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Photographing Alaska--Denali

Denali MountainDenali National Park, Alaska

Denali is that magical, mystical place that draws thousands and thousands of visitors from around the world every summer. I say summer because the roads are typically open only from May 20th through mid-September. Unlike many other national parks, you can only drive the first 15 miles of the single 92-mile road through the park. Unless, you do what I did and camp in the Teklanika Campground at milepost 29.5. Then you can drive that far with your pass, but you can only do it once. If you leave before the end of your pass, you lose the pass and your reservation. If you get the feeling that visiting Denali is highly regulated, you’d be correct. Unless you’re willing and able to backpack, you’re only going to see a small corridor through an enormous wilderness area. Fortunately, that experience is amazing, beautiful and photogenic. Because this is tundra and taiga country and the road through it is gravel, narrow and twisty, your access is limited to riding one of three buses: a shuttle bus, a tour bus and a camper bus. Each bus trip requires a reservation many months in advance. Again, do as I did and camp at Teklanika in your tent or RV. This allows you to buy a Tek Pass that for one fee lets you ride any bus that has room, get on and off a given bus and change buses at Eielson Visitors Center. This is a big savings in time and money as you only pay for one bus ride and you save 2 hours on every bus ride as you’re already an hour into the park. What are you likely to see riding the bus? Some people see a lot and some very little. The longer the ride, the more you’re likely to see.

But some of it’s luck and some of it is the weather. Do consider the weather when making your plans. After all, you’re at 63 degrees north latitude, two-thirds of the way to the North Pole. You’re also near the mountain called Denali which famously makes its own weather. And that weather is cloudy two-thirds of the time and cloudy and rainy part of that time. With occasional sunbreaks. I was fortunate with the wildlife, not so fortunate with the weather. It rained part of or all of every day I was there with occasional sun breaks. Nevertheless, I saw and photographed four of the Denali big five—bears, moose, caribou and Dall sheep. No wolves seen or heard. The wolf population is about half what it was five years ago and only five percent of visitors now see one. Bears are seen commonly.

Brown BearDenali

Often, they come right down to the road and take the easy way through the tundra and taiga.

Caribou sightings are common as well although at a somewhat greater distance than bears on average.

CaribouDenali National Park, Alaska

Dall sheep stay to the ridge tops and spook more easily.

Dall SheepDenali National Park, Alaska

Moose are less frequent and tend to be found where expected around the occasional ponds and wetlands.

Bull MooseDenali National Park, Alaska

Eielson Visitors Center at mile 66 allows a great view of Denali mountain I’ve read, but can’t personally attest to it. It’s a 30 minute bus stop too, so a great place to get out and stretch your legs and have some lunch. You did bring lunch, didn’t you? There’s no place to get food or drink anywhere on the park road. There are ranger-led hikes from Eielson, reservations required. Or you can stroll one of the well-defined trails found here but nowhere else in the park except the entrance area.
Otherwise, you’re free to hike the tundra or taiga anywhere you like on a day hike. Expect to make about one mile per hour and be prepared with food, water, appropriate clothing, a map and compass and the knowledge to use them. Backpacking requires a permit available at the Wilderness Access Center at mile 0.5 from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily.

What equipment should you take? Rain gear for you and your camera gear. Two camera bodies with appropriate lens for landscape and wildlife. Something in the 24-70mm range works well for landscapes and 100-400 or equivalent prime lenses for wildlife. I used a Nikon D500 with a Nikon 300mm prime lens for wildlife and the afore mentioned 24-70mm lens for landscapes. Longer lens do not work well on the buses as they’re big and heavy. And you’re shooting out of the upper half of a slide down school bus window that you may be sharing with others. Tripods are of course useless on the bus. Longer lenses in the 500-600mm and tripods may work if you plan to spend a lot of time off the bus, but remember the bus driver may not let you off the bus in the vicinity of the wildlife necessitating a hike up to a mile with your gear.

Don’t let the above discourage you, the bus rides are in fact quite fun. Everyone there is excited to see wildlife. Your bus companions are generally very accommodating in making sure that everyone gets to see and photograph the wildlife even if it’s with a point and shoot. And, if you have a big lens, I found my fellow passengers to be especially accommodating. The bus drivers too, go out of their way to ensure that everyone gets a photo at each stop. You will miss some shots due to the restrictions, but not many. The secret is to plan at least two to three days on the bus. If you don’t want to be on the bus for 10-12 hours, then just take the Eielson bus. You will miss Wonder Lake and the opportunity to photograph moose, but not much else. Despite the restrictions, regulations and weather, Denali should be on every photographer’s bucket list.

Hope you can make it.