When we booked our trip to Alaska to explore Denali National Park, we really wanted to go as far into the park as we could. We were visiting too early in September for the road lottery, where you can try to get permission to drive your personal vehicle beyond Savage River, so our only option was to book one of the bus trips.
There are two bus options – a tour option, and a transit option. The bus tours offer a guided/narrated experience and many have screens so the driver can point a camera toward wildlife along the road and zoom in so you can see it from your seat. The transit options are not guided/narrated and meant for people who want to hop on and off the bus to do some backcountry hiking.
We made a reservation for the transit bus tour to Eielson Visitor Center, which is at mile post 66. Due to COVID-19, this is currently the farthest the transit/tour buses are going into the park. Not knowing what the weather would do, we wanted the option of getting off to hike if it made sense to do so.
A few weeks before our trip, my brother-in-law alerted us that there was a major landslide along the park road, forcing all traffic to turn around at mile post 42 for the foreseeable future. Surprisingly, the bus company never communicated any of this to us (and it is still not mentioned on their website), but I read the details on the national park website. A few days before we left for our trip, we received a partial refund for the bus (with no explanation) and decided to just show up for our assigned time and see how it went!
We arrived at the bus depot the requested 30 minutes before our departure time, got our tickets, and learned that the road is in fact closed so we would be turning around at milepost 42, meaning our ride would only take about four hours instead of the expected eight. The weather was not looking great so we decided to leave our lunches and hiking poles in our car, go on the abbreviated bus ride, and weather-permitting, do some hiking or other activities in our now-unoccupied afternoon.
Despite all of these changes to our plans and the uncooperative weather, we really lucked out with our bus driver, John. In addition to his work for the bus system in Anchorage, he’s been driving the national park buses in Denali for more than 25 years and has personally hiked all over the backcountry of the park.
He also used to drive the bus tour, which is narrated. He asked if we wanted him to narrate for us and of course we all said yes! He was very clear we were getting special treatment since this is NOT an actual offering of the transit bus trips. He was very knowledgeable about the park’s history, the flora and fauna, and he shared many of his personal experiences in the park over the past few decades. He was incredible – we were so lucky he was our driver!
Someone asked him his favorite seasons in the park and he said autumn for the colors and spring for the animal babies. He couldn’t get over the fall colors on display during our ride – apparently we were there the week everything really goes ablaze – and it was certainly one of the highlights for me. The aspen and willows were bright yellow, and the ground cover was red, orange and purple. Gorgeous.
The other highlight was that we got to see several more moose! John was amazing at stopping and waiting for everyone to get their pictures, and I was glad we had packed the long lens so we could clearly see the moose that were farther away.
We saw several bull and one cow with her calf way off in the distance – they were on the move so we only caught a glimpse! The one bull we stopped to watch for quite a while was working to get the velvet off his antlers and we could see him thrashing his head around in the bushes.
Given the weather, this abbreviated four-hour bus trip was actually a perfect way to spend our morning. We learned a lot, saw a bunch of moose and some brilliant fall foliage, and ultimately it was our only option for traveling that far into Denali National Park. Another marvelous experience in the park!