If you only have one day in Denali National Park and want to get deep into the park, you’ll have to hop on a bus. Self transit is not a viable option deep into the park, so leave the car at your lodging or campsite — which actually works in your favor because you can focus on what’s happening beyond the highway. You have two options: a tour bus or a transit bus. No matter which you choose, allow a full day that starts early and keeps you busy into the early evening. The tour bus option relieves you of needing to plan and pack for lunch and provides narration on the park’s history, natural sights, and wildlife. On the other hand, the transit bus is not narrated, and you’ll have to provide your own lunch — but it gives you more freedom to “make your own adventure.” This is how each option would look.
Option 1 — Via tour bus
Denali Backcountry Adventure can get you to mile 92 and back in the same day, ensuring you see the entirety of the park. They’ll also provide lunch. It’s a long day, but it goes by quickly. If you’re staying in Denali Cabins at mile 229 on the George Parks Highway, the bus will pick you up first at 6:00 AM. If you’re staying elsewhere in the area, make a request, and you’ll get picked up around 6:30 AM. By 7:00 AM, you’re in the park.
Your driver will be a seasoned pro on all things Denali, filling you with facts — like how the park experiences 3,000 earthquakes per year — and pointing out wildlife with near x-ray vision. The bus will stop for any sighting, including the 20,310-foot Denali peak. Though the wildlife will change with each ride, the peak generally stays on the bus’s left-hand side on the ride there, if it’s out at all. It’s generally believed that clouds surround the peak 70 percent of the time, though every second is its own chance.
The entrance sits at 1,585 feet in elevation. By the time you hit Polychrome Overlook at mile 45.9, your first stop to stretch your legs and take photos, you’ll be at 3,695 feet, and that’s after peaking at Sable Pass’s 3,900 feet. Colorful rocks and rainbow-colored flora have given this pass its name. Bookmark this spot if you have more time later for exploring.
Your next stop is the Toklat Rest Stop at mile 53. Here, at times, the expanse can seem too rugged for life, while at other times a caribou will wander up to your bus to say hello. The braided streams of the Toklat River shine brightly under the sun.
Then it’s off to Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66. Some great views of Denali can be had behind the center, and you’ll have a few minutes to wander the trails that appear to wind all the way to the mountain. Chat with a guide, check out the center’s art gallery, snap some photos, and get excited — the mountain is officially in view.
Apart from stopping for wildlife and views of Denali, your bus will now drive straight to mile 92. You’ll have lunch at Denali Backcountry Lodge. Expect salads, soups, sandwiches, house-made desserts, and plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. You’ll have time to go on a short botany walk, pan for gold, or just hang out with a warm cup of coffee on the porch, overlooking Moose Creek.
By 2:30 PM, you’re back on the bus and back on the hunt for wildlife. The bus won’t stop as often on the way back in order to get you back to your car or lodge by 7:30 PM. Talk about a whirlwind day.
Note: The Kantishna Experience is a similar 12-hour tour. There’s also the five-hour Denali Natural History Tour, which stops at mile 27, and the eight-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour, which stops at either mile 53 or 62, depending on the day.
Option 2 — Via transit bus
Transit buses are non-narrated, so you’ll have to do your own research should you opt for this route. They’re also an easy-to-identify shade of green. If you’re looking to hoof it on your own, this is the way to go. There are four main destinations: Toklat River (mile 53), Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66), Wonder Lake (mile 85), and Kantishna (mile 92). Get off your bus when you wish, explore the park, and hail any (green) bus down on your return. If seats are available and you have a ticket, they’ll let you on. Here is a suggested itinerary.
Catch a bus at Denali Bus Depot. Buses depart the depot every half hour in the morning — although the bus schedule changes with the seasons, so you should check it just in case. If you catch a 7:30 AM bus, you will be at Polychrome Pass by 10:00 AM.
Get off the bus at Polychrome Pass. Note the glaciers tucked into the valley’s ridges and the streams flowing north to the East Fork River. The gravel bars make for some easy, beautiful hiking along these iconic multicolored ridges. You’ve done your research, so you know that hiking south to the foothills is a good, solid route. Besides, the five Polychrome Glaciers are some of the most accessible in the park, and that’s a sight not to miss.
Stop for lunch at the base of the Alaska Range. From here, travel east and west along the foothills, time depending, taking in the vivid colors, the flora and fauna, and the glaciers — all the while keeping an eye on the river, your compass back to the main road.
If you were to journey on the bus one stop further, you’d be at Toklat River, where you can have some great hiking and wildlife experiences. The bus stops at the confluence of the east and west forks of the river. You walk along the gravel bar of the eastern branch of the river and enjoy some classic mountain views hanging above the open tundra in this area.
You want to be back on the main road near Toklat by 6:20 PM or Polychrome by 6:50 PM because the latest bus back departs Toklat at 6:35 PM and Polychrome at 7:00 PM, arriving back at the depot at 9:20 PM. If you miss that bus, you’re in the wilderness overnight and without a permit.