A Tundra Wilderness Tour

May 10, 2015 | 2 comments

Last Thursday for training, we got to take one of Denali’s tour buses out into the park for the day to get an idea of what visitors experience when they come, and also for us to get a better look at the park we’ll be working in for the next 5 months.
Our bus

I am normally very much opposed to buses — specifically tour buses. I understand the need for them certainly; with 40 or so people riding the bus, that’s potentially 40 individual cars off the road, a lot safer and more environmentally responsible. But I just wish there was a better alternative, something that didn’t involve having to sit crammed in with a bunch of other strangers, sometimes straining to see out the window and usually subject to seeing exactly what everyone else is seeing.

Nonetheless though, in order for Denali to maintain its wilderness character, it does make the most sense to allow people into the park by bus or on foot only. And seeing how most of Denali’s visitors are in the 65-and-older age range, this makes even more sense. I could launch into a whole other blog post about this topic, but because I have other things to share, we’ll just leave it at that for now. 

Wildlife sighting from inside the bus

Denali offers a number of different bus tours, ranging from totally self-guided to 100% professionally guided tours, some hop-on-hop-off shuttles, and 12 hour narrated bus trips out to the end of the road and back. So there’s really something for everyone. The tour we took for training was the 8-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour, focused on finding wildlife.

And wildlife we found! For the first 30 miles or so, it was mostly caribou and ptarmigan, fun creatures to see out in their natural habitat any day. The ptarmigan were all in their bright breeding plumages, strutting the road and getting territorial towards the bus every time we stopped to look at wildlife. It was pretty entertaining. 
A very sexy ptarmigan
Every 10 miles or so, the landscape seemed to change. We went from the forested ecosystem of the entrance area, to the mountainous tundra of Savage River, back to forests in Igloo Canyon, to more tundra at Sable Pass, and finally into the gigantic peaks of the Alaska Range as we came into Polychrome Pass and Toklat. 
Polychrome Pass
It was easy to see how Polychrome Pass got its name. Even from far away, as the bus careened down the windy dirt road on the edge of a cliff towards the valley, the distant mountains boasted a rainbow of natural colors between their zebra stripes of snow. My camera couldn’t even capture the endless hues. 
We saw our first bear as we came out of Polychrome Pass, but it was so far away we dubbed it a “grizzly dot,” because that was really all you could see. 
Grizzly and the mountains

It didn’t take long to find another bear though — just a few more miles up the road as we came up to the Toklat River, a massive grizzly was foraging on the river bank, unconcerned about the presence of our bus.

The driver killed the engine of the bus, and we watched the bear for a long time from the safety of the vehicle, only the sound of rapid-fire shutter clicks from peoples’ cameras breaking the silence.

Eventually we continued down the road, only to fine two more grizzlies, one at even closer range. We stopped again for photos and observation.

Check out those teeth!

Digging for roots

All that post-hibernation fluff!


Finally we drove up the rest of the way to Toklat camp, which is the base for the Western District of Denali National Park. Here they have a small visitor center in the form of a big tent (dubbed “the Toklat Tent”) and a bunch of tiny little cabins that serve as park offices, staff housing, a bathhouse, and a mess hall, all at the foot of a huge, forested mountain on the river.

I definitely plan on coming out to spend some time in Toklat this summer, though I will be very wary of the bears now that I’ve seen them up close!

Yearling cub going after some roots
After lunch, we headed back on the park road and saw more bears, including a sow and her yearling cub near the East Fork river. 
Some of them kinda look like llamas…
In addition to the grizzlies, we also got some good views of Dall’s sheep along the road. 

Big ram

Although I was super happy we got to see so many bears (8 total!!), sheep, caribou, and ptarmigan, by far my favorite animal we saw was a porcupine, precariously perched in a twiggy tree on the side of the road. It looked as if it would fall at any moment, wobbling unsteadily as it reached slowly for the branch tops with its tiny paw, its frizzy hair flopping over its eyes.

I could have watched that porcupine all afternoon, but the bus pulled away all too soon.

Reeeaaacchhiiinngg for that branch!

I was amazed at how much wildlife we saw from just the bus. We were told this was a little bit unusual to see so many, but I’ll take it, and I’ll remember this day for the times when I’m stuck at the front desk wishing I was outside! 🙂

This next week will bring quite a few changes. A lot of C-Camp has emptied out, as a good portion of our staff have moved to the West District for the rest of the summer, so the rest of training next week will focus on East District operations. On Friday, the park visitor center officially opens, and it will be time to don the Green & Gray once more. I hope I’m ready by then! 


  1. Andrea

    Thank you, Renee! It is incredible up here. 🙂 Hope you're all doing well, and say hi to everyone for me!

  2. Renee Whitaker

    I love reading about your travels! I can only imagine how fresh the air is and how gorgeous the environment feels. Be safe and keep the posts coming! Love you!

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