Monday, July 23, 2012

Denali National Park: Day 3...Shuttle to Eielson Visitor Center

In order to preserve the wilderness of Denali National Park, private vehicles are only allowed to drive on the Park Road to Mile 15 (Savage River). Visitors wishing to see more of the park interior must purchase a ticket for a ride on a tour or shuttle bus. Tour buses have naturalist bus drivers who read from a scripted dialog and provide box lunches for their customers.  The shuttle buses are more laid back, no lunch/beverages provided, but passengers can get on and off the bus at their whim (provided there are no wildlife present at their desired disembarkation point). We chose the latter as we weren't quite sure how the children would take to sitting cooped on a bus for the whole day, and appreciated the option of getting off should they need to stretch their legs for a bit.  We simply needed to flag down another shuttle bus that comes along when we were ready to continue the ride. Oh, and the price is half that of the tour bus...when you have a family of five, price is an important factor. :-)
There are four main shuttle buses. The shortest being a 6.5 hour round trip, using Toklat River as its turnaround point. The second goes to Mile 66 of the road to Eielson Visitor Center and takes 8 hours round trip. The Wonder Lake bus takes 11 hours and the Kantishna (end of the road) bus takes 13. We chose to go to Eielson because of its visitor center. The children are accustomed to long road trips and they could have been fine on the longer ones, but we didn't want to push it. Wonder Lake would have been a great destination, but since it was an overcast day, we decided not to upgrade the ticket since the draw of the destination is seeing Denali from the lake...and that was not happening that day.

Anyway...(geez this is going to be a long post)...those of you who are planning a bus trip into Denali may find these tips useful:
  • booster seats are mandatory...bring your own for each little one. Ours have the Trunki backpack/booster seat and was very easy to haul in and out of the bus. Booster seats are nice for the little ones to see out of the windows.
  • Bring lots of food. There are no facilities in the park except for bathrooms. We brought an insulated backpack full of lunch/snacks/drinks, and extra for dinnertime should the bus run late returning.
  • Binoculars for little ones help them feel involved in the wildlife searching, and boost their little egos when the rest of the bus congratulates them on spotting an animal.
 The first third of the ride was uneventful. Our elderly bus driver was friendly and offered tidbits of information about the park and landscape formations. The passengers were in charge of spotting the wildlife and yelling for him to stop so we could take pics. Although there were no animals in sight at first, the views simply took your breath away.  It was so beautiful, even the Mister whose eyelids droop every time he's in a running vehicle was alert, taking in the scenery with wide-eyed wonder.

A couple of caribou crossing in front of the bus. They were trotting around the hillside to the right of us until they decided to cross the road and gallop away.

Our first bear sighting. As you can tell from the grainy quality of this image, he was pretty far away. They are fairly easy to spot against the greenery of the hills since Denali bruins are blonde.

Looking behind us, a view of the road traversing Polychrome Pass.

At a rest stop at Toklat River. 

There were several antlers to look at near the Alaska Geographic outpost at the rest stop.

Olivia appreciated the vast amount of space to run and stretch her legs.

At the Eielson Visitor Center, where we spent a 30 minute break before heading back towards the entrance.

Outside the visitor center, there were several trails to try. The Tundra Trail Loop, a mere .5 miles was the only one we could attempt because of the short break allotted for the stop.

I look at this picture and wonder what my little girl is thinking about.

The short trail in front of the Eielson visitor center. Sophie had grabbed ahold of my hand at one point, and quietly said, "Mom, when I look around, it's like it goes on forever," obviously in awe.

 On the way back, someone spotted a Dall sheep in the middle of the road.

 And even more on the rock to the right of us.

 This ram was right next to the bus. 

We had already seen a bunch of caribou, Dall sheep, and grizzlies on the way (didn't want to post ALL of the pictures). The return trip, the excitement level had somewhat died down and the passengers were starting to feel the exhaustion of a long bus ride.  We were all starting to doze off until someone yelled, "Bear! Stop the bus!"

I peeked up from my nap, half expecting another sighting a quarter mile away. But this one was the closest one so far.

 There she was, foraging around.

 We were about to drive away after the first five minutes of everyone snapping their cameras away. Then someone yelled, "Wait! She has cubs!"

Out from the bushes, two "little" ones ran to their momma.

 They seemed to be playing, running back and forth for a bit, until they tired and settled down to take a break.

Right before we got back, we caught sight of a cow moose. But, you know, since moose are everywhere on base, the fam wasn't so impressed. LOL.

 It was a long day, a long bus ride, but considering we had expected it to rain the whole time (it didn't), and thought the kids would act up (they didn't), it was a great success. There was a shmuck at the front of the bus who loudly proclaimed that he wasn't very impressed with the park at all, to which I really had the urge to just sock him in the mouth.

The shuttle ride isn't a theme park attraction or zoo with caged/tamed animals ready for anyone's viewing pleasure.  A wildlife sighting is a rare treat, a glimpse of these animals in their most natural habitat. It's easy to be consumed by the desire to search out the animals during the ride, but I think it's also important to look past that and really SEE the park. The most beautiful place I've ever laid eyes on.

When prompting the children for their feedback, I was pleased to find they felt the same way. All three thought the bears were "really cool." But Liv said her favorite part was the bus ride through Polychrome Pass, partly because "we were so high and driving on the edge of the road" (hmmmm, I see an adrenaline junkie in the making). Sophia mentioned the braided rivers and how interesting it was that "it takes a long time to change the way the river flows, and these rivers must've been around for a LOOOOONG time." Dylan loved the mountain ranges and the stark difference between the Alaskan and Outer Ranges. I love that my children can appreciate these things, so far removed from the ugly tourist and his demands for instant gratification.

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