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July 13, 2008

Denali National Park & Preserve

271On Tuesday July 8th, we arrived at Denali RV Park and Motel, just north of the National Park.  Denali (“High One” in the Athabascan First Nation language, referring to Mt. McKinley) National Park and Preserve is the largest national park at just over 6,000,000 acres and visitors see only a tiny piece of it.  The park is bigger than Massachusetts and almost 4 times bigger than Prince Edward Island. Like the Dempster Highway, Denali and Mt McKinley were high on our list of ‘Must See’ places. 

The park began as Mt. McKinley National Park (after the US senator and later US President) in 1917 and went through several size and name changes until 1980 when it was expanded to its current size, with its current name, by an act of the Alaskan legislature. It is now composed of 3 distinct sections – Denali Wilderness, a highly regulated area to maintain its unspoiled parkland characteristics; Denali National Preserve which allows subsistence and sport hunting, fishing and trapping under Alaska regulations; Denali National Park which allows customary and traditional subsistence uses for local resident Alaskans. Overall the park is home to some of the largest North American mammals and some of the smallest plant varieties. Mt. McKinley continues to be the biggest attraction in the park and at 20,320 feet is the highest peak in North America. Of greater importance, is has the greatest vertical exposure, over 18,000 feet, of any mountain in the world including Mt. Everest.

That afternoon we went 267to the Visitor Centre to book a tour and then went to a sled dog demonstration. To preserve the natural environment of Denali, the park is patrolled in winter only by dog team – no motorized vehicles are used. The dogs were on show for our group of about 120 visitors.

The next morning at 10, we were at the bus depot for our 8 hour park bus tour. Ross on a bus for 8 hours NO WAY, but any way – – – .

At Denali you can only drive private vehicles about 15 miles into the park to the Savage River outlook, so they have 2 types of bus trips for visitors.  The tours on the Green bus cost about $30 and are like a city bus.  They stop at pre-arranged places, but also will pick up people along the way.  The drivers are not professional interpretive guides.  The tan colour bus trips are about $100, take around 10 hours, include a box lunch and water and carry a professional narrator/guide.  The Green Bus trip we chose was to the new Eielson Visitor Centre 66 miles into the park (the road only runs for 89 miles).  You take your own food and drink.

Our driver was326 in his fifth year and was terrific.  Doing the trip 5 days a week, he knew pretty well where the animals were likely to be.  His instruction as we left was that if he was talking and we saw animals we were to yell ‘stop’ and then tell everyone where to look.  That day we saw grizzlies, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, black bears, and coyotes ... but no Mt. McKinley.  It is about 35 miles at its closest point to the road system and is often hidden in cloud.  Only about 20% of the time is it completely visible.

IMG_7436_editedOne section of the road is built right into the side of the mountain and is only one vehicle wide with shallow widening so that buses can meet.  The rule is – the upbound bus has the right of way.  We were very glad that we had professional drivers when the buses met on a couple of the curves. 

There were two stops each way at panoramic viewpoints.  At Eielson we stopped for about an hour and a half, ate our lunch, viewed the exhibits (which were excellent) and took many photos of the magnificent vistas.  We both use digital cameras so we just keep shooting and review/edit them back at the trailer at night. 316_edited

The land is huge – note the road in the bottom right of this photo.  There were National Park rangers available to answer questions and point out special features of the area. One of the stops on the return trip was at a very good book store (literally in the middle of nowhere).


A few more pictures of the scenery:



Sweeping hills



Snow covered mountains


Broad plains



Clouds hugging the mountains.

The mountains make their own weather systems.



Wide river beds, often with a washed gravel base and many channels of water, intertwined like braided hair.

The trip went quickly and we arrived back at the visitor centre just after 6:30 that evening.  A great day!

The Denali town site, just outside the entrance to the park is made up of the usual assortment of convenience restaurants, gift shops and services typically found around a major tourist attraction. But it also has 2 major hospitality facilities; one owned by Princess Cruise Line and the other by Holland-America Cruise Line. They even have their own passenger rail cars used by the Alaska Railroad to bring guests from Fairbanks and Anchorage, every day during the tourist season.  In fact, we saw their sight seeing buses and hotels all over Alaska and Yukon – they are a major tourism influence.

Now we head further north to Fairbanks.

Ross & Bernie 


Posted by Bernice at July 13, 2008 05:52 PM


So sorry you did not get to see the mountain. My sister has been there several times and stayed in the park for 2 nites--mountain was crystal clear for 3 days. She actually had a picture of it as a screen saver on her computer. Would be so exciting to see all the animals. I only hope as a nation we will keep this area and much of Alaska as it is--always a worry with a republican administration. Sincerely, Bette

Posted by: Bette Andrew at September 11, 2008 06:24 PM