Of all Alaska national parks, Denali is perhaps the most famous. While other parks may be equals as far as scenery and wildlife, Denali National Park, located five hours north of Anchorage and two hours south of Fairbanks, offers visitors something special.
Making up six million acres of forest, tundra, and rugged mountains, Denali National Park and Preserve is bisected by one slim stretch of road that begins near a little village of Park Service-owned facilities just for visitors.
This entrance area, at mile one of 92, bustles from May to September as thousands of eager tourists, backcountry explorers, and outdoor education-seekers descend upon the parking lots. Some arrive in RVs, some with backpacks and small cars, and still others as part of guided tours. But no matter how they got to the park, everyone has the same goal: to explore as much as they are able.
Most Denali National Park visitors make plans for seeing the area via the 92-mile Park Road, usually because they read they should, and yes, driving to the shores of Wonder Lake is an experience that screams "Alaska." Unlike the entrance area, views of Denali herself are visible from the road; wildlife are often spotted hunting and foraging in miles of open tundra; crowds are definitely fewer.
The Denali Park Road is not accessible via private vehicle unless one has reservations at one of the campgrounds beyond Mile 15 (Savage River).
This means park visitors must access one of the shuttles operated by park concessioners or private entities. Shuttles are glorified school buses and certainly light on comforts, but people bring coolers of food and a good attitude, and all goes well for the six or eight or nine hours they'll be part of a swaying, grinding trip along a dirt road.
For parents, particularly, this can be a difficult day with little opportunity to step on and off the bus with children. For those with health concerns, it can be an uncomfortable trip that leaves one wanting a massage upon arrival back at the visitor center.
Are there other options? Yes.
Explore Other Avenues of Touring
Stick to the entrance area. With 15 miles of roadway and nearly endless opportunities to hike, bicycle, and learn more about Denali National Park, the entrance area is entertaining without making one think he or she is "missing out" on the Denali experience. True, you won't see the mountain, but you will see the only working sled dog team operated by the Park Service, a science and nature center, miles of trails, and likely, plenty of wildlife. GoTip: Drive or take a free shuttle to Savage River and hike the canyon or up Savage Rock for stunning views, wildflowers, and peaceful feelings. Look for bears and caribou near the river, too. Visit the old trapper's cabin near the Savage campground, or wander the easy trails nearby.
Take a shorter tour. A nice compromise are the guided naturalist bus tours offered by park rangers, the shortest being a Denali history tour of 4.5-5 hours.
Traveling to Mile 17 (Primrose Ridge), this tour is an excellent overview of the park, wildlife, history, and some flora and fauna. It also includes the Savage Cabin and a bit of time to walk around. Pricing varies, so check the website for ticket information. GoTip: Reserve early!
Ride a bike. Especially in the earlier and later months of Denali National Park's seasons (spring/fall), biking the road is a great way to take your time and explore with a closer look at the park itself. GoTip: Take your bike (mountain bikes are the way to go) on the Savage Shuttle to avoid riding the first 15 miles of crowded, busy roadway. GoTip: Wear a helmet and gloves, bring bug spray, bear spray, water and food, and heed all cars and buses traveling near you. If you've got a sense of adventure, this is the way to go.
Go guided. Denali's entrance area is full of self-guided and ranger-led hikes that anyone can do. Wide trails, beautiful interpretive signs, and plenty of solitude is available as well. Camping? Make sure to check the daily bulletin for evening programs.
Learn something new. Three facilities are accessible to entrance area visitors, and all three provide a unique look at Denali National Park. The Wilderness Access Center (or WAC) is the place to arrange a shuttle bus tour, pick up maps, permits, and campground reservations. It's also a great place to rub shoulders with people heading out to Denali's backcountry. The Denali Visitor Center is part museum, part information center, and it is here one should plan to spend a few hours browsing the facility's interpretive exhibits, activities, and fueling up for a day ahead in the cafe. It is also a short distance from the Alaska Railroad's depot. The Murie Science and Learning Center offers small-group and individual courses throughout the summer and winter and is the headquarters between October and May. Stop by here for truly science-based information, a bookstore, cozy woodstove, and great activities for nature-themed courses ranging from dinosaurs to wildflowers.
Fly high. Looking for something truly unforgettable? Take a flightseeing tour of Denali and view this amazing park from the air. Local air taxi and flightseeing services will take your part up and around the flanks of mighty Denali, and zoom along the riverbeds where you might see caribou, moose, wolves, or bears. You might be able to land on a glacier, too. GoTip: Last-minute cancellations do happen, so if you haven't reserved your spot early (recommended), call and see if anyone else didn't show up.