62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid public country backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and set out to practice the best of COVID-19 safety protocols in the process. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
“I wouldn’t leave my bike alone in the forest. Bears love bicycles, ”said an elderly woman in a marine windbreaker who sat next to me at the Teklanika bus stop in Denali National Park. “Do they?” I croaked back, positive that she was joking. “Oh, sure,” she continued cheekily. “They’re shiny, they’re different, they’re colorful, and they have really fun tires that bears can pop!”
It was my first day in Denali and I was determined to take advantage of the good summer weather and ride a rented mountain bike into grizzly land by myself. With a loaded bottle of bear spray in my saddlebag, I made my way to the park’s 92 mile main drag. I felt equally shy and wild as I sped down a steep hill and over the finely woven creeks of the Teklanika River. The sun pierced through intermittent clouds and lit rows upon rows of the verdant Alaska Range that seemed to last forever. I felt like a girl with no time, both in and out of the world, as I rode through the countryside on two wheels.
In terms of accessibility, Denali is a bit of a mixed bag. The main road runs through the center of the park, but only the first 15 miles of paved roads are accessible by private vehicles. (The rest of the road is gravel.) To venture deeper into the wilderness, visitors must purchase tickets for a green transit bus that they can hop on and off or a white tour bus with a more solid, narrated program led by one becomes a trained natural scientist. Travelers who feel particularly anarchic can ride bikes like me and explore the main drag for as long as they want.
(Photo: Emily Pennington)
Two miles before reaching the 4,000-foot Sable Pass, the road you can cycle onto, the cloud web broke up and a light rain began to fall. I turned and ran back to my campsite on the Teklanika River with no bear in sight.
Eager to experience more than one version I bought a ticket from Denali and got on a transit bus the next morning, sliding my bike into a metal stand in front of the door. Within a few minutes we had devoured the seven mostly uphill kilometers that I had driven the day before. Then it happened.
A few hundred yards from yesterday’s turning point, a shaggy, blond grizzly scratched its rump on a concrete guardrail. He turned, looked at us, and sauntered cockily to the right behind my window, only ten feet from my seat. Immediately dizzy and in awe, I spent the rest of the three-hour bus ride searching the horizon for animals.
The variety was enormous. A caribou ran in front of our bus and jogged happily along the roadside for a few minutes. Next we watched a young bull elk eagerly follow a cow through a willow thicket. As we approached the Eielson Visitor Center, I was struck by the size of a distant brown bear nibbling on blueberry bushes in a desperate attempt to gain weight before winter. Denali is a nature lover’s paradise.
Once in Eielson, I had an hour to explore before the bus drove home. I rode off my bike and rolled down the street into the rugged expanse of the park. Denali, the 20,310-foot peak known as the High, appeared to my left as I sped closer and closer to its brilliant white glaciers.
The view of the Alaska Range, the joyful feeling of the wind on my cheeks and a lively feeling of wild abandonment have stuck in my memory forever as the perfect bookend for a perfect day in the park.
62 Parks Traveler Denali Info
Size: 6,045,153 acres (park and nature reserve)
Place: Central Alaska, between Anchorage and Fairbanks
Created in: 1917 (national park)
Best for: Wildlife viewing, hiking, bus tours, backpacking, biking, mountaineering
When to go: In summer (40 to 67 degrees) and September (30 to 50 degrees) the park has the best weather and the road is accessible. During a typical year, ranger-led activities begin on May 15 for those who want to visit early.
Where to sleep: As one of the few parks in Alaska accessible by paved road, Denali is a perfect destination if you’ve rented an RV and want to book a spot at one of the park’s many campsites. I loved my experience of renting a motorhome from Northern Nomads in Anchorage. It has everything from vans to Ram ProMasters that feel like cozy cabins on wheels.
Mini adventure: Take a bus tour. Aramark offers three full-day experiences with knowledgeable guides designed to give travelers an insight into the park’s incredible history and wildlife. If you’re on a budget, the untold transit buses also stop for wildlife and are a great way to see Denali.
Mega adventure: Cycle along Parkstrasse. Bike Denali is a one-stop shop that rents out mountain bike kits with easy-to-see panniers, bear spray, helmets and more. Ride around the Sable Pass for a day or cover the entire 92-mile route with one of the multi-day packages. Cruisers are also available for visitors who want to enjoy the scenic bike trails near the main visitor center.
Main photo: Emily Pennington