Postcards from Alaska: Seeing Denali National Park with Kantishna Experience Bus Tour
Wow, oh wow! Denali National Park blew my mind with regal fall colors of reds, oranges and golds blanketing endless mountains and valleys. Visiting Alaska the last week in August, I knew weather would be hit or miss with most days being rainy and cloudy. During my trip Mother Nature graced us with cool comfortable temperatures and mostly sunny skies.
Most visitors can’t drive cars into Denali and seeing it by bus is the easiest way. Only having a day to explore, one of my traveling companions chose the 12-hour Kantishna Experience bus tour offered by Donya/Aramark Joint Venture. I’ll be honest, traveling on a bus for 12 hours did not excite me but, I’m very glad we chose this tour. Of the options, this one took us deepest into the park, 92 miles in, and was narrated by a tour guide/driver.
We picked up a national park ranger at Wonder Lake who walked us through the history of Kantishna, once a vibrant gold mining community, and the history of Denali National Park. We learned about pioneer Fannie Quigley who was one tough lady who thrived in the community during the first part of the twentieth century. We also heard about her famous blueberry pie recipe which called for 5 gallons of blueberries, gold dust (to trade for flour and sugar) and a bear (to harvest the fat and boil it down to make lard).
Blueberries were in season and although bears eat between 30,000 and 40,000 calories a day this time of year to prepare for winter hibernation, we asked Ranger Jen nicely if she could lead us on a blueberry picking expedition and she did. Unlike picking blueberries in Florida, these bushes were low to the ground. My foot slightly sank in the cushion of the land with each step I took. As expected, these blueberries were smaller than those found on farms but they packed a lot of flavor.
Blueberry bushes and dwarf birch are preparing for the winter and turn a vibrant shade of red. This was the most dominant foliage across Denali’s landscape. Bursts of gold and orange were from willow, alder, poplar and aspen trees. From the time we entered the park at 7 that morning and left just after 7:30 that evening, more trees had turned from a pale green to yellow.
12 Hours on a Bus Wasn’t *THAT* Long
Traveling throughout the park and looking out the school-like bus, I could not get over the incredible scenery of endless wilderness. If we had not seen any wildlife, it would have been okay because the park colors were a feast for the eyes. Throughout the day we saw plenty of Dall sheep grazing on mountainsides. Denali became a national park primarily because of the sheep. A handful of caribou (“tundra cattle”) were spotted along with a bull moose, a grayling (fish) and two grizzly bears.
The park road could have been dusty but thankfully, the National Park Service dispersed something on the road (I think calcite) to settle the dust. Roads are narrow and seem especially so on hairpin turns or when another bus is heading in the opposite direction and off to the side is a drop off *gulp*. Our guide and driver Sheryl is a skilled at navigating Denali’s roads and she’s the one who trains the company’s other drivers so I knew we were in good hands.
Time passed quickly during the tour with stops at park visitor centers and rest areas about every 90 minutes. If wildlife was spotted, the driver was great about stopping in a safe area to observe. When observing wildlife, rules were to speak quietly (or not at all, depending on how close the wildlife was), keep your body (including hands) inside the bus, no calling out to wildlife and no tossing food to animals. Any trash we had we kept on the bus rather than disposing at the remote rest areas.
I Must Be a Cool Kid, I’m Part of a Club!
Our guide told us there’s only 30 percent chance of seeing Mount McKinley because 70 percent of the time it’s hidden in the clouds. Weather cooperated and we saw North America’s highest mountain peak (20,320 feet) several times throughout the day making us members of the 30 percent club.
Planning Your Kantishna Experience
The Kantishna Experience fee was $169 per person (2011 fee) and included snacks and lunch. We brought along other snacks and a water bottle to fill up along the way. The tour departed at 7:30 a.m. from the park’s Wilderness Access Center and we needed to be there by 7:20 a.m. but arrived around 7 o’clock so we could be at the front of the line to get a seat near the front. We were told the front is less bumpy and dusty. It was also a great opportunity to talk to the driver guide. And don’t forget to bring gratuity money for your guide!
Visitors staying outside the park can be picked up by a shuttle. We stayed north of Healy, Alaska, at EarthSong Lodge (loved it!) which was out of the pickup zone.
Advance reservations for the Kantishna Experience is highly recommended and can be made either online or by calling Doyon/Aramark at (907) 683-9206. Tours run early June to mid-September.(www.reservedenali.com)
Be sure to visit the Denali National Park website at www.nps.gov/dena for additional planning tips.
Enjoy additional photos on my Flickr account here.