We woke at 6:15am. Though it had been light all night, we slept fine. I was not particularly enjoying my cocktail of decongestants, however. I didn’t feel sick otherwise, I just couldn’t breathe.
We drove into the park and followed the signs to the Wilderness Access Center. Because the buses fill up fast, you have to get their early for tickets. Thankfully, they also have a little coffee counter with breakfast food and snacks, and a decent little store with supplies. We stocked up on snacks and boarded the first bus to Kantishna, the furthest point on the park road.
Our bus driver was Mike, and he told us his wife worked as a driver, too. In the off season, they taught English in Mexico. The vehicles are old school buses fitted with seat belts and gear racks overhead; they’re not terribly comfortable for a several-hour trek, but you kind of don’t notice when you’re in the middle of such an amazing place.
The bus stops at each point along the way. A few of the stops are just for campers. Others have overlooks and very basic restroom facilities. By the time we got to Polychrome Pass, we were very cold. There’s nothing like using a pit toilet with freezing air blowing out of it.
me at the polychrome rest stop
The bus stops for wildlife sightings, and I started to believe the description I’d originally read: a drive down the park road is like a safari. We saw several grizzly bears, moose, dall sheep, and caribou. The driver just stops in the road and everyone creeps very quietly over to one side of the bus to take pictures.
shuttles at the toklat river station
We also learned all about glaciation and the geology of the area from our driver. That stuff makes the nerd in me very happy. I do love me some braided streams.
It was overcast all day, so we could only occasionally see bits of Mount Rainier. We were told it’s only fully visible for a few days during the summer; it’s so huge, it creates its own weather system!
We reached Wonder Lake at 2:15pm, and had only two hours to hike before we’d have to catch the last bus returning to the Wilderness Access Center. Wonder Lake was incredibly serene and untouched, despite the clouds of mosquitos. One thing we heard over and over about Denali? Bring heavy-duty bug spray. This advice is not to be taken lightly.
We took the McKinley Bar trail, a narrow path leading down a hill from Wonder Lake and into the basin below. We crossed a few rivers on plank bridges. We didn’t see any other humans at all, though we could occasionally hear a shuttle on the park road off in the distance. We made a point of talking loudly in case there were bears around. I had a bear bell, but it’s mostly intended to remind you to make noise.
hiking on glacial moraine: permafrost covered in grass and moss
on the mckinley bar trail
It was mindblowing, being out in the middle of nowhere like that. I’ve never felt such a sense of complete wilderness, and vulnerability; there’s no question that nature is in charge in Denali.
wonder lake: mile 85 on the park road (a 12-hour roundtrip)
We hiked back up to the bus stop to catch the last bus from Kantishna. It was driven by the crabbiest woman ever, who opened the door and shouted, “DARLENE’S BUS!” We would hear that at least 40 more times on the several-hour journey. At one point, she yelled at me because she could hear my bear bell rattling. I didn’t even hear my bear bell rattling.
denali traffic jam
Near Polychrome Pass, we came upon a grizzly bear walking alongside the road. When we stopped, he came all the way up to the door of the bus. I was standing in the front, probably 4 feet away from him. I was, in fact, a little nervous about that. Further down the road, we watched a moose family.
It was a quicker return to the Wilderness Access Center, because we didn’t stop to see things, just to use the bathroom occasionally and to pick up hikers along the way. We got back around 9pm, which made the entire trip about 14 hours total.
We had to do some searching for dinner, and finally settled on the Nenana View Bar and Grill at the resort across the road from our party cabin. It was far too fancy a place for us to be in dirty hiking gear, but we didn’t care. We had pizzas and chatted with our awesome server from Bulgaria. When she found out we were from Minneapolis, all she could talk about was going to the Mall of America!