Alaska is one of my favorite destinations, not least of all because of the fantastic wildlife viewing options it offers. Denali National Park can easily be the highlight of your trip in that respect.
In the summer of 2017 we traveled in the Last Frontier State for three weeks. Visiting Denali National Park was one of the highlights of our trip. We got to see no fewer than nineteen Grizzly bears as well as a moose, several caribou, Dahl sheep and a fox – all in the same day in Denali!
In this post I’m about to share some tips on how to increase your odds of seeing animals and keeping safe while doing so.
A few words about Denali National Park
Denali National Park is home to an abundance of wildlife, including 39 species of mammals, 169 bird species, numerous invertebrate and even a species of amphibians. Formerly known as Mount McKinley National Park, this was the first national park created to ensure the protection of that wildlife.
Private vehicle traffic is generally limited to the first 15 miles of the park road. In order to get further into the park, you need to take either a shuttle or a tour bus. The shuttles have several stops along the route and you can hop on and off at each stop.
Keep in mind that this is a long ride. Going all the way to the last stop – Kantishna campground at mile 92 – takes a total of 12 hours for the return trip. Most visitors take the shuttle to Eielson Visitors Center (8 hours) or go as far as Wonder Lake (11 hours).
Everyone wants to see animals on their Denali Tour and the bus drivers are well aware of that. We took the supposedly non-narrated driver but our driver chose to turn the ride into a guided one – which we all appreciated. Many experience the same with the shuttles which is why it’s generally preferable to take the cheaper shuttle and not the guided bus tour.
How to maximize your wildlife viewing options from the shuttle/bus
The key here is to get out as early as possible. We took the 6:30 shuttle and were not disappointed. We counted 19 Grizzly bears in all our sightings – about half of them on the way in and half on the way out. Several of these sightings included sows with cubs.
At least twice, bears came very close to our shuttle bus: A huge male Grizzly walked along the road, several feet away from our windows. Later, a sow and two cubs slowly crossed the road right in front of us.
We also saw a fox, several caribou, one moose and several dahl sheep. It was well worth getting up so early to get to the shuttle on time!
Other than getting up early, you can also book more than a single trip. In fact, most experienced travelers to Denali recommend doing that. You’ll get a better chance at seeing Mount Denali which tends to hide in the clouds most of the time. Booking two shuttle trips into the park will increase your chances of seeing animals too.
As for safety – nothing beats the shuttle or bus tours. You’re clearly safe while inside the bus. When you reach a stop, you get off the bus for 10-15 minutes but generally stay with the group. The drivers are very experienced and capable of dealing with any event, so you have nothing to worry about.
Hiking in Denali National Park
You can hike anywhere in Denali. The trails are not marked and so there’s no question of going “off trail”. Obviously, there are some hikes that come recommended and you can find them listed in the Denali National Park Service website. The point is, you’re pretty much free to roam the Denali wilderness, for a few hours, days or even weeks.
Many visitors to the park get off at the Eielson Visitors Center, hike for an hour or two and then return to catch the next shuttle back.
If you choose to take the shuttle all the way to Wonder Lake of Kantishna, you’re going to spend 11-12 hours on the bus, leaving you little time to hike.
They say that when you’re hiking or trekking through Denali National Park, it’s not a question of whether you encounter wildlife – it’s only a question of when and where. That doesn’t necessarily mean a close encounter with a Grizzly or a wolf, of course, but it could.
With that in mind, let’s talk about some of the basic safety rules for wildlife encounters in Denali and in any other national park.
Safety Guidelines for Wildlife Viewing in Denali
These basic rules hold true across Alaska and other US national parks too. They’re worth understanding and memorizing before your visit to Denali National Park.
1. Stay away from wildlife
Keep your distance and appreciate wildlife from afar. In almost all scenarios, wild animals in Alaska don’t see you as potential prey but they can attack if you get too close, to protect themselves or their offspring. The rule of thumb for wildlife is to keep a minimum of 25 yards from any animal and at least 100 yards from predators such as wolves and bear.
2. Do not feed the animals
With too many visitors, some animals lose their natural fear of humans and try to get food from them. That’s not good for the animals. Especially not for the predators who will eventually be shot and killed by park rangers if they keep getting too close to human visitors.
That’s why the first thing you need to do is make sure no animal gets to your food. Keep food and anything that smells like food secured away. If you’re hiking, use bear canisters to store your food. Remember to pack out everything that you bring with you to the park. Your aim is to make sure bear – and other animals – don’t learn to associate humans with food (including trash).
