Tour of Denali from Wonder Shuttle
We woke up very early to catch a 6.30 am Wonder Lake Shuttle as it gets crowded as the day progress, also wildlife is more visible in the morning and late evenings. The shuttle system, works in a way that allows tourists to spend some time at the halt location, alternatively, tourist can hop-off at the location and then hop-on to the next shuttle. Our shuttle arrived on time and it was almost full, and hosted a gentleman carrying a 2 feet lens.
The first 14-15 miles are paved, however past this the road is narrow,gravel and bumpy such that at times it shakes the entire bus. Denali has back-country campsites with good facilities. The weather was good, bright and sunny with little clouds that lit up the entire scenery.
As the shuttle passed through the park, all we could see around was acres and acres of lush green tundra, with mountain ranges as the backdrop. Our bus halted up on the side of the road to allow the other shuttle to pass and during this time someone in the bus pointed out to a falcon perched on the rock atop the mountain. It wasn't that visible but we could hear its calls.
Thereafter we continued on the road and came to our first stop - Poly-chromatic pass Overlook at mile 46. This overlook gets its name from the colorful volcanic rocks that spread out across the terrain, in addition to the colorful vegetation, streams, mountains, and occasional wildlife sightings. The road from here on, was really rugged and narrow, such that the shuttle drivers communicated on radio at times, when approaching a blind turn or at times to park up on the side of the ridge to let the other pass.
Tolkat Ranger Station
Our next stop was at Mile 53 is the Tolkat Ranger Station, which is one of the spots for viewing bears, caribou and mountain goats on high mountain slopes. The ranger station houses a small bookstore and displays moose and caribou antlers and bear fur. This is one of the oldest patrol cabins in Denali national park.
Our guide also narrated a small story about an incident where a grizzly attacked and killed a hiker and held on to his body for days. The pictures taken by the hiker narrated the whole story where the bear actually felt the threat from this human. Grizzly's are said to be very aggressive when compared to brown bear and till now we had not seen even a glimpse of the grizzly here at Denali.
We continued our journey on the dirt road when one of the fellow tourists, called out for seeing a grizzly. This fella was far away walking along the river looking for food. From a distance we did see it was fairly huge and appeared violent, could have been from the dry season.
Continuing further on we came up to hilly area with the road cutting through the mountain grass, with 2 caribou walking the path just in front of the bus. The caribou had decent sized antlers and they were shedding off the fur, so it looked a little less appealing. One of them took their own sweet time to stroll on the road, while we followed him. After he took off from the road, we moved on and few minutes later we were greeted by another pair. The topography of this area was full of hills covered in green grass, was stark opposite to what we saw around the poly-chromatic overlook.
Stony Hill Overlook
We resumed the journey with all the excitement for looking out for wildlife. However our guide had some different plans. He asked us to close our eyes and not open them until he told us. All of us were quite surprised and soon he started the countdown. With eyes closed we could sense that we were going uphill. Within few mins he asked us to open our eyes and what we saw was absolutely ravishing and amazing - it was a breathtaking view of the great Mount McKinley - From base to the top, standing guard over all the tundra wilderness, with the road snaking its way towards the mountain. The view was truly mesmerizing as I had not expected this view at all. I had read that you need be lucky one to get a glimpse of Mount McKinley as only 15-20% of the people who visit Denali get to witness this grandeur. This is the famous Stony Hill overlook at Mile 61, where the mountain is most photographed.
Eielson Visitor Center
Within few mins we reached Eielson Visitor Center, located at mile marker 66, where we took a lunch break. The park does not provide for any food or water, so its best to carry packed lunches. Most of the hotels around Denali do provide lunch boxes.
The Eielson visitor center was one of first centers that was reopened few years back with modern facilities. This building is built underneath into the mountain with an observation deck. It houses a miniature scale replica of Mount McKinley along with the surrounding mountain ranges. By the time we reached the visitor center the clouds engulfed the great mountain peak, and even with that, it was just too good. There are 2 trails that start from here, one is short walk downhill and other is strenuous uphill hike. We took a small walk around the area as I was getting really bored, whining and complaining, as there was hardly any wildlife seen.
The next and the last stop for our tour was Wonder Lake at mile marker 84.5. Wonder Lake is said to offer a splendid view of the Mount McKinley on a clear day and is also home to wildlife. We were hopeful for a good view as it was clear day. On reaching wonder lake, truly I did not find anything wonderful about that area. There was no view and only mosquitoes, too many of them. Other tourists ventured out into the blueberry shrubs around the lake. I was really disappointed by this time and was very sleepy. Denali National park is second best to view wildlife but we had not seen anything fascinating yet, except for the Mount McKinley which was the reason, I was awake.
After 30 mins of break, we started off on the return journey. It took us about 4-5 hours to reach the Lake. On the way back, we saw some good lakes surrounded by white and purple wild flowers. It was a beautiful sight. We were just napping in the bus, when someone spotted a Moose - a Bull moose on the right and to our astonishment, there were 3 of them, 2 bull and one cow moose who was resting in the shade. The bull moose were hefty and strong billed with heavy fully grown antlers, such that it could easily scoop a human into the air.
Back at the Toklat ranger station I had a hard time lifting up one moose antler with 2 hands, so its really amazing how they can carry them on their head with such grace. Few miles and Nikhil called out for another big bull moose on the left, this one just came down the hill and was closing in towards the road. This was our close encounter with bull moose and an exciting one too, as our guide mentioned that moose sightings like these were very rare.
The bull moose sighting, got me excited and my hopes resurfaced, and there I was scanning the area for more wildlife, as we resumed the journey. Our shuttle slowed down waiting for the shuttle ahead of us. As we wondered, the tour guide, mentioned that there was bear resting the river waters. this was big fat, grizzly who was sunbathing on a rock in the middle of the stream. As the grizzly got up, yawned and frisked, we could see its light brown fur with a big hump on its back. It gave a stare and violently whisked into the berry shrubs. The guide was kind enough to let everyone take pictures.
Our next stop was at mile 15 - Savage river, which is prime spot for Dall Sheep. The guide pointed out at the little white specs near the mountain top which were clearly visible to naked eye, due the brown mountain and lush green shrubs. These sheep were in plenty with their lambs. Fully grown sheep had curled golden brown horns which were quite impressive. Male sheep called rams are distinguished from the females called ewes, by their horns. We did not have binoculars but the photography lenses we carried, helped a great deal in viewing the wildlife up and close.
We got back to the wilderness access center by 9 pm, truly a long long day. Although the day started out slow and boring, it progressed with interesting wildlife sightings of the caribou, bull moose and the grizzly. We had seen the grizzly at Katmai, but grizzly's in Denali truly represented the life in the wilderness.
The view of magnificent Mount McKinley that dwarfed the beautiful landscape, was definitely something that I would remember for a lifetime which truly made our trip worthwhile. Denali National park gave us all that we that had expected and hoped for.