Buses, Denali National Park and Preserve
The shuttle bus is the way to go if you want some control of your time spent in Denali Park. However, there is a HUGE difference in the experience you get from the drivers.
Our driver on the way to Eilson (Rodney) was great and very informative. He explained a lot of the history, geology and wildlife in the park.
The drivers on the busses we rode on the way back, were pretty much silent except for pointing out widdlife. They were all nice except for Matt who reminded of of a school bus driver. He had to constantly tell the riders to be quiet and that he wouldn't stop for anymore wildlife is it wasn't quiet.
To his defense (a little), there was a couple loud rows of people on our bus, but I think he was a little overboard on how he handled them. Maybe he was just having a bad day.
Other than bicycling (which wasn't that common) or flying (which costs a pretty penny), the only way to get into the heart of the park is by bus. If you are spending only one day in the Park (my question is why?) then do the bus tour. However, be prepared for a long, somewhat uncomfortable ride, with limited stops where all the other buses stop, and lots of people.
The buses are not luxury motor coaches, but are refurbished school buses. After 4 hours, I couldn't wait to get off for good. The buses will pull over to the side of the road and turn off the engine if animals are spotted, which is nice. Otherwise, the buses will only stop at designated rest stops, and you'll be there with 8 -10 other busloads of people.
On the plus side, the drivers are VERY knowledgable about the area and wildlife. We learned a lot of interesting facts from our driver.
Make reservations. Do not depend on getting on a bus at the last minute.
Unlike the green shuttle buses, the Savage River shuttle is completely free. While it only goes out to the 15-mile mark on the road, about the same distance as personal vehicles can go, it gets out from the main cluster of people, and allows you a small glimpse of the wilderness that saturates the park. There is a campground there if you are so inclined, allowing you to get away from the masses at Riley Creek yet still be comfortably close to the headquarters of the park and such. It also provides a nice base for hiking, exploring some of th emountains or valleys near Savage River.
It has regular departures from the Wilderness Access Center and Visitor's Center.
Denali's bus system can be a little daunting to those not familiar with it. Indeed, when I was planning my trip, it seemed like quite a hassle to figure out all the times and dates and destinations. The shuttle bus - green in color - are the most commonly used buses in the park. These buses head out along the 91-mile park road, stop at a destination, and turn around. You can stay on your same bus all the way out and back (there are some rest points to stretch), or you have the option of getting off at an earlier stop or anywhere else along the route and go for a hike, enjoy the scenery, etc. To get back, you just wait by the road and hail the next bus. Sounds a bit intimidating, but you usually find room in the first bus or two back. No sweat.
The buses are slow, traveling at an average of 15mph (including stop time), so estimate about 6 hours for a round-trip bus to Polychrome, for example. The buses on the way out often stop for wildlife, so you'll probably see some of the 'Big 5.' It is a relaxing way to spend the day, if you want to see the park and yet not do intensive hiking, or to take a break from other activities. Or it is the jump-start for an adventure out into the tundra. Your choice.
Prices of shuttle buses for 2008:
To Polychrome Stop (mile 46) - $22.75 adult, $11.50 child (15-17yo)
To Toklat Stop (mile 53) - $22.75 adult, $11.50 child (15-17yo)
To Eielson Stop (mile 65) - $29.25 adult, $14.00 child (15-17yo)
To Wonderlake Stop (mile 86) - $40.00 adult, $20.00 child (15-17yo)
To Kantishna Stop (mile 91) - $43.25 adult, $21.75 child (15-17yo)
Children 14 and under are free on all buses, but must have a reservation to board! Reservations can be made online or via phone or fax
There is one road in to DNP and there are very few private vehicles permitted to drive it (for example, a photographer may get a permit from the park service to drive in but you must be able to prove a high percentage of your income comes from publishing your photos and these permits are very limited). Most visitors see the park by taking a bus. The Park Service runs "shuttle busses" and tickets are available online (Denali Park Resorts website) or at the visitors center near the entrance of the park. They cost about $25, depending how far into the park you want to go. The tour company's (Princess, etc) run "tour busses" and cost up to $150 more. As I said, there's only one road so you're seeing the same things! The tour busses say they charge more because of the narrative given by the driver however the shuttle drivers are extremely knowlegable about the park and can usually answer your questions. On the shuttles, you can hop on, hop off anywhere along the road which allows you to explore further away from the road. There are accessible shuttle busses available.
