Visiting Alaska’s Denali

A cruise-land tour to Denali National Park on the Wilderness Express from Seward, Resurrection Bay, with stops in Alyeska and Anchorage.

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Above photo: First look at “The Great One”.

We visited Denali as part of a cruise-land package. Many travelers enjoy this combination of cruise and land tour as it is a comfortable way to visit this part of Alaska. We took the cruise from Vancouver and then traveled over land. If we were to do it again, however, we would do the opposite. It would be much better to spend a number of days touring and then have a wonderful seven nights to relax and be pampered on the ship.

We disembarked our cruise in Seward where we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center and then enjoyed a Resurrection Bay Wildlife Cruise. Seeing the variety of fish, birds and animals was amazing. In the early evening we boarded the Wilderness Express which took us to Girdwood where we spent the night at the Hotel Aleyska. It is our understanding that some cruise lines offer train service all the way to Denali. The trains are made up of glass domed observation cars with a dining room on the lower level. The cars themselves are actually owned by the cruise ship lines.

On the second morning of our adventure we took the Alyeska Tramway to see the views from 2,300 feet above the valley. We had time for some hiking and took lots of pictures. In the early afternoon we boarded our bus and spent the next night at the Marriott in the city of Anchorage. While in Anchorage we spent time at the downtown market and had a light meal at a wine bar, Crush Wine Bistro. The following day we spent most of the time on the bus getting to Denali with a stop for lunch in Talkeetna. We also got our first good views of Mt. Denali.

We arrived late in the afternoon at the Denali Visitor Center where we took the Discover Denali Tour, a 1.5 mile walk familiarizing us with the park and all it has to offer. We spent the night at the McKinley Village Lodge (now Denali Park Village). The next morning we embarked on the tundra wilderness tour, approximately 8 hours on a bus dedicated to enjoying the scenery and wildlife and learning the park’s history. There were lots of photo stops and a “bag lunch” was included.

If you are planning on going to Denali on your own it is important to understand three things. First, the park is vast and has very little in the way of rest areas or visitor centers. Second, the park generally does not allow private cars far beyond the entrance and visitor’s center. Lastly, you need reservations to take the park operated bus tour and they book up weeks, maybe months in advance. Visiting Denali is not a casual process and considering the vast distances crossed in Alaska, you need to make your arrangements months in advance.

The highlight of this whole trip was the day touring the park. The scenery is inspiring but so is the very desolate and wild character of Denali (map). The focus of the tour is the wildlife but that too needs some explaining. Area wise, Denali is our largest national park. It encompasses about 9,492 square miles (larger than the state of New Hampshire) and most of it is without roads or even trails. The animal populations are much smaller than most would expect with only 70 Grizzly bears per 1,000 square miles. Other census numbers per 1,000 square miles show 131 Black bears, wolves less than 8, and the estimate for the total Denali Caribou Herd was about 2,230 animals. Dall Sheep totals for the park are less than 1,900. Based on these numbers it’s easy to understand that looking for wildlife is the major focus of the tour. We were lucky and saw two grizzly bears, a small herd of Caribou and two different groups of Dall sheep. We also saw many “suicide squirrels” so named because locals think they prefer to die in front of buses rather then face the prospect of a grizzly bear encounter.

The landscapes are vast and rugged and North America’s tallest mountain, Denali (previously Mt. McKinley) stands above everything. The only problem is that it is shrouded in clouds most of the year, but, even if you miss the “Great One,” the Alaska Range is awesome.

After another night near Denali our bus headed for Fairbanks and our flight home. In Fairbanks you can see and walk under The Alaska Pipeline, visit an interesting history center and see gold mining operations. We love cruising Alaska but this land tour was a truly unforgettable trip.

Photos top to bottom: Featured – Mt. Denali Range, Sea lions Resurrection Bay, Wilderness Express interior, Wilderness Express rounding turn, Approaching the Alaskan Range, Park Service tour bus, Park landscape, Grizzly bear, Caribou, Dall sheep, Park landscape.

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