Wildlife, Denali National Park and Preserve
We decided to go on the Eielson shuttle bus, instead of the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which is popular among tourists, especially cruise passengers like ourselves. The Eielson shuttle goes further into Denali National Park (66 miles versus 53 miles) and is a lot cheaper (around $40/person versus $90/person). We booked Eielson shuttle tickets for 8:30 am but arrived at the Wilderness Access Center at 7:10 am and were able to get on the 7:30 am Eielson shuttle via standby. It drizzled the entire day but was very rainy when we arrived at the Eielson Visitor’s Center. We had lunch there, put on our rain pants, and then took the ranger-led Eielson Stroll. It was very rainy and windy the whole time so that already made this walk uncomfortable. A group of 4 actually aborted halfway through because they were not dressed properly. I found the Stroll to be very boring. The ranger talked about animals but A LOT about plants, which were not interesting to me. I think the talk was geared towards kids because it had an Olympic theme to it. During the entire bus trip, we saw a grizzly bear, mama grizzly bear with 2 cubs twice, lots of dall sheep, wolf, 3 wolf pups, red fox, ground squirrel, snowshoe hare, moose, and caribou! We were thrilled to see so much wildlife and after swapping stories with other cruisers, we found that we saw the most out of everyone since most of them took the park tours, instead of the shuttles.
Denali is home to some of North America's biggest and favorite animals. The 'Big 5' in Denali consist of: grizzly bear, wolf, moose, caribou, and Dall's sheep. There are also golden and bald eagles, pikas, and ground squirrels. The people in the park have done a good job keeping the park wild, especially the lack of trails and car-accessible roads in the backcountry. On the bus rides into the backcountry you can usually see some of these animals... I notched 4 on one bus ride. Hikes can bring you a lot closer to the animals.
A recent hike brought me close to a sow and cub bear, just a bit over a quarter mile away. And there were sheep up on the hills. Caribou tracks all around, but no sight of the animals themselves. It is a great experience, a chance to see animals in their real habitat.
For the larger mammals, the fox is probably the most prolific and capable predator in the park. Unlike the grizzly bear, who feeds mainly on vegetation and sits on kills until the flesh is finished off, the fox eats for his fill but also caches food for later consumption (without guarding it in the meantime). Seen throughout the park and not annoyed in the slightest by human intrusion, the fox is most often seen hunting in his aerial fashion (so as not to quake the burrow of his prey). His coat ranges from the plush red to a mangier, grizzled appearance.
Many people complain that they see little wildlife in Denali. I think the guidebooks make it seem as though you will be inundated by moose and bears and other animals. Granted, its not like Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone where there are wildlife sightings every few feet. But this is a largely roadless wilderness park. And the wildlife, fortunately, is not accustomed to humans.
A guide told me that anywhere you go in Denali, you will be surrounded by wildlife, whether you know it or not. Most animals shy away from roads and even trails, making it difficult to see them unless you go deep into the park. But when you least expect it, you'll find them.
Case in point. After seeing little in the way of wildlife, I was driving back from the park, heading south along the Parks highway towards Talkeetna, lost in thought. The sun had finally broken free and improved my spirits tremendously. In a flash, a black object shot across the road maybe ten feet in front of my car. A black bear! Before my mind could even process it, the bear ran across the highway and disappeared into the trees lining the other side
You don't see that anywhere else in the U.S.
There are many wild animals roaming in Denali, including bears, caribou, moose, foxes, wolves etc. Best time to see them is perhaps during spring, and they can be easily spotted with binoculars because the national park consists mainly of wide open spaces with no tall trees.
Both black bears and grizzly bears are found in the park. Above treeline, you are more likely to see a grizzly. These bears are not as large as the ones found near the Alaskan coast mainly because of their diet. These bears usually eat plant life such as berries more than they eat other animals. The grizzlies near the coast mainly eat fish. Sine the vast majority of park streams cannot support fish, the bears must turn to other sources for food.
We did see a few herd of caribou somewhat close to the road. They are constantly on the move and roam the tundra generally above the timberline.
