Alaska By Land – Denali Part I

September 7, 2015 4 By Audrey

Before going to Denali, I did my homework. There was a slim chance we’d be eaten by bears and I wanted that chance slimmer. Planning is key (*see end notes).

Grizzly in Denali

We traveled by train- the Denali Star, to reach the park. I humored the idea of birding by train, but that was pretty much impossible. The conductors did, however, point out Osprey nests and Trumpeter Swans as we whizzed by. We also had our first moose sighting by train.

Trumpeter Swans

I went to Alaska, and all I got was this blurry picture of Trumpeter Swans.

I had hoped to see a Willow Ptarmigan (related to pterodactyl, obviously) on our Alaska trip at some point. A “typical bird of the arctic tundra.” Spoiler alert – I did not see one. The closest I got was seeing two round “bird-like objects” flee for their lives from the shrubs alongside the moving train. Possibly ptarmigan, but unconfirmed.

After the eight hour train ride, we finally arrived at the park. We completed the required backcountry training, picked out our backcountry unit (unit 6, my first choice!), acquired our bear resistant canisters, and stayed the first night near the park entrance at Riley Creek Campground. Where it rained. And poured. And rained some more.

Hopeful for improved weather, we boarded the shuttle bus early the next morning for the 5 hour ride to Wonder Lake Campground. A glimpse of the shuttle-bus fun:

Wildlife viewing

Wildlife viewing



Polychrome Mtn edge

Polychrome Mtns

We arrived at Wonder Lake and set up camp.

Wonder Lake Campground

It is a surreal place. Beyond those clouds, only 26 miles away, is the highest peak in North America, Denali, “The High One.” Wonder Lake is the closest campground to the mountain, but living up to its reputation, the peak was obscured by clouds. Only 30% of Denali park visitors are fortunate enough to see the mountain.

We set off for a hike on the nearby Mckinley Bar Trail, one of the few established trails in the park. Here I focused my attention on the partly obscured birds. We saw flocks of Wilson’s Warblers (not pictured: the rest of the flock).

Wilson's Warbler

We saw a few other “common” birds.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (juvenile, Myrtle)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (juvenile, Myrtle)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (They're everywhere!)

Yellow-rumped Warbler, adult (They’re everywhere!)

White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile)

White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile)

White-crowned Sparrow (not so juvenile, "first winter")

White-crowned Sparrow, not so juvenile (“first winter”)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

These Greater White-fronted Geese were kind of a surprise find while exploring the trail.

Greater White-fronted Geese

As was this moose!


We could finally put into practice what we’d learned to do during a wildlife encounter. Speak calmly, and back away. Moose want their space, and they’ll charge you to get it. This one was directly on the trail in front of us, so we made a large circle around the tundra to avoid her, meanwhile keeping her within eye-sight, as she kept an eye on us. We were nervous she may have a calf, but we never saw one, and she continued munching on the brush, and eventually moved on into the thickets.



Whew. It was good practice for our next few nights in the backcountry where we would experience the most remote hiking we’ve ever done.

Tweets and chirps,


*Because it might be useful to someone somewhere:

How backpacking Denali works: The 6 million park acres are broken into 87 backcountry units. 41 of the (more accessible) units have a quota (2-12 people). A (free) permit must be obtained in-person from the Backcountry Information Center (BIC) to access units. Along with paperwork and using/borrowing bear-food canisters, they require a basic training process for hiking in bear country (video/instruction). In all, it took us 2 hours at the office to pick a unit and complete training. (About 1.5 hours longer than I thought it would).

Denali has one 92 mile road. In summer, only the first 15 miles of the road is accessible by car. Shuttle buses are the way to access the park, but camper buses specifically are the way to access with camping gear (backpacks and bicycles). There’s a difference between the buses – I learned that the hard way.

Because of the unit quotas and in-person permit requirement, popular units are often full. One trick is to stay a night (or two) at Wonder Lake (last stop) because they will allow picking units for the following nights after WL, giving you a head start. Wonder Lake is also close (26 mi) to Denali (mtn).  A shuttle bus departs Wonder Lake pretty early that can then make a drop off at a desired unit location.

I found it inspiring and helpful to read trip report blogs, blogs, and more blogs. Even Trip Advisor has some knowledgeable insight from a few locals. And Backpacker guide has a trip suggestion.

For bear safety, aside from the backcountry video and safety talk at the park, we found this entertaining video produced by Mirror Lake Middle School.

Go. It’s all worth it.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my sense put in order.” – John Burroughs, naturalist and nature essayist.