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Tundra Wilderness Tour: Adventure In The Alaskan Subarctic

Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve is a popular destination in the summer. One of the best ways to experience the park’s natural beauty is through the Tundra Wilderness Tour.

This 5- to 5-1/2-hour tour took us on a 43-mile bus ride into the heart of the park, where private vehicles can’t go. If the weather allows, visitors can see the face of Denali Peak.

In this article, we share what to expect, the types of wildlife spotted, and the benefits of rising before the birds to take an early morning excursion.

Denali National Park

We took the Tundra Wilderness Tour as part of a cruise and land tour. We arrived in Denali via the 8-hour picturesque McKinley Explorer train ride.

However, we weren’t sure how we’d feel about sitting on an old school bus for up to six hours the morning after the eight hour train trip.

However, to our pleasant surprise, with a great guide, we learned about the park’s history, and enjoyed the vast landscapes featuring many ecosystems.

While park rangers offer two complimentary tours, the longer wilderness tour travels deeper into the preserve. It provides the opportunity to search for the Big Five. These are grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and wolves.

During our tour, we were lucky enough to spot four, some in great numbers.

Overview Of Tundra Wilderness Tour

With a knowledgeable guide, the excursion provides your greatest opportunity to see Alaskan wildlife. With many visitors on the bus, there are multiple eyes to aid in the search.

Tour Duration

The park excursion lasts 5 to 5 1/2 hours, depending on road conditions and weather. The morning tour is the most popular option, and several departure times are available.

Our Tundra Wilderness Tour bus
Our Tundra Wilderness Tour bus

During the tour, buses travel to mile 43 due to the Pretty Rocks landslide at mile 45. The Pretty Rocks area is part of over 100 unstable slopes in the park. Restoration is ongoing, and the road is expected to open in 2027.

Best Time Of Day To Go

The best time of day to go on the tour is in the morning. However, guests can’t select a time. The animals are most active during this time, and the lighting is perfect for taking photos.

However, the afternoon tour is also a great option if you prefer a quieter and more relaxed experience.

The road runs at different levels, offering contrasting zones like the lowlands, tundra, and subalpine areas. Since each has different flora, it determines what types of animals’ visitors can see.

The Tundra Ecosystem

As we embarked on the bus, we entered a unique ecosystem with its own set of flora and fauna. The tundra is characterized by its cold, harsh climate and short growing season.

Winters are long, eight months, while spring, summer, and autumn span the remaining four months. The summer months receive very little rain, and annual temperatures can swing from highs of over 80F to lows of -40F.

Denali National Park map
Denali National Park map

Flora And Fauna

The tundra in Alaska is home to various plant life, including low-growing shrubs, mosses, and lichens. While these conditions make it hard for plants to survive, some species have adapted to the cold climate.

It was interesting to learn that some shrubs only grow close to the ground, where they are protected from the wind and can absorb heat from the soil.

This fragile environment requires careful monitoring, management, and conservation. When visiting, we must respect this delicate ecosystem and do our part to protect it for future generations.

Planning A Visit

If you’ve booked an Alaska itinerary that includes a land tour and this excursion isn’t included, it’s worth the price to pay for the adventure. Here are some tips for making the most of your day.

Best Time To Visit

Tour times vary, but during my visit in the first week of June, buses started at 4:50 am, with the last departure at 3:30 pm.

The Tundra Wilderness Tour is available from mid-May through mid-September, the peak season for tourism in Denali. The weather is generally mild during this time, and the wildlife is more active.

Visit in June to see the park’s famous wildflowers. Plan your visit for September for the best chance of seeing the northern lights.

Denali National Park landscape
Denali National Park landscape

Booking The Tour Or Packaged With A Cruise

My Holland America cruise and land package included the wilderness tour. While it didn’t cost me extra money, I had no control over the tour time.

Arriving at the Canyon Lodge at the McKinley Resort, our welcome package showed a tour time of 5:40 am, with a meeting time of 5:25 am the following day. We got up at 4:45 am and skipped breakfast, although food to go could be pre-ordered at one of their restaurants.

While we weren’t thrilled with the early start to the day, I knew it was the best time to spot wildlife.

For those visiting Alaska independently, the tour can be booked online. If you plan to visit during peak season, we recommend advance booking to secure your spot since many cruise lines fill the seats.

After booking, a tour time will be assigned 48 hours ahead, based on availability. The tour costs under USD 150, including the USD 15 Park entry fee.

Preparation Tips

Before embarking on the touring bus, there are a few things to remember. Dress in layers and bring a wind and waterproof jacket, as Alaska’s weather is unpredictable.

While we spent most of the time on the bus, we stopped for breaks, viewpoints, and bathroom stops, allowing us to get outside.

Binoculars and a camera with zoom are essential for spotting wildlife and capturing stunning scenery.

Tundra Wilderness Tour snack box
Tundra Wilderness Tour snack box

Each tour provides snack boxes for all guests. The boxes contained a small pepperoni stick, cheese curls, Kind Energy snack, and other quick bites. I suggest bringing extra safe snacks if you have food allergies like me. Additionally, we received a bottle of water.

Bathroom Breaks

The old school buses contrast greatly with luxury coaches. Since no bathrooms are on board, the buses stop every 90 minutes at designated rest areas.

Multiple buses often stopped. However, since there are many outhouses, the wait for one wasn’t long. The bathrooms are well-maintained and include hand sanitizer.

We found the seats on the bus weren’t well cushioned, so we welcomed the rest stops and breaks.

