Hop on the Bus, Gus? Navigating Denali National Park’s Transportation System


Denali National Park recently announced open season on shuttle bus and campground reservations for 2013. While it may seem early to worry about summer vacation, with 425,000 annual visitors to Denali NP, the time is now to plan your family’s adventure in the heart of Alaska’s most pristine wilderness. Today I’ll address the shuttle bus shuffle – should you, or shouldn’t you?

The eternal question among parents is whether or not a bus trip is worth the potential angst. After all, small children will be forced to sit for hours watching grownups make fools of themselves in an attempt to capture photographs or videos of a far-off animal. I, too, lived in fear my son would pitch a holy hell-raising fit mid-trip, my fellow passengers would cringe, and the bus driver would throw us to the wolves outside, left to our own devices for a return to the entrance area.

The short answer, grownups, is that you must know your children’s personalities and capabilities when faced with a) long car rides, b) tired, hungry, cranky antics due to the former, and c) how much said kids care about wildlife and beautiful scenery (at any age).

Road map courtesy NPS.

IF you feel a shuttle ride longer than the 15 miles to Savage River from Denali National Park Headquarters could end badly, by all means, don’t go any further. Plenty of family fun can be had near the park entrance area and Savage River (read our post about such fun HERE). If, however, you decide to take the shuttle plunge, know the details. While shuttles do stop for rest breaks every 90 minutes or so, there are NO services along the way. Bring enough food (and perhaps more) to feed your family for an entire day, including water and/or other beverages. Have an infant? Don’t forget diapers, wipes, and bags for soiled items, and mercy me, please pack appropriate clothing for any sort of Alaska weather; it’s been known to snow in June and be blistering hot in August. Kids should have their own little pack with books, color crayons, and whatever else they need to last eight hours or longer.

If children are of the age where car seats or boosters are a part of your luggage, do bring them along, as all shuttle buses and/or tour buses require kids to be duly strapped in. However, a limited number of car seats and boosters are available with a pre-arrival registration. Inquire via the park website.

Hop on and off, if you wish, but be aware that buses operate on a space-available basis, so during peak times (i.e. the middle of the day) the bus you want may not be the bus you get after you flag it down and find it full of people. Be prepared to wait, sometimes as long as an hour, for another bus. I would strongly suggest this option only for older children who understand the concept of “maybe the next one.”

Photo courtesy NPS.

ALL shuttle buses, whether courtesy or regular, are GREEN. Fees range from around $26 to $50, depending upon your destination. Kids 15 and under are FREE.

Tour Buses offer a bit more structure to the interior Denali National Park experience, and are popular for those with limited time, accessibility issues, or for visitors who truly want to immerse themselves in the park. Naturalists drive and narrate the entire tour, ranging in scope from natural history to an explanation of tundra and wildlife as part of an ever-evolving ecosystem. Tours cost approximately twice as much as a shuttle ticket, and sell out fast, ranging from $33.25 for kids 14 and younger, and $66.50 for 15 and older to take the Natural History Tour, for example. Tours can last anywhere from four hours to 12, so plan carefully when traveling with kids who may become restless. The tour bus option can be a great one for older children and teens who have a keen interest in their surroundings, since naturalists are generally young adults who relate well to this age group. Make tour reservations via the park concessionaire in the Wilderness Access Center, or by using the same number/website as for shuttles. Tour buses are all TAN.

Wilderness Access Center (WAC). Photo courtesy NPS.

Bottom line? Early reservations for shuttle buses are a great option that avoids long lines at the Wilderness Access Center (WAC), located at the entrance to Denali Park Road. Whether you decide to shuttle your way around the Park, or take a guided tour, taking advantage of the Park Service’s online system makes sense.

For more information about Denali National Park, it’s reservation system operated by concessionaire Aramark, or other activities available to park visitors, see this helpful link HERE.

Hey, AKontheGO’ers! AK Grandma and Grandpa are here for a holiday visit, so we’re going to take a much-needed time out to enjoy their company. We wish you and your loved ones a very merry Christmas. We’ll be back on December 26 with more Alaska family travel tips!


Posted in Denali National Park.