Early morning! We were booked on the 8:30am bus in Denali and we had to be there on time. Breakfast was a rush of craziness as we also had to make lunch to bring along as well as snacks. I was burning out from the food at this point and just stuffed whatever food I could find into my backpack before loading back into the van for a quick 20 minute ride down the road. Once again, the walk to the bathroom was to long (I was so over the distances of this state!) and I knew the visitors center (Wilderness Access Center or WAC as it’s called by the locals) would have good, flush toilets, so I just held it until we arrived.
Arrived at the WAC, used the loo and got in line for the buses. Unfortunately, they were already delayed, which was a good preview of the day to come. We finally loaded on to a fairly empty bus, so we got to spread out in the back, which was nice. It was a beautiful, partly cloudy but not a rainy day and we had the windows open for most of the ride out to the Eielson Visitor Center. We stopped and picked some people up who had been camping, loaded them and their gear in via the back and then dropped them off farther down the road. There are three “rest stops” along the way to get out, stretch and use the loo. The ride out takes about 3 hours and makes other stops as wildlife permits. Not too far into the ride, we saw a bear eating some berries pretty close to the road! That was definitely the highlight of the day and thanks to the safety of the bus, we got as close as I wanted.
The scenery was gorgeous. There is really no way to describe it. It was cold (it had snowed in some parts the day or so before as we could see fresh snow next to the road), but we went on such a beautiful day, that our guide even came along, even though he didn’t have to. He even said, if it was raining, he wouldn’t have come. So you know it was a good day! The driver out there had some commentary, which I listed to for a while, but thankfully since I was in the back, got to gossip with some of my tourmates. When we got to Eielson, I knew I didn’t want to return on the same bus (you have a 30 minute guarantee, but can stay long and try your luck on the next available bus). I took a wonder around the visitor center and then started to join a tour on the paved path around the center, but it was quickly cancelled as a bear had been spotted not too far away and they closed the trail. I immediately put my name on the list to return back, as my bus had left but unfortunately, I ended up waiting about an hour and half for the next available empty bus. That was the downside of the day. Some other tour mates were wondering around and put their names on after me, as well as some who even went on a hike and came back just in time to fill the empty bus. It was annoying, but the way the system works, oh well. Be prepared! The driver on the way back was an older man, who talked really quietly the whole time and thankfully, since we were in the back, we could hardly hear him, so we didn’t have to pay attention. We stopped a bunch of times, both at the three rest stops and to see some caribou and moose that were pretty far away. We saw some “moving rocks”, but they were so far away, I barely cared. We also picked up and dropped off a lot of people and one of the drivers favorite questions was, “how long have you been waiting?”. I think everyone said well over an hour, so that is nuts! A park ranger got on at one point and sat in front of me and we all asked her questions and it was really cool and interesting. Before we left, the guide asked us to be back at the van by 6pm, but half the group was on that bus and we didn’t make it back until nearly 6:30pm, but for the first time ever, I was so not stressed about timing. I knew they would wait for us or if not, come back for us. They would obviously know we were on our way, no worries. I love that attitude sometimes!
I’m not going to go into detail about how the park works (there are websites for that, including the really informative, National Parks Service site). Here are just some random things I noticed and/or to keep in mind:
-Cruisers mainly take the tour buses which are fully inclusive and won’t be picking up any riffraff (backpackers!) along the road. And they pack ’em in.
-We took the shuttle bus and it was fine, though one of the gals in my group wish we had gone to Wonder Lake, which is almost the end of the line (only Kantishna is farther). We only made it to Eielson, which is the most popular stop.
-The WAC is different then the Visitors Center. They are not the same thing!!
-Bring food, once you are in the park, there is nowhere to buy anything to eat or drink! Though there are places to fill up your water bottle.
-Bring layers, the temperature changes a lot, if you are lucky.
For dinner, since the guide had been on the bus all day, suggested we hit the pizza place across the street from our campground, which ended up being a great choice. The pizza choices were interesting, the beers were really good and the layout was excellent! We sort of took over the place and put a bunch of tables together and just ordered a lot of pizzas and split the bill in the end. The owners dog was also running around (a dog inside at a food establishment? How many health codes does that break in the lower 48? Oy!) and he taught it some really good tricks, so there was a show to go along with our food! The next day was going to be pretty chill, in and around Denali, so some of the group made quite a night of it, but when I went back to camp not to late as I knew I didn’t want to be hung over and in an awful mood the following day.