Denali, Alaska

Monday afternoon, Tuesday, Wednesday morning

September weather: Average temps of 54°/36°F. Average precip of 1.4″.

Date Civil Twilight begins Sunrise Sunset Civil Twilight ends
Sep 15 6:43 AM 7:27 AM 8:18 PM 9:02 PM

Interesting tidbit: Denali National Park and Preserve is over 6 million acres (9,419 square miles).

Denali Park Road

Monday: On to Denali

Bus from McKinley Lodge to Denali Lodge

Our bags had to be outside of our room by 7:00, so we got up, showered, packed everything, put the bags in the hall, and went back to sleep for 2 hours! We got up feeling much more rested and with plenty of time to catch our bus to the Denali Princess Lodge.

Due to the weather (alternating between raining and not, and all overcast), we didn’t get to see much scenery on what is supposed to be one of the most scenic drives in Alaska.

We did pass by one moose–but the driver didn’t stop, which was disappointing.

Once again, the three of us had rooms right next to each other, which was convenient.

The first day there was the best view of the mountains


We’d planned a self-paddling whitewater trip for Monday afternoon. After hitting my head ATVing, though, I really wasn’t enthused about whitewater rafting–when we added in the fact that it was in the low 40s and raining, I really wasn’t enthused.  We attempted to cancel the trip–but the tour owner would only give us a refund if I saw a doctor, so we decided to go but switch to the guide-paddling model.

Kitted up
Kitted up
Dry suits zip on diagonally. Who knew?

The outfitter was well-organized–they picked us up on time, got us ported to their nearby facility to get into our drysuits, sold hats and gloves at a very reasonable price.  All of that went well.  When we got to the put-in spot on the river, five of us ended up with the owner as our guide.

It wasn’t a winner of a trip.  The cold and rain were definite negatives, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  The worst of it was that the “whitewater” was boring–some flat, some barely moving, and only three spots that were worth the phrase “whitewater”–and one of them he went around rather than through.   It was mostly a Class I-II trip.  The owner told us that everything went up a level due to the cold–but that was something I’d never heard (and googling didn’t substantiate).    He claimed that there were IVs on the river today–and there definitely weren’t.  The trip was advertised as a III-IV+ river–which it definitely wasn’t.

On top of the boring “rapids”, the owner/guide didn’t shut up the entire trip, so I couldn’t even enjoy the wonder of the wilderness.  We heard about his views on climate change (ridiculous)–I actually asked him to leave the political discussion out of our day on the river.  We heard stories about his college days.  We heard about his getting a traffic ticket fixed.  We heard about the rock formations (much more interesting).  We heard about the rafting companies the bus driver used to own in Colorado. We heard about how he never gives refunds–he wasn’t familiar with that word. We heard about how this was the quietest place in the world–but that didn’t make him stop talking.

It was a disappointing afternoon.  I might try whitewater rafting in Alaska again–but only when there was warmer weather and higher water–and a quiet guide.


After I’d gotten ready for bed, both DD and Red knocked on the door. We ended up getting dressed and going outside–Red and Julie had seen stars. This might not sound like such a big deal, but even though we’re out in the middle of basically nowhere, it’s been so overcast and cloudy that it isn’t always certain there’s a sky up there. Any celestial bodies have kept themselves hidden.

The brief showing of stars was gone by the time we got dressed, but we got to see the incredible pictures Red and Julie had taken of moose! On the ride back from dinner, they’d passed moose on the side of the road and their driver went back so they could look and take pictures!

Tuesday: Shuttle Bus to Denali

Getting Going

Due to weather issues (meaning snow in the Park), our 7:30 departure was postponed to 8:00. Even so, that meant that we were taking the first shuttle from the Lodge to the WAC (Wilderness Access Center). So, at 7:00, we hopped on the first shuttle. By that time, it was pretty obvious we wouldn’t be seeing Denali itself–there wasn’t a break in the cloud cover anywhere.

We got to the WAC with plenty of time to spare. We picked up our tickets. Stan and I watched the 17 minute movie (DD & Mike had seen it the day before.) We browsed the gift shop, which was much depleted–they’re ending their season and were also having a “end of season” sale. When DD and I lined up for boarding the shuttle into the Park, the guys were nowhere to be seen. Mike joined us–but still no Stan. I boarded the bus and called him (phones worked there) and told him we were boarding–he was at the wrong door. I didn’t wait for him because I wanted to get seats near DD and Mike. Fortunately, the driver let Stan on (I’d already given him both tickets.)

The Shuttle Ride

Steve (our driver) started out giving us the rules, including that yelling “Stop!” would get him to stop the bus if it was safe, and a clock orientation (e.g. 3:00) would tell everyone where to look for the spotted wildlife.  We didn’t get a good view of the first moose spotted, but we did see it.

Shuttle bus
Shuttle bus
A bus is the only wait to go past Mile 15 into Denali National Park–no private vehicles are permitted.

