Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, is the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve. This immense mountain is so tall that it creates its own weather. At its summit, Denali is 20,310 feet high, which means that it can block weather systems and cause rain or snow to fall on and near the mountain. Even though it is surrounded by other peaks in the Alaska Range, Denali stands out because of its sheer size. It's no wonder that people travel to Alaska from around the world just to get a glimpse of this magnificent, snow-covered mountain.
How to Get to Denali
Traveling to Denali National Park and Preserve is a serious undertaking, whether you visit with a tour group or go on your own. The park entrance is 240 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks. Lodging options are both limited and popular, so you will have to make reservations well in advance. You will need to bring supplies with you, as there is only one store in the park. Weather conditions can change rapidly, too.
If you prefer not to travel with a tour group, you can drive, fly or take the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park. Many visitors, however, opt to visit Denali with a tour group so that they do not have to worry about making lodging and bus reservations or driving from Anchorage or Fairbanks to the park entrance.
If you visit Denali National Park and Preserve with a tour group, you will stay either in a hotel outside the park entrance or at one of the four privately-owned lodges that operate in the park. Should you choose to visit Denali on your own, you can book a room inside or outside the park or reserve a campsite at one of the six campgrounds in the park.
Getting to Denali National Park and Preserve
There is only one road inside Denali National Park and Preserve. It is 92 miles long and connects the Denali Visitor Center with Kantishna, a former mining town. Along the Park Road, you'll find nature centers, scenic overlooks and campgrounds. You won't find restaurants, grocery stores or gas stations, and you also won't see privately-owned vehicles past mile post 15 during the summer months. Instead, you will see buses traveling the Park Road, taking visitors to and from campgrounds, hiking trails, historic sites and the park's sled dog kennels.
Once you get a glimpse of the Park Road, you may be thankful that you are not allowed to drive on it. The road is unpaved past Mile 15, and it has no guard rails. The road winds up and down through mountain passes. Park buses pass each other at the maximum speed of 20 miles per hour, kicking up clouds of dust that drift through windows and irritate throats. It takes about six hours to cover the entire Park Road.
And it's worth every bump and bounce.
Things to See in Denali National Park and Preserve
On a good day, the views of Denali – "the mountain" to locals – are spectacular. About 70 percent of the time, the views are disappointing, as the mountain is shrouded in clouds. If possible, plan to spend a night in or near the park so that you will have a better chance of seeing Denali.
Even if you can't get a glimpse of the mountain, spending time in Denali National Park and Preserve is an unforgettable experience. You have a very good chance of seeing grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, willow ptarmigans and other animals as you journey along the Park Road and explore the backcountry. You can hike up pristine mountain slopes or follow an established trail, eating delicious berries along the way. If you spend a night in or near the park in late summer or autumn, you will probably be able to view the Northern Lights.
Denali Park Buses
There are three types of buses that operate in the park. Tour buses follow an established route and allow for stops along the way. Tours are narrated by a certified driver/guide. Shuttle buses take you from one point in the park to another; you can get off one shuttle bus at any point on the route, stay a while and then take a different bus back to the park entrance. Camper buses ferry tent campers between the park entrance and Denali's six campgrounds. You can buy bus tickets in advance or at the park.
Explore Denali National Park and Preserve
There's something about Alaska that gets into your heart and won't leave. Nowhere is this more true than in Denali National Park and Preserve. Much of the park is true wilderness; there are no established trails and park visitors must move away from wild animals so that the animals do not become accustomed to interacting with humans. You can hear stream waters rushing over rocks and feel the cool breeze on your face as you explore. At night, the Milky Way is so close you can practically reach up and touch it.
If you, like many visitors to Denali, are taking a guided tour of the park, your tour operator will organize your itinerary and arrange for transportation. There are several places to stop for restroom breaks and photo opportunities along the Park Road. You won't have to worry about buying tickets or checking bus schedules. You can just sit back and enjoy the views.
Denali Transportation Options
If you are traveling on your own, consider taking a shuttle bus to Wonder Lake (pictured) for a spectacular view of the mountain. You'll need to get an early start; the last shuttle bus out of the park leaves Wonder Lake at 3:55 p. m., which means you will need to catch one of the buses that leaves at or before 8:45 a. m. in order to have enough time at Wonder Lake to take photographs and explore. The round trip price for the trip to / from Wonder Lake is $46.75 for adults, plus the $10.00 park entrance fee, which is good for seven days. Shorter shuttle bus trips are also available.
During the summer months, the National Park Service offers three narrated tours. The Natural History Tour ($77 for adults) lasts 4.5 hours and goes to mile post 17 and Primrose Ridge. The Tundra Wilderness Tour ($130.25) takes you to the Toklat River at mile post 55 and lasts 8 hours. The 12-hour Kantishna Experience Tour ($194.00) goes all the way to the end of the Park Road. Kantishna, once a thriving gold mining town, is several miles past Wonder Lake. You can visit the cabin that once belonged to famed miner and pioneer Fannie Quigley, view mine tailings piled up next to Friday Creek and hike wherever you wish.
If you prefer to drive your own vehicle, you will be allowed to take it to Mile 15 during the summer months and to Mile 30, road conditions permitting, during the spring and autumn months. The Park Road is narrow, unpaved and potentially hazardous, so you should carry a full-sized spare tire and fill your gas tank before you enter the park.
You can also hike, bike and take flightseeing tours in Denali National Park and Preserve.
Whichever sightseeing option you choose, you won't be sorry that you came to Denali. Even if you can't see the mountain clearly, you will have the opportunity to explore a pristine preserve, view wild animals in their natural habitat, stargaze and take photos in this unique national park.
If You Go
Mile 237, Highway 3
Denali Park, AK 99755
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