Denali National Park in Autumn 2011 Trip Report

By David W. Boston on Apr 05, 2012

It was an oppressive summer throughout much of the US in 2011, especially here in Texas. Record highs, record number of days over 100°F, record drought. Yuck. What better way to escape than to head north, and what better destination than Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska?

Denali in Autumn is really special. There are colors like nowhere else—golds, reds, purples. Animals—bears, caribou, sheep, moose, foxes lynx, ptarmigans, grouse, cranes and more—are actively preparing for the coming winter. And then, there’s Mt. McKinley, if you’re lucky enough to see it. We were.

Although Denali is huge (3rd largest in the US), access to the park is very limited. There is only one road, the Denali Park Road, along which the public can only traverse 15 miles of its 92-mile length. The rest of the road is accessible only by licensed shuttles or under human power (bicycling or walking). There are a couple of visitor centers: one at the park entrance and the other at mile 66 along the Denali Park Road. There are some lodges on private land within the park boundaries and travel to them is provided by their private buses or shuttles.

Visiting Denali National Park requires planning, and to get the most out of a visit there, lots of it. Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris took care of it all and their Denali National Park in Autumn photo safari was a great way to experience the park. Not only was the tour specifically geared to photography, they handled all of the details of lodging and moving around the park. The tour was led by Len Rue, Jr., who really knows the park and its wildlife, having spent much of his life visiting and photographing there.

Including Len, we were a group of eleven from all walks of life and from all parts of the country, as well as from France and Switzerland. At the usual first night orientation and dinner, our group seemed almost immediately at ease with each other and eager to be on our way to Denali the next day. I’ve been on several Van Os tours, each with an excellent group of photographers, but this group seemed “click” right away.

Day 1 We were shuttled from Anchorage to McKinley Park (just outside the national park entrance) in the “Magic Bus” (seriously, that’s what it was called). Along the way, we stopped in Wasilla for some provisions and in Talkeetna for some exploring and lunch. It was mostly a gray, drizzly day, which made for wonderful saturation of the vivid fall colors and we made several stops along the way to photograph the purples, golds and reds of Denali in Autumn. We overnighted at McKinley Chalet Resort, where we enjoyed a great buffet dinner and a comfortable night’s sleep.

Day 2 Our bus to the North Face Lodge, 89 miles into the park, wasn’t scheduled to leave until early afternoon, so, after breakfast, we took a hike around Horseshoe Lake. Photographic opportunities abounded with the mirror-smooth reflections on the lake, beaver dams and lodge, and a beautiful partly cloudy blue sky morning.

After lunch, we boarded our North Face Lodge buses and headed into the park. Not too far in, we had our first wildlife opportunity—a small group of bull caribou—and then, about an hour later, our first sighting of Dall’s sheep. Midway through our trip to the lodge, we stopped and the lodge staff served us a wonderful picnic dinner along the East Fork of the Toklat River. After arriving at North Face Lodge and checking into our rooms, we were treated to a beautiful sunset, proclaimed to be one of the best of the season.

Days 3–5 These days were spent exploring the park in our private bus with a naturalist from the lodge and our intrepid guide, Len. Although the weather in Alaska is very unpredictable and often rainy, we had beautiful days, which afforded us the rare opportunity to see and photograph Mt. McKinley every day we were there. Our landscape photography opportunities included early morning sessions at Wonder Lake with Mt. McKinley looming in the background, grand vistas with dramatic clouds and lighting, and delightful water reflections. There were wonderful opportunities to photograph grizzlies up close, as well as Dall’s sheep, caribou, foxes, moose, lynx and more. And for the birders, there were golden eagles, sandhill cranes, grouse, ptarmigan, and all variety of waterfowl. We even had an opportunity for a group photo at a winter season sled patrol cabin.

North Face Lodge provided comfortable rooms and wonderful meals. Each meal was announced by the staff, some of whom joined us as we dined. Each evening, the various groups at the lodge had an opportunity to share their day’s activities with all the guests.

Day 6 This was a long day of travel all the way from North Face Lodge back to our hotel in Anchorage. The drive out was much faster paced than the trip in, but, when good photographic opportunities arose, we were still able to stop and take advantage of them. Dall’s sheep at very close range, beautiful red fox, and more caribou were among the highlights.

Knowing the restrictions on motorized travel within the park, the short visitor season and limited access by road, an intimate visit to Denali National Park is, at best, a challenge. Most visitors have only a brief portion of a day to admire the beauty of the park and enjoy its wildlife. Combining the knowledge and leadership skills of our guide, Len Rue, Jr., with the lodging and transportation services of North Face Lodge, and the planning and coordination of Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, may be the best way to get the most out of a visit to Denali.david-boston.jpg

• More of David Boston’s photos from the 2011 Denali National Park in Autumn trip.