We saw a lot of ptarmigan, and a bunch of Spruce Grouse.  There were also a lot of jokes around grousing that we hadn’t see them, and a few more out the Spruce Goose (which is an airplane and not  a bird).   We stopped for  a couple of bathroom breaks and photo stops–the scenery was occasionally incredible and  occasionally fully obscured by clouds.

Eielson Visitor Center

We got off the shuttle (and took all of our stuff) at Eielson.  Stan was a bit confused because he hadn’t realized there were two visitor centers.  There’s a Visitor Center near the WAC (DD and Mike had walked between them the day before).  There’s also Eielson Visitor Center, which is at Mile 66.

We’d originally intended to eat lunch and then join the 1:00 Ranger-led stroll.  After our facilities break, we learned that there was also a 12:00 Ranger-led stroll.  The 12:00 Ranger-led activity is usually a longer hike, but given that there was about 4-6″ of snow (Yes, snow.  Yes, close to 6″.  Yes, snow), they changed that to another stroll.

Our Ranger, Julie, was having a ‘not-quite-in-uniform’ day, which was sort of funny.  Her name badge was hanging by one side–it made me want to take out needle and thread and sew on the tab that had fallen off.  I couldn’t have done anything about her other missing badge.  Her uniform issues aside :-), she was a great guide.  She started out by handing all of us a hiking pole.  Given the snow and how slippery it was, it really helped on the trail to have an additional anchor.

Apparently the topic of the stroll can change based on conditions.  Since winter was clearly arriving on the mountain, she focused her talk on how the animals on the mountain cope with winter–hibernating, migrating, or toughing it out.  If I were a Denali animal, I’d migrate, but apparently wolves thrive in the winter in Denali.  Other animals are weakened and find it harder to hide, so the wolves eat well in the winter.  Snowshoe hares and Ptarmigan turn white for snow camouflage.  Pica build hay piles to last them through the winter.   Arctic ground squirrels hibernate–their blood temperature gets down to below freezing and then they shiver until it’s back up to normal–and then they repeat.   Wood frogs are even more extreme–they freeze solid and then thaw ad wake up in the Spring.

The stroll was interesting–I learned a lot.  However, there wasn’t a view–the snow was coming down heavily enough and the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see there were mountains nearby at all.  Forget seeing Denli itself–we couldn’t see anything.

Stroll--not a hike
Stroll–not a hike
The planned “Hike” turned into a “Stroll” because the weather wasn’t conducive to hiking.

There was a short movie about climbing Denali–it was really interesting. The tidbits from the climbers made it clear that they climb “because it’s there”. Even at the height of the climbing season, it’s cold and icy and snowy (and low oxygen) at the summit. I admit to a flash of “wouldn’t it be cool?” to be replaced with my brain telling me I’m not up to it, it would be hard, and I probably wouldn’t enjoy it, and there’s no way on earth I’d ever attempt anything of the sort.

The Visitor Center also had a display where you stand on the floor based on your height and there’s an etching on the window that shows where you would see Denali, were Denali visible.  Of course for us, not only was Denali not visible, neither was anything else at that point!

Shuttle Back

It actually took a bit to get a shuttle back. It turned out it took about 40 minutes from when we wanted to go back until we got a shuttle (we used 18 minutes of that time to watch the movie about climbing Denali). There were three buses in the parking lot and Stan joked that Jesse (the Ranger in charge) was inventorying them, but there was more to it than that. One bus was going to Wonder Lake (and left close to empty). Another bus pulled in (and Jesse inventoried again). One of the buses was the Camp Bus–it also left close to empty. There were two buses we thought were going back, but apparently one of them was having brake problems–and we definitely didn’t want to get on a bus that wasn’t good at stopping.

Fortunately, DD had put her name (with a count of 4) on the Ranger’s list, and he called us and two other people to get on the bus, which was otherwise full. There were two seats with one person each across from each other and I asked the woman if she’d mind moving so Stan and I could share. Since the two were a couple, it seemed reasonable :-). Of course, it meant that I sat on “the hump” for the three hour ride back! DD and Mike sat separately until Mike’s seat companion got off–we’re not quite sure why she chose to get off, but she did, and DD moved to sit by Mike.

We got luckier with wildlife sightings on the way back than we did on the way there. The bus stopped suddenly–there had been moose in the road. The driver didn’t wait for someone to call out to stop–he did it all on his own to avoid hitting the moose. It turned out there were three moose–all on my side of the bus, and we stayed there and watched them for a while. We’d seen the single moose on the way in–but it was deep in the fog and we didn’t see it well. I got to watch this one–I let Stan take the pictures while I just marveled at seeing moose in the wild.

I sent the Moosetracks picture to Jordan and he pointed out that it wasn’t ice cream!

The moose wasn’t quite enough, though–I really wanted to see a bear. We’d been told that we’d be most likely to see a grizzly where we were, that the brown bears weren’t usually up in the higher areas. Someone shouted that she’d seen a bear at the side of the road. I was on the wrong side of the bus to see it up close, but stood up and got to see it moving away. Because of how the bus and the vegetation lined up, the bear kept going in and out of view. Stan had the blue camera (the one with the better zoom) so I didn’t even try to use the other camera. Instead, I pulled out my binoculars and watched the bear amble around. It covered a lot of territory quite quickly–I was surprised at how much and how fast it moved, even if it didn’t look like a fast pace. Eventually, of course, it moved out of sight.

