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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Denali National Park and Preserve Tundra Wilderness Tour Is a Special Experience in Alaska Like No Other!

Denali Park Road is 92 miles long, parallels the Alaska Range and travels through low valleys and high mountain passes. It is the ONLY road in the park. Along its route, beautiful landscapes can be seen at every turn, and there are many opportunities to view Denali - if the normally cloudy skies permit. Wildlife can often be seen too, although sightings are not guaranteed - they are, after all, wild animals roaming an unfenced land.

There are two main types of buses in Denali - narrated trips (tour buses) and non-narrated trips (transit buses). In addition, a few free buses travel routes around the park entrance, connecting visitor centers and points of interest in the same area where visitors may drive their own vehicles. We opted for the Tundra Wilderness Tour, a 7-8 hour excursion into the park with a certified driver-naturalist. This tour provides in-depth information about the history of the park, while maintaining a keen eye in search of wildlife and photography opportunities. Chances to see wildlife are greater on this trip than on other tours.

Here's what we'll cover in this post!

  • Pickup
  • Inside the Park
  • Course of Tour and Stops Along the Way
  • Tips
  • Bottom Line


The bus came to our hotel to pick us up.  We were already briefed that this would be a rugged experience with the bus being a "nostalgic" school bus which is the only type available  Supposedly the rugged transportation is due to the nature of the roads and narrow passages that we would experience later in the day.  The pickup was prompt and it becomes clear that there are certain scheduled times to tour throughout the day. Remember, the days are long during the summer in Alaska, so even an afternoon departure means you will have daylight the whole tour.   We left the hotel about 1PM.

Inside the park

Maps were provided so that we could follow our progress into the park throughout the day.  These were very helpful and we found we referred back to them on a regular basis.  Our tour guide was Cassie and she made the experience meaningful with her background and stories.  First, she did an excellent job of prepping us on the course of the day, giving us historical and cultural background and telling us what we might see along the way.   She asked us to help spot animals, which of course we were eager to do (some more than others!) and Cassie had a camera which she zoomed in, onto animals, mountains etc, which then showed onto overhead screens.

This of course added to the experience.  She had a great personality and was happy to share her knowledge & answer questions.  Clearly it was to be an educational tour in more ways than one and we anticipated seeing a number of animals close up, thanks to the camera zoom. She did a great job of driving the often NARROW roads, all the while, providing an excellent commentary. How she could spot animals and drive was amazing.  Let's just say the bus got a little chaotic when someone would shout out and animal like "moose!"

For long bus rides like this or long flights like to Alaska, we recommend using compression socks to keep your legs from swelling from sitting all day!  Click here to see our favorite compression socks with an excellent level of compression for a great price at Amazon!  Clicking our links helps support our mission to give to charity and it doesn't cost you a thing!  Thank you so much!


We started at the only road entrance and there are two distances the TWT covers:

  • From May 20—31, the tour travels as far as Mile 53, Toklat River
  • From June 1—mid-September, the tour travels to Mile 62, Stony Overlook
Since we visited in July, we took the tour to Stony Overlook.  

During summer, roughly late May through early September, private vehicles may drive the first fifteen miles of this road, to a place called Savage River. The road to Savage River is paved, and features numerous pull-outs for folks to stop and snap some scenic photos. "The Mountain" can be seen as early as Mile 9, if the day isn't too overcast, and animals of all sorts can sometimes be seen on this stretch of road - although chances to see wildlife increase greatly with a bus trip farther down the Park Road.  We had a very clear day so Denali mountain became evident to us throughout the day from mile 9 and several points after that.  Once you get off the paved portion of the road, you can see why the rugged buses are used!  Generally the road is not too rough but for us it was very dusty since we were there during a dry spell.

We made several stops along the way to stretch our legs and take bathroom breaks.  Some of the stops were purely for scenic overlooks with most of them being very different from the others. The stops never seemed boring with plenty of time to take photos, go to the bathroom and walk around.

Here are some of the stops or pauses we made along the way:

1.  Mountain Vista 

This is around mile 9 and was our first of many incredible views of "The Mountain".  You will find these views to be very unique and from different perspectives.  Sometimes Denali would be covered partially by mountains and other times in full view.  Our guide pointed out these views every time.

2. Savage Village Trailhead

Once 15 miles in, we had our first bathroom stop.  It is brief and be prepared, the facilities are at a campground, meaning they are not luxurious.

