Alaska Trip: Denali National Park

Alaska trip

After our long ride on the McKinley Explorer, we arrived at our destination: Denali National Park. Several hotels were situated just outside the park, all seemingly owned and operated by cruise companies. Here’s our Holland America-owned McKinley Chalet (Princess Cruise’s resort was just next door).

McKinley Chalet rooms

The whole place looked very cabin-y, lodge-y. I liked it. Behind our door, we actually had two rooms: a front room with a sofa, desk, and chair, and then beyond that the bedroom and bath. It was roomier than I would have expected.

Denali National Park

The next morning, bright and early, we boarded the bus for a tour of the Denali National Park.

Denali tour bus David Cohen

I’d been told (warned?) about the Denali tour buses — how they were like school buses, and not at all plush. Well, as you can see, they did look like school buses. But, inside the seats were plush and nice. It’s true there were no bathrooms on board, but we stopped several times for bathroom breaks. I have to say that the 7-ish hours of the tour passed quickly. Our tour guide, David (pictured above) was really knowledgeable and was a nice contrast from the …. um … less knowledgeable guide from the train ride up.

Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour

Our Tundra Wilderness Tour took us about 60 miles into the park. Denali is the third largest national park, and is really huge — you have to drive a long way past the entrance to even reach the visitor’s center. A few years ago, we visited Yellowstone. I was a bit dismayed by the parade of cars everywhere. For most of the major attractions, you had to park quite far away, and often had trouble even finding a place to park at all. That wasn’t a problem at Denali, because no cars are allowed. The only vehicles inside are these touring “school buses.” It was nice.

Denali National Park

Most of the vistas were something like this — vast. We did see animals on occasion, and the guide instructed us to shout out “STOP!” if we spotted something. This made for some humorous moments, and I had to chuckle because my husband has told us to never shout anything (especially STOP!) while he is driving. Different strokes …

Denali National Park dall sheep

Dall sheep — see it? Bear in mind that this shot is zoomed in. The sheep looked smaller in real life.

Our guide pointed out dall sheep (see above), moose, caribou, ground squirrels, and possibly a brown bear. BUT (and it’s a big but). I don’t know if I can truly say I saw any of those. Someone would shout out STOP! We would stop. David would point out “caribou at 4 o’clock” and I’d look and look — and sometimes see a brown dot which might be a caribou, or might be a rock, or might be something else. Binoculars would be passed around, but by the time I’d get those focused on what I hoped was the right place, the animal in question had often moved on. For one animal sighting, David said that the creatures were probably “about 3 miles away.” Now, imagine your large dog — could you see him from a 3-mile distance? That’s what we were dealing with. I learned that 1) my distance vision is not great (I already knew that), and 2) distances in Denali are very, very vast. This was certainly not like Yellowstone, where herds of bison crossed the road right in front of us.

Denali flowers

What I could enjoy a bit more were the variety of small flowers that popped up many places. Our guide mentioned mountain avens, bluebells, and lupine. The Alaska state flower is the forget-me-not, and we saw those as well.

Denali dog demonstration

Denali Dog Demonstration

After our tour, our family took a shuttle from the hotel to the visitor’s center. There was a demonstration of the dogsled dogs that was leaving from the visitor’s center. Being a dog-lover, I got in line for that …

Denali dog demonstration

… and it was great. A park ranger gave a talk about how the dogs are trained (even threw in several literature references, which I loved). Later in the trip we did a dogsled excursion, but had I known how good this FREE demonstration was, I wouldn’t have done the paid one.

Denali dog demonstration

We learned that the buildings relating to the dogs are the oldest in the park still being used for their original purpose. Above, see the harnesses used for the dogs — as well as name tags for dogs from the past.

Denali dog demonstration

A team of the dogs demonstrated how they pull a sled, and then we got to walk close to the dogs and pet them. Most were really enthusiastic and they were so cute!

Denali dog demonstration

Let’s finish up with a bit of Denali National Park trivia:

  • The park was originally named Mr. McKinley National Park — the name was changed in 1980.
  • Denali is the only national park to use sled dogs to patrol the grounds.
  • Denali is indeed huge — there is just one road within the park, and it is 92 miles long. The park is made up of 6 million acres.
  • I didn’t mention Denali (the mountain) in the post — it wasn’t visible the day we visited. But, May through July is the climbing season for those desiring to climb North America’s highest peak. Most climb 8-10 hours per day. In 2013, 1151 registered to climb (685 made it to the top).
  • Denali is home to a wood frog that is unique: it freezes solid during the winter. Its heart stops beating and its lungs do not function until the spring thaw.

Next time — we head south from Denali to Seward, where the cruise portion of the trip begins. See you then!

If you’ve been to Denali National Park, share something fun with us. Even if you haven’t, pipe up. I enjoy your comments 🙂









5 thoughts on “Alaska Trip: Denali National Park

  1. On our Denali bus ride we received box lunches. They were awesome – not your usual fare. Some of the items inside were beef jerky, smoked gouda cheese, roasted red pepper hummus, and quite a bit more. Bottles of water came, too. David was all about recycling the boxes, etc. He told us if we did not want some of the containers of food, to place them in a box at the front of the bus for anybody else to eat.
    I also want to address that beginning on our train ride, we were often together with a huge family group, mostly from Texas. The older mother (not as old as me) had paid for 25 to take the trip. TWENTY-FIVE! One of her kids mentioned, “She’s loaded!” They were a Catholic family except for one daughter who sat near me part of the trip. She & her husband became Lutheran and they now have a son who is a Lutheran minister. They were very very nice people! Later we cruised together.
    I love thinking back to the many varied trip details. It was such a wonderful experience for me.

  2. Your blog today is wonderful and so very educational. It all sounds so exciting to me since I’ve never been to Alaska. I can’t wait to read more about your trip. I look forward to your blog every day.

  3. I love that the dog harnesses look like Teva sandal straps! I don’t think I could have done a 7 hour school bus ride–might trigger high school memories of being on the drummer’s bus all the way to Central Michigan!

  4. I’ve enjoyed reading about your tour. Oh, how I wish I could have visited with you.

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