The recent winter weather may have you thinking more about travel to Florida or Arizona instead of Alaska, but if you're considering a trip to Denali National Park next summer, it's not too soon to make reservations for the park bus system or campgrounds.
Yes, I know it's still December, but operators are standing by to help you with those arrangements...although this time of year they're based in Arizona instead of Alaska.
The transportation concessioner for Denali National Park and Preserve is now accepting advance reservations for the 2009 visitor season for shuttle buses and several campgrounds in the park. Reservations can be made online or by phone, mail, and fax—details are provided on the park website. Be sure to note deadlines for reservations, especially those made by mail or fax.
Links on that same web page will provide a map of the park road and a summer '09 shuttle schedule. If you aren't familiar with the area, both items will be valuable tools in planning your visit.
Approximately 65% of the shuttle bus seats and all of the campsites in the Riley Creek, Savage River, Teklanika River, and Wonder Lake campgrounds can be reserved in advance. The remaining bus tickets are made available for walk-ins two days before the date of the trip.
Although spontaneous travel (with no reservations or firm itinerary) can be a fun experience, it's a long way from home to Alaska for most of us. You'll have to decide if being assured of a ride into the park on the days you'll be there fits your travel preferences, but I found the advance reservations to be a real plus during a visit there in 2007.
The Denali Park Road is the only road in the park, and extends 91 miles from the park entrance to its terminus in the old mining community of Kantishna. With few exceptions, private vehicles are not allowed beyond mile 15, so a seat on a bus is a must for most visitors.
The mostly-gravel road traverses boreal forests and sub-arctic tundra, and provides excellent opportunities for viewing wildlife—and the scenery. My one experience with the shuttle bus ride two year ago was very positive. Our driver was extremely knowledgeable, the bus was surprisingly comfortable, we had outstanding chances to see and photograph wildlife, and I was able to enjoy the view instead of having to watch the road.
The park website includes details to help you decide which bus trip meets your needs, and provides a 2009 bus schedule. You'll need to choose between a shuttle bus, a narrated bus tour, or—if you're tent camping in the park—a camper bus. There are also free entrance area shuttle buses available in the park’s entrance area to facilitate visitor travel between the various visitor service buildings.
It's important to note that the park road is opened in stages as snow removal and drying of the road is completed. Bus trips into the interior of the park don't begin until May 20, 2009, and only go to Toklat (mile post 53). Trips to Wonder Lake (mile 86) and the end of the road at Kantishna are scheduled to begin on June 8, 2009, and end on September 17th. Yes, I know it sounds a bit confusing, so download the park road map from the link on this page.
It's hard to predict what effect the economy will have on travel next year, especially to more distant places like Alaska. My advice based on our single trip to Denali—go ahead and assure yourself of a seat on the bus or a spot in a campground as soon as you have your trip's dates nailed down.
If nothing else, a reservation can save you some valuable time once you arrive in the park. Your hours at Denali can be much better spent enjoying the scenery instead of waiting in line for someone to say, "Next, please," or worse yet, "Sorry, we're all sold for tomorrow."