Denali National Park is one of my favorite destinations in Alaska for guaranteed beautiful scenery and great opportunities to see wildlife. I recommend setting aside at least 2 full days in the park during your visit.
Mt McKinley National Park (as it was originally named) was established in 1917 thanks to Charles Sheldon and Harry Karstens. The two men lobbied congress to create the world’s first national park with a focus on wildlife conservation. They were troubled by over-hunting in the area and sought to protect the wildlife. There were efforts from the beginning to name the park Denali to honor the Athabascan word for the tallest mountain in North America. It was not until 1980 that the park’s name was changed to Denali National Park and Preserve. With the addition of the preserve, the size of the protected area increased from just over 2 million acres to more than 6 million. Repeated efforts to rename the mountain itself failed until Mt McKinley was officially changed to Denali which means “tall one” in 2015 thanks to the work of Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
Denali National Park is on the George Parks Highway about 120 miles south of Fairbanks and 240 miles north of Anchorage. The most convenient way to get there is by car–more on that later. There is a train depot near the Denali entrance. Unless you’re traveling with a tour company you’ll have to arrange your own transportation from there.
The only lodging inside the park is 6 campgrounds and a few independently operated lodges on privately owned land in the Kantishna area of the park all the way at the end of the 92 mile Denali Park Road. There is a landing strip there so the area can be reached by plane as well as bus. Some campgrounds allow tents and RVs (but no hook-ups), others are tent only. Backcountry camping is also available by permit.
Most lodging is located outside the park. There are several hotels just outside the park entrance in the area known as “Glitter Gulch.” Many of these hotels cater to the cruise tour crowd but are available for anyone to book if there is availability. More lodging can be found in Healy which is 11 miles north of the park on the George Parks Highway and other lodging several miles south. This is where having your own vehicle gives you much more flexibility.
There are only a handful of established hiking trails in Denali. Most of these are near the park entrance and include Mt Healy, Horseshoe Lake, McKinley Station, Savage River, and Triple Lakes Trails. Most hiking in Denali is trail-less. This can be pretty intimidating at first. One great option is to sign up for a Discovery Hike at the visitor’s center when you arrive. This is a back-country hike guided by a ranger. It’s a great opportunity to experience back-country hiking without the worry of getting lost. The above photo was taken on a Discovery Hike. We were hiking around mile 57 on the park road and that was the view from our lunch spot–not bad!
Denali Park Road
At the time of this posting, Denali Park Road is closed at mile 43 due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide in the Polychrome Pass area of the park. Read more about the landslide and the proposed solution on the national park’s website. The below information is an overview of the road system during normal operations.
Unlike most national parks you can’t drive yourself around Denali. Denali has one road into the park that runs 92 miles from the park entrance to the west toward Wonder Lake and Kantishna. The first 15 miles of the road is paved and open to private vehicle traffic. There is a bus system to carry visitors into the park past mile 15. The bus system seems to cause a lot of confusion because, well it is confusing. Hopefully, this will make it a little clearer.
There are three types of buses:
- Tour buses-The tours offered vary from 5 hours to 12 hours. The drivers on these bus tours are naturalists who also narrate the tour. The drivers will stop for wildlife sightings and have frequent rest stops. You stay with your group for the entire tour.
- Transit buses-The buses can be taken as far as Wonder Lake but if you’re not up to a 12 hour day there are shorter options. The transit bus drivers are not required to narrate. However, in my experience, most will give some information about the park during the drive but some are chattier than others. They will stop for wildlife sightings and have frequent rest stops. These buses allow passengers to get off the bus to hike anywhere along the road. Passengers can then get back on another bus as long as seats are available. I recommend the transit buses over the tour buses as they allow the most flexibility. You’re free to get off the bus if you’d like or you can stay on the same bus for the entire trip.
- Camper buses-These are only for backcountry campers or those with campground reservations.
Sled Dog Kennels
Denali is the only national park with working sled dogs. Rangers use sled dogs to patrol the park during the wintertime. You can visit the kennels during your visit and watch a sled dog demonstration.
Denali is a great place to see wildlife. During your bus ride, you’ll be watching for the big five–Dall sheep, caribou, moose, bears, and wolves.
See the Mountain
If you are lucky, you will join the 30% club! Only about a third of visitors to the park will have the opportunity to see Denali. The mountain is so big it makes its own weather and even on clear days, the peak may be obscured. There are several viewpoints along the Denali Park Road to view Denali if it is out from behind the clouds.
What questions or tips do you have about visiting Denali? Please leave them in the comments below.