Posted by: kerryl29 | September 24, 2018

Alaska: The Denali National Park Bus and the Tripod Reminder

Denali Access:  A Primer

The first thing you need to know about Denali National Park is that it has one entrance–on the east side of the park, on the George Parks Highway (AK-3, I-A4).  This is the only road access to the park.  The park road itself runs 92 miles, from the entrance to Kantishna; the first 15 miles of this road, beginning at the entrance gate, is paved and open to private vehicles.  At the 15-mile marker–which coincides with the spot where the Savage River and the road meet–the road becomes unpaved and private vehicles–with very few and very limited exceptions–are not permitted.  From this point of the road on, you have three options if you want to travel farther into the park:  hike, bike or bus.  If you want to travel any distance from the Savage River, your only practical option is the Denali Park bus system.

Savage River Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

A Parallel

On my two extended forays in the Canadian Rockies, I saw tour buses traveling up and down the Icefields Parkway.  There were a few “hot spots” along the way–Athabasca Falls, Peyto Lake, Moraine Lake and maybe Mistaya Canyon–where these buses would access a designated parking area, disgorge their passengers like a plague of locusts and then, 10, 15 maybe 20 minutes later, recall their charges like a roach motel and move on.  I remember thinking, every time I saw this phenomenon play out:  what a miserable way to experience the Canadian Rockies.

I may have been a bit precipitous in my conclusions, simply because I invariably view things from the perspective of a would-be landscape photographer and, undeniably, this was a terrible means to the end of photographing in the Canadian Rockies.  But as a general way to simply see the area?  Maybe that wasn’t so bad?  Okay, even for that purpose, this was a pretty awful means.  You stopped only when and where the guy driving the bus was scheduled to stop.  And if you wanted to spend more time there than the glorified restroom stop called for, tough.  Would it be possible to do something more superficial than this?  Doubtfully.

Alpenglow, Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali Reality

Unfortunately, that was my sense of taking the bus at Denali.  Yes, you could see things as the bus went by.  And Denali bus drivers will stop, relatively briefly, when someone spots wildlife.  But still..this is a far cry from being able to stop–and get out–when the feeling suits you.  I mean, you can’t do that!

Or can you?  Turns out, yes you can.  You want to get off the Denali bus?  You tell the bus driver and he stops and out you go.  Of course, after you’re off, the door closes and the bus continues on its way.  Now, after you’ve done what you want to do at any particular location, you can flag down the next bus to come along and continue along the route.  Sounds great, right?  There’s only one problem–if there are no seats available on the “next bus,” you’re out of luck…and you have to wait for the one after that…and hope that bus has room.  Well, how long is the wait?  It varies, depending on the time of the day and the time of the year.  And not all of the buses go all the way to the end of the road.  During late August, when we were there, the first transit bus heading into the park departs at 6:15 AM; the last leaves at 4:05 PM.  Over that period of nearly 10 hours, there are 23 departures (including the two already mentioned).  So, every 15-20 minutes–in theory–another bus will come along.  That doesn’t sound too bad…as long as the weather’s not awful.  But if buses are full–and many of them are–you’ve got a problem.  On our return trip, a group of four people flagged down the bus we were on.  There were only three available seats; two members of the party got on, the other two decided to wait for the next bus.  Hopefully that next bus had open seats.  As, by this time, it was late in the afternoon, the return buses were increasingly likely to be filled.  Caveat emptor.

Horseshoe Lake Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

There’s one other set of things to consider about the Denali buses:  they travel slowly, over unpaved roads, make plenty of unscheduled stops and cover vast distances.  Let’s say you want to go all the way to Wonder Lake-the end of the road–from the bus depot and return on the same day.  Let’s say you’re an enterprising soul, and catch the first bus that goes that far.  That bus leaves (in late August) at 6:15 AM.  It arrives at Wonder Lake–assuming you stick with that bus, and assuming not too many unscheduled stops are made–at approximately 12:05 PM–nearly six hours after its departure.  The very last possible bus you can take from Wonder Lake to arrive back at the depot leaves at 3:50 PM and is scheduled to arrive at the depot at 8:40 PM.  (Outbound buses make more scheduled stops than inbound ones.)  In other words, it’s nearly an 11-hour round trip to Wonder Lake.  You get–as much as–3 1/2 hours on the ground at your destination.  And if you think that an 11-hour ride on a modified school bus sounds tiresome, well, you’d be right.  We spent approximately eight hours on the bus–we only went as far as Eielson–and it was plenty tiresome.