The bus stopped and we all took pictures and used our binoculars.

So, I saw eagles in Ketchikan. I saw moose and a grizzly bear in Denali. I feel pretty lucky!

Decided Plans

Monday afternoon: Whitewater Rafting

Stan and I (and the kids) have whitewater rafted in many places–West Virginia, Colorado, Oregon (admittedly, I sat that one out since it was right after my back surgery), and California.  I thought it’d be great to whitewater raft in Alaska, but wasn’t sure about planning an excursion, since I didn’t know when we’d get to the Denali Lodge from the McKinley Lodge.  Well, it turns out that there’s a 3:00 rafting excursion through Princess, so I booked that so I wouldn’t have to worry about timing.  If we run late (and I read there were traffic issues on the only highway) then we either will get a late start or won’t be able to go–but we won’t be out the money.

The excursion is called Nenana River Paddle Rafting.  I told Stan there were two kinds of paddling–the one where the guide does all the paddling and the one where the participants do.  He told me that constituted “paddling” and “not paddling”.  In any case, we’re doing the paddling–for Class III and IV+ rapids, it’s the only way to go!  There’s a note that the outfitter can switch from paddling to oar (where the guide paddles)–I wouldn’t be happy if that happened–it’s not the same experience at all!

Tuesday: Shuttle to Wonder Lake

Shuttle bus schedule

Denali National Park Stops

First set of plans: I booked the Shuttle to Wonder Lake for us–8:45 am to 8:45 pm.  Since you can get off any shuttle and get on a different one, I’m a bit confused about why time is specified, but it is, and that’s what I picked.  There are two earlier departures still available, but Stan and I aren’t really morning people anyway, and I’ve read we should be there 45-60 minutes early.  Given that, we definitely didn’t want the 7:15 slot!

I booked the shuttle tickets to go as far Wonder Lake, but we won’t know until then how the weather is.  If the weather is clear and sunny, we’ll go all the way to Wonder Lake.  If it isn’t, we’ll consider turning back at the Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66).  There are several ranger-led activities at the Visitor Center, so if the timing works, we’ll do one of those.  There’s a 1:00 ranger led stroll–that sounds about our speed!  The shuttle stops for about 20 minutes at the Center, so even if we do go on to Wonder Lake, we’ll probably want to stay longer on the way back–I like Visitor Centers.

Another thing that has occurred to me is that if we do interesting ranger-led activities at Eielson and see all the exhibits, we might end up taking enough time there that we won’t have time to go to Wonder Lake.  Fortunately, we can play all of that by ear–we don’t have to make any decisions about how far to take the shuttle or how long to stay at the Visitor Center until the last minute.  (It’s only my super-sized planning gene that makes me think through every detail.)

Second set of plans: We changed our shuttle to 7:30 (way too early) to Eielson instead.  DD and Mike are taking that one and we’ll get to Eielson in time for the 1:00 ranger led stroll.

Click to enlarge maps.

Princess Lodge to Wilderness Access Center Trails at the Denali Entrance

Transportation to the Wilderness Access Center (WAC)

The Princess Lodge has shuttles on the hour, 7:00 am to 7:00 pm.   That means we’ll either want the 7:00 shuttle or the 8:00 shuttle.  I’d rather sleep a bit later, but I’ve read recommendations of being there an hour early, and the 8:00 shuttle will get us there at 8:15–if all goes well.

Since the Wonder Lake trip is an all-day adventure, it is unlikely we’ll be back at the WAC before the last shuttle, which would be around 7:15, I would think.  Fortunately, you can walk back to the Lodge.  It’s 2.3 miles if you follow the roads, but it looks as if using the Jonesville Trail cuts some of that off.  Apparently it’s a narrow hiking trail but really easy to follow.

There’s also an option of the Denali Park Salmon Bake shuttle.  It runs every 90 minutes (there’s a schedule on their website).  It’s a $3 one-way fare, $5 day pass.  The Salmon Bake is right across Highway 3 from the Princess Lodge.  I’m sure we’ll take the Princess shuttle to the WAC, but we’ll hold this as a possibility for returning if we don’t feel like walking.

Another option, to maximize both sleep and getting to the park earlier enough to get “good” seats on the shuttle, is to leave the lodge about 7:30 and walk.  We’ll get there before 8:00–but won’t have to leave at 7:00 (meaning breakfast at 6:30).


So, breakfast is fairly straightforward.  We can get it at the hotel, or at the Subway which is right across the street.   We can have the hotel make us a box lunch, buy sandwiches at Subway, or get box lunches made from the Denali Salmon Bake.   Google says the Subway is open 6:00 am – 11:00 pm, so that won’t be any problem.  Someone on Cruise Critic reported that the Salmon Bake will deliver box lunches to Princess Lodge, so that sounds easy, too.   (No matter how I look at this, though, we’re going to be getting up really early.

Tourism Information

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