Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 13, 2016

Denali National Park: The Wild

This is one of a series of blog posts observing the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service.

Denali National Park occupies 6 million acres (9,375 sq. miles) in south central Alaska.

Denali Fall Brad Nixon 008_14A 300 680

Denali is immense, wild and beautiful. It’s an exemplar of why National Parks exist: to let us see some part of the world as it was when we found it. The parks are a promise that we’re willing to preserve some portions of our planet for their own sake, and not what they represent in terms of real estate or mineral resources.

Denali fall Brad Nixon 1901 300 680

My article can’t encompass the vastness of Denali. My purpose is to encourage you to go there. Whether you drive from Anchorage or Fairbanks, take the Alaskan Railway or get there as part of a cruise, go.

Denali fall Brad Nixon 010_15 300 680

Denali is a wilderness. One single road goes 90 miles into the heart of it.

Denali Park-Road-Map - marked

A few feet off the road, you are in the wild. Don’t be daunted. It’s for that very reason that you should see Denali. You can go equipped to camp, hike or climb Mt. Denali.

But you can go there as a regular traveler, too. Read ahead, make plans, and expect the astounding.

Denali Fall Brad Nixon 1921 300 680

Here’s how Denali can be your window into the wild.

The National Park Service operates buses along the park road. They offer guided tours, as well as shuttle buses that run the route. Study THIS LINK to learn more. Dad and I boarded a shuttle bus at the park center one morning in the second week of September, near the end of the season for travel in Denali, before snow closes the route.

Denali NP bus Brad Nixon 1960 (640x480)

That day, we covered 53 miles to Toklat River (blue circle on the map above), then back. Rarely can one say that every single moment of a 7- or 8-hour bus ride is enthralling. It was. The majestic landscape of Denali is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Denali fall Brad Nixon 1950 300 680

There were about 20 people on our bus. The driver explained that she’d point out things along the way, but that we had to participate in spotting wildlife, because she had to pay attention to keeping the bus on the unpaved road. We did. We saw grizzly bears, mountain goats, moose, caribou and more. Here’s the scene on the bus when someone spotted a grizzly.

Denali NP Brad Nixon 1892 (640x480)

Here’s the grizzly, eating blackberries:

Denali NP grizzly Brad Nixon 018_7

The animals were at a distance, and none of my photos match the professional closeups you’ve seen. I’m a good photographer, not a professional, and neither my skills nor my equipment are equal to photographing a caribou half a mile away. But we saw them in that wild place. Here’s a moose.

Denali NP moose Brad Nixon 1870 (640x499)

The mountains of the Alaskan Range tower on the southern horizon, and the route gives you views from high up on passes and along broad, braided rivers rolling down from glaciers.

Denali river Brad Nixon 1958 300 680

You can get off the shuttle bus whenever you like, walk along the road or into one of those river valleys or onto the (few) trails that Denali offers. Then, hop on another bus. Whether you do that or not, you’ll have a memorable experience. You’ll see a wilderness that will rival or exceed any of the places you’ve ever visited on the planet.

Denali tundra Brad Nixon 1949 300 680

That vegetation is taiga. Those are trees, but due to the short growing season, they’re only 3 or 4 feet tall. Denali supports 8 species of trees, including quaking aspen, balsam poplar, black cottonwood, birches, plus 3 coniferous trees. My photos show them in their autumn colors.

Denali fall Brad Nixon 1965 300 680

There are also shrubs, including berries (important food source), grasses, lichens and other plants.

The Unforgettable Moment

Our bus had just begun the return trip from Toklat, and we were rolling up a slight incline with a wide expanse of taiga extending up a slope to our right. After hours of practice, we were all scanning out the windows, keeping watch for whatever we might see next.

Suddenly a woman on the right side of the bus called out. In her voice was excitement, exhilaration, and something one rarely hears from a fellow human being: awe.

“Wolves! I see wolves!”

It’s a moment I hope I’ll never forget.

There was a line of about 7 wolves trotting across the slope, maybe 200 yards from us. My photo is at the limit of my 200mm lens.

Denali Wolf Pack Brad Nixon 021_1A 680

Our driver told us it was a rare sighting. She explained that there are only two wolf packs in all of Denali, covering extensive territories each, and here was one of them.

We were lucky. But even if you don’t see a single animal in that enormous landscape, your visit will be worth the effort. You’ll see a remote part of our world in a way you may not be able to experience at Yellowstone, Yosemite, Bryce Canyon or Glacier. I consider myself a traveler, but I may never have an opportunity to paddle a canoe in Voyageurs National Park,or climb Kilamanjaro. But I have seen Denali.

Denali fall Brad Nixon 1967 300 680

You should go, if you can.

The national parks attempt to preserve what we have, and let those who live in it ─ pikas, wolves, giant redwoods and bristlecone pines ─ continue to thrive.

Let everyone know. This is our home.

Denali rainbow Brad Nixon 1876 300 680

Have you been there? Leave a comment.

Find more blog posts about the National Parks under “Travel – U.S. National Parks” in the Categories in the right-hand column.

High resolution versions of most photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2018


  1. Wow! Love the colors! Thank you.


  2. Amazing pictures

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. One of the great travel days of my life. The photos were simply icing on the cake.

      Liked by 1 person

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