The access to the interior of the Denali National Park is done for the entire season by buses. The park opens sometimes in the middle of May when the snow melts and it closes at the beginning of September when is expected the first snow. Cars are banned for the entire season except the last three days before the September closing when about 100 vehicles selected by a lottery organized in May can enter the park. After that the barrier goes down and the wildlife is spared of the human contact till the following summer.
Besides the shuttle bus there are several organized bus trips inside the park. Per Mitch’s advice all are a waste of money doing the same thing as the shuttle. “Reserve a seat for the shuttle to Wonder Lake and stay in the bus on the left side. All other trips are a waste of money” he told us when we booked his room. However this was not so easy if you want to book more seats but somehow we were able to get 4 seats together at 6:30 AM on July 4, when we did the reservation several weeks in advance. “Go one day before and get your tickets and with them in your hand go to the shuttle the next day” Mitch advised us. He woke up at 5:00 AM and cooked us a hearty breakfast: “Mitch, how about the bears?”, “The bears don’t so anything if you don’t startle them. I don’t know what happen with those people who got attacked. They may have done something stupid. One of them stayed here, a lady, but I don’t know what happen to her. But this is reason I sleep with the gun.”
Travel inside the park, either by bus or by other trips, is very long. To get to Wonder Lake takes about 11 hours RT and to go for another 4 miles to Kantishna, where the road stops, it’s a total of 13 hours RT. If you want to hike a little bit you have to add another 2-4 hours so is advisable to get on the bus as early as possible.
There are separate shuttles for the different points inside the park and if you want to extend the trip it can be done by paying an additional fee at the Eielson Visitor Center. The shuttles are running all day till 10PM and the light is always there so you can keep hiking late in the day. It is better to stay on your initial bus till your destination and stop, hike and change the bus on the way back in the places where the bus stops. The dispatcher on that location will put you in the next shuttle to the park exit. If all the buses are already full, apparently the park will send a sweeper bus to collect all late visitors.
The park protected in this way gives a feeling, for the first time visitor, of a terra incognita. You see buses and ranger cars on the way but you are mainly on your bus all day surrounded by heard of caribou that are roaming the surrounding hills. In the first part of the road, the moose is a common occurrence, unfortunately not to close to the road. Bald eagles hover on top and occasionally you spot bears, grizzly or black bears with cubs in the bushes. Dall sheep peppering the mountain slopes and the occasional mountain goats are moving specks of white between the stripes of snow. The bear is the highlight seen from the bus but there are signs that warn the visitor on hike location that bears with cubs were seen recently in the area.
In spite of the long haul the park proved to be exciting. The scenery is spectacular till you get to Eielson Visitor Center where there are also many beautiful hikes, apparently unhindered by “bear activity”. Of course none of the hikes are challenging but it’s hard to do something like that if you do not camp inside the park. The scenery after Eielson I found to be less interesting in a cloudy day when you cannot see Mount McKinley. But Wonder Lake is beautiful and worth the trip and there are many hikes around to the passes surrounding it or at least to the Reflection Pond, from where you might see Mt. McKinley in a clear day. However here I noticed for the first time the voracious mosquitoes that I heard about. People who were hiking inside the forest had masques on their faces and for good reason because we felt being lunch for mosquitoes just by walking a little bit outside the bus. After some hikes at the Eieslon, we were shuttled out of the park. Even if the mountain was covered and the rain was forecast in Eielson for several days, the rest of the park was spectacularly sunny. We had dinner and drove all the way to Fairbanks under the midnight sun arriving after midnight at the hotel.