We are eight miles from the entrance to Denali National Park as I settle into my comfortable bus seat, along with five other people. We have plenty of space for social distancing, peace and quiet. Our driver and guide only has two rules for us : No talking about politics or religion. My kind of rules.
My body is exhausted from the long days of driving coupled with the medications I’ve been taking to heal my body. A few days of just relaxing seem to be exactly what I need. But first I need to get to my lodge in the park, which is approximately six hours away along the lone Denali Park road.
I never do much research beforehand whenever I travel, as I like to be surprised by the unknown. With this in mind, I had no idea that Denali only has one road for the entire park, a 92 mile stretch of mostly dirt that goes through glacial valleys and epic mountain ranges. The public though can only drive up to mile 15, after that one must ride a shuttle bus operated by the park (or you can walk or ride a bike). This allows for the park to maintain its wild and pristine nature where animals are truly the Kings of this land.
The weather is filling the park with ominous clouds that hug the mountainous peaks, creating a dramatic aura around us. We spot dall sheep along the high ridges of the park first, just below the clouds. It’s only August, but Autumn is already showing off its colors here.
We come to a rest stop which is our halfway point. I’m inspired by people I see biking this road, which is truly a test of the resiliency of the human spirit. Our first bear is seen here, only a few hundred yards from the Visitor’s Center. I was going to do a little hike down into the valley, but obviously need to change plans with the grizzly on the trail.
The ranger lets me know that I can cross the road and hike upwards, away from the bear. I take his advice. The rain starts to fall as I go, but it feels cool and refreshing against my skin.
After a spell, the bus continues onward. Caribou make their first appearance, with what we are told is the Denali mountain in the background, yet the clouds hide the great mountain from us.
The road becomes narrow as we climb slowly up and around a mountain, and the drop-off’s are impressive and more than a little intimidating. Only one vehicle can pass at a time, and so it takes more than a bit of luck to traverse this section of the Denali road and not have a bus coming from the opposite direction.
I soak in each valley view as a sponge would take in water.
The six hours of driving fly by. As we get within a couple miles of our final destination, a large caribou appears only a few feet away from the bus. You can see the wild in its eyes.
One final turn later and I get my first view of the Backcountry Lodge, located at the very end of the Denali Park road. It becomes clear to me how remote and special this place is, a location many never see when coming to the Park.
I get settled into my creekside cabin, then head to the mess hall for dinner. Our Sam Elliott bus driver asks if he can join me, and we swap adventure stories over beers as night settles in over our camp.