And if this already sounds restrictive, keep one final point in mind:  you can’t simply expect to get up one day and think, “this would be a great day to head deep into the park,” show up at the depot and be on your way.   Bus seats are sold via a reservation system.  There are only so many outgoing seats available each day, and if you don’t have one in advance–particularly if the weather is nice, when the limited point-of-sale demand is highest–there’s a very good chance you won’t be able to get one.

Nenanah River Reflections, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Bus Photo Experience

If you’ve reached this point expecting me to tell you what a frustrating experience it is to photograph from the bus, congratulations, because that’s exactly what it is.  First of all, you’re on the bus with 60 of your (ahem) closest friends.  In truth, most of the people on the two different buses we spent time on in Denali were pleasant and well-behaved.  The key word in that previous sentence, of course, is “most.”  Like virtually everything in life, it takes only a tiny group of less than thoughtful people to screw everything up for the rest of us.

For instance…upon introduction, before we got going, the bus driver gave us a talk–not entirely unlike the spiel that flight attendants are required to give on an airplane–that included tips on safety and etiquette.  Included in those remarks was the point where the driver asked people to keep their voices down when wildlife was spotted, to avoid spooking the animals.  (Exactly why some people squealing inside a bus would tend to spook the wildlife any more than, you know, the extremely loud noise made by a moving bus, was not explained…but I digress.)  This was a request, and–let’s face it–one that was never going to be universally followed because people get excited when they unexpectedly see wild animals.  This is particularly true for people who have never seen a bear, moose, caribou or any of the other wildlife endemic to Denali, outside of a zoo setting.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this describes at least half the people on the average Denali bus.  So, when wildlife was spotted, especially when it was close to the bus, many people invariably became animated and inevitably spoke more loudly than they should have.  The bus driver, at this point, patiently got on the PA and politely reminded people to keep their voices down to avoid spooking the wildlife.  This wasn’t enough, however, for the Dutch woman sitting next to Debbie who told everyone, loudly and repeatedly to–and I quote–“shut the f— up!”  Even accounting for possible “English-not-first-language” circumstances, you can imagine what this did for the esprit de corps of the passengers.  And on the return bus we had a couple of people taking up more than one seat–either with their baggage or by stretching their bodies across multiples seats, which created considerable awkwardness when others wanted to board.

The Mountain Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

As for the photo experience itself, to say that it was confounding would be an understatement.  While the bus would stop, relatively briefly, for wildlife, you can imagine what it’s like to try to obtain decent images on a crowded bus.  Even with people trying to accommodate those of us with cameras–which some people, in all fairness, did attempt to do–it was difficult at best.  Windows could, with some difficulty, be lowered, but the openings weren’t very large, there were constantly people to be avoided and, of course, the animals weren’t concerned with posing for us.  Frequently they were too far away for any good images to be made, regardless of the constraints of the bus, but we had some very close encounters with bears, moose and caribou and if I got a handful of shots that were anything more than barely passable I’d be surprised.  For catching a glimpse of wildlife, the Denali bus isn’t too bad, but it just isn’t a good platform for wildlife photography.

Eielson View, Denali National Park, Alaska

As for landscape opportunities…hoo, boy, where do I start?  The bus doesn’t stop for good landscape opportunities.  Ever.  Just minutes after we got on the bus, we were driving near the Mountain Vista area–about 11 miles down the road, a location where private vehicles are allowed.  It was just shortly after sunrise on a chilly morning.  The valley containing the Savage River was filled with fog.  Far in the distance, the Mountain was visible, bathed in beautiful light.  It was an incredible scene…and there we were, on the [expletive deleted] bus, barely so much as getting a look at it.  It was torture.  I very seriously considered yelling out to the bus driver to stop the bus and let me off right there.  (I later discussed this with Ellen and Debbie and found that they had harbored the same thoughts.)  This was the most egregious example of this sort of thing, but it happened repeatedly…we’d drive through these hauntingly beautiful landscapes that I was aching to explore…but I knew that if we got off the bus, we’d never get to Eielson–which was our goal–that morning.  So I sat on the slow-moving bus in tortuous frustration.

When we did stop–which happened three times–with an opportunity to actually get off the bus, it was just for a few minutes…not even time to pull out my tripod let alone explore a setting or wait for the light.  If I wanted any shots at all I had to take them, quickly…handheld.  Do you hear me?  Handheld!  This might have been worse than simply sitting on the bus not shooting at all.

