Public transportation a great way to see Alaska

01/13/2013 12:00 AM

01/12/2013 10:14 PM

The gray wolf occasionally glanced back at the brown bus following it on the road in Denali National Park and Preserve.

The driver didn't want to disturb the wolf, she said, but we were running behind schedule. She maneuvered the bus closer and then closer, hoping to persuade the animal to move aside.

When the bus was only a couple of feet away, the wolf finally stopped, reared up on its hind legs and bared its teeth.

Sufficiently cowed, we waited for Canis lupus to move out of the way about a mile down the road.

About 400,000 people visit Denali each year, but animals truly own the place. Most of the animals I saw during five August days in Denali – Dall sheep, caribou, grizzlies and more – I saw from a bus, which, it turns out, is a great way to see a park that is bigger than some states.

What applies to Denali also holds true for Alaska. While many people turn to cruise ships and rental cars to visit Alaska – by far the nation's biggest state – I found public transportation a better option.

Public transportation is less expensive and more environmentally responsible than other options, and bus and train operators provide unexpected insights into the land and its inhabitants.

After flying from Sacramento to Anchorage, I relied on buses and the Alaska Railroad on a two-week trek across parts of the interior and the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska.

Denali by bus

Several companies offer shuttle bus service from Anchorage to Denali, a five-hour ride.

In Denali, another shuttle service operated by the park's concessionaire took me to my campsite on the Teklanika River in the middle of the park, where cars are severely restricted.

Planning my trip, I thought I would hate all the time on the bus. Turns out, I was very wrong. I was enthralled by the landscape from the time I left Anchorage.

Snow-covered mountains, including McKinley – at 20,320 feet, North America's tallest and one of the most prominent peaks in the world – punctuated the skyline. Streaks of fall colors made the valleys look like Indian rugs. Rivers – silver-gray from glacier silt – striped the land.

The time flew by.

To me, an avid hiker, the idea of seeing Denali trapped on a bus seemed wrong, at least until I found out what happened to a fellow Californian the day before I arrived in Denali.

He was fatally mauled by a grizzly, the first recorded instance of a person being killed by a bear at the park. Hiking in the backcountry, the man was taking pictures of the bear when he was killed, according to the National Park Service.

Grizzlies are fairly common in Alaska, and unlike black bears in California, they are known to attack humans. In Denali's gorgeous Polychrome Pass, I went on a guided hike with a park ranger who taught me how to use bear spray to prevent attacks. We repeated "Hey bear!" every few minutes to try to avoid confrontations.

On the bus, I didn't have to worry about bears – only if I missed seeing them. The drivers are adept at spotting animals in the landscape, helped in part by hand signals from passing drivers to indicate different types of animals coming up.

On a daylong trip traveling the length of Denali's main road, we saw dozens of bears, most of them just off the road. They were often mothers with cubs too cute to be killers.

The Dall sheep perched on cliffs away from the wolves that would eat them are the reason Denali ended up as a national park. Wealthy and well-connected naturalist Charles Sheldon was appalled by the slaughter of sheep by commercial traders and pressed Congress to create a preserve. That concern for habitat continues today, which is why the park allows few cars on its one main road.

Interior by train

I opted to leave Denali for Anchorage by train. The Alaska Railroad is twice as expensive as a bus and almost twice as slow. And it's the best way, hands down, to travel Alaska.

One reason why: employees such as conductor Steve Culver, who's been with the company for 40 years and is enthusiastic for the job and Alaska.

Culver tells riders about his past and the characters he's met along the way, offering travelers a look at two photo albums of his family and travels to get inspiration for pictures. I admittedly ripped off his idea of photographing landscape reflected on the side of trains.

"I'm probably the only conductor in the country who tells people to hang out the side of the train," Culver said, noting that a protective barrier keeps them from falling out.

The ride is smooth and comfortable and the train's big picture windows provide views of nearly everything around, but it's the landscape, of course, that makes the ride so memorable.

Later, I sat nearly silent for more than two hours as I rode the train from Seward to Anchorage, awed by the glaciers, waterways and mountains along the way.

Tour guides provide commentary about passing features over an intercom, without ever becoming a distraction.

Residents sometimes stand next to the track and wave to passing riders. Sometimes they're waiting for Culver to toss them an old newspaper because they can't get one nearby.

Peninsula by bus

You can only look at the landscape – even spectacular landscape – so long before you have to get out and play. Robert Valdatta understood this because he drives the 130 miles between Anchorage and Seward every day.

The part-time Seward city councilman and full-time driver for Seward Bus Lines agreed to drop me off at a campground in the Chugach National Forest and pick me up 25 miles down the road two days later so I could hike the Johnson Pass on my way to Seward in the Kenai Peninsula.

Hiking that distance in two days would not be too hard in California. But many parks in Alaska have few, if any, developed trails. The existing trails are less developed and receive less maintenance than trails in other states.

The Kenai Peninsula is a coastal rain forest, meaning the Johnson Pass was exceptionally muddy and dense with brush in spots. I had bear spray in my backpack and shouted "Hey bear!" every once in a while.

The work was hard, but I basked in solitude, seeing just three groups of people in two days, and enjoying remarkable alpine settings. I finished the hike about 30 minutes before Valdatta pulled into a hatchery parking lot to pick me up.

As I continued to the Kenai Fjords National Park, home of the massive Harding Icefield and Exit Glacier, roadside markers showed where the glacier once extended.

It has shrunk two miles in 200 years, in part because of global warming, officials say. Carbon dioxide from vehicles contributes to climate change, a reminder of why public transportation was the right choice for my trip.


National parks

Denali National Park and Preserve offers many activities, including hiking, bus tours, dog sled exhibitions and wildlife viewing; Camping fees range from $9 for tent-only camps to $28. $10 entrance fee for people 16 and older.

Kenai Fjords National Park is largely inaccessible by car or foot. Boat tours are available. Shuttle buses provide service to the park's most popular site, the Harding Icefield and Exit Glacier, which are next to each other; There are no entry or camping fees in Kenai.


Alaska Railroad, service from Anchorage to Denali, Seward and other locations;; (907) 265-2494)

Seward Bus Lines, service between Anchorage and Seward;; (888) 420-7788

Alaska Yukon Trails, bus service between Anchorage, Denali and other locations;; (800) 770-7275

Aramark, shuttle bus service and camping reservations in Denali National Park and Preserve;, (866) 761-6629


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