Experience Denali Park in autumn

[By Julie Stricker]

A crisp breeze ruffles the fur of a tawny grizzly as it grazes in a patch of blueberries only yards from a busload of people. They whisper excitedly as camera shutters whir, but the bear is intent on its meal and pays no attention. After a few last photographs, the bus lumbers away, leaving the bear amid vivid red-gold tundra and a panorama of mountains capped with fresh snow.

Caribou with antlers held high trot across the road as the bus crests a hill, but they’re spared just a passing glance because “the mountain” is out and all eyes are on it.

“The mountain” is 20,310-foot Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. The mountain is so massive it creates its own weather. Clouds often shroud it, even on otherwise clear days. But when it’s out, there’s no mistaking it, the crown jewel of the national park system in Alaska.

Denali, Athabascan for “The Great One,” sits at the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve, 6 million acres of spectacular subarctic wilderness pierced by only one narrow 92-mile gravel road. Much of the park is above treeline, with views that seem to go on forever in the crystalline air.

Park is ‘ Like New England’

The park was created in 1917 to protect the region’s abundant wildlife, including its iconic grizzlies. It is also home to moose, caribou, Dall sheep and wolves, as well as many smaller mammals. Hundreds of flowering plants, mosses and lichens flourish there, despite its subarctic climate.

Summers are short, bright and intense but the dark winter lasts eight months, with temperatures that can plummet to 50 Fahrenheit degrees below zero. Between the two is autumn, a brief season of stunning colors that is one of the best times to visit Denali.

Colors reach their peak in the last week of August through early September, according to Denali National Park spokeswoman Kris Fister. “It’s like New England, only the colors are at ground level and we have birches, aspens and tamaracks instead of maple trees.”

The colors are not all underfoot. By mid-August, darkness has returned after weeks of midnight sun and the aurora borealis may be visible overhead in the night sky.

The wildlife is in prime condition, Fister said. “The nice thing about coming later in the season is the animals with antlers, they’ll be fully developed and all the velvet is gone,” Fister said.

The park is quieter in autumn than during the midsummer rush. Songbirds have migrated south, but golden eagles and ravens are still afield. The mosquitoes—a plague in some areas of the park during the summer—are blessedly absent. The cool air is fragrant with the spicy scent of Labrador tea and the sweetness of crushed berries.

Making Preparations

Getting into the park takes planning. Vehicle travel there is restricted to maintain the park’s wilderness aspect and minimize disturbances to the animals. With few exceptions, only buses are permitted on the park road. Drivers follow strict rules about not interacting with wildlife, one reason a bear will tolerate busloads of people at a relatively close range–it has no reason to fear them.

“It’s a whole different world deep in Denali than up here in the front country.”
– Scott Reisland

The first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road to the Savage River are paved and open to the public, which can access campgrounds, trails, pullouts and interpretive sites. Visitors can go on a ranger-led hike, visit the National Park Service’s only working sled-dog team and explore a variety of trails, some of which are wheelchair accessible. The Wilderness Access Center, located at Mile 1, is where visitors can sign up for a campsite, reserve and catch a shuttle bus.

The Denali Visitor Center at Mile 1.5 offers information on ranger programs, interactive exhibits and daily showings of the film, “The Heartbeats of Denali.” The Murie Science and Learning Center at Mile 1.4 is the park’s education center and offers learning programs, seminars and youth camps. A small convenience store is also nearby.

Just outside the park, hotels, restaurants and gift stores line the Parks Highway. Flightseeing and rafting opportunities can be found here. Other activities are available in the nearby community of Healy.

Scott Reisland, whose family has operated Denali Grizzly Bear Resort since 1968, said the backcountry is still the main draw for visitors, despite the amenities near the park entrance. “It’s a whole different world deep in Denali than up here in the front country,” he said. “It’s amazing back there.”

Finding the Way

To get “back there” to the wilderness region beyond Savage River, visitors have two options: shuttle buses and tour buses. Both offer trips that range from two to 12 hours and are led by experienced bus drivers who skillfully navigate the narrow, unpaved park road as it dips into river valleys, climbs steep tundra slopes, skirts “drunken forests” on permafrost hillsides and clings to the steep cliff overlooking Polychrome Pass.

Shuttle buses are revamped school buses with convenience as their main amenity. Visitors can get off at points along the narrow park road to explore the countryside and then hop on a later bus to travel farther or return to the entrance. They stop for wildlife sightings and restroom breaks.

Four shuttle tours are available, including one that traverses the entire park road to Wonder Lake, a full day’s travel roundtrip. For those who don’t want to spend the whole day on the bus, a trip 66 miles to the newly refurbished Eielson Visitor Center with its spectacular views of Denali is a good option. Shuttle buses are the best option for hikers and campers, and some have room for bicycles. Visitors must provide their own food and drinks.

People who prefer a more structured, interpretive trip can opt for a tour bus. Tour buses are more comfortable and are narrated by a trained driver-naturalist who provides a guided informative trip into the park. Three tour options are available, ranging from a 4.5-hour wildlife tour to the Kantishna Experience Tour, an 11-hour journey to the former gold rush community of Kantishna at the end of the park road. All tours include lunch or snacks and beverages.

For more information, visit www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit.

Courtesy buses also run between facilities and campgrounds along the first 15 miles of the Denali Park Road. They are free and require no reservations.

For visitors with limited time or restless children, another option is the Experience Denali tour, operated by nonprofit Alaska Geographic. Participants travel through various habitats on their way to Savage River, where they take a walk and explore the area through the eyes of a scientist. It includes hands-on activities and is an ideal option for children. For information, call 907-683-1269.

The bus tours run through mid-September. For a lucky few people, however, one more golden opportunity exists to visit the backcountry—winning the lottery.

Every June, the park opens a lottery enabling winners to buy a one-day road pass to drive the 92-mile length of the Denali Park Road in their personal vehicle on one weekend in September after the buses stop running. Visit www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/road-lottery for more information.

After Road Lottery weekend, the main park visitors center closes and winter operations move to the Murie Science Center, which stays open year-round. The public can travel into the park to Teklanika, at Mile 30, until snow closes the road for the season.

Julie Stricker is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer. She spends her free time working in the garden, walking in the woods or riding on the runners of her dog sled, depending on the season.

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