there are no private vehicles allowed in the Denali NP unless you booked a campground a few miles after the entrance.
If you want to go to Eilson Visitor Centre, Wonder Lake or Kantishna you need to book your bus or tour ticket way in advance. This is the only way you can get into the Park. And do it, even if you are not a "coach-tour-tourist" it is fantastic.
For adventurous visitors check out the back country camping!
Since you can only drive your own vehicle the first 15 miles into the park, the best way to penetrate further into the interior is to take the bus. Shuttle bus service begins Memorial Day weekend and ends after Labor Day. Buses travel regularly from the visitor center to Toklat River (6 hours round trip), Eielson Visitor Center (8 hours), and Wonder Lake (11 hours).
You can get off the bus to explore on your own anywhere along the way and catch the next bus going in either direction. On my first trip to Denali, several years ago, I disembarked the bus about half way, near the Polychrome Overlook, and took a three hour solo hike, both along the road and cross-country. It was a fantastic experience, rewarded with sightings of a grizzly mother and cubs (on a distant ridge), many dall sheep, other wildlife and scenery that caused both my heart and my imagination to take wings.
The only way for you to realistically explore this park is with the use of the shuttle bus system. Of course this doesn't mean that you have to stay with the bus the entire time, but it will be your main mode of transportation. There are a few exceptions: for example you are camping at Teklanika or you're a published professional photographer with special permission. There is a checkpoint at Savage River and they check every vehicle passing through.
There are only a limited number of buses sheduled each day for the roundtrip into the park, so you may have to wait a day or 2 if you just show up at the visitor center. Reservations can be made in advance. I liked to get on one of the earliest buses because I was able to get more out of my day, especially if I planned on hiking.
Most people choose to make the roundtrip to Eielson Visitor Center. This is about an 8 hour roundtrip. You have the choice to get out of the bus anywhere (as long as there's no wildlife present) to hike and join another bus later. Most people don't take this unique opportunity!
Wonder Lake is also a popular option, but be aware that it adds about another 3 hours to your trip. Rest stops are made every hour or so.
There is no food or water provided on the shuttle trip. Make sure you bring enough to last you for the day. Also bring something warm to wear as well as binoculars and a camera!
The BEIGE school buses are used for tours:
Tundra Wilderness Tour - 6-8 hour narrated tour, includes box lunch, frequent restroom breaks, is on the look-out for wildlife and will stop for viewing & photographing from the bus. Duration of tour depends on weather and animal sightings. The bus goes as far as mile 54 to Tolkat River.
Morning and afternoon tours available
Natural History Tour - A shorter 3-4 hour narrated tour where you will hear about the geology, history and landscape.
Tours available May 15 - Sept 16 $41.70
We did the Tundra Wilderness tour and frankly I thought it was too long of a ride in a school bus. But I am grateful for the animal sightings and glimpse of Mt. McKinley. If I did it over, I'd definitely take the green SHUTTLE bus and bring a day pack. You have a lot more flexibility.
For the vast majority of the park road, private vehicles are prohibited. There has been a lottery in the fall where some people can drive the entire road, however you are likely coming in the summer. Therefore, to go deep into the park, you must ride a bus.
A private tour company will take you to a certain point in the park depending on time and weather. These do not go all of the way to Wonder Lake. Most of the cruise ship tour groups take these. These busses will give a narrated tour of the park and will stop at certain locations and for major wildlife viewing.
