Denali National Park and Preserve: The Complete Guide

View of Mount Hunter, Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

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Denali National Park and Preserve

Address
Parks Hwy, Denali National Park and Preserve, AK, USA
Phone +1 907-683-9532

Comprising 6 million acres of unfenced, untamed wilderness, Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve is roughly half the size of Switzerland with just one road traversing its breadth from east to west. Whether you stick to the road, or strike out into the unknown on foot, mountain bike, skis, or dog sled, the call of the wild awaits. From the lowland taiga forest to the alpine tundra where bears and wolves roam freely, this is nature at its most spectacular.

Things to Do 

Dramatic scenery—presided over by North America’s tallest peak—and incredible wildlife are the main attractions of Denali National Park and Preserve. How you discover them is up to you. During peak season (May 20 to mid-September), options include bus tours of varying lengths along the 92-mile Park Road, independent and guided hikes, and backcountry climbing and hiking expeditions. Bring (or rent) a mountain bike, sign up for an ATV or Jeep tour, or forge the park’s wild rivers with a canoe or whitewater raft.

The national park can also be explored from the air with flightseeing companies like Denali Summit Flight and Fly Denali (the only company with a permit to land on the park’s glaciers). Wherever your adventures take you, keep an eye out for Denali’s resident wildlife, including the Big Five (grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep). The park is also home to some domestic animals; namely, the world-famous Iditarod sled dogs. The Denali kennels are open for visits and sled dog demos in summer, and for dog sledding tours and expeditions in winter.

Other winter activities range from winter biking, skiing, and snowshoeing to gazing skyward in search of the Northern Lights. Winter season at Denali starts from September or October onwards, when the annual snows typically close the Park Road from Mile 3 onwards. 

Best Hikes & Trails

Unlike other national parks in the United States, Denali has relatively few marked trails. Most of these start from the Denali Visitor Center near the park entrance, though there are some further west: two in the Savage River area, three at Eilson Visitor Center, and one at Wonder Lake. Few of these are longer than 2 miles in length.

In truth, hiking Denali is all about off-trail exploration. This means that you can venture out in any direction you like, starting from the Park Road and finding your way back there whenever you’re ready to flag a shuttle bus home.

There are two ways to go off-trail hiking. Inexperienced hikers, or those that would like the knowledge and protection of a park ranger, may sign up to join a Discovery Hike. These ranger-led walks are offered once or twice a day from June 8 to the end of the summer season and vary in duration, distance, and difficulty. You must sign up at least a day in advance to join them. Alternatively, you may hike independently. Just remember to pack adequate food and water, weather protection, and bear spray (and know how to use it).

Denali Park Road 

The great Denali Park Road acts as an access point for all off-trail hikes, as well as a route for vehicle-based sightseeing. From May 20 to mid-September, park buses begin offering trips of varying length along the road, with the entire length only opening up to buses from June 8. There are two main types of bus: narrated buses, which offer three tours of between 4.5 to 12 hours in length; and non-narrated transit buses, which can be boarded or disembarked from at any point along the road. Both kinds stop for restroom breaks, scenic photo opportunities, and wildlife sightings.

During the summer season, private vehicles may drive the first 15 miles of the Park Road up until Savage River. These first 15 miles are paved; after that, the road is a combination of dirt and gravel. In spring (April to May 19), private vehicles are permitted up to 30 miles into the park. The exact distance depends on how much of the road has been cleared of snow. At the end of the summer season, private vehicles are also allowed to drive up to 30 miles into the park, up until the time the snow closes the road. The only time private vehicles have an opportunity to travel the length of the road is on the second weekend after Labor Day, when visitors must enter the Road Lottery to buy a special permit. 

Climbing Denali

For serious mountaineers, summiting the mountain for which the park is named is the main reason to visit. At 20,310 feet, Denali is the highest peak in North America. A summit attempt should only be undertaken by those with considerable experience climbing glaciated peaks, and knowledge of glacier travel, crevasse rescue, and camping in Arctic conditions. Peak climbing season traditionally runs from late May to early June, and expeditions take an average of 17 to 21 days in total. There are different routes to the top of Denali, with the most popular and least technical being the West Buttress.

