McKinleyWe did luck out as far as seeing Mount McKinley goes. At one point in the track, the train guide pointed it out in the distance. I managed to snap a few photos. The mountain wasn’t completely visible — there were plenty of white clouds masking various parts of it — but its summit rose up through it all. Magnificent.

On arrival and after settling in at our hotel, we made our way to the Wilderness Access Center for information about the park. That’s when we realized that Denali was very different from all the other National Parks we’d visited over the years. Access was heavily restricted — if you came by car, you could only drive in about 15 miles. To go farther, you’d need a special permit or to be a passenger on a tour bus. That pretty much forced us to do the tour bus thing, despite the fact that we normally like to strike out on our own.

Dall SheepWe signed up (and paid up) for a shuttle to Fish Creek. My understanding of the shuttle was that you could ride it as far as Fish Creek, but get off at any point, hike around for a while, and board another shuttle going in either direction. The reality was that the “shuttle” was a basic tour bus with a driver who stopped for wildlife spottings and took well over 4 hours to go 60 miles. The round trip was supposed to take 8 hours. For us, that’s a lot of time to be stuck on a tour bus.

Grizzly BearWe took the 7:30 AM shuttle all the way to Fish Creek, where the driver turned the bus around. Along the way, we spotted some Dall sheep, a grizzly bear, and three caribou (all at one place), along with some other sheep, bears, and caribou. The highlight was spotting a mama grizzly with two cubs. I got some excellent photos of them.

SquirrelWe got off at a McKinley viewpoint on the way back. Mike and I spent about 30 minutes just sitting on the ground, looking toward McKinley. Clouds completely obscured its top. We waited for them to clear, but they never did. I did get a few shots of a squirrel that was obviously far more friendly that it should have been. This is common in National Parks. People feed the wildlife and the wildlife becomes almost tame. The only problems with this is (1) tourists aren’t around all the time, so animals used to being fed don’t eat much off-season and (2) people food (like Cheetos and ham sandwiches) aren’t very good for them. The National Park Service at the Grand Canyon actually has to kill mule deer who scavenge in garbage pails during the winter, eat plastic bags, and get very sick.

Denali ViewWe hiked along the road for about a mile, then flagged down a bus and rode to the next stop. We passed by the mama bear and babies again. We rode along to a rest stop, then got off and hiked a while more. The problem with Denali is that there aren’t any many hiking trails. If you want to hike, you either have to bushwack through the tundra and run the risk of running into a bear or walk along the road, where you can flag down a bus. The road is not paved, so every time a vehicle goes past, the dust gets kicked up. It isn’t terribly pleasant. But the views are great and it’s wonderful to stumble upon some sheep high on a hill or some caribou drinking in a glacial runoff stream without a bus driver having to point it out to you.

CaribouWe learned too late that there’s lodging deep inside the park. If we go back, that’s where we’ll stay. Then we can do short hikes from our room or longer hikes with outfitters based there. That’s probably the best option for us, since we really prefer to avoid the tour bus crowd.

A nice park. My only regret (other than accommodations) is that we didn’t have more time to spend there.

What do you think?