Alaska’s Denali National Park: Hours of wildlife, wild scenery and wild stories


Forty pairs of eyes scan the countryside looking for movement, any movement. With binoculars and cameras at the ready, we hoped for a bear or a moose, but were willing to settle for some Dall sheep high up the mountain. Not a passenger aboard the bus maintained a semblance of composure. We scurried like kids from one side to the other, eager to be the first to announce the next sighting. Such was my introduction to the Tundra Wilderness Tour, a 6-8 hour excursion into Denali National Park, one of the highlights of my Gray Line Adventure Tour through southern Alaska.

Denali National Park is larger than the state of Massachusetts and tenderly watched over by Mt. McKinley (called Mt. Denali — “the high one” — by the locals), at over 20,000 feet the highest mountain in North America.

On an African safari, the goal is to spot the Big Five — lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, cape buffalo. In Alaska, the concept is the same — just the names are different: moose, bear, wolf, caribou and Dall sheep. But when we initially stopped to see a rabbit — okay, our guide called it a snowshoe hare — I thought, “This is not a good sign.” And in truth, you can’t always accurately decipher what you see in the distance: snow fills are mistaken for sheep; large boulders for bears. Hopes rise and are dashed and the guide takes refuge in another snowshoe hare.

But this is a tour for the long haul; you’re not likely to be disappointed. Even more impressive, our driver/guide John Miller, with infectious enthusiasm, kept up a constant patter covering vegetation, history, animal lore, Alaskan peccadilloes, personal experiences and other tantalizing tidbits for almost seven hours. The fact that it was still interesting by that seventh hour is even more of a phenomenal accomplishment.

The running commentary that accompanied John’s driving along narrow, winding roads clutching the mountainside while he rapidly gazed right and left for any movement that might indicate animal activity, was an heroic act of multi-tasking I didn’t want to think too much about.

And there was always something to see — over the course of the tour, we saw numerous Dall sheep, occasional moose, caribou (AKA reindeer), the ubiquitous snowshoe hares, of course, and other native wildlife. And should the animals play hard to get for a period of time, just lifting your eyes to the proverbial snow-capped mountains in the distance is enough to keep you enthralled until the next native creature reveals itself.

Because the bus is so big, the sound of recognition travels like a wave from front to back –- and there’s always a risk the animal the front has viewed is gone by the time the back of the bus catches up. But never fear.

On the off-chance you miss the mama moose and her calf or the Dall sheep straddling a steep slope, it will magically appear on the TV screens lowered above the seats in the bus. Close-up images from the driver’s video camera are reflected on the drop-down screens. I was torn between resenting seeing my ”in the wild” Alaskan wildlife resembling a Discovery Channel documentary and feeling grateful I could see them at all — and close up, at that.

But, in truth, I was in it for the bears. Earlier in the trip, I had discovered that we were there too early in the year (June instead of July) for the running of the salmon and, therefore, too early for the bears to gather around the streams just waiting for those happily spawning salmon to fly into their mouths. My own mouth had been watering at the very thought of watching such a spectacle.

So once in Denali, I hoped at least to finally get my chance to see bears. John kept reassuring us we would certainly see grizzlies, but by hour number six, when only a glimpse of brown had been seen once in the far distance, he finally, guiltily, sorrowfully, very apologetically acknowledged that maybe we wouldn’t this trip.

And then suddenly, the cry went out — waves of wows traveled along the bus — as a momma and two bear cubs came into view. “Hallelujah,” cried one excited passenger. “Thank goodness; we paid $5,000 to see that critter,” noted another. John admitted he was getting quite nervous — only 20 times in 18 seasons had he not seen a bear. It was far away and it clearly wasn’t catching any fish, but I did feel some sense of vindication.

At the end of the trip, John played back the video that captured the highlights of our bus trip from hare to bear and all the other denizens of Denali in between: the many Dall sheep, mama moose with twins, caribou, golden eagle, ground squirrels, ptarmigans (the state bird) and, of course, the bears. We just missed Alaska’s Big Five by one wolf. Not surprisingly, like the ubiquitous gift shop at the end of every museum tour, the video was for sale.

But Denali was only one stop on the Gray Line Escorted Alaska Explorer Tour. There were also glaciers and mountains and gold mining history and native cultures and whale watching tours and frontier towns and back country plus a myriad of experiences I’ve had nowhere else. In the process, I learned to appreciate not only America’s Last Frontier but the hardy, independent-minded people who inhabit it. Still, next time, I want to see more bears.

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  • Graham

    I went on a similar tour a couple of years ago.   Skagway/Whitehorse/Dawson City (wonderful)/Tok/Fairbanks/Denali/Anchorage and really enjoyed it.   But the tour in Denali was a bit of a disappointment.   The bus was little better than a school bus and not comfortable.   The stops were few and far between.   With the exception of some Coyotes everything was way in the distance.   We did much better on Vancouver Island where we saw a Black Bear just across the river at dusk in Uclulet.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad I’ve been to Denali but the experience is very different from the average National Park.

  • AKFlyer

    I can’t possibly correct all the mistakes in this article, but here are some:

    1) The photo is of a bear at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, some 350 miles from the Denali Park road.  You can’t drive to Katmai or Brooks Falls.

    2) There are no salmon runs in Denali that attract bears for watching by tourists.  Denali Brown bears are small, blonde, and eat mainly small mammals like Arctic ground squirrels and berries, not salmon.  That’s why they are smaller than coastal bears.

    3) The is only ONE park road in Denali.  Not “roads.” ONE barely two-lane unpaved road.  It is a spectacular drive.

    4) If you want to see wildlife, get off the bus, if only for a few hours. Helps if you are capable of hiking off trail (there are no trails in Denali backcountry).  I’ve seen lots of bears, caribou, fox, and wolves there — many from the road once the dust from the buses settles.

    Of course, I’ve got both black and brown (AKA grizzly) bear in my neighborhood in Anchorage, plus moose which can be seen somewhere in the city any day of the week.  And can see Denali from my driveway . . .

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  • Tom Reale

    You missed the caribou=reindeer mistake. Also, as far as I know, there are no salmon runs at all in the park. And finally, none of us (I see you’re a fellow Anchorageite) calls it “Mt. Denali.” It’s either Mt. McKinley or Denali. Nice job, though. I too hate seeing these Alaska stories that are inevitably filled with mistakes.

  • Skeptic

    I see this article has been reposted on Consumer Traveler, with none of the original mistakes corrected plus a few more added. (The original article was posted in 2012 and that’s when I first commented on its misleading and incorrect content.) Also, two not-very-relevant photos have been added: one of a mountain range that does not look like Denali and its nearby peaks, and another of a Bald Eagle. Bald Eagles are very common in coastal locations in SE and SC Alaska, not so much in the Interior, where Denali NP is located. Instead Golden Eagles are the more likely species to be seen in the park — they are the biggest eagle in North America, and are not common in most of the US, so a photo of this bird, or maybe of a Long-tailed Jaeger, might have shown that the writer had some clue what she was talking about.

    Nice way (not) to use your readers’ expertise, CT! My take-away is to remain very skeptical about the travel “info” you provide for regions of the world I have not yet experienced, because it’s clear you are making some of this stuff up and that fact-checking is weak to nonexistent..

  • Tom Reale

    Couldn’t agree more. Every Alaska article I see that’s written by an Outside writer has mistakes- some major, some minor, but they’re always there.