Guide to Exploring Denali National Park and Preserve

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Overview

At six million acres—nearly the size of Massachusetts—Denali National Park is one of nature’s crown jewels. Ranging from taiga to tundra, this Alaskan park boasts North America’s highest peak, Denali, at 20,310’. You may remember a mountain called Mt. McKinley – its name was officially changed to Denali to reflect the Native name on the NPS’s 100th anniversary.

Denali National Park is for those adventurous hearts who are looking to experience wildlife and nature at the highest levels. With only one road and one road entrance, there is plenty of opportunity for exploring this pristine and untouched countryside wherever and however you choose.

 

Getting there

To visit the park, fly into Fairbanks or Anchorage. From either location, you can rent a car, book a bus trip, or hop on the Alaska Railroad. From Fairbanks, Denali is three hours by car, four by train. From Anchorage, it’s a little over five hours by car, eight hours by train.

Once you arrive at the park, there are a few options for exploring. There is only one road through the park—Park Road. It starts at the entrance and heads west for 92 miles. In summer, private vehicles can travel the first 15 miles of the road to Savage River. A free shuttle will also take you as far as Savage River. After that point, visitors must board a bus to see the rest of the park. The transit bus provides a hop on, hop off experience, but if you want more of a sightseeing guided tour, opt for the narrated tour bus. Reservations can be made in advance.

 

The main sights

For information about the park and its history, check out the Denali Visitor Center, Murie Science and Learning Center, and Eielson Visitor Center. In the summer, staff run nature programs and other activities for visitors to learn about the park. All are located off Park Road.

Located at Mile 85, Wonder Lake is a must-see part of the park. It offers iconic views of Denali and the towering mountain range, all reflected in the lake’s surface. If you want to see the beautiful fall colors, visit during mid-August.

Each year, the park breeds or adopts one litter of sled dogs. If you’re visiting between June and September, you can watch a sled dog demonstration and meet the Alaskan huskies, as well as tour the park’s kennels. A free bus from the Denali Visitor Center will take you there.

Denali National Park was designed to give visitors an opportunity to explore the untouched wilderness, so there are very few hiking trails. For off-trail hiking in the park, the free shuttle will drop you off at any location along the main road. When you’re finished, just hike back to the road and hail the shuttle to pick you up.

The limited marked trails are less than two miles long and are located near the park entrance and Denali Visitor Center. Horseshoe Lake Trail at Mile 1 of Park Road is a two mile round trip trail that affords views of lake and undisturbed wilderness. For a flat and easy hike, Savage River Loop is 1.7 miles and follows the Savage River between Mount Margaret and Healy Ridge. In addition to hiking, backpacking, and sightseeing, visitors can bike along Park Road to view the park at their leisure.

It’s easy to experience wildlife from the bus, so no need to go off-roading if that’s not your thing. You’ll still get to see plenty of wildlife in their natural habitats, like moose, caribou, wolf, sheep, and even grizzly bears.

If you don’t have time for the bus tour, flightseeing aboard a plane or helicopter will allow you to see an overview of the park—and from a perspective most people don’t get to see.

When to go

Mid-May through mid-September is peak season. The shuttles and other amenities will be fully operational. The weather is better and offers ample opportunities for wildlife viewing and other outdoor activities like hiking, biking, backpacking, and rafting.

During spring and summer, flightseeing tours with a ski-equipped airplane can land atop glaciers, providing a dramatic view of the surrounding mountain vista.

In the winter, Denali is a great location for viewing the northern lights, as well as for winter activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Most of the visitor services will be closed, however. And be prepared to deal with the elements and handle extreme weather conditions.

Where to stay

There are six campgrounds in Denali, but no lodging run by the National Park Service. Some campgrounds are tent-only and some also allow RVs. Reserve them in advance to make sure you have a spot.

Kantishna, located at the end of Park Road, has all-inclusive privately owned lodges. They provide amenities and activities right at the base of the mountains. Other hotels and accommodations are located near the park entrance.

Whether you choose to stay inside or outside of the park depends on the kind of experience you want to have. If you don’t mind crowds and want to be closer to shopping, dining, and other tourist amenities, then stay near the park entrance. Denali Bluffs Hotel, Denali Grizzly Bear Resort, and Grande Denali Lodge are some options.

If you want more of a remote nature experience, then stay in Kantishna. You won’t have to worry about catching the last shuttle of the day, and you’ll be up close and personal with some of the best views Denali has to offer. But, be prepared—it’s 5-6 hours by bus each way on Park Road and is more expensive (although these prices are all-inclusive). Kantishna Roadhouse, Camp Denali, and Skyline Lodge are a few places to choose from.

Where to eat and imbibe

Prospectors Pizzeria & Alehouse offers dozens of pizza options and over 50 kinds of beer on tap from local Alaskan breweries.

Denali Park Salmon Bake is open 24/7 and has a free shuttle. It’s located one mile from the park and offers local food in an authentic Alaskan experience.

Black Bear Coffee House is a popular brunch and dinner spot with local coffee and vegan/gluten-free options. It was voted “Best Coffee Shop in Alaska” by Food Network online. It’s open mid-May through mid-September.

49th State Brewing Company offers food and beer as unique as its namesake state. Try a yak burger or buffalo meatloaf with their award-winning Golden Dahl beer. The brewery also hosts events like the 2-day Solstice Brewfest festival and Augtoberfest (their version of Oktoberfest).

Ready to hit the trail?

Elevate your Denali National Park experience with Northern Lights Hash Rosin Cartridge

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