Postcards from Alaska: Seeing Denali National Park with Kantishna Experience Bus Tour

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Grizzly Bear Chilling in Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

Grizzly Bear Chilling in Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

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.

Antlers Outside Toklat River Visitor Center, Denali National Park, Aug. 31, 2011

Antlers Outside Toklat River Visitor Center, Denali National Park, Aug. 31, 2011

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).

Picking Blueberries in Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

Picking Blueberries in Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

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.

Sweet Blueberry in Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

Sweet Blueberry in Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

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.

Felt Like the Sheeparazzi Snapping Photos of Dall Sheep, Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

Felt Like the Sheeparazzi Snapping Photos of Dall Sheep, Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

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.

Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

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.

Denali National Park Visitors Photograph a Bear, Aug. 2011

Denali National Park Visitors Photograph a Bear, Aug. 2011

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.

Mount McKinley, North America's Highest Mountain Peak, Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

Mount McKinley, North America's Highest Mountain Peak, Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

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!

Caribou in Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

Caribou in Denali National Park, Aug. 2011

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.

Regal Fall Colors of Red and Gold, Denali National Park, Aug. 31, 2011

Regal Fall Colors of Red and Gold, Denali National Park, Aug. 31, 2011

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.

Author: Solo Travel Girl

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a hiking trail led Jennifer Huber, aka: Solo Travel Girl, to a career path in tourism. She has worked in the tourism industry for more than 20 years including 10 years with a park management company in Yellowstone, Death Valley and Everglades National Park. She currently lives in Southwest Florida, and maintains this travel blog with the goal of inspiring others to travel alone, not lonely.

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10 Comments

  1. Jenn,
    This sounds delightful and the pictures are a real plus. So glad you had a wonderful time.

  2. Thanks! It was an incredible trip. More posts to come!

  3. I was sooo there last week! I didn’t travel past the 15 mile marker though. Hiked Mt. Healy and went rafting. How funny is that!

  4. Absolutely amazing. Definitely reason enough for me to revisit Alaska (that cruise didn’t show me nearly enough).

  5. I really lucked out – the colors were amazing! I’d like to explore other parts of the state, so much to see and do.

  6. LOL! That’s too funny. I was probably gazing out a window where you were hiking!

  7. I love these photos, Jennifer! I can totally see why Denali “blew your mind”! Hard to believe that the very cute grizzly beat is dangerous. My fave photo is the picking blueberries pic — just something about it! 🙂

  8. The color was simply amazing and unexpected. Yeah, I’m a fan of the blueberry picking, too. Not sure why. 🙂

  9. Found your site through the North Pole Economic Development Corp. I used to live in North Pole. Loved your photos of Denali park. My husband and I were there in July and regret not taking the 12 hr tour, but it was a clear day and like you, we could see Mt McKinley just as the clouds started to come in. I have enjoyed your photos. Makes me want to go back!

  10. Thank you for stopping by, Kari! Denali is truly amazing and I’m hoping to get back there. I realize we lucked out with the weather. It must have been fun living in North Pole, I love how the community embraces it down to the details.

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