Everytime we'd see a herd, the Alaskan natives behind us would yell "nice rack". Must be an Alaskan joke :-). Both males and females grow antlers and can weigh up to 25 pounds on the largest bull.
Did not expect to see Gulls (Mew Gulls) so far inland. But I suppose where there is water, there are gulls. The gulls were constant visitors at the Denali Princess deck where casual meals are served. The deck overlooks the river. The gulls would perch above the patrons and would wait patiently for them to leave so they could consume any leftover scraps. The metallic owls obviously didn't deter them either.
(Thx Jim & Lisa for the use of your photo)
The Willow Ptarmigan is Alaska's state bird and one of the first animals spotted in Denali N.P. The were often seen on the side of the road. They are primarily found in arctic tundras and the high treeless areas of Alaska.
They are also found in Canada, Scandanavia, Finland and Russia.
I stand corrected MrClay.....the Mosquito is the state bird!
This Red Fox was also very close to the road and didn't seem to be bothered by our bus of sight-seers. So we wouldn't scare him away we were told to be very quiet. Although I would think the noise of the bus alone would be enough to scare him.
The red fox is common in North America and most of Alaska. The adult weighs 6-19 pounds (2.7-6.8kg) but appears heavier due to it's thick fur.
We were lucky to have viewed numerous Dall Sheep during our 8 hour ride through the park. As a defense from predators they generally graze and live in the high alpine ridges and steep slopes. The bus stopped many time to view lines of white specs along the peak of mountains.
Not too good to photograph at such a distance but nevertheless decent wildlife sightings. On the main road of the park are wildlife viewing signs indicated by a pair of binoculars or photography signs indicating closer views suitable for photography.
Photo shown was taken using an 8X optical zoom plus cropped.
Denali has hundreds of grizzlies and black bears through its 4.7 million acres, but the great bears are aloof and generally seen only at great distances. Unlike their coastal cousins who have the benefit of salmon, berries and nuts to help them pack on winter weight (not to mention plentiful moose calves), Denali's grizzlies live on comparatively straitened diets, and must forage for their daily meals. In the summer, moose and caribou calves form their rare chances at meat. Otherwise, it's vegetation and whatever vermin they can scrounge. The growth limit is about 600 pounds in this environment. (N.B.: like any other animal, the bears take the path of least resistance, so it is not surprising to find them using the roads like the hikers and cyclists).
Like the park's other ungulates, Denali's caribou tend to separate by sex until the mating ritual, when the bulls lock horns in their struggle to gain a harem. The females tend to look ridiculous in their patchy summer coats and hornless pates, and the males, even with their great antlers, are also mainly brown in the summer. The plush white collars do not appear until later in the season. Of the three large ungulates that sport great and unique antlers (moose, elk and caribou), Denali has two species (the moose and the caribou). Look for them especially in river bottoms and in settings with fields of willow, a popular browse for the caribou.
The Dall sheep behave like their larger cousins the Bighorn or Rocky Mountain sheep. Separated by sex except for the mating season, the rams stay aloof from the main body until the rut dictates the clash of horns. Dall sheep are sighted in the most inaccessible cliffs and recesses, keeping to the highest pastures for food and protection. As usual with Denali's wildlife, the Dall normally appear at a considerable distance, but sightings are often fortunate near Polychrome Mountain and the areas bounded by the Toklat and East Toklat Rivers.
It is the moose and not the grizzly bear that claims to be the largest animal in Denali. Bull moose are generally solitary animals that will not consort with the cows until the fall rut. Moose in Alaska are gigantic, larger than those you see in the lower 48 states, but even Denali's moose are bested by their cousins on the southern coast. At about 1,500 pounds for full-grown males, this is not an animal that you want to provoke, although the Denali Alpengow prescribes only 75 feet as the minimum safe (and permissible) viewing distance. Moose thrive on the abundance of aquatic plants and willow (the latter both for protection and forage), and the best spots (according to the bus drivers) are the ponds and creeks around Wonder Lake and Kantishna.
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