On The Tour

A caribou
A caribou I spotted on the tour

The tundra tour is part wilderness and part wildlife excursion. It includes an opportunity to see the Denali peak. Unfortunately, our visit was too cloudy to see its towering peak.

Only 30% of visitors see Denali and those who do receive an “I saw Denali” sticker.

When we embarked on the Tundra Wilderness Tour, we were excited to explore the stunning landscapes of Denali and catch a glimpse of its diverse wildlife. Here are some of the highlights of our experience:

Sights And Landmarks

Along the way, we saw some of the park’s most iconic landmarks, including the Polychrome Mountains, Sable Mountain, and the Teklanika River.

While we didn’t see Denali itself, it didn’t take away the amazing experience of what we enjoyed. Part of the tour is about seeing wildlife, specifically the Big Five. Of the five, we saw four, only missing out on a wolf sighting.

Bus Onboard Camera

One of the best features of tour buses is the onboard cameras. If wildlife is a significant distance away, the driver can focus on it with the onboard camera and stream live footage on overhead screens.

Overhead pop-down screen on the tour bus
Overhead pop-down screen

This upgraded addition allows those without binoculars and zoom lenses to see the animals up close. Sometimes, if the wildlife was far away, it gave me a chance to pinpoint the location.

If clouds don’t obscure Denali, the camera can zoom into its peak for a better view of its icy façade.

Wildlife Spotting – The Big Five

The success of the Tundra Wilderness Tour is often counted on the sightings of Denali’s “Big Five” wildlife species: grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and moose.

Our tour guide, a true expert in his field, was not only extremely knowledgeable but also adept at multitasking. Despite his primary focus on the road, he pointed out moose habitats and areas where we could spot specific species.

So, guests must be vigilant to scan the landscape and peaks for movement. Interestingly, we spoke to someone in our hotel who had done the tour the previous day and only saw one squirrel.

Moose in Denali National Park
Moose in Denali National Park

At the beginning of the excursion, we saw three moose. The moose were well hidden amongst the vegetation and skittish once the bus slowed down.

Within the first hour, we also saw lots of Willow Ptarmigan, the state’s bird, on the edges of the gravel road. The males were standing guard of the nests nearby.

These birds were easy to spot with their white and brown feathers. In winter, they turn completely white to blend into the snowy landscape.

Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska's state bird
Willow Ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird

The dense forest thinned as we climbed the mountains and our chances of seeing moose diminished. However, we could now scan for Dall sheep, caribou, and wolves.

One of the most thrilling moments was when we spotted a grizzly bear tracking three caribou. The caribou were oblivious, and we observed them unknowingly moving closer to the predator. It was like being in a live screening of National Geographic, a truly exhilarating experience.

We saw lots of caribou, some solo and others in groups. They were far less skittish than the moose. High on the cliffs, Dall sheep grazed in groups and were easy to spot from their white coats.

A group of Dall sheep high up in the mountains
A group of Dall sheep high up in the mountains

The tour also offers the opportunity to see smaller animals, such as arctic ground squirrels, golden eagles, and other bird species.

Our overall wildlife count was:

  • 1 grizzly bear.
  • 3 moose.
  • 6+ Willow ptarmigan.
  • 25+ Dall sheep.
  • 25+ caribou.
  • 2 Golden eagles.

Conservation Efforts

Protecting The Tundra

As a national park with a delicate ecosystem, the rangers know the importance of preserving Alaska’s delicate tundra. They work closely with conservation organizations and government agencies to ensure their tours have minimal environmental impact.

One of the primary conservation efforts we support is the protection of wildlife habitats. They follow strict guidelines to prevent disturbance of the animals’ behaviors in their natural habitats.

As guests, we were encouraged to respect the wildlife and their habitats by not littering or removing anything from the park, such as flowers or rocks.

Caribou spotted on the bus tour in Denali
Caribou spotted on the bus tour

Visitor Guidelines

As a visitor to the tundra in Alaska, it is vital to follow some guidelines to ensure we do not harm the environment. Here are some guidelines that we recommend:

  • Stay on designated trails and roads to avoid damaging the tundra.
  • Do not litter or leave any trash behind. Pack out what you pack in.
  • Respect the wildlife and their habitats by not disturbing them.
  • Do not pick flowers or other vegetation.
  • Use designated restrooms and dispose of waste properly. Close bathroom doors after use to prevent animals from entering.

By following these guidelines, we can all do our part to protect the tundra for future generations to enjoy.

Hiking Trails

There are plenty of other activities to enjoy in Denali National Park. Hiking is a popular activity, and those venturing into the backcountry should be bear-aware and dressed for windy conditions.

Denali National Park is home to over 160 miles of hiking trails, from short strolls to challenging multi-day treks. The park’s trail system offers a chance to explore the stunning wilderness and spot wildlife in its natural habitat.

For hikers’ convenience, the park offers the complimentary Savage River shuttle bus, which covers the first 15 miles of the park.

This service is a boon for those who prefer to focus on the hiking experience without worrying about transportation. There are also campsites available for those wishing to stay overnight.

Some of the popular trails include:

  • Horseshoe Lake Trail: This easy 1.5-mile trail takes visitors through a forested area to a scenic lake. It’s an excellent spot for birdwatching and fishing.
  • Savage Alpine Trail: This strenuous 4.8-mile trail takes trekkers above the tree line to enjoy stunning views of the Alaska Range. Look for Dall sheep and marmots.
  • Triple Lakes Trail: This moderate 7.6-mile trail travels through various landscapes, including forests, meadows, and lakes. In late summer, it’s an excellent spot for berry picking.
Denali peak, moose, and a grizzly bear, seen on the Tundra Wilderness Tour