The Denali National Park bus system can be kind of confusing. Write a comment if you’ve been on it; I’m interested if anyone else has found it a little different, or is it just me? We did a lot of planning for this trip to Alaska, but until we actually got to the Wilderness Access Centre (WAC) at the entrance to the park and talked to the rangers we weren’t entirely sure how the buses worked.
We arrived on a beautiful day, the best we had during our ten day stay within the park, so looking back it was a little unfortunate that we spent close to four hours at the WAC before we got on a camper bus and started our drive along the Park Road to our campsite at Wonder Lake – five hours away.
The Bus System
Why ride on the buses? Well firstly because we took a shuttle bus to Denali from Fairbanks so we didn’t have our own car, and secondly because you’re not allowed to drive private vehicles inside the park past mile 15 at the Savage River Trailhead. You’re forced to ride the buses.
I won’t re-write what the National Park Service (NPS) website has on the buses, but I’d like to try and clarify some of the aspects we found confusing. Firstly the NPS doesn’t operate the busses, they subcontract out to Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Venture, so if you would like to book a bus (or a campground) you can do so through their website www.reservedenali.com. Everything can be booked well in advance, and doing so is encouraged. We booked our campsites and first bus into the park around three months in advance, we were attending at the shoulder of the popular season, and still we had to change our plans slightly around the availability of Wonder Lake. You need to book the organised campsites in advance! Fortunately however, if you turn up with no bookings there are certain campsites which can only be booked in person up to three days in advance – same as the backcountry units (another slightly confusing aspect of Denali). However if you don’t book, you may find yourself having to find alternative accommodation for the first three nights (until a free campsite comes available on the last minute booking system).
So, you know that you need to book, but which bus? Essentially there are free shuttles which run the section of the road from the entrance of the park to the end of where private vehicles can drive – mile 15. Then there are tour buses and shuttle buses. The tour buses are more expensive, are fully narrated, may have nicer seating, will likely include some food and often include organised activities along the way like gold panning. The shuttle buses don’t have any of the luxuries but they do the same route but the driver doesn’t have to narrate although they do have a mic and speakers setup incase they want to (we had drivers who provided great narration, and some who didn’t). The shuttle buses also allow you to get off (i.e. to do a hike), and then to catch the next shuttle which comes along (provided space is available). The tour buses are pretty restrictive in that you have to stay on the same bus, so are only really suitable for people who want to try and see Denali in one day. Considering Denali National Park and preserve is larger than the State of Massachusetts, trying to see it in one day is, well, silly.
Among the shuttle buses there are ‘camper’ buses which have more space in the back for gear, and normal buses which go to varying destinations. Toklat, Eielson Visitors Centre, Wonder Lake or Kantishna. We were confused about how many bus tickets you needed to buy if you were staying in the park for multiple days. Officially your ticket is only valid for going farther into the park on the day you purchase it, however you are always free to get on any of the shuttle buses heading out of the park with or without a bus ticket. However in practice we found that drivers happily stopped and picked us up whether we were heading in or out of the park without asking to see a ticket, provided (and this is important) we were significantly farther into the park than the Savage River Trailhead (Sanctuary River Campground or farther is probably safe). I guess if you’re this far into the park the drivers feel it is safe to assume you have a ticket. So that’s interesting, because the shuttle buses charge different prices depending on how far they go into the park before turning around and heading back, but potentially you could just purchase the cheapest ticket (Toklat at $26.75), do a short hike, and then wave down another bus to head deeper into the park. You may get lucky, you may not…
Alternatively the camper bus goes all the way to Wonder Lake (campground), is priced the same as the shuttle bus which turns around at Eielson Visitors Centre ($34) and in our experience was far less busy. We always had a whole double seat to ourselves, sometimes we even had the double seat opposite too (with our gear on it), so if we spotted wildlife on the other side of the bus we could just slide on over to the opposite seat! We saw many a packed shuttle/tour bus where everyone was crammed in, two to a seat; we were happy to be on the ‘camper’.
Can you leave the park to get supplies and re-enter on the same bus ticket? No, and this is really frustrating, but no doubt it is designed this way to make more money. There are no showers or supply stores within the area you can re-board buses without paying for an additional bus fee. Not only does this cost you money, but in Denali it takes five hours to get from the WAC to Wonder Lake and the buses are not always frequent, so it costs you time.
Once when we were camping at the Igloo Creek campsite we accidentally took the bus to the Savage River Trailhead, we thought we’d be able to get back to our campsite fine on our camper bus ticket from the previous day. We also knew that if we couldn’t get back we would be able to obtain another ticket for free (buy two days get the third free). However when we tried to get back on the shuttle bus at Savage River, not only were we supposed to have a valid ticket for that day, but the driver couldn’t sell us one. We would have to take the bus back to the WAC (a couple of hours), buy another ticket, wait for the bus and then head back in. It would have taken ages. Fortunately the driver took pity on us (and realised I wasn’t going to stop arguing our case in a hurry) so let us on.
While the buses have a fixed schedule and try to arrive at stops at a set time and depart at a set time we found they were happy to drop us off wherever we wanted, not just at set stops. They will also stop to pick you up anywhere; you just need to wave them down (simply standing on the side of the road will not make them stop).
To summarise; it is easy to see how the shuttle buses are a park necessity, they can be really convenient, but they can also be frustrating. If you’re camping in the park you’ll need to buy one camper bus ticket in. If you leave to get supplies, you’ll need to buy another ticket. If you leave again, the third trip in should be free (but again you’ll need to get the ticket at the WAC). Once you’re in the park, we found we could use the shuttle buses to get around without having to show a ticket. If you’ve booked a campsite, make sure you book a bus ticket. Finally, this is a big park, the bus takes at least five hours to get from the WAC to the Wonder Lake campsite.
What Do You See?
The bus system isn’t perfect, but it does allow you to sit back and look out the window at some of the most amazing scenery in the world without having to concentrate on the road.
If someone spots wildlife the bus will stop and you’ll get a chance to look at it. You cannot get off and get back on again. However, if you’re a safe distance away from the wildlife you can ask the driver to let you off, you’ll then need to catch the next bus. Unfortunately because of their schedule they will not stop long. I believe the standard shuttle buses may be more tolerant of wildlife stops than the camper buses which seemed to move on pretty quickly. But this will likely fluctuate more with the mood of the driver and whether he is currently ahead or behind of schedule.