2017 marks the 100th Anniversary of Denali (Formerly Mount McKinley) National Park. I have photographed and lived near the park for almost 50 years, half its existence. My tavels have taken me around the world and to parks all over the US and western Canada. It is my opinion that Denali is one of the most difficult of all the national parks for a nature photographer, if not THE most difficult place to work of any park. The reason: access. Access to Denali is controlled with almost all visitation by bus, either tour or by what is called the VTS (Visitor Transportation System.) With such a scheduled and heavily-used system in place it is very diffcult to access prime landscape locations with any reasonable expectation of arriving early or late, as dictated by the light, or staying for an extended period on location as the situation requires. Wildlife photography is a particular challenge. Under current park policy there are no LEGAL wildlife photography tours within the park.
Back in the 1970's and 1980's it was not uncommon to shoot as much as 300 rolls of film in two weeks, subjects including caribou, moose, bears, birds, landscapes, and the iconic images of Wonder Lake. Sadly wildlife subjects just aren't as commonplace as they once were and it rare to get many great opporuntities, except fleeting moments. The best photographs come after hard hikes and long days waiting for the best situation to develop. The best autumn moose area was, and remains, the first part of the Park Road from Mile 6 to Mile 13, which is open to private vehicles. However, a dozen or so years ago the Park Service closed access to off-road areas, all photography limited to and from the road only. Needless to say, many fine photo opportunities are missed by animals being too far from the road. The Park Service disingenuously justifies the closure as "Critical Moose Rutting Habitat." Nonsense. Because some moose wear radio collars, the location of the rutting cells are precisely known and the cells move about yet large areas are kept closed that do not have rutting groups present. This is one those "public safety issues" that the agency comes up with to justify, right or wrong, any questionable action. I don't doubt there may be a need for a closure around a group of moose, given some actions by the general public, but call a spade a spade. Safety not resource policy.
The best way to get good photos at Denali, short of a special permit, is by camping at either the Teklanika River and riding the bus daily, or camping at Wonder Lake at the end of the Park Road. Wildlife can be found near Wonder Lake and the views are iconic when the weather is good. Often, however, the Wonder Lake Campground is reserved months in advance and difficult to get. For those riding the bus in and out of Teklanika Campground, it is best not to venture beyond Eielson Visitor Center. The prime viewing locations, especially for bears are between Eielson and Toklat River. Igloo canyon is sometimes good for Dall sheep and hikers can often find animals that in the feeder drainages. Nature photography at Denali requires patience and perseverance but even so the result can be frustration.