There are also the park service school busses. These are your best bet. They can drop you off wherever you want to be dropped off, and they can pick you up along the road. They take backpackers, dayhikers, daytrippers, and those camping in the campgrounds into the park. The driver will stop if there is a request, such as a wildlife sighting.
Be warned that there are a limited number of slots available each day for a ride on the bus. You must be flexible and having a fair amount of time in the park will help you get what you want.
There are 2 type of buses servicing the park, both are school buses.
The GREEN buses are the shuttle buses mostly used by those wishing to hike, camp, or backpack. You can get on and off the shuttles after mile 20 up to your final destination. This allows ample time to explore and hike. Buses run from May 22 to September 16 and prices range from $18 - $34.50 depending on how far you wish to travel. The shuttle goes as far as mile 91 to Kantishna.
No food or water can be purchased on the bus. There are restroom stops about every 1.5 hours. Drivers will stop for animal sightings but passengers cannot disembark.
Several years ago, Denali National Park closed the main road at Savage River (Mile 13) to personal vehicles and made busses the only way to see the inside of the park. Love it or hate it, it's the way it is (I happen to think its a good idea. The bus drivers are also trained nature interpreters, so you will learn a thing or twelve on your ride!). The bus schedule is varied, and prices range from $18.00 for an adult, 6-hour round trip to $34.50 for an adult, 12-hour round trip all the way to Kantishna, the end of the road, and back. (Those are 2003 prices.) Child prices are roughly half of the adult prices. I would definitely encourage a trip on the shuttle bus! You will likely see wildlife, and learn a lot about the history, geology, and biology of this glorious national treasure. You can buy shuttle bus tickets at the Main Visitors Center or by calling 1-800-622-7275 toll free, or (907) 272-7275 in Anchorage or outside the US.
For you backpackers, a ride anywhere in the park on a special bus that has room for your backpack is $23.00, regardless of where your backcountry unit is. This is your best option - a pass is for round-trip, and the camper bus must stop for campers on their way out. Here's a little catch - you cannot reserve camper bus tickets until you have reserved your backcountry units. This helps prevent people backpacking in the park without getting a backountry permit. The desk for reserving bus passes is in the main visitors center, right next to the backcountry desk.
Here's another neat little hint - you can use your camper bus pass as many times as you like while you are in the backcountry. So, you can bop from backcountry unit to backcountry unit by shuttle bus as many times as you like! This way, you are free to see as many parts of this beautiful park as you like without being restricted by money or shuttle tickets.
At the designated bus stops, you'll find a shelter like this (at the Riley Creek Campground overflow parking). Bus schedules for the various routes are posted on all such shelters, and the drivers are also familiar with most of the routes. Past the Savage River checkpoint, such constructions disappear altogether, to preserve the pristine appearance of the park. Buses run regularly between Riley Creek and the visitor center, and between the visitor center and Savage Creek campground.
Denali runs a series of buses, all having varying routes. The camper bus is actually a cheaper means to reach the end of the park road than the tour bus, and reservations (or spaces) are easier to come by. Camper buses run several times daily from the visitor center to Wonder Lake and back. Campers and hikers should tell the driver the section in which to drop them off. When you want to come back out, return to the park road and wave the next one down. Be aware though that buses are sometimes full, so a party might have to wait a few hours for the next one to come by (rarely, but sometimes overnight). The fee is $22.50 (+ $5 park admission, so $27.50) to "enter" the park on the campus bus (i.e. to drive past the Savage River checkpoint).
Alaska Park Tours offers a wide spectrum of bus and rafting excursions throughout the Alaskan park system. For almost three times the cost of the park's concessionaire bus ride to the end of the park road (Wonder Lake), visitors can travel by air conditioned coach through the park while listening to narratives on wildlife and vegetation. Certain tours cover just the "tundra wildlife" and others venture to Kantishna Roadhouse for a dinner and "interpretive activities."
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