Crevice Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Promised Tripod Rant

I will interrupt the narrative, briefly, to launch into the tripod-related rant that I promised in my most recent post.  More than 6 1/2 years ago I wrote a piece making my case for the importance of always using a tripod when engaging in landscape photography.  If you haven’t read it and are skeptical of the superficial argument in favor of tripod use, I recommend it to you.

If you’re ever forced to spend time with me in the field, in some dystopian alternate universe, you’ll see me copiously investigating whether to photograph a particular scene or subject.  This is something I typically do with camera in hand, not mounted on a tripod.  If I decide to make an image, I determine–roughly–the position I want the camera to occupy when the shutter is tripped.  That’s when I grab the tripod, and careful fine-tuning of the final shot–with the camera firmly attached to the tripod head–follows.  Some finagling with the matter of exactly where to put the tripod–and how high to extend it, etc.–is almost always part of the process.  It’s virtually impossible to properly carry out this fine tuning process handheld.

You can tell I’m merely sizing up a shot, not actually photographing. Note the absence of a tripod. [Photo courtesy, David W. Shaw, all rights reserved]

Those few instances attempting “grab shots” of the landscape on those limited bus breaks reminded me, in stark terms, just how important a tripod is to the art and craft of landscape photography.  I mean, obviously I already knew this–again, check out the blog entry–but my experience at Denali made me recognize just how complacent I’d become on the point.  Just a few instances attempting to photograph without my tripod reawakened my slumbering passion for this subject.  Concentrating on holding the camera steady (even with vibration reduction enabled), the inability to fine tune the shot as detailed above, the difficulty of keeping the camera level while in even modestly awkward positions and being unable to rely on the tripod to slow the process down…I missed all of it, badly.  I don’t ever want to go through that again!

You can tell I’m in the process of fine-tuning the composition before actually tripping the shutter; note that the camera is mounted on the tripod. [Photo courtesy, David W. Shaw, all rights reserved]

And Yet…

And so traveling the bus in Denali was essentially a miserable, massively frustrating experience, for all the reasons I laid out above.  So, obviously, I’m here to tell you that the folks at the National Park Service should…not change a single thing.

Yes, you read correctly.  As miserable a photo experience as the bus episode entailed it shouldn’t be a significant concern for the folks who manage Denali National Park and Preserve to improve the photo experience for me–or anyone else.  The principal consideration of the park service folks should be protecting the park’s ecosystem and the plants and animals that inhabit the area, as I have stated in the past.  If that means that the photo experience isn’t ideal–or anything remotely close to it–than so be it.  Without the bus system in place, with the entire park road open to private vehicles, Denali is likely to turn into a “total gong show,” as Ellen so aptly put it.

Eielson Black & White, Denali National Park, Alaska

(The key, I’m convinced, to a positive photographic experience at Denali is simple–get off the damn bus.  I suspected that before I visited Denali; having been there, I’m now certain of it.  If I have the opportunity to return, I will act on that knowledge.)

I recently opined that it was, in part, up to photographers to engage directly in the process of limiting impact on public lands.  I stand by that opinion.  But it won’t do any of us any harm to save us from our own worst instincts.  Limited access is being contemplated at a number of public areas in the United States where visitation is so out of hand that the locations are already being degraded.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The Mountain, Denali National Park, Alaska

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Responses

  1. ‘The Mountain,’ is beautiful!

  2. It struck me that the echo of the bus driver on the PA would be as disturbing as the passenger’s gleeful whispers. No doubt the sound of the approaching bus scattered a few animals.

    The D.C. tour bus concessioner of the National Park Service operates all-electric, zero-emission, double-decker buses to carry tourists around the nation’s capitol. With a range of 100 miles, the buses run clean and quiet. The Denali concessioner would have to determine the feasibility of electric vehicles, but it’s worth considering for the sake of the environment and wildlife.

    • Thanks for weighing in.

      The park service started rotating hybrid and/or propane-fueled buses at Denali two or three years ago…I think (don’t quote me on this) that all of the diesel-fueled vehicles have been replaced at this point, so there’s definitely been some improvement in terms of environmental impact and noise. But still…a heavy vehicle traversing a gravel road is going to make a fair amount of noise, no matter how you slice it.

