Most bus ticket sales are advanced purchase. There are a few available at the bus station, but it is a gamble. I went online to see what was available. I had trouble connecting to the web page, so I called. The 11AM bus was full, but there were two seats on the 12 PM bus. This would get us back to the but terminal at 8PM and we would still have over a two hour drive back to Fairbanks. We decided it was totally worth it. We hustled up, though we had plenty of time. We stopped and got way more food than we needed in Healy. (There is no food or drinks available in the park.) We arrived at the park and went in to check in. We were over an hour early.
They told us to start lining up outside for the bus about 15 minutes before departure. We got in line over a half hour before, to make sure we got first choice of seats. People started filtering in and we chatted a bit. Finally, the bus pulled up. We decided to sit one row back from the front, thinking it might be a better view. The bus loaded up and we were stunned that no one sat across the aisle from us. I figured if no one wanted the seat, I would move over there, as that would have us on both sides of the bus to spot stuff. I felt a little guilty, having a seat to myself, but not guilty enough to move.
Our driver Brian got on and we took off. He gave us the lowdown on how the transit buses operate and what he expected from us. The transit buses run on the hour. Some go to Toklat River, which is at mile 53; some go to Eieslen Visitor Center, at mile 66; two other buses go further into the park, the farthest to mile 92. We had chosen Eieslen, which would be four hours in and four hours back. You are free to get off the bus whenever you want, hike or whatever, and flag the next bus down and get on. Of course, if that bus is full, you have to wait for the next one. They make rest stops every hour or so for 10 or 15 minutes, and stop for any wildlife.
Brian told us to keep all body parts inside the bus, though it was ok to put camera lens out the windows. He also said IF we had any wildlife encounters to try and maintain silence. He stressed how we were visitors and the park was the animals' home. They don't want them to be accustomed to hearing a lot of voices. The bears and other mammals don't associate the buses with human beings. If they hear hikers talking they take off to avoid them. The park wants it to continue this way. We were also instructed to not eat food outside of the bus. I was a bit concerned about his use of the words "IF we have wildlife encounters."
We covered the first fifteen miles pretty quickly, aiming to get into the part of the park not open to the public. Brian shared a lot of good information with the bus. He had been working in the park in various capacities for the last 15 summers. We found out he was a birder! Even before we passed the gate at mile 15, we were looking for animals, with no luck. Shortly after passing it Brian called out to look ahead on the road, where a Willow Ptarmigan was sitting. He looked for chicks, but didn't see any. A few people asked questions about what to expect. He was noncommittal, saying there were no guarantees. He said because it was so warm the mammals were likely to not be active. This did not make me happy. Deep inside a voice was saying, "No bears for you!"
We finally saw a Caribou by the Toklat River. It was a bit manky looking, shedding its coat, but still impressive. We pushed on. We were getting near the end of the line, where we would turn around, and still had not see any bears. I had asked Brian if there were trips where they didn't see them. He answered they usually did, but he had had several this year without any. I was feeling more and more uncertain, but still happy we had come. The scenery was unbelievable, and Brian was a fountain of knowledge. (Boy, does that sound trite!) He explained why the rivers were so muddy. The water was from glacier melt, which happens every year. He did remark that with climate change the rivers were higher and the glaciers were shrinking. The water is muddy because glaciers pick up debris as they move. The melt is full of dirt and stones. So much for pure glacier bottled water! I had to laugh.
We passed many buses on the way. Martin and I both were surprised at how much traffic we saw. Besides the transit buses, there are actual tour buses, cruise ship operated buses, and camp buses, going to the various camp grounds. I wondered how they saw any animals at all. As we passed one of the buses, a passenger asked Brian a question. He said "I'm sorry. I was distracted. The driver of that bus signaled me on something." We came around the bend and I saw three pale brown shapes in the grassy field below us. BEARS! That was what the driver was telling Brian.
We stopped at the Eieslen Visitor Center and walked around for about a half hour. We were delighted to get reasonable views of Denali itself, making us part of the 30% club. Only 30% of the people who visit Denali National Park actually get to see the mountain. We were pretty sure we had seen it the day we visited earlier, but this nailed it. I photographed some wildflowers. An Arctic Ground-squirrel looked at us with begging eyes, but we resisted giving him something to eat. Some of the passengers chose to stay and do some hiking. Some new passengers got on to return to the bus depot. The bus was still empty enough that we each had our own seat. Now I really felt guilty. :-D Martin and I had talked that maybe we would see more animals going back, as there was less traffic and it was later in the day.
We picked up a few passengers, but none of them wanted my seat. I quit feeling guilty. We made our last rest stop and Brian suggested that if we wanted to, to walk ahead on the road and he would pick us up. I was debating whether to walk, or be lazy. I heard a high pitched wheezing sound, and thought "Waxwings!", though when I hear waxwings here the sound is more constant. Brian asked me if I knew what the call was. I said "Waxings?" rather tentatively and he said "Yes!" One flew onto the top of a spruce and I got a distant photo.
We got back to the bus depot near the park entrance at about 815PM, only a little late. I wish I could express just how amazing this bus trip was. We ended up with 9 species of mammals, Snow-shoe Hare, Arctic Ground-squirrel, Red Squirrel, Caribou, Moose, Dall's Sheep, Red Fox, Grizzly Bear, and Canadian Lynx. We didn't have a big number of birds or butterflies, but who cares? I would highly recommend doing this trip. I hope you are lucky enough to get a driver as good as Brian was. This will stay with me for the rest of my life!
I only have one album for the day, the mammals. I am sorry I don't have one of the lynx. - https://www.flickr.com/photos/sngcanary/albums/72157709494863127
Bird list for the day: