How About a Photo-Safari to Alaska?

By Ted LaBar

We encounter a caribou on Stampede Road near Healy, Alaska.

Do you like taking pictures? Do you enjoy driving? Do you have
about four weeks free this summer? Then, with the lowest fuel prices in years, you would love driving to Alaska. My wife and I drove it and it was the trip of a lifetime.

Leaving Cookeville right after Memorial Day was ideal timing, judging from the quantity of wildlife that we were able to photograph right from the car. Wildflowers were also in peak season. Going early increases the likelihood of seeing bison and moose calves and bear cubs as well.

A moose calf
A moose calf hides in the brush, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska.

The abundance of wildlife along the roadsides continually amazed us. From the time we started the Alaska Highway in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and for the next 1,600 or so miles to Denali National Park and back, Sherry kept track of sightings along the road: 19 black or brown bear, 6 grizzlies, 25 caribou, 6 deer, 12 elk, a fox, 26 moose, 4 porcupines, 6 sheep, a wolf and several herds of bison. There were also eagles, sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans.

You will have even more “photo ops” if you go through Banff, Jasper or Yoho (Canadian) National Parks on the way up or back.

Two essentials before leaving home:
1) Get familiar with your camera before you start. Once, a mama

A grizzly cub peeks from behind its mother. Along the Alaska Highway in British Columbia.
A grizzly cub peeks from behind its mother. Along the Alaska Highway in British Columbia.

grizzly and her little cub played for more than 10 minutes just 20 yards from our car. If I had been just learning how to use my camera when we spotted them, chances are I would have missed some great shots. Be ready for the unexpected!
2) Order a copy of the Milepost from The Milepost is great for tourist/photographers. It includes detailed maps and descriptions of all points of interest, tells exactly where to watch for specific animals and birds, and lists all places to stay. Most importantly – it says where you can find gas! The Milepost is invaluable.

moose mom
A moose cow and calf cross the park road, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska.

Don’t believe old stories that the Alaska Highway is a primitive road. Except for one stretch of frost heaves, the Highway is as good as any two-lane highway in Tennessee. Most of the right-of-way is kept clear of trees and brush for at least 100 feet on either side of the pavement. Since many animals like to graze along those highway margin areas, they will be within range of the most modest telephoto lens.

Mount McKinley is known as Denali to most Alaskans. It’s the tallest mountain in North America and the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve. It’s something every visitor to Alaska wants to see. In good weather, a flight-seeing trip out of Talkeetna will give you breathtaking aerial views of Mount McKinley and its many glaciers.

An old stone sheep buck struts alongside the Alaska Highway in British Columbia, Canada.

But be aware that weather frequently obscures sight of “The Big One.” Fortunately, there is so much more to photograph!
Visit the Park at least once during “the golden hours,” on either side of sunrise or sunset, for the most colorful lighting for photography. And keep your camera ready on overcast or rainy days. Such conditions can provide shadow-free images, saturated colors and dramatic skies for powerful landscape photos and wildflower macros.

A black bear eyes us closely along the Alaska Highway in the Yukon, Canada.
A black bear eyes us closely along the Alaska Highway in the Yukon, Canada.

In Denali National Park travel by private vehicle is quite restricted, but naturalist-guided Park Service bus rides into the park are great. Rides last from 4 ½ to 11 hours and will stop whenever anyone sees something interesting to photograph. Chances are, you will experience a variety of weather on the ride, even snowfall! The scenery is magnificent in any weather.

Have a great trip and happy shooting!