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Alaska - The Last Frontier

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Part 13 - Denali National Park

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Part 13 - Denali National Park
 

I will start with some information which might be useful for those planning a trip to Alaska themselves or those who are interested.

The actual national park is only accessible via one single road which starts at the WAC (Wilderness Access Center). With rare exceptions, only special tour buses are allowed to drive on this road.

Basically, there are two types of buses. The sand colored buses of “Tundra Wilderness Tour” and the green buses of “Denali National Park Shuttle Bus”. The Wilderness Tour buses only go as far as the Toklat stop, 53 miles into the park. We had chosen the Shuttle Bus, which goes 66 miles into the park to the Eielson Visitor Center.

Strangely enough, the price of the shorter Tundra Wilderness Tour at USD 125.00 per Person is much higher than the longer tour with Denali Shuttle (at USD 33.00 per person). Tundra Wilderness Tour advertises that their drivers act as guides and provide better explanations. But there is really nothing we missed from the explanations our driver had given us.

Another advantage of the Shuttle Bus is that it works like a hop-on/hop-off bus. You can always get off the bus anywhere you want, go for a hike, linger at the stops etc. and then just take another green bus to carry on.

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As I said, we had chosen the Shuttle Bus at USD 33.00 up to Eielson Visitor Center and had already booked the tickets at home for the first shuttle at 6.30 am. The entire trip, out and return, takes about 8 hours. So it’s worth getting up early to be able to spend some time at different stops. Furthermore, the animals are more active in the morning hours.

So, early in the morning we boarded our green bus at the WAC and took our seats on the left hand side, as our guide book had recommended.

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First of all, the driver explained us the general rules and invited everybody in the bus to shout “stop” as soon as anybody saw anything interesting. The bus would then stop and remain at that spot as long as possible. Leaving the bus was not allowed at those stops so that the animals wouldn’t get used to humans.

It only took a few minutes after we left when a first excited “stop” echoed through the bus. Some moose were standing just a few meters beside the road.

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Unfortunately, the following picture is the only one I was able to take of a bull moose. Naturally, how could it be any other way, the auto focus was fixed on the trees in front, so the moose is out of focus. I have included the photo nevertheless just to show the enormous size of the antlers of this beautiful animal.

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The next thing I did was switch my camera to single point focus

The first few miles on the road, there were constant calls for stops as there were moose in the streets literally everywhere. Besides those animal sightings, we were just as fascinated by the vast landscape, which was hinting at incredibly intense autumn colors at this early hour of dawn.

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Although the tops of the mountains were still covered in clouds and fog, the weather was by far better than the previous day.

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At various points of illustrious names such as Polychrome Pass we could get off the bus, stretch our legs for a few minutes and, of course, admire the colorful scenery.

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At some points, the street took adventurous bends along the hillside.

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After about 3 hours we reached the “Toklat River Rest Stop”, turnaround point of the “Tundra Wilderness Tour” buses. This stop also provided a tent with a souvenir shop whose proceeds go towards the park.

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Discarded antlers of moose and reindeer were displayed for viewing.

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From a mountainside, a group of Dall Sheep was watching the goings-on at the rest stop.

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A bit further up the way behind the Toklat stop the long awaited moment had come: our first grizzly...

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With increasing daylight, the already fantastic colors became more and more intense.

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About one hour after we left the Toklat stop, we reached the Eielson Visitor Center.

At the Eielson Visitor Center, panels, mockups and maps provided lots of interesting information about the National Park. From here, you could also go on different hikes led by park rangers. That’s what we were interested in.

However, dark clouds were pulling up above the mountain where the center is located.

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We were worried that we’d get caught by rain during a hike and that in the event of everybody leaving at once we might have to wait a long time until we’d get a seat on a bus. So after some 30 minutes we decided to take the same bus back on which we had come. Passengers arriving on any one bus have priority for the return on that bus. Subsequently, free seats are allocated to other passengers. So we decided not to take any chances.

Shortly after our departure we discovered a black bear on a particularly colorful flat.

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By the way, the magnificent colors are the result of the different autumn colors of the ubiquitous blueberry bushes. The bears living in these mountains mainly feed on blueberries – almost unimaginable considering their size.

Not much later, a pretty little fox ran straight towards our bus and trotted along for a while, not minding us at all.

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The return included another stop at the Toklat Rest Stop.

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Two of the Dall Sheep we had already seen on our way out were effortlessly climbing along an almost vertical cliff. When we continued on our way, we passed directly below them.

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The mountain tops, which had been hiding in the clouds early in the morning, now looked like they had been covered with a layer of icing sugar.

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Thanks to a Wilderness Tour bus stopping ahead of us we were made aware of a grizzly bear that grazed the shrubs with his two little cubs. How I had wished for a stronger lens...

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I had taken the same picture at this stop in the morning. Now everything looked much nicer.

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Since the weather now was so inviting and we had missed out on a hike at the Eielson Visitor Center, we asked the bus driver to drop us off some 3 miles before the park entrance and hiked the rest of the way along a signposted path.

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Exhausted but happy about another splendid day in Alaska we returned to our hotel, waiting for us in the sunshine.

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Since we had much enjoyed the Prospectors Restaurant the evening before, we returned there to end another beautiful day.

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