Named for Mount Denali, the massive peak that often taunts visitors by hiding her head in cloud cover, Denali National Park doubles as an immersion course in the cultures, landscape and wildlife of interior Alaska.
Along with Denali herself, a 20,310-foot stunner swaddled in snow and ice, the 4.74 million-acre park houses many of the Alaska Range's other famed mountains, including Mounts Foraker and Hunter. You'll also take in braided rivers carving out new paths, glaciers and wildlife: Bears (both black and grizzly), caribou, Dall sheep, moose and wolves roam these wild acres, as do 160 species of birds, including regal bald eagles, northern hawk owls and Swainson's thrushes.
Denali is no tame Disneyfied experience; your first bear sighting will zap any notion of that. Yet, no matter your level of comfort in the great outdoors, you'll find your place here. With about 600,000 visitors in 2019, it's easily the most accessible of Alaska's eight national parks, with its entrance on the George Parks Highway (AK Highway 3). Once there, you can walk an easy, wheelchair-accessible trail to learn about Denali's plant life, then grab a sandwich at the in-park restaurant and board a repurposed school bus to see the sights on a guided tour. There's also plenty to do if you're eager for more vigorous outdoor adventures.
Location: Denali Park, Alaska
Acreage: 4,740,091 acres
Highest peak: Mount Denali, 20,310 feet (North America's highest point)
Lowest point: The Yentna River, 223 feet
Miles/number of trails: 38 miles along 21 trails (most Denali hiking is off-trail)
Main attraction: Grizzly bears in the wild
Entry fee: $15 per person, valid for one week
Best way to see it: A guided bus tour, as well as hikes (some ranger-led)
Best time to go: Early September
Plan Your Trip
Thanks to Alaska's intense winter weather, park services are only fully open from May 20 to mid-September each year. The state's weather is famously changeable, too, so be prepared for just about anything from May through August, from hot sun to rain and wind. Don't think of rain or a slight chill as bad weather; it's just part of being in Alaska. Layer up and head out anyway — it's the Alaskan way. While early September can already have the cool snap of winter (and, possibly, snow) in the air, it's a perfect time to visit the park. The tundra goes brilliant with color and the crowds calm a bit. You also stand a good chance of seeing the northern lights.
Some cruise visitors tack on a land portion to their voyage to visit the state's two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, and Denali, nestled between them. There's nothing wrong with that; it makes for easy planning. But if you visit on your own, you have the benefit of flexibility and the ability to choose more unusual adventures — perhaps flightseeing in a tiny plane or strapping on crampons to hike a glacier.
If you go it alone, rent a car or RV in Anchorage or Fairbanks. While the 120-mile drive south from Fairbanks is shorter than the 237-mile journey north from Anchorage, the small towns and odd sights along the way make the latter a more entertaining option. Or book a ticket to the park on the photo-worthy blue and yellow cars of the Alaska Railroad. One of the train's charms: You can snap photos without having to pull over and stop your car. The downside? You lose flexibility in getting around the area outside of the park once you've arrived.
Pro tip if you drive: Pad your on-the-road plan with extra hours. At times, Alaskan summers make for a painfully slow combination of RV traffic, road construction and, sometimes, accidents. Bring snacks and drinks in case of delays. Also, whether you visit by car or train, make your Denali reservations (reservedenali.com) as early as possible. Bus tours, campsites, hotel rooms and rental cars book up quick.
There's just one entrance off the George Parks Highway into the park and only one road goes through it, the 92-mile Denali Park Road. But visitors aren't allowed to drive the road beyond the first 15 miles — and, when riding a park bus in, you'll realize why. The two-way, at-times-narrow road winds high up into the mountains, making for plenty of blind spots and nerve-racking navigation.
There are buses for day tours and for hikers, as well as private buses that transport guests to lodges. (The buses stop at visitor centers and other areas for pit-toilet pit stops.) If you have calls to make, don't wait. Cell service ceases three miles into the park.
You'll find most visitors’ services, including the cafeteria and gift shop, in Denali's entrance area. The two large visitor centers — the Denali Visitor Center (the main one; mile 1.5) and Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66) — are only open during the summer season. During winter, the Murie Science and Learning Center (mile 1.4) doubles as the only open visitor center.
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