Visiting Denali Nat’l Park

Today we would go to Denali Nat’l Park.  Private vehicles can only drive the first 15 miles of the park ….to see the interior requires either a ‘shuttle’ or ‘tour bus’ reservation.

Our shuttle reservation was 7:30.  We were instructed to be at WAC – Wilderness Access Center (now renamed Denali Bus Depot)  by 7:15 which meant we needed to leave Denali Lakeview Inn (accommodations last night) by 6:45. We did…and made it to WAC way ahead of schedule.  🙂

Instructions were to bring a lunch as there is no food available at Eielson.  While there is a VERY SMALL snack bar at WAC, the lines were VERY LONG (and VERY SLOW) with many people purchasing breakfast  AND lunch items.  I was SO glad we had planned our own lunch and weren’t dependent on that line to eat that day.  Now….we DID get in line for a candy bar – and left the line after 15 min. Lining up to get a good seat on the bus was more important to me than any Snickers.  🙂

NOTE:  In checking the website for this year, I found that they are making several changes to the park – namely signage (which WAS needed as their signage in the commercial areas of the park was not clear for navigation/driving) and renaming a few things – i.e. WAC will now be called “Denali Bus Dept”…which will  be more clear to visitors as well…  

 

Boarding Our Shuttle:

The boarding area for buses/shuttles was behind WAC (I would assume that’s the reason they’ve now changed the name).  The process was very organized…. Signs listed shuttle times and we lined up in ‘our’ line. Our shuttle boarded about 7:25 for a 7:30 departure.  From my research, I knew we wanted a seat on the left side of the bus for the best views on the way TO Eielson.  Getting there early meant we were at the front of the line – so had our choice of seats.  🙂

Denali Nat’l Park, Here We Come!

Our bus driver was a young girl who had been driving shuttles/buses in Denali for 10 summers.  (yes…”young” is a subjective term)  We were very impressed with her as a tour guide…but after she handled some ill-behaved passengers and brought everyone/everything back into line, we were even MORE impressed with her.   🙂

The Stops:  The shuttle made quick tops at campgrounds to pick up/drop off passengers, then also short (15 min) sightseeing stops at Teklanika, Polychrome,  and Toklat River before arriving at Eielson.  All stops had viewing areas and rows of very well maintained and clean porta-potties…..with hand sanitizer dispensers in them (a pleasant surprise!!!)

 


 

The first 15 miles of the road is paved and accessible by private vehicles so our shuttle had to maneuver around private cars who might stop in the middle of the road.  Often it was because of wildlife spotted in the distance.  Our driver didn’t spend much time at those spots though…and we were GLAD of that.  We had so many BETTER wildlife viewings ahead for us…I was glad we had more time for THOSE stops!!!

Savage River Trailhead at Mile 15 was the turn around point for all private vehicles.  A gate blocked the road from that point forward.  We stopped briefly to be ‘checked in’ at the gate, then went through.  The road turned to gravel/dirt.  It was a well maintained road so not a bad ride at all –though at times a bit dusty.

Our day had quite a bit of wildlife viewing – a bull moose not long after leaving WAC – but too far away to really photograph, and Dall Sheep on the mountain side on our return trip…not to mention countless marmets. –all pretty common things to see….

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But….The REAL gems were coming up…

Now, before we got very far into our morning, our driver shared with us the ‘Informattion/Rules of the Day’  …..

1. Though this was technically a “Hop On/Hop Off” shuttle, it was not advised that we do much ‘hopping’ today.  (This was Labor Day)   All shuttles were running at capacity.  We were guaranteed a seat on our current shuttle….but if we left that shuttle, we would become a stand by passenger on any future shuttle….and might wait a while to get a seat…

2. IF wildlife is spotted, be very very quiet.  The wildlife are accustomed to the buses, but do NOT know that they contain people….it needs to stay that way!  Windows stay up unless you can be completely quiet…all hands, fingers, camera lenses, etc…stay INSIDE the bus…to hide the presence of  ‘people’ there. She went on to say that if we were noisy…or gave any indication that there were ‘people’ on the bus, she would have NO CHOICE (Park regulations) but to drive away…and we would miss our wildlife viewing. (Denali Nat’l Park is one of the few parks remaining where the wildlife is actually still fairly ‘wild’ and unaccustomed to people.)

