Don't be alarmed by the crowded park entrance; that gets left behind very quickly. After the chaos of private businesses that line the George Parks Highway and the throngs at the visitor center, there's pretty much nothing else in the park but wilderness. From the bus you'll have the opportunity to see Denali's wildlife in natural settings, as the animals are habituated to the road and vehicles, and go about their daily routine with little bother. In fact, the animals really like the road: it's easier for them to walk along it than to work through the tundra and tussocks.
Bus trips take time. The maximum speed limit is 35 mph, and the buses don't hit that very often. Add in rest stops, wildlife sightings, and slowdowns for passing, and it's an 8- to 11-hour day to reach the heart of the park and the best Denali views from Miles 62–85. Buses run from May 20 to September 13, although if you’re running up close against one of those dates, call to make sure. If you decide to tour the park by bus, you have two choices: a sightseeing bus tour offered by a park concessionaire or a ride on the shuttle bus. The differences between the two are significant.
Buses and Shuttles
Tour buses. Tour buses offer a guided introduction to the park. Advance reservations are required for the tour buses and are recommended for the park shuttles. Reservations for the following season become available on December 1, so if you have only a small window to see Denali, plan far ahead. If you're not organized enough to think six months or more out, you can usually get on the bus of your choice with less than a week's notice—and you can almost always get on a shuttle bus within a day or two—but try not to count on that. Work as far ahead as you can to avoid disappointment.
Rides through the park include a 4½- to 5-hour Natural History Tour ($81), a 7- to 8-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour ($131), and an 11- to 12-hour Kantishna Experience ($175). These prices include the park entrance fee, and kids are half price. Trips are fully narrated by the driver-guides and include a snack or box lunch and beverages. Although the Natural History Tour lasts five hours, it goes only 17 miles into the park (2 miles beyond the private-vehicle turnaround), emphasizing Denali's human and natural history. Do not take this tour if you want the best wildlife—or Denali–viewing opportunities. You might see a moose or two but not much else. The Tundra Wilderness Tour is a great way to go for a fun, thorough introduction to the park, but it leaves you wanting more. The Kantishna Experience travels the entire length of the road, features an interpretive guide and ranger, lunch, and some walking. For an experience that combines bus travel and a short guided hike, take the Windows into Wilderness Tour ($112). The trip goes out to the Teklanika but, at Mile 12, the Mountain Vista Trailhead, you'll take a 90-minute hike along an easy ¾-mile trail, led by a science educator and an Athabascan cultural interpreter. Note, though, that none of the tours allows you to leave the bus without the group or to travel independently through the park. Denali National Park, 866/574–3759; www.reservedenali.com.
Shuttle buses. The park's own shuttle buses don't include a formal interpretive program or food and drink. They're less expensive, and you can get off the bus and take a hike or just stop and sightsee almost anywhere you like, then catch another bus along the road. Most of the drivers are well versed in the park's features and will point out plant, animal, and geological sights. The shuttles are less formal than the tour buses, and generally less comfortable (converted school buses). They do stop to watch and photograph wildlife, but with a schedule to keep, time is sometimes limited. Shuttle-bus round-trip fares tend to increase slightly each year and are currently about $28 to the Toklat River at Mile 53; $35 to Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66; and $49 to Wonder Lake at Mile 85. They also run a shuttle to Kantishna, for $53; the trip takes about 13 hours. Kids under 16 ride free on the shuttles; shuttle bus prices do not include the $10 park admission fee.
Also, obviously, the farther out you're going, the earlier in the day you'll need to start; the last bus for Wonder Lake leaves at 2:05 pm; the last one for Toklat, at 5 pm. Check with the park for the current schedule.
If you decide to get off the shuttle bus and explore the tundra, just tell the driver ahead of time where you'd like to get out. Some areas are closed to hiking, so check with the rangers at the visitor center before you decide where to go. Some areas are closed permanently, such as Sable Pass, which is heavily traveled by bears; others close as conditions warrant, such as when there's been a wolf kill nearby.
When it's time to catch a ride back, just stand next to the road and wait; it's seldom more than 30 minutes or so between buses. The drivers stop if there is room on board. However, during the mid- and late-summer peak season, an hour or more may pass between stopping buses, as they are more likely to be full. Be prepared to split up if you are in a big group in order to fit on crowded buses during peak times. As always in Alaska, make sure you bring layers and rain gear to make delays and weather changes easier to wait out. Denali National Park, Alaska. 866/574–3759; www.reservedenali.com.
Camper buses. These buses serve permitted backpackers and those staying in campgrounds along the road. Seats in the back of the bus are removed for gear storage and there is no formal narration, although the bus drivers aren't likely to let you miss anything important. The $35 pass includes transportation anywhere down the road as far as Wonder Lake for the length of the backpacker's stay; kids under 16 are free. Tell the driver ahead of time where you'd like to get out. Denali National Park, Alaska. 866/574–3759; www.reservedenali.com.