Denali National Park encompasses 6 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. While there is so much beauty and life to be found in the low taiga forest and high alpine tundra, Denali Peak is the main attraction. The tallest mountain in North America towers over the rest of the park at 20,310 feet above sea level. Despite its size, Denali isn’t always visible due to cloud cover for much of the summer.
The park was originally named Mount McKinley National Park for the 1896 presidential candidate William McKinley. However, both names have been used in reference to North America’s highest peak. In 2015 the name of the mountain and surrounding national park was changed to Denali. Denali comes from the Alaskan natives and means high or tall.
With only one entrance on the eastern side, much of the park still remains wild. From the entrance a single road cuts across the park and is only accessible by bus during the summer months. Each destination along the road is referred to by the number of miles from the entrance station where the road begins. In Denali National Park, protecting wilderness areas and wildlife are a top priority. The park was the first national park created to protect wildlife as well as Alaska’s first national park.
Here are the top 10 things to do when planning a trip to Denali National Park.
With only one road in and out of the park, driving in the park is very limited. There are two options for taking the bus in the park. During the busy summer months, most of the park is only accessible by taking the transit bus. Transit buses will make various stops along the road at trailheads and other points of interest. You can board or disembark from the transit buses as you please. Transit buses are included in you park entrance fee.
Another option to see the park is via tour bus. Tour buses include the Natural History Tour, Tundra Wilderness Tour and the Kantishna Experience. These buses are driven by trained naturalists who will show you points of interest and wildlife along the way. There is no stopping for hikes of road side pickups on the tour buses. Reservations and tickets can be purchased through Doyon/Aramark Joint Venture. Purchasing tickets and bus pick-ups will happen before arriving to the park.
A great way to explore the park away from the road is by taking a hike. The majority of trails are located around the visitor center. If you don’t have a lot of time to explore Denali, choose hikes close to the visitor center. Here you still have plenty of opportunity to see wildlife including moose of beavers. Many of these trails are self-guided.
Thirteen miles down the road is the Savage River area. From here you can head out the Savage River Loop for a mellow hike along the river. Or head up the Savage Alpine Trail for a more strenuous climb and great views.
If you have a couple days to spend in the park, take shuttle to Eielson visitor center. Here there are more trails and less traffic. Off trail wilderness hiking is also an option. Before you head out, make sure you have a plan and are prepared to be out in wilderness areas. When you’re done, just come back to the main road and flag down a shuttle. Wilderness hiking is a great way to explore more since the majority of the park has no trails.
Denali has six campgrounds throughout the park, all varying distances from the park entrance. Some campgrounds accommodate tents, car and RV camping, while some are tent only. The Riley Creek Campground is closest to the visitor center and is open year-round. Sanctuary River, Igloo Creek and Wonder Lake Campground are open to tents and accessible by bus only. You can drive out to the Teklanika River Campground, but if you choose to drive there is a three-night minimum stay.
Reservations can be made ahead of time through recreation.gov though are not necessary depending on the time of year you wish to camp. None of the campgrounds have hookups for RVs.
Denali unique in that it is the only national park with sled dogs. These dogs do demonstrations throughout the summer and work throughout the winter. In the summer you can see how the dogs are harnessed and mushed, and learn about how the puppies are raised. You will have the opportunity to hold and pet the sled dog pups.
Over the winter the dogs are put to work out in the wilderness. If you come during the winter don’t expect the visitor area to be open and the dogs to be around. Oftentimes the sled teams go out on multi-night trips.
Under no circumstances are you allowed to bring an outside pet in. Please leave your dog behind, or don’t visit the kennels if you do bring your dog. You can drive to the kennels in the winter, but best to take the bus in the summer. Parking is very limited at the kennels.