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How to Spot the Big 5 in Denali: Wildlife-watching tips from our pro

There are 39 species of mammals in Denali National Park. From tiny to towering, they're all spectacular. But five of them really stand out.

It's rare for visitors to see what's become known as "the Big Five" on a single trip to Denali, but it is possible. What can you do to up your chances?

Meet one of our Denali experts

Denali Backcountry Adventure driver Martin Brewer has a whole lot of passion for his job and for this remarkable place. He has been driving the spectacular Denali Park Road for nearly 25 years! Each day, he brings a fortunate group of travelers 92 miles deep into a massive wilderness that's unmatched in the world. Martin says he knows people are looking for their bucket-list experiences—things like spotting a grizzly bear in the wild, for example—and he takes pride in helping make that happen.

"You can show people something they've waited their whole lives to see," he says. "Sometimes people have tears in their eyes."

Martin Brewer

Denali Backcountry Adventure's Martin Brewer

A lifelong learner, Martin spends much of the off season studying wildlife biology and connecting with Park scientists and researchers to keep up to date with his passions. When you ride his bus, it seems almost uncanny how he can spot wildlife. It could be a result of so many years on the road, but it could also be his simple and authentic alertness and connection to the natural world.

"I try to live a healthy lifestyle, and I think that really helps," he says.

Martin's top tips for spotting wildlife in Denali:

  1. START EARLY! Many animals are most likely to be seen at dawn or dusk, like moose who thrive in the quietest times of the day. That's why heading out in the early morning often brings the best chances of spotting wildlife.
  2. GO DEEP INTO THE PARK. The Denali Backcountry Adventure goes all the way to the end of the road. That means further from 'civilization' and a rare chance to explore the remote parts of the park where nature reigns.
  3. SCAN FOR ANOMALIES. Martin suggests you keep your eyes out for something that "just seems off"—like the wrong color, the wrong shape or anything that's moving.
  4. TRAVEL QUIETLY. When Martin stops the bus because he's seen some wildlife, he urges all the passengers to be as silent as possible. This allows for unexpected things to happen—a second animal to come into view, or a kill site to be revealed, for example.
  5. TRUST YOUR DRIVER/GUIDE. Besides having a passion for sharing his knowledge, drivers like Martin seem to have an innate ability to spot animals—it's like they have a built-in wildlife radar! Drivers are so connected with this majestic space, they'll see and feel things most of us mere mortals can't grasp. So if he (or she) wants to keep moving, there's a really good reason.
  6. LUCK: Besides things just going your way, Martin says so much of it comes down to a combination of factors well beyond anybody's control. Nature, after all, works in mysterious ways! Martin suggests travelers keep a positive attitude and be pleased with whatever wildlife they see. "Just appreciate it, it's that simple," he says.

Grizzly Bear
Spotting the Big 5 plus the Big One

They do happen once or twice a summer—those really rare days when you spot a grizzly, moose, Dall sheep, caribou and wolf, plus the summit of Denali. But they're not the norm, Martin says. Even seeing two from that list is a stellar outing—count yourself lucky!

In summer, the skies are generally clear over the Alaska Range only about 33 percent of the time—that makes your odds tricky. So while seeing the big peaks and the "Big Five" is a highlight, the park is about so much more.

"If you go on the road specifically looking for a grizzly, you probably won't find one," Martin says. "It's an incredible experience just to get out on this road, and it's the same as it's been for decades. I feel very fortunate to have this job."

Join Martin or one of his colleagues and see if you can spot the Big Five this summer.

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