GRIZZLIES! Day Eight on the Alaska Road Trip

Today can be summed up in a word: GRIZZLIES!

Our day began at 8:00 am at the Denali National Park Visitor Center, where we picked up our pre-paid bus tickets to Eielson Visitor Center, located 66 miles into the park (an eight-hour round trip!) The road is paved on only the first fifteen miles, and this is the only stretch that people can drive in their own cars. After that, you’re stuck with the green “Explore Denali” shuttles, refurbished school buses.

The legendary green Denali school buses.

It’s a narrow, winding, dirt road, often next to steep cliffs with two school buses passing each other. We were glad to have left Prius back in the safety of her parking lot.

View of the river valley from a rest stop.

On the buses, we met several drivers – the delightfully chatty Marilyn, who advised us not to get our heads clawed off my bears because she “hates paperwork,” and the grumpy Dale, who taunted us by not stopping the bus next to wildlife until the bus riders were entirely silent – and made friends with other riders, including Maya and Rich from Nature Bridge, who were full of internship and fellowship advice for me.

Now to the good stuff: wildlife.

We saw seven caribou, including bulls with enormous antlers.

Unbelievable rack!!

The antlers are still in velvet.

I could barely lift them!

We counted six grizzly bears, walking below, sitting above, or snarfing blueberries. A sow and yearling cub ran along the road in front of our bus for ten minutes!

Just crossing the road.

Mmm... blueberries.

Check out those claws for digging!

Nice foot pad, dude.

Majestic grizzly.

Oh hey.

Got an itch here...

Ahh, that's better.

This is how far away many of the grizzlies actually were from the bus.

We spotted three groups of Dall sheep, adding up to maybe a dozen in total, but it’s hard to know for sure. These guys hang out so high on the rocky cliffs, they appeared as little white dots to us.

Two Dall sheep rams high on the mountain.

After four hours, we arrived at Eielson Visitor Center. The National Parks have an awesome program called Artists in Residence. To pay for her stay in a remote park cabin, the artist donates one piece of her artwork to the visitor center. We loved two of the pieces in particular.

This artist had the simple goal of capturing her favorite memories from her time spent in Denali: the green buses, the paw prints, the playful magpies, and the golden hill.

The epic quilt that took two years to sew! You know you're looking closely enough if you can see the mosquitoes.

This wasn't official artwork, but I loved the pressed wildflowers beneath the information desk.

We took an hour-long, ranger-guided hike on the Tundra Trail. Lichens, wildflowers, dwarf birch, and plentiful Arctic ground squirrels stole the show.

Arctic ground squirrel.

Tundra hike.

Tundra and Jane!

Tundra and Nina!

Birds included golden eagles, American kestrel, white-crowned sparrow, and our favorite of the day, Mystery Bird. Jane thinks it’s a northern waterthrush, while Nina is pulling for American pipit. No ranger could help us with this matter. To all those orntihologically-savvy readers, please help us out in the comments! What have we found? (Important clues: it was hopping around the gravel parking lot in the tundra, conspicuously bobbing its tail up and down.)

Mystery bird back...

Mystery bird front... (Click on the photo to zoom in.)

We caught a green bus heading back to the park entrance and hopped off at Savage River Bridge for the two-mile loop trail along the water. Alas, we saw no northern hawk owls, nor a willow ptarmigan, but we did sight a hoary marmot on its boulder and a vole crossing the trail. Best of all, we discovered the still-articulated knee joint of a moose calf under a bush by the river.

Dr. Jane demonstrates the ungulate hinge joint.

Back at the road, we flagged down yet another green bus (they’ll pick up anyone standing along the road) and added a cow moose to our list. She was browsing for greens. Eating seems to be the main activity up here in the northern summer.

We were on board for that! We headed back to the town of Healy to buy some… THAI FOOD! I’d been hankering for this mouth-watering meal from the orange food truck all day. The pad thai and green curry were DELICIOUS!

Alaskan twin!

At our new friend Maya’s suggestion, I set my alarm for 2:55 am and went outside to check for the glowing green northern lights. Not-so-much to my disappointment, the sky was overcast, so I snuggled back into my scrumptiously warm bed.

End of day summary:

  • Day of road trip: 8
  • Start: Healy, Alaska, United States
  • Miles traveled: 30 (Prius) + 132 (green school bus)
  • Hours driven: 8.5
  • Favorite bird sighting: Mystery Bird
  • End: Healy, Alaska, United States (thank goodness for our first night in the same place!)