The Best Time to Visit Denali National Park

Northern lights over the snowy mountains of Denali National Park

Daniel A. Leifheit / Getty Images

Incorporating 6 million acres of spectacular wilderness, Denali National Park and Preserve represents the final frontier for nature lovers and outdoors people wishing to experience America in all its untamed glory. It’s possible to visit all year round, however, different seasons yield very different experiences in the Alaskan backcountry. For many people, the best time to visit Denali is during peak season, from May 20 to mid-September. From May 20, buses begin offering tours along the 92-mile Denali Park Road—the only access route for vehicle-based sightseeing and off-trail hiking and other adventures. The park’s main visitor center is also open daily during the peak season, the weather is at its warmest, and wildlife is most active and easiest to spot. 

Outside these dates, ranger-led activities, visitor center opening hours, and Denali Park Road access are all limited, closing down completely for the winter season (September or October through to April, depending on when the winter snows set in). Nevertheless, hardy adventurers will still find plenty to do in Denali even in the coldest season, which is also the only time of year for certain activities including dog sledding, skiing, snowshoeing, winter biking, and of course, admiring the Northern Lights. You’ll also have far fewer crowds to contend with if you travel outside peak season, while the shoulder seasons offer some leeway for exploring the park road independently. Read on to decide which is the best time for you to visit Denali National Park.

Weather in Denali National Park

Denali National Park is divided by the Alaska Range, and on either side of the mountains, a different climate exists. The southern section of the park sees milder temperatures, more rain, and less noticeable differences between the seasons. To the north of the Alaska Range, the weather is typically more extreme, with very warm summers and bitterly cold winters. Overall, this section of the park sees considerably less rain. As a general guide, weather data collected at Denali Park Headquarters show that January is the coldest month with an average temperature of 2.2 degrees F, while July is the hottest with an average temperature of 55.5 degrees F. July is also the wettest month (3.12 inches of precipitation), April is the driest (0.43 inches), November sees the most snowfall, and the snow is at its deepest in March. 

Tent camping at the wonder lake campground in Denali National Park. Denali is seen at back. Taken under the "midnight sun."
Brett Maurer / Getty Images

Spring in Denali

Spring is a fleeting season in Denali National Park, with landscapes swapping their winter browns for vibrant greens in a matter of days. In terms of seasonal activities, spring is defined as April to May 19. However, the extent to which Denali Park Road is accessible at this time is determined largely by the weather and whether or not a late snow dump occurs. Plowing begins in March, and most years, visitors can explore up to 30 miles of the park road in their own vehicles before the summer bus tours begin.

Although you can travel less of the road at this time of year, the fact that there are far fewer vehicles and people make this a worthwhile compromise for many visitors. Note that ranger-led activities do not start until May 15 and the snow is no longer deep enough for winter activities. On the plus side, there are far fewer mosquitoes in the park now than there will be in a few weeks’ time. 

Summer in Denali

Summer, classified as May 20 through to mid-September, is peak season in Denali National Park and the time when most people choose to visit. This is because the sightseeing buses that ply Denali Park Road only operate during this time, with the entire 92-mile road open by June 8. That's also the date when all the park campgrounds are open.

In summer, the main visitor center opens every day and offers a plethora of ranger-led activities. These include guided trail hikes and expeditions into the backcountry for those that lack the experience, confidence, or equipment to strike out on their own. This is also the greenest time in the park, with wildflowers blooming from early June until mid-to-late July. Most importantly for many people, summer is also the best time for viewing the animals of Denali, which are seen out and about as they forage for food to get them through the long winter.

Summer does have its downsides, though, including a high number of tourists. This can lead to congestion on the park road and makes advance booking essential for campgrounds, bus tours, and other activities. Mosquitoes are also most abundant between June and August, so don’t forget your insect repellent; while wet weather gear is key for enjoying Denali during the rainiest time of year. 

Panorama of Dall sheep rams on a mountain summit in Denali National Park in fall with snowy mountains in the background
Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images

Fall in Denali 

Like spring, fall is brief but beautiful, lasting from mid-September until the snow is deep enough to make the park road impassable. Bear in mind that snow can arrive as early as July or August in Denali, but usually melts away again until late September or October when it starts to accumulate. During this brief window between the bus service stopping and the road closing, visitors may explore up to 30 miles into the park in their own vehicle. It’s a great time to experience Denali’s beauty without the summer crowds, and especially for photographers to capture the fleeting but vibrant fall colors of the tundra. It’s also possible to spot the Northern Lights at this time of year. Of course, daylight hours diminish rapidly and you’ll need to pack plenty of warm clothing. The campgrounds are closed during this time, so you’ll need to find alternative accommodation near the park entrance or in the Kantishna wilderness area. 

Events to check out:

  • Fall Road Lottery: Every year in May, applications are accepted for the annual Road Lottery event, which takes place during the second weekend after Labor Day. On this day, and this day only, lottery winners are permitted to drive their own vehicle as far along the park road as weather allows. 

Winter in Denali

Winter in Denali National Park lasts from whenever the snow closes the road in September or October, through to April. Defined by harsh weather and limited daylight hours (we’re talking less than five hours in mid-December), this season is not for the faint of heart; and yet it can also be one of the most beautiful times to visit. Typically, the park road is closed from Mile 3 onwards until late February or early March, when the snowplows begin to clear the road for spring. When this happens, visitors can sometimes drive their own vehicles as far as Mile 13, although it’s always best to check the latest weather conditions before planning any road-based adventures.

Alternatively, winter is the only time of year for specialist activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog mushing, sledding expeditions, and winter biking. The main visitor center and all ranger activities are closed, but the winter visitor center is open daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. 

Events to check out:

  • Winterfest: Every February, the three-day Winterfest celebration comes to Denali National Park, bringing with it all kinds of festivities including live music, ski races, snow sculpture competitions, dog sled rides, and much more. The exact schedule and line-up vary from year to year.
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