The caribou’s strong flanks glistened in the sunshine, his canter steady as he navigated the dusty road ahead which was framed by soaring mountain peaks.
He seemed unbothered by the large bus full of tourists keeping pace a safe distance on the highway behind him, our driver Martin doing his best to leave space while still getting close enough that we could catch a glimpse of the magnificent creature before he finally dashed off the road into the solace of the nearby woods.
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Just a few minutes earlier we’d spotted not one but two moose grazing in the long grass along the river bank, and Martin screeched to a halt as we all excitedly yelled out ‘Moose! Stop!” in unison.
Both animals seemed to be blissfully unaware that a busload of wide-eyed folks were leaning out of the windows just across the water, simultaneously angling for a perfect photo while gazing out in awe.
Scenes like this are why we’d made the journey all the way up to The Last Frontier, to experience the Denali Backcountry Adventure in Alaska.
The Denali Highway (Alaska Route 8)
The Denali Backcountry Adventure is one of the newest attractions near Denali National Park, which is best known as the home of North America’s tallest peak.
Stretching for 135 miles, the remote Denali Highway has been ranked by National Geographic as one of the world’s best Drivers’ Drives. Built in 1957 to access the park, it mostly fell out of use just a decade later when the George Parks Highway opened.
This narrow, gravel road isn’t paved, has virtually no cell service or facilities and is closed during winter, which is why most rental car companies don’t even allow their vehicles to be driven here.
Enter the Denali Backcountry Adventure.
The Denali Backcountry Adventure bus tour
These Denali bus tours have quickly become one of the top things to do near Denali National Park, especially after a road washout severely limited access to large sections of the pristine backcountry.
Now, visitors can enjoy highlights of a trip through Alaska by booking a seat on what feels like a repurposed school bus, then simply sitting back and enjoying the stunning scenery.
The day starts with a morning pickup from a few different locations near the park entrance, including the Denali Cabins where you can grab a coffee from the Mount Hunter Coffee Co. before hitting the road.
While the driver has a few set stops along the way (including a bathroom break, of course) they’re also happy to pull over at other scenic spots that passengers request, or for wildlife sightings which are undoubtedly the highlight. There’s also a mid-morning stop for snacks like tea and cookies, while enjoying views of the Alaska Range.
Visiting Alpine Creek Lodge
All of the main activities happen at Alpine Creek Lodge, a quaint, family-run operation at mile 68 which is about two hours away. Lunch is included, and after refueling on soup, sandwiches or burgers guests are invited to try any or all of the activities like hiking, gold panning and even meeting sled dogs.
Rock On Racing is a family team that’s based at the lodge, and every single one of them–Matt, Casey and the kids AddieAnn and Thale–mushes and competes in races. Mushing is Alaska’s state sport meaning the Randalls are essentially pro athletes around these parts, and it’s fascinating to learn first-hand from them how racing works and how they support their dogs’ training.
Not only can guests see a 2018 Iditarod Champion up close, but there might even be a litter of foster puppies to snuggle.
Other activities during the tour include trying gold panning, and a short steep hike up the hill behind the lodge for sweeping views of the surrounding valleys and a waterfall.
Following a fun afternoon, everyone hops back into the bus and the Denali Backcountry Adventure heads back down the highway to get everyone back to their hotels before supper.
Things to do in Denali National Park
While the tour highlights the Denali region, it doesn’t technically go into the park so it’s worth making the effort to head in separately if time allows. One of the best hikes in Denali National Park for all ages is the Horseshoe Lake Trail, a mild two-mile walk that loops around the forest-framed lake.
Highlights along the Horseshoe trail include scenic lookout points, a beaver dam, rushing river and lookouts facing the main tourist area, Glitter Gulch.
Another incredible experience is booking a flightseeing tour into the heart of Denali National Park for surreal views, and there’s even an option to land and walk right on a glacier. There’s also ziplining along a course with six suspension bridges and eight ziplines, and whitewater rafting down the Nenana river.
Places to stay near Denali National Park: The Denali Cabins
If you have dreams of literally staying in a cabin in the woods, then the quintessentially cute Denali Cabins fit the bill. Conveniently located just a 10 minute drive from the entrance to Denali National Park, nearly 50 cedar cabins are tucked into the tranquil forest.
Each one has a private bathroom and blackout curtains (crucial in a place where it doesn’t get dark during the summer) and there are a few different room configurations including some with private decks.
On-site amenities include a fire pit, gift shop, sauna, two hot tubs and a complimentary shuttle service to the park gates. Click here to book
There are also two dining options on site: the Mount Hunter Coffee Co. which has snacks and grab ‘n go options, and Prey Pub & Eatery which serves up pub fare with an Alaskan twist, like the caribou hot dog and smoked Alaskan salmon BLT.
Globe Guide experienced the Denali Backcountry Adventure in collaboration with Pursuit.
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