Toklat River in Denali National Park

Toklat River Denali Confluence

Confluence of Snowmelt and Glacial Runoff in Toklat

The wide gravel bars of the Toklat River are braided with ribbons of crystal clear snowmelt mixing with the murky sediment-laced runoff from a faraway glacier in the Toklat River. This is a wonderful place with so much to feast the eyes on from near to far: huge mountain ranges capped with snow, tumultuous clouds riding the peaks and valleys, melting glaciers miles away washing silt and gravel from eons ago to mingle with the melting of last years winter snows.

With so much area to observe, the sun and clouds above cast huge and amazing patterns out over the tundra and up the mountainsides. We highly recommend capping your Alaska cruise with a trip into Denali and taking the shuttle bus into the real wilderness of Alaska.

Denali Park Bus Crossing the Toklat River

Denali Park Bus Crossing the Toklat River

Just don’t miss the last bus out of the park or you’ll be spending the night with the bears.

In Denali National Park, all glaciers monitored are retreating, with an average retreat of 20 m (66 ft) per year. The terminus of the Toklat Glacier has been retreating 26 m (85 ft) per year and the Muldrow Glacier has thinned 20 m (66 ft) since 1979.

Grizzly (Brown) Bear in Denali National Park Alaska

We had thought we’d seen an Alaska teeming with wildlife during our Alaskan cruise. Yes you can cover a lot of distance on a cruise and see much of the inside passage and the animals that tolerate these few ports of call along the way… but you will not be prepared for the vast expanse, magnificent beauty and amazing creatures that inhabit the park of the “The Great One.”

This young Brown Bear (or Grizzly) deftly hauled himself from the open tundra up the few hundred feet of rubble/scree to the side of the road where our bus was parked. He climbed with such speed he was upon us before we or the driver knew it. Although typically we would avoid such close encounters this juvenile got the jump on us and I was able to photograph about a dozen frames of his golden September coat backlit by the setting sun.

These pictures were all shot at 200 mm, 1/250th, f/2.8 or f/3.2

The National Park Service gives the following guidelines for bear encounters:

Denali National Park and Preserve is home to both black bears and grizzly bears. Black bears inhabit the forested areas of the park, while grizzly bears mainly live on the open tundra. Almost all bears seen by visitors along the Park Road are grizzlies. The bears of Denali are wild creatures, free to behave as they wish. If annoyed, these solitary animals can be very dangerous to intruders. For your own protection, and to keep Denali bears healthy and wild, please carefully read and abide by these rules.

If You Encounter a Bear

  • Running may elicit a chase response. Bears can run faster than 30 mph (50 km/hr). You cannot outrun them. If the bear is unaware of you, detour quickly and quietly away. Give the bear plenty of room, allowing it to continue its activities undisturbed. BACK AWAY SLOWLY IF THE BEAR IS AWARE OF YOU! Speak in a low, calm voice while waving your arms slowly above your head. Bears that stand up on their hind legs are not threatening you, but merely trying to identify you.
  • SHOULD A BEAR APPROACH OR CHARGE YOU—DO NOT RUN, DO NOT DROP YOUR PACK! Bears sometimes charge, coming within ten feet of a person before stopping or veering off. Dropping a pack may encourage the bear to approach people for food. STAND STILL until the bear moves away, then slowly back off.
  • IF A GRIZZLY MAKES CONTACT WITH YOU, PLAY DEAD. Curl up into a ball with your knees tucked into your stomach and your hands laced around the back of your neck. Leave your pack on to protect your back. If the attack is prolonged, fight back vigorously.

Report all bear incidents and encounters to a ranger! Park rangers and biologists need this information to document bear behavior for research and management purposes.

Denali National Park

We awoke early the next day, not only because we were excited about touring Denali National Park but we knew that the amount of park we would be able to see was based on the time we reached the Wilderness Access Center at the Park’s entrance.

We grabbed a quick, but exceptional and complimentary, bite to eat at the Main Lodge and headed to the Park.

Quick check list of must have items to pack for a day in Denali National Park

  • Jacket – preferably a windbreaker
  • Hiking boots or shoes
  • Water
  • Snacks / Lunch
  • Camera (extra batteries and memory)
  • Map / Bus Schedule
  • Compass

(My brother would also like to note that a tripod doubles as a great walking stick.)

Things to Know about Getting Around Denali

There is only one road, 92 miles in length, in Denali National Park. Typically, one may only drive fifteen miles up that road into the Park to the Savage River Check Station. This station is where you will catch one of many types of buses to take you the remainder of the way through the park. We chose to take one of the shuttle buses.

These buses will pick you up and let you off anywhere along the road as you travel through the park. You do not have to return on the bus you originally started. They also stop at each of the visitor’s centers located along the way: Toklat River, Eilson, Wonder Lake and Katishna. The earlier you arrive to catch a bus, the further into the park you can go.

You want to make sure that you arrive at your final destination before the last bus of the day leaves there to return to the entrance so that you aren’t stuck on an impromptu camping adventure.

One other important thing to note is that there is no food or beverage available along the route. It is IMPERATIVE that you bring both of these items with you, you will need them. There are gift shops at both the Toklat and the Eilson stop, but they have no food items available for purchase, not even a token Denali candy bar. There is a shop at the Wilderness Access Center so if you make it into the Park without food or drink, you can purchase these items there.

We did find a wild blueberry patch however at the Wonder Lake stop, a very nice treat after a lunch of granola bars and cheese crackers.

Our Denali Experience

We found ourselves discussing how nice it would be to reside in Alaska as we drove through Denali. The view was again remarkable, brilliant, beautiful. I believe we saw approximately one hundred thousand twenty-two wild hares along the side of the road, a good year for them. We also saw a mother bear and her cub drinking at the river, a bear viewing us from road side and a bear scratching his shoulder on the back of the bus as he crossed the road behind us. We saw moose, wolves, Dall sheep, did I mention hares?

Our stop at the Polychrome Overlook was probably most impressive to me. Before us lay multicolored mountaintops, flowered fields and the East Fork River.

We decided on the return trip that we would get off the bus at the Toklat River rest stop and hike up the road on our own for awhile. The light was perfect, we crossed a shallow river on foot and we just enjoyed the serenity and quiet of our surroundings. We spent an hour, just Ryan and I, along the main road. We even found a location where glacier melt met the river, the contrast was amazing.

Just the trip to Wonder Lake and back is 11 hours. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the Park early enough to get the trip out to Katishna, I guess we have a reason to return.

Moose Cow and Calf in Denali

Moose Cow and Calf in Denali