Learning that we couldn’t hop on/hop off to hike or ponder in this beautiful place was somewhat of a disappointment.  I had a list of possible hikes to take…and of course, KNEW we would enjoy some quiet time in some of these spots….away from crowds.  That now was going to be either very difficult…or impossible.  HOWEVER….We would still be happy with our day…It just was going to be a little different than we had planned.  *sigh*

Oh Well…..

Bears: About an hour into our day, we came across a IMG_0021Mother Grizzly and 2 cubs!!! The cubs were playing in the creek bed while Mom watched. Our driver stopped for almost 15 min. while we all watched, photographed, etc….  Unfortunately, my photos are taken through the bus window so not the best…but she’s there…  Cubs down below.  🙂

 

A little further down the road, someone spotted a male Grizzly!! Sadly, this was where some passengers began to blatantly ignore the drivers rules and admonishments.  IMG_7097 She kept saying “If you aren’t quiet, I will have no choice but to drive away.”  When passengers didn’t comply, she got their attention -by driving away.  I’m purposely leaving out portions of this story in this public forum…but she DID get their attention…   *sigh*

 

The Toklat River stop had a Visitor Center with a few displays.  It’s just a tent  but DID have Rangers there to answer questions…and a small bookstore.  As of 2018, this area is called “Toklat Tent” and houses the Alaska Geographic Bookstore, exhibits and their employees…no longer Park Rangers.  We had a bit longer at this stop….maybe 20-25 min to explore the exhibits.

Eielson Visitor Center: 

Lunch: When we arrived at Eielson, our driver told us to eat our lunch while here.  We did…though in retrospect, I wish we’d just grabbed our apple and gone inside the Visitor Center….  We could have eaten on the drive back.  We only had about 35 min. at Eielson and I wish we’d allocated it a little differently.  *sigh*

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View from Eielson Visitor Center

 

The Visitor Center there (Eielson) was a rather large building housing a museum, viewing area with floor to ceiling windows and an outdoor viewing deck…and of course, trails behind the Center.  There is running water & electricity here as well as water bottle filling stations.

It was VERY windy and cold at this altitude, but the views were INCREDIBLE.  We stayed out on the outdoor deck as long as we could…then opted for ‘indoor’ viewing.  Time was too short here though.  We didn’t have time to see the film there (always films at Nat’l Park Visitor Centers)  😦   We DID check into the possibility of catching a later shuttle (there are employees there whose job it is to coordinate those who wish to change shuttles) but were told we might have to wait 2 hrs for TWO available seats. (plight of visiting on Labor Day)   We found out AFTER we boarded our original shuttle that we could indeed catch the next one…in 10 min.  At that point, we just decided to stay where we were.  Ten minutes wasn’t enough time for the film or a hike so would really gain us nothing.   🙂

Our decision to stay on THIS bus would turn out to be a GREAT ONE  though….as we were in store for our best view of the day….on our drive back!!!

Our driver didn’t narrate much after leaving Eielson.  Everyone was rather quiet, enjoying the scenery.

When….suddenly, our driver said in very hushed tones.  “What I’m hearing from drivers ahead is that there is a VERY RARE sighting….a Black Wolf….walking down the road  We will stop…and if all goes well, he should walk right past our bus.  Please be VERY quiet”.

And then THIS!!!  black wolf

 

 

We had sat on the left side of the bus to get the best views on the way TO Eielson…never dreaming that on the drive back, we’d be on the ‘best’ side too!!!!  How lucky is that??!!!???  ha!!

 

Another hour down the road and our driver stopped again…this time to tell us that the North Peak of Denali was out (We’d seen the base of her that morning….).  Yes….I had photos of Denali’s base…and now had a photo of her North Peak.  I was contemplating the possibilities photo shop offered…. hahaha!!!  🙂 🙂

Denali North Peak

Well…about 4:00, we arrived back at WAC….exhausted…but thrilled with our day!!!  Bears!  Black Wolf!   & the North Peak of Denali!  Great Day!!


Before leaving the park, we made a stop at the Bookstore – looking for our Denali Nat’l Park Christmas ornament.  This is a ‘must purchase’ for us on all vacations.  The Souvenir You’ll Keep (and LOVE) Forever.