Mountaineers can climb Denali as part of a private expedition or with one of seven authorized guide concessions. Either way, you will need to apply for a Special Use Permit, register at least 60 days ahead of your expedition start date, and attend an in-person climber orientation session at one of the park ranger stations. Registration opens for the mountaineering season on Jan. 1 each year. 

Where to Camp

  • Riley Creek: This sparsely wooded site is located at the Denali Visitor Center near the park entrance and is connected to the center’s trail hub. It has sites for tents and RVs and is the only campsite open year-round. 
  • Savage River: Located among the spruce forest at Mile 13, Savage River also welcomes tents and RVs and offers Denali views within a short walk of the campsite. It is open from May 20 to mid-September only. 
  • Sanctuary River: At Mile 22, Sanctuary River is one of the park’s smallest campgrounds with just seven sites. These cannot be booked in advance and are for tents only. The camp is accessible by park bus (not private vehicle) and opens for the summer season only. 
  • Teklanika River: Although most private vehicles must turn around at Mile 15 during the summer season, guests at Teklanika River (Mile 29) may drive their vehicle or RV to the site provided they stay for a minimum of three nights. Tent campers can stay for a shorter period. This campground is also open from May 20 to mid-September. 
  • Igloo Creek: The second of Denali’s smallest campgrounds, this Mile 35 location has seven sites and is only accessible by camper bus. It is open in summer only and cannot be booked in advance.
  • Wonder Lake: With 28 sites and spectacular Denali views, this tent-only summer campground is located at Mile 85 and offers bear-proof lockers. Bring plenty of mosquito repellent. 

Where to Stay Nearby

There are no National Park Service lodges in Denali. Instead, privately owned accommodation can be found near the park entrance or in the wilderness area at the heart of the park known as Kantishna. Our recommendations include:

  • Tonglen Lake Lodge: Situated 7 miles south of the park entrance, this four-star accommodation offers 11 private cabins and a handful of comfortable Guest House suites.
  • Aurora Denali Lodge: This two-star lodge offers single and double queen rooms and suites, as well as free breakfast and Wi-Fi. It is located in Healy, 13 miles from the park entrance. 
  • Camp Denali: 19 cabins with stunning Denali views await at this family-owned and -operated wilderness lodge in the Kantishna area. It also offers a restaurant and guided group hikes. 
  • Denali Backcountry Lodge: A luxurious option in Kantishna, this lodge has 42 private cabins, a restaurant and bar, and a spa. All meals and guided adventure activities are included. 

How to Get There

The park entrance is located at the point where the Park Road meets Alaska Highway 3 on the preserve’s eastern boundary. It is approximately three hours’ drive southwest of Fairbanks and 5.5 hours’ drive north of Anchorage. From May to September, the Park Connection Motorcoach offers a same-day coach service from Seward to Denali. Several trains also ply the route from Fairbanks (four hours) and Anchorage (eight hours). 

Accessibility

Many shuttle and tour buses have a wheelchair lift, and all buses reserve the front seat for passengers with mobility issues. You should indicate if you need these services when booking your ticket. If for any reason your mobility requirements are not met by the park buses, you may apply for a road travel permit that allows you to travel the length of the Park Road in your own vehicle. All rest stops in the park have at least one accessible bathroom, and Riley Creek campground has specifically designated accessible campsites. The park brochure is available in text-only, audio-only, and Braille formats. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • Denali National Park is open year-round.
  • Bus services run from May 20 to mid-September only.
  • Ranger-led activities typically start on May 15.
  • Summer solstice sees 20 hours of daylight in the park while winter solstice sees less than five.
  • Advance reservations are required for bus trips and most campsites. You can book online through the concessionaire website
  • Reservations can be made as early as Dec. 1 the year before your visit. 
  • Special permits are required for some activities, including backpacking and climbing Denali or Mount Foraker.
  • Visitors aged 16 or over must pay a $15 entrance fee. This buys a seven-day permit. You can pay online, or purchase at the Denali Visitor Center in summer or the Murie Science & Learning Center in winter. 
  • Annual passes are also available at $45 for up to four adults. 
  • Denali is a wilderness area, and wildlife safety is paramount. 
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Denali National Park and Preserve: The Complete Guide