      And, yes, the sound of the PA is going to be every bit as loud, if not louder, than what comes from the passengers. It’s an imperfect system. 🙂

  3. Been there. Enjoyed the cock-eyed crazy experience, and laughed when a moose was sighted near the bus, But as that can only be on one side, people came literally flying through the air, in one case feet in the air, to get that precious glimpse, and maybe even a picture through the bus windows. It was like mass hysteria, and it actually was funny especially recalling it over and over years later. M 🙂

    • Great comment. Virtually all of the wildlife sightings were on the opposite side of the bus from where I was sitting and, other than general excitement, most people didn’t get out of hand. I certainly didn’t. I don’t think I ever got any closer to the other side of the bus than the aisle. There were a few close encounters. We had a caribou charge the bus and there was a grizzly right in the road, less than 50 feet in the bus. (Said bear wandered straight down the road for several hundred feet and, at one point, laid down right in the middle of the road.) But these were interesting viewing experiences but they were poor photo opps, given the limitations of shooting from the bus. It’s just a poor platform for photography.

  4. I’m enjoying your Alaska series thus far, Kerry. I’ve had many of the same experiences during my dozens of trips in and out of Denali on the buses. The real solution is to go in and stay in. Camping at Wonder Lake in the fall is wonderful and early morning and late evening buses usually have plenty of space available. Alternatively, a well-to-do photographer can pony up to stay at a place like Camp Denali which can worth every dime with the flexibility and outings offered. But yeah… pricey. Considering the limitations, I think you did well. That black and white shot of Denali is jaw-dropping. Really looking forward to some more Brooks Range shots.

    • Thanks, Dave. I appreciate your weighing in with some suggestions about how to circumvent the limitations endemic to the Denali bus system.

      There will definitely be many more Brooks Range images in future installments of this series; bank on it.

  5. Oh, I can relate to the frustrations with the guided tours! Nice to be able to get off, but risky getting back on. I experienced that frustration on a ice tour of Maligne Canyon in the early Spring and we walked on the bottom-not enough time for photographers to set up a composition. On a brighter note there are special photographer tours to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake where you can be dropped off for a few hours and maybe this is possible for other spots like Maligne canyon and Lake. Like those B/W shots, especially the first.

    • Thanks very much, Jane. I didn’t know that there were photographers tours to Spirit Island. Is that a new thing? Had I known, I would definitely have looked into it when I was in Jasper.

  6. I agree the bus is a necessary evil. It is amazing there is a system that actually seems to work considering there is only a single road in a park with an area of about 6 million acres, a road that is only available, in a good weather year, from mid-May to mid-September with about 500,000 visitors wanting to get from point A to point B. Next time we’ll spend more time off the bus.

    • Thanks, Ellen. Good points.

  7. It must’ve been a “horror” for you. 🙂 I know how you’ve addressed the importance of having your trusty tripod by your side. I do manage to get some nice handheld shots from time to time of a landscape.

    Denali is such a large expanse, it makes sense to have a bus system. It’s better than taking a gravel strike to your windshield and having to spend a night or two, unprepared, in the wild. The hike option, while appealing, requires plenty of preparation and readiness. If you’re not prepared for a multi-day blizzard in July, in BLM/NFS back country, you haven’t done your homework is my saying.

    Regarding the bus system in RMNP, it isn’t mandatory yet. I can see them going to it soon if their traffic issues doesn’t improve. Tourists still want to drive Trail Ridge Road to Independence Pass and over the Continental Divide. Maroon Bells, NFS has only limited access on overnight stays. The trail to the Bells can only be repaired if the area is closed. It’s still estimated 3-5 years for a proper trail repair and clean up of the litter and trash. I don’t see anything being done in the near term. Zinke is absolutely the worst SecInt ever. Gail Norton is a green compared to him. At least she understood many of the problems facing the NPS and NFS in terms of infrastructure overhauls. I’m done with my turn on the soapbox. 🙂

    • It was dreadful. 🙂 Simply put, I don’t like photographing landscapes without using a tripod–for all the reasons laid out in the piece linked in the body of the text. There’s a certain irony to the fact that while many–probably most–people find a tripod an encumbrance, I feel put upon by the absence of one. It’s simply antithetical to the way I like to work. What’s more, I’ve felt this way since I first started using a tripod 20-plus years ago. This is not a feeling I came to gradually.

      To add to what you wrote about Denali, it’s worth remembering that there are no formal trails beyond the Savage River area–in other words, the part of the park that requires bus transportation. If one strays any distance from the road, it would be pretty easy to get lost.

      Don’t get me started on Ryan Zinke. It’s distinctly possible that I will never stop.