Then…we headed back to Healy….and our wonderful little room with the incredible view over it’s balcony…

After a bite of supper from food I’d prepared at Buttes Bethel B&B and relaxing on our private balcony watching an exquisite sunset, we went to bed.   Our day had been long!   Wonderful…but Long!!

There was a chance of seeing the Northern Lights that night (I had checked:  GI Forecast)so every time we woke up throughout the night, we’d check outside for them.  Alas…no Northern Lights!!!  (Prime time for this is Nov-Apr….but the forecast said there was a ‘chance’…)

Tomorrow, we would head back south…staying in Wasilla tomorrow night with our final destination being the airport in Anchorage and a flight home…  *sigh*  Our Alaskan adventure was winding down.  We were ‘full’….so much beauty!  so much adrenaline!  I couldn’t believe it was about to come to an end!

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Finding Bargains on Rental Cars

Finding Bargains on Rental Cars

Rental cars are probably the area where my tenacious approach  🙂  to vacation planning has gotten us some of the best bargains.  It takes some time and effort, but you CAN save quite a bit if you’re  willing to make that time investment.

Tips:

  1. Reserve early!!  There’s no way to predict when rates will go up or down, but you won’t go wrong by reserving early.  If they go up, you’re locked in at the cheaper rate…. but if they go down, you can rebook – which brings us to the next tip.
  2. Check back frequently for cheaper rates:  If the rates go down (and they often do),  cancel and re-book at the cheaper rate.  I check back every 4-5 days.  This takes time…but there have been vacations where I’ve saved as much as $100 from the initial booking to the day we leave for vacation. In the beginning of this process, I may see savings of $5-$10-$20 at a time.  The closer we get to the vacation, the less the savings  ($2-$4)  but I still  cancel/rebook anyway. Even those small savings add up over time. Tip:  Create a folder in your e-mail program to drop all the confirmations.  They’ll be easy to locate when you need to cancel the higher rate.  BUT…and THIS IS IMPORTANT:  Don’t make a reservation that requires pre-payment or that can’t be cancelled. Always read the fine print.

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    Photo Credit: Tuddy at en.wikipedia CC Lic.

  3. Are you a member of a Warehouse Club?  We recently bought a Costco membership.  When I first went to check their Travel section, I fully assumed that they would NOT be able to beat the AAA quotes I had reserved for rental car.  What I found was that they beat the AAA price by $26!!!  I made a new reservation!!!
  4. Check Your Quote:  Confirm that your quote  covers the full charges (all taxes, fees, surcharges) so that you’re comparing TOTAL COSTS.
  5. Unlimited mileage on rental cars is pretty standard these days, but confirm this if you plan to drive long distances.
  6. Out of State:  If your travel plans will take you out of the state where you rented the car, make sure this is within the policy of that company.  (Policies vary)  Several years ago we flew into Providence R.I. and were headed to Cape Cod for our vacation (about 60 mi away).  We had to get special permission from management to cross the state line.  They “ok’ed” it without a problem, but wanted to see our return airline ticket.  If we had not let them know, then had any kind of car problems or accident, we could have been in a lot of hot water!!
  7. Extra Driver:  Some companies allow for a spouse as an extra driver without charge….other companies will charge.  Though I’ve never needed to drive a rental car on a vacation, (my husband does the driving) I’ve always worried just a bit about what would happen if there were some type of emergency and I NEEDED to drive. Would the company say we breached the contract and assess fines or penalties?  We try to only rent from companies that will allow a 2nd driver at no charge.  (they want a signature, driver’s lic. etc…from me too )  It gives me peace of mind.
  8. Get the right size car: Obviously, the smaller the car, the better the rate AND gas mileage will be.  The most important thing to consider when trying to downsize is ‘Will the luggage fit?”  If you have to make a upgrade to a larger car AT the COUNTER, you will pay the premium rate. That happened to us once.  I reserved a small car to save money and though my family fit, the luggage didn’t.  All my savings were gone!  We paid the same rate we would have paid if we had walked up to the counter to rent on the spot.  😦 

     

https://www.flickr.com/photos/mag3737/10665688545/sizes/l

Photo Credit: Tom Magliery on Flickr CC Lic