“You Won the Golden Ticket”

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That is what the ranger said as we showed her our pass to the Teklanika backcountry. Only those with a camping pass or those who ride the park buses into the backcountry can proceed past the Savage River checkpoint. We left Savage River Campground to journey farther into the park to Teklanika Campground. We had camped for three days at Savage River so we had a head start on any traffic headed toward Teklanika. The only vehicles we saw on our morning drive were the park buses and a few campers leaving the park.

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After they personally watched us tape our permit onto the windshield of the Silver Fox at the checkpoint, we started up the long dusty grade. The gravel road after Savage River is restricted at this junction and requires a pass to proceed through the checkpoint. Once you arrive at the campground, you are not allowed to drive your vehicle unless you are exiting the backcountry. If you have a Class A with a car, you must leave the vehicle at the entrance area. Basically you are getting a one way ticket into the park. To explore further beyond Teklanika you must ride one of the park “transit” buses. If you are bringing a camper or vehicle to Teklanika, you are required to stay a minimum of three days to further reduce the amount of traffic in the park.

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These restrictions are the price you pay to enter one of the greatest wildlife areas of the national park system. It has worked. I talked to a couple from Colorado that had seen six grizzly bears, a wolf, Dall sheep, moose, an eagle, and countless caribou in just two days.

It takes a little planning to visit Denali. The transit bus system is especially confusing. There are three types of buses: the green “transit buses”, the brown tour buses, and the camper buses. You are not given a bus schedule, but they are posted at the bus stops.

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The green buses (about $40) do not have narrators and just provide transportation along the 92 mile mostly gravel road. You can get off at just about any point and flag down the next bus going in either direction. Your first full day at Teklanika, you have a “scheduled” bus pickup time. After that, you can take a bus when space is available. The morning buses are packed because the round-trip, depending on destination, can take up to 12 hours. But hey, it’s light until past midnight.

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The brown buses cost much more (up to $210) and have narration and sometimes include a boxed lunch. Remember, it takes hours for any of the bus trips since the maximum speed is 35 mph and all buses will stop for wildlife, etc. They stop about every hour to hour and a half for a rest and bathroom breaks. The Eielson Visitor Center has the largest building and is the longest stop. In addition to the Visitor Center itself, there is running water and tables to eat the lunch you brought.

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The camper buses have space for backpacks and other equipment and take folks to the campgrounds along the road. They are green also, but have a sign that says “Camper Bus” in the front and are priced like the transit buses. You can also be dropped off near your predetermined backpacking zone to camp in your designated area. All the buses have bike racks, but we did not see many bikes. Bicycles require a reservation also.

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All the buses depart from the bus depot near the Wilderness Access Center which is not too far from the main Visitor Center, train station, and Parks Highway. This bus depot is key to figuring out the system. After checking in at Riley Creek Mercantile we discovered several issues with our registration and we went to the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) to confirm our tickets which indeed had been printed incorrectly.

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The first morning after arriving at Teklanika Campground, we caught the green bus with our initial day reservation. The bus was full and only had seats available for us. You will want to go early since it is a long day, but you do not have to since it does not get dark until after midnight. We waited for the transit bus along with other campers.  They were from Japan and were taking the camper bus to Wonder Lake Campground. We were going to the same destination since Wonder Lake is basically the end of the road and we wanted to do the entire trip.

It was raining as we waited for the bus, so the chance of seeing “The Mountain” was pretty slim. I was optimistic that rain meant more chances for wildlife and I was correct. The scenery and wildlife were spectacular. We saw numerous grizzly bears that if it had been hotter and drier would probably have gone and found a shady spot. Not today.

I had never seen “first year” or “spring” grizzly cubs but we did see two with their mother. The cubs were about four months old.

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We saw caribou, bull moose, fox, Dall sheep, and of course grizzly bears. We also saw a ptarmigan, a falcon, and snowshoe hares. We did not see Denali but hopefully we will another day.

Let’s be honest, the transit school bus is somewhat of an endurance test. Going all the way to Wonder Lake and back is nine hours round trip from Teklanika and 11+ hours from the bus depot. I don’t think small kids would do very well on this trip and there weren’t any on our bus on this rainy day.

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Wonder Lake has a wonderful tent-only campground with open views of the Alaska Range. I was envious of those who were camping there. It is the closest spot to Denali from the road, and is about 27 miles from the mountain at that point.

We were the only ones who got off the bus at Teklanika, glad that we didn’t have another hour or longer on the bus to the WAC. It was a long but great day that we will remember for years to come.

7 thoughts on ““You Won the Golden Ticket”

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