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The Last Bus

A former Denali ranger shares her secrets for finding solitude, scoring the most coveted permits, seeing wildlife, beating the weather, and more. Follow her from-the-field advice for the ultimate trip in America's wildest park.

On the East Fork of the Toklat River, I once plopped down in camp early. I wanted to rest awhile before going off to explore. Good thing. By sitting still, I lucked into the most amazing wildlife sighting of my life: First, I saw three grizzlies digging on the riverbar. Then two wolves appeared. They charged the bears, which in turn charged a third wolf that had appeared, and then they all came toward me. The entire mass of fang, fur, and claw thundered within feet, and then disappeared into the brush.

The point: If you want to see wildlife in Denali, sit and be silent. Hiking is noisy—especially when you’re crashing through alder shouting, “Hey, bear!” Instead, do something radical. When planning your backcountry itinerary, build in a whole day—or two—to sit on a perch overlooking a hillside, river, or valley. Pack binoculars and a picnic, and, above all, keep quiet. Here are some of my favorite wildlife haunts:

Grizzlies Look for them on gravel bars throughout the park; the gravel highways act as natural thoroughfares for all wildlife. Higher up, look for bears along the open hillsides of Sable, Highway, and Thorofare Passes.

Wolves Two different wolf packs currently inhabit the Sable Pass and Highway Pass areas. Look to ridgelines at dawn and dusk, where you might see a long line of wolves heading out to hunt.

Moose Scan the alder thickets along the Savage, Sanctuary, and Teklanika Rivers. In late August and September, look for them along the first eight miles of the park road, where they typically rut.

Caribou They favor wide-open riverbars, so sit patiently on a bank along the Toklat River.

Black bears Unfortunately, they prefer the mosquito-infested willowlands near Kantishna and Wonder Lake.

Bobcats, hares, and lynx Head to the bridge near Igloo Forest, and duck into the woods on the east side of the wildlife closure (off-limits due to a wolf den site). Be careful: Bears favor wooded areas, too, and you can’t see them as well as you might from a vantage point on a hillside.

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