3. Respect the large animals – even if they’re not predators
Keep in mind that herbivores can be just as dangerous as predators. Moose are generally docile but at an average of 1,600 pounds, they weigh in at three to four times the weight of grizzly bears. Those antlers are actually weapons they’re not afraid to use if they feel threatened.
That’s why it’s best just to stay away. Remember – if you do encounter a moose or another large herbivore, make sure you’re at least two bus-lengths from it (that’s 25 meters or 25 yards).
4. Don’t take a wild animal by surprise
Make sure you see the animals and that they see you. The last thing you want is to make a turn on the trail and find yourself 5 yards away from a bear or a moose.
Most of Denali is a sub-arctic tundra with low-lying vegetation, making it easier to view the area around you. Stay alert all the same. Local wildlife can blend in the background: It can be hard to see a brown bear in the brown shrubbery of late August.
If you’re hiking in the brush or in any area that doesn’t offer a good line of vision to the next section of the trail – make a lot of noise as you walk down the path. You’re trying to make the bear hear you and get off the trail before you get there.
5. Hike in groups
There is safety in numbers, especially if you encounter bears or wolves. These animals are far less likely to prey on a group of humans then they are on a single hiker. Hiking in pairs is better than going solo. The larger the group – the better.
6. Be bear aware
As you can tell from our multiple sightings from the bus, bears are not uncommon in Denali. Encountering a bear while hiking is a very real possibility and most of the park’s safety guide deals with that.
National parks – including Denali – offer ranger talks about bear safety. Try to attend one of these if you can or at least read up before you get to the park. It’s very important that you have a good understanding of bear behavior. In the case of Denali, Grizzly bears should be your focus as there are no black bears in the park, only Grizzlies.
We’ve been to bear talks in several parks and it’s always worth repeating the essentials –
- ● Never feed a bear or leave food in a place where a bear can get to it
- ● Hike in groups and make noise as you hike
- ● Never run away from a bear – if a bear charges in your direction, stand your ground. Hopefully, this is a bluff charge and the bear will retreat.
- ● If a Grizzly bear actually attacks you, try to curl in the foetal position, using your backpack as
- protection for your back – and play dead.
Should you carry bear spray when hiking in Denali?
Alaskans often carry firearms when out in the wilderness, not least of because of the chance of a close encounter with a Grizzly. It’s actually legal to carry a gun in Denali National Park (as long as you keep it outside the National Park Service buildings) but naturally, travelers from outside the state don’t usually have one with them.
You can however carry bear spray and Denali is actually one of the few parks I’ve seen where park authorities actually suggest that you do so.
We didn’t hike in Denali but I carried bear spray with me there and pretty much whenever we went outdoors in Alaska. We did have one close encounter with a Grizzly. We were watching a bear fish for salmon at Chilkoot Lake, and he just kept getting closer. The bear actually got as close as 5 meters from where we were standing but he was busy fishing and didn’t pay too much attention to us. I never had to use the spray but I was happy to have it on me at that time!
The thing about bear spray is that you need to keep it close-by and ready for use. Don’t just tuck it somewhere in the bottom of your backpack. This will only lull you into a sense of false security and won’t help you one bit if you come across a bear. Know how to operate bear spray correctly and learn when to use it and how.
Unless you plan on hiking in Denali, you have little to worry about in terms of wildlife safety. Go out on a bus or shuttle and enjoy your day! To increase your chances of seeing animals –
- ● Go early – the earlier the better.
- ● Book more than one trip into the park.
If hiking or trekking in Denali is on your agenda – do be prepared. If you have no prior experience with bears, read a good guide, go to a ranger talk and watch safety videos. If you plan on staying the night out in the park – get the right gear for bear country camping. Get bear spray and know how to use it. Stay safe and enjoy the majestic wilderness that is Denali National Park.
This is a guest post by Tripmemos:
We’re a family from Israel that loves traveling in the US and Canada. During the past decade we’ve spent a total of more than 18 months traveling in 45 US states and several Canadian provinces and territories.You can read more of my Alaska tips and advice here.
These are more resources for a trip to Alaska and Denali National Park (affiliate links).
The Fodor’s guide is a great overall resource on Alaska, and the Grizzly Man documentary is a must see to get a glimpse of grizzly bears up close.
I highly recommend to take a pair of binoculars with you as a lot of wildlife encounters will be from a distance. I have used the Bushnell binoculars that I suggest taking. They are not so expensive and excellent quality for the price.
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