When I pictured a bucket list-worthy outdoor excursion to the depths of Denali National Park and Preserve, my first vision of an epic trip likely did not include sitting through a four-hour ride in a glorified school bus. When my friends and I set off into the park on the second day of a six-day trip, I was full of excitement and anticipation for hiking, camping, and exploring all that the park had to offer. My wake-up call that morning at Riley Creek Campground delivered the realization that I had a gargantuan bus ride ahead of me and curbed the high level of adrenaline that had grown, at least momentarily. Little did I know that I was about to embark on one of the most beautiful and exciting half-day stretches of my life, all thanks to that iconic green school bus.
Why you have to ride the camper bus in Denali
Since there is only one main “park road” going through Denali National Park and Preserve, the park uses a shuttle system to reduce congestion and confusion for park guests. With only one road and more than 500,000 visitors to the park each year, the absence of this system could make it nearly impossible to reach destinations like Wonder Lake or Kantishna in a day. Luckily, the park offers a number of different buses, shuttles, and courtesy options to get you where you want to go with relative ease.
Transportation made easy in Denali National Park and Preserve
Before going to Denali National Park and Preserve, you will want to make sure that you have an understanding of what type of bus or shuttle you want to reserve. There are four main types of park transportation including shuttle buses, tour buses, camper buses, and courtesy buses.
- Shuttle buses (green): Intended for day hikers or those who desire a bit more freedom in their schedule, shuttle buses allow you to get on and off as you please, with the ability to catch any shuttle bus going into or out of the park. Shuttle bus passes are scheduled and ticketed based on destination and include four turnaround points that you can choose from (Toklat River, Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake, and Kantishna). Shuttles are best for those visitors who plan to go for day hikes, picnics or ranger-guided hikes from the visitor centers.
- Camper buses (green): Like the shuttle buses, camper buses have specific destinations that they will take you to, but are reserved for visitors with campground reservations or a backcountry permit. These buses have seats removed to accommodate backpacks, gear, and bikes and are only for those who are planning to get off at a certain site . You must stay on the bus that you originally board.
- Tour buses (tan): Unlike shuttle and camper buses, this bus is the journey and the destination. While they will stop fairly frequently for wildlife viewing and rest stops, a trip on a tour bus will keep you on that same bus for the whole day as you see the sights of Denali, guided by a trained naturalist who narrates the journey for you.
- Courtesy shuttle buses (multicolored): Located closer to the entrance of the park, courtesy shuttles are free and are intended to help those who would rather not drive inside the park to get to key destinations like the visitor centers, Riley Creek, and Savage River. These shuttles only go to Mile 14 of the park road but are great for showing visitors a snapshot of the park, while reducing traffic, noise, parking issues, and congestion. You can hop on a courtesy shuttle bus at the Wilderness Access Center or Denali Visitor Center without making a reservation.
Catching the Denali camper bus
On the morning of our journey to Wonder Lake, we packed up our Riley Creek campsite, hopped in our rented vehicle and took off to catch our camper bus, passes in hand. Unfortunately, after arriving with about 10 minutes to spare at the Denali Visitor Center, we walked in to catch our bus, only to realize that we were at the wrong location. After two frantic, backpack encumbered sprints to and from the car as well as a “fast as the law might allow” drive to the Wilderness Access Center, we were able to flag down our departing camper bus and make it into the final three seats. Lessons learned. Don’t trust your friends to follow instructions and make sure you catch the bus at the Wilderness Access Center.
My experience riding the camper bus in Denali
After catching my breath and getting settled into my seat near the back of the bus, I started to gather myself and take in the surroundings. I quickly realized that I was on what can only be described as a school bus with the back seats removed and saturated with duffel bags, backpacks, and mountain bikes. I struck up a conversation with the folks in front of me, a couple from Oregon, and the eight or so riders within earshot quickly joined. This was a very friendly group of adventurers who would become friends over the course of the half-day ride. As we spent the day working our way west on Park Road, the first hour was spent in one of the most picturesque places that I have ever seen. My friend Tyler, sitting in the seat behind me, must have grown tired of the repetitive loop of me tapping him on the arm, pointing out the window, saying “this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” then shaking my head with a huge grin on my face for the next four minutes. This process repeated every five minutes for most of the trip. Our driver’s name was Paul. He was a funny, ponytailed man with a genuine smile that can only be cultivated by years of fresh mountain air and scenery. With far more of a natural gift as a tour guide than he liked to admit, he helped to keep the ride interesting by nonchalantly dropping interesting facts, stories, and trivia about the park that made our surroundings somehow seem even more majestic. Ponytail Paul, as he was appropriately nicknamed, would stop the bus every 10 or 20 minutes when he or a passenger would spot wildlife out the window. The riders would all quiet to a whisper, pull out their cameras, and admire the animals as they slowly went about their day. First a lynx, then a caribou, then grizzly bears, then Dall sheep. During the first couple of hours, Tyler and I were verbally keeping a tally of what we had seen—three caribou, four grizzlies—but quickly gave up on our math when the numbers grew too high and wildlife sightings became commonplace. After stops at Savage River and the Teklanika River rest stop, we arrived at the Eielson Visitor Center, which achieved a platinum-level certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). My travel companions and I got off the bus, entered the building and enjoyed the interactive exhibits and panoramic views of Denali, visible on this perfectly clear day. We took a quick 20-minute hike that offered looks at Muldrow Glacier, then made our way back to the bus. I continued to be captivated by the stunning views and dozens of wildlife sightings during the remaining two hours of our bus ride. Once we arrived at our destination of Wonder Lake, we unloaded our packs from the camper bus, thanked Ponytail Paul, and trekked into the campground where we would be camping for three to four days. As the bus drove away up the switchbacks above Wonder Lake, I stood and stared. Who would have thought that the best-kept secret in Denali National Park and Preserve might just be that unassuming green school bus?