As I hinted on Friday, our Denali National Park camping adventure was quite an experience, for a number of reasons. But first, let’s focus on the wildlife, because that’s the coolest part about Denali.
Denali may be known for its wildlife more than any other national park, perhaps aside from Yellowstone. It’s full of bears, moose, caribou, wolves, dall sheep, and lots of other animals we don’t see everyday on the streets of Chicago.
Denali restricts the use of vehicles to allow the animals to live as undisturbed as possible, so you can only drive your car 15 miles into the park. After that, you’ll want to book a seat on one of the shuttle buses to get deeper into the park and see as much wildlife as possible.
We were lucky because we didn’t have to go any further than the visitor center for our first taste of the big animals.
It’s a female moose drinking from a puddle. My first moose sighting ever!
After that, the wildlife sightings started to come more slowly. We headed to Savage River, the farthest point you can drive to, and saw a rabbit running around. Is this guy a snowshoe hare?
We saw a ton of squirrels, which we mistook for marmots at first, because the squirrels I’m used to seeing don’t typically stand up on their hind legs.
But no, the hoary marmots are much bigger, and we finally saw one during a hike along a hillside, which is where these critters like to hang out.
Once aboard the shuttle, the bigger animals started to come into view. First up was a grizzly bear just off the road. It may be hard to tell in this pic, but she has two cubs with her. They were mostly indifferent to our bus and slowly wandered out of sight.
We ended up seeing another four or five bears during the three days in the park, all from the safety of the shuttle bus. This guy was sleeping near the road on a rainy day and got up to stretch as we passed by. He’s the one who was spotted just a mile from where we ended up camping.
The caribou is one of the most iconic animals of Canada and Alaska. We encountered seven or eight of these creatures walking through the grassy areas.
This little guy is a pika. He’s rarely seen in the park, and though he looks like a mouse, he’s more closely related to rabbits and hares. Our eagle-eyed driver spotted him on the rocks just below our bus. Pikas mainly live near boulders, and they don’t hibernate, even during the subarctic winters. Instead, they build up giant caches of food in the summer and return to them during the colder months. And they use the snow as insulation from the cold.
I’m obsessed with sheep, for reasons I haven’t been able to explain. Denali is home to lots of dall sheep, which are bright white relatives of the bighorn. We saw tons of dall sheep, but since they like to hang out on faraway mountaintops, most of our sheep sightings looked like this:
But then, on the shuttle ride out of the park, as we went around a bend at a higher elevation, we spotted four sheep close to the road. One curious fellow came down to check out the buses.
As the shuttles paused to watch, the sheep crossed the street and went down the hill on the other side next to our bus, leading to an ultimate close-up. Those horns are impressive. And you can see the folds on his face!
That was it for wildlife within Denali National Park, and I feel that we got our money’s worth, especially with the sheep encounter. No wolves, foxes or coyotes this time around, but otherwise, we saw all of the big mammals Denali is known for.
If you take the shuttle bus at least to the Eielson Visitor Center, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see something wild. So give it a shot if you make it to Denali.