3. Primrose Ridge

Located near mile 16, this was our first bear sighting in the distance along the ridge.  We pulled to the side and watched this incredible animal trudge along the vegetation alone.

4. Teklanika River near mile 28  

This was a beautiful area encompassing a large river basin with several caribou sitting in the center of the empty basin on full display for everyone.  The surrounding mountain ranges were magnificent to take in while we explored the restrooms, antlers and information about the dinosaur tracks found nearby.

5. Polychrome Pass 

This is a narrow road near Polychrome mountain around mile 44.  I bring this up because CLOSE YOUR EYES!  This narrow road on a steep side of the mountain has become increasingly unstable according to locals but fortunately we made on our way in and out of the park...the views from there are beautiful and you can see where the polychrome name came from.

6. Stony Hill Overlook

 Named for the high mountain pass the overlook sits upon, creeks flow into this beautiful stop.  But what we enjoyed most from visiting here was the green scenery, plentiful wildflowers and incredible views of The Mountain.  This was our turnaround point and during the return we were engaged to see sights that you might not see well on the way out due to your particular bus seat or looking for wildlife! 

What are some of the Wildlife We Saw?


Family of Moose

Hawk and Eagle



1. Bring Food & Water

It’s a long trip. You will get a small snack box, but for most this isn't enough for an 8 hour day.  Bring enough for the whole day. Local restaurants and shops sell box lunches. You’re allowed to bring a cooler on the shuttle bus if it fits under the seat but we found we had plenty of water provided.

2. Bring Camera, Batteries, Flash Cards & Binoculars

Remember to recharge your camera batteries the night before. If you forgot your binoculars, you can rent a pair at Riley Creek Mercantile and some local hotels but honestly you should have a pair of binoculars for all of Alaska because you never know what you may see.  Have a pair for every member of your party.

3. Get Comfortable

Summer weather in Denali can be windy and wet or even hot and there is no air conditioning on the bus. Bring a backpack with a light polar fleece jacket or sweater, a raincoat, extra socks, and a hat or cap. You should wear sturdy shoes, so you can get out and walk. There will be mosquitoes, so bring mosquito repellent and they are big!

Wear high socks and maybe some cotton gloves to keep insects from biting your vulnerable ankles and wrists. If you have these things, you’ll be more likely to get out of the bus and enjoy yourself. Some people bring little travel pillows. If you have children, bring something along for them to do. You can pick up something at the Jr. Ranger’s section at the visitor center.

 4. Rest Stops

There are bathrooms every hour or hour and a half along the road. If it’s been a while since you rode in a school bus, you’ll look forward to getting out and stretching.  They are not luxurious but do have paper.  Make sure you bring hand sanitizer since sinks are not universal.

5. Make A Reservation

If you don’t want to wait a day or more to make your reservations after you reach the park, arrange your trip before you arrive.

• Online:
• Phone: (1day ahead)
800-622-7275 (USA)
907-272-7275 (International)

6. Get Out & Walk

It is unhealthy to stay seated for the entire day. To avoid stiff joints and swollen ankles consider compression socks but definitely get out when the bus stops!

Bottom Line:

No frills, and traveling at a leisurely pace through the changing forest and tundra scenery was a highlight. Looking out for wildlife such as caribou and grizzly bear kept the sense of anticipation going all day. The naturalist driver was knowledgable - she knew Denali inside out.

We would strongly consider this tour if you are visiting Denali via a tour package. It is the best way to get in as close to Denali (the mountain) as you can get by motor vehicle. The drivers provide quite a bit of narration. If you are lucky enough to get good weather, you may even get a decent view of the mountain at the mid-point of the tour. Whether you will see any wildlife is also very much a matter of luck. On our trip we had a caribou pass close to the bus, and we saw a ground squirrel, and that was about it.

Be aware that this trip is somewhat long (several hours) and is in those older-style buses (like a school bus) that is not the most comfortable ride. (Modern coaches can't handle the road on the tricky parts.) They do provide a snack pack, but we advise bringing along something nutritious that you know you can eat.


  1. What a spectacular adventure! Appreciate the tips you provided since this is a long journey. By the way I love the old school bus!

  2. Looks like a great adventure. I hope this pandemic will end already so that I can travel again.

  3. Alaska always fancied me. And your post and photos are incredible!

  4. Alaska is a spectacular place. Interesting place to practice medicine there.