Tundra Wilderness Tour


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Published: September 9th 2021
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Today I was able to venture further into Denali NP by taking a tour bus. Originally the tour was to be 8-9 hours but the park road is closed at mile 45 so instead it was 5 hours. The tour buses are converted school buses (same as the free shuttle) and they are able to travel beyond the Savage River stop onto the unpaved portion of the road. If you want to see the park beyond the pavement and do not want to go hiking off into the wilderness, this is what you want to do. There is probably a greater chance of seeing wildlife and there are breathtaking views of the Alaska Range that you don't get in the first 15 miles of the road. Take a bus tour if you come to Denali. You will not regret it!

I ordered a lunch from the lodge and picked it up before the bus arrived. For $18 you get a sandwich, apple, cookie, granola bar, bottle of water, Andes mint, a moist towelette and a reusable lunch bag. I guess the $18 was worth. The bus picked up those of us staying at the Bluffs Lodge and the rest of the group was picked up from the bus depot in the park. Luck was on my side again and the bus was not quite full so I did not have to share a seat with anyone. The tour company provides cans of water for anyone who needs a drink as well as a snack bag with chips, a cookie and fruit snacks. There is also a booklet on Denali and it's history, animals and peoples. Again, well worth the cost!

Our tour guide was a lady (I don't know that she ever said her name) who has lived in the area since 1975. Her knowledge of the park was great but she also gave us her first hand account of changes in the park since she has been there. Changes to the infrastructure as well as to the landscape. Mainly pointing out how trees are growing in higher elevations than they used to, which signals warming of the park. The tree line is creeping ever higher up the mountains.

A bit beyond the park headquarters she spotted a photographer looking at something and pulled over. It was a Northern Hawk Owl at the top of one of the spruce trees. That was a good find as it's not common to see them. Then further up were a bunch of cars so we slowed down. Two bull moose were putting on quite a show battling it out to see who would be boss. They were hard to see as they kept moving in and out of the trees. Luckily, the bus has a video camera that feeds TV screens so you can get a better view of the wildlife. We watched them for quite a while and started to drive off but noticed there was at least one cow (female moose) also back there in the brush. Very exciting and our only moose sighting of the day.

The bus continued along to Savage River and went through the check point. We passed many buses going both directions during our tour as well as cars, hikers and bikers. There are a few campgrounds along this stretch of road and a special camping bus brings people and their gear out here. Many people with their big backpacks heading out to explore the wilderness.

Much of the fall color is done further into the park but there were still some
Savage RiverSavage RiverSavage River

The little station at the other end of the bridge is the check point for anyone trying to head further in to the park. Due to the road closure, mostly everyone can drive in to a certain point for the rest of the summer season. Usually only permit holders, tour buses and campground buses can continue on.
patches of reds and vibrant yellows. The first snow of the season has already occurred and our driver said there was one day about a week ago where they could not go out because of the snow. But its mostly melted now except for a few small patches. The mountains have their first dusting, which they call termination dust here as it signals the end of summer. I love a snowy mountain so I was glad to see some snow up on the peaks.

There is only one rest stop on the tour now and that is at Teklanika River. It's a 10 minute stop to use the bathroom and check out the views. Then back on the bus. A short time later someone yelled "Bear!" and the bus stopped. Sure enough, there was a grizzly! It scared up a flock of ptarmigan (the state bird of Alaska) and came out of the bushes. It nicely looked right at the bus several times as it wandered around, digging for roots or whatever else it could find. It was really cool to watch it moving through it's home that we were visitors to.

And again we had to move
Another RiverAnother RiverAnother River

I can't remember which this is
on. The Alaska Range really becomes more visible the further you go into the park. Denali was not out today but the other mountains were gorgeous. We travelled through the valley between Igloo Mountain and Cathedral Mountain, up through Sable Pass and then reached the current end of the road. It's sad to think that humans are the reason this road is in such rough shape. With the temperatures rising, the permafrost is disappearing. This rapid melting is what has caused the road to become impassable at mile 45. There is an air strip out at Kantishna at the end of the park road. I would guess that will be the only way to access the lodges and cabins out there for the next few seasons. And maybe the remaining campground and visitor center that are out here. I will say, 5 hours on the bus does give you a great look into a small portion of the 6 million acres that is Denali. Heading in even further would have given more perspective to the land and animals.

And so we turned around. As we headed back someone spotted some Dall Sheep high up on a mountainside. The driver
Grizzly!Grizzly!Grizzly!

These are interior brown bears so they are smaller than the coastal brown bears. The bears here eat mainly berries and other vegetation. If they are lucky they will get a ground squirrel, ptarmigan, baby moose or caribou. But mostly they live off the plants so they do not get as massive as the salmon eaters to the south.
said she calls them Dall Specks because that's really all they are most of the time. Very high up so hard to see unless you have some big binoculars or a giant camera lens. I could tell it wasn't blobs of snow but that's about it. Dall Sheep are the only white sheep. They are closely related to the Big Horn Sheep that you find in places like Yellowstone but those sheep are a buff color. As we were looking at the sheep we heard "Bear!" from the back of the bus. Sure enough there was a bear a bit below the sheep. And then there were 3 bears! A mom (or sow) and two cubs. We were hoping the bears would go try to have a sheep lunch but they seemed content with whatever they were doing. Again they were too far away for my camera to get a good picture. They are just black dots below white dots!

And that was the last of our wildlife sightings for this tour. We did not see caribou or wolves. Caribou would have been the more likely but they were no where to be seen. The grizzly we saw earlier
Another lookAnother lookAnother look

This grizzly nicely looked at the camera a few times.
had moved on. We stopped again at the rest stop at Teklanika and then it was back to the paved road and back to the park entrance. As I said before, our guide provided so much information on the history of the park, the plants and wildlife in the park as well as all the different research going on within the park. She even talked about fossils that are now being found.

While Denali is accessible to tourists, many don't go beyond the 15 miles of paved road. This keeps the park preserved and mostly wild. At the end, she wanted us to reflect on what we did not see while out on the tour, cell phone towers, stop lights, buildings and how this was a chance to get away from our busy, demanding lives and just enjoy nature. We all need to unplug at some point and parks are a great place to do this. Whether it's a small local park or a giant National Park, getting out into nature will recharge your batteries.

I got off the tour bus at the bus depot rather than taking it all the way back to the lodge as I needed to stretch my legs and get a stamp in my NP passport since I forgot to bring it with yesterday. From the bus depot it's about a mile hike to the visitor center along the bike path. Got my stamp and then did the two really short half mile loop trails that run right behind the visitor center. Had a snack and enjoyed the crisp air for a bit until I caught the shuttle back to the lodge.

As of today there are only 3 places open for food, the lodge restaurant, the fancy restaurant at the sister lodge and the Chinese place in town. I went to the lodge restaurant where it was super busy and I ended up sitting at the bar. I got the brisket sandwich and fries which wasn't that great. It was big chunks of brisket on a bun with nothing else and a small pile of fries. Tomorrow might be Chinese or the mac n cheese cup I put in my suitcase. If you like a lot of food options, I suggest coming to Denali at least a week earlier than I did.

I still have one full day to spend
New turn around pointNew turn around pointNew turn around point

Where the green bus is ahead is now the farthest anyone can go on the park road.
here in Denali and I cannot wait to recharge my batteries some more. Tomorrow I have a 3 hour guided hike in the morning and then I plan to go back to the park to try to get one more hike in, if my legs aren't ready to fall off.


Additional photos below
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Turn around viewTurn around view
Turn around view

So beautiful
What lies aheadWhat lies ahead
What lies ahead

You can see the road hugging the mountain here on the right. The Pretty Rocks area where the landslide has worsened is around this bend. It has always been an issue but in the last month it was sinking 14 inches a day and the trucks couldn't keep up with filling in the road and it was deemed unsafe for the buses to keep traveling. A bridge seems likely as it's less likely a new road would be put in to bypass this area. Time will tell.
Dall Sheep and Mom and cubsDall Sheep and Mom and cubs
Dall Sheep and Mom and cubs

The Dall Sheep were way up the side of the mountain and then someone spotted a grizzly which turned out to be 3 grizzlies. They are very far away and just look like specs but I promise they were there.


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