  8. Ha ha… I bet you know my opinion of tripods. 😀 But first, let me state right up front that I totally recognize and admire your skill with a camera (and tripod) and I appreciate what you put into getting the awesome (in the true sense of the word) images you capture. Given that proviso, I’ve come to the opinion that it all depends on what you hope to accomplish. Your approach is to produce perfectly printed art. To achieve that, you most definitely need your tripod and crafted skill at software editing. I’ll grant you that. Hands down.

    So… I’ve finally decided to ignore all this advice about tripods (which I hate to fumble with, much less carry). My purpose is simply to take snapshots of places and things I like. It’s enough to recreate the joy I feel at seeing and sharing them. I enjoy posting to a blog because I’ve met some wonderful folks, but I don’t expect a following that wants to know about any technical issues or will be peering at pixels. I’m quite content with the quality I get for screen-size viewing… and I’m finally learning to set aside the uneasy feeling of being criticized for my disregard for precision.

    I think it might have been the cataract that set me free. After all, I’d been seeing much of the world through a blurry lens (in the eye, not camera)! 😀 Yeah, things are clearer now, but I almost miss that blurry view of the world. 😉

    Just saying… 😀

    • Yes, you and I have conversed multiple times on the subject of tripods, and I’m well aware of your position. 🙂 And whomever it is who has criticized you for not being precise (what does that even mean?), should mind his/her own business. 🙂

      I know I’ve made the following point to you directly, but perhaps others who might stumble across this comment haven’t heard it, so…

      For those who are happy with what they’re doing and the results they’re getting, I’d encourage them to keep on doing that, whatever it is. If you’re not using a tripod and you’re enjoying the process of photographing and the ensuing results, by all means, continue not to use a tripod. It’s the people who come to me who aren’t happy with the process, the results or both who aren’t using a tripod (and there have been many such folks over the years) that I sometimes encourage (it depends on the substance of the dissatisfaction) to use a tripod. The fact that I hate photographing landscapes without a tripod doesn’t mean that others necessarily feel this way, nor does it mean they should.

      There’s no single “right way” to have fun while photographing. What we should all do, in my view, is find whatever process best allows us to enjoy the endeavor and then go about doing just that as often as possible. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

      • Of course you never pressured me. You are far too considerate to do so, but there seemed to be this subtle insinuation from many of the blogs I followed that I could do a lot of improving. Of course I shouldn’t have buckled to it, but I did to some extent.

        So… for me, ‘enjoying the endeavor’, seems to be letting the camera give me incentive to get out in the world (woods? coast?) to explore. Bringing back images that create fond memories seems to be what it’s all about.

        Having said that, I need to add that I DO enjoy visiting blogs like yours for the sheer beauty and art you bring to the endeavor. Thanks, Kerry! ❤

  9. Great blog with stunning photos. I’ve often photographed along the Icefields Parkway and feel sorry for folks on tour buses. Then again, they’re usually only getting phone snapshots, so I imagine the bus tour experience works fine for them.

    • Thanks, Frank.

      Re the individuals on the Icefields Parkway tour buses…I don’t know. Even if they’re only interested in snapshooting (nothing inherently wrong with that, of course), being on the bus greatly limits what you can get snapshots of, because the process limits what you actually get to see. And that’s really the issue, I think; it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with photography, it has to do with a massively truncated experience, whether you have any kind of a camera with you or not.

  10. The black and whites are stunning! Are those image stacked photos? Or simply just stable tripod shots?

    • Thanks.

      The images–and I’m assuming you’re asking specifically about the monochromes; please correct me if I’m wrong–in this post are a mixed bag. The first b&w–the Savage River image–is focus stacked (five frames); the others are all single frames. All were tripod-based.

      • Oh, yes, the Savage River in particular… beautiful

        • “The Mountain” B/W (the 2nd one I think) with the layers of tonal values is also my favorite

        • Thanks very much. The story behind that image–not so much that image in particular, but the opportunity to make it–will be a key segment of a future post in this series.

        • Thanks!

  11. Beautiful photos! Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks very much!

  12. […] Wilderness Access Center, just a couple of miles up the road.  We had secured reservations on the Denali park bus for our lengthy excursion into the park for Monday, August 27 (we arrived on Saturday, August […]

  13. […] her camera onto the head.  It is absolutely essential to have a functional tripod support–even more so than usual–when photographing aurora because it’s truly impossible to hold the camera steady for […]

  14. Good

  15. […] as I mentioned in an earlier post.  Having changed our original day of exploration into the National Park to the following day , and having had an all-too-short taste of the Denali Highway the previous […]

  16. […] an earlier post, I shared my thoughts on the Denali National Park bus.  What I didn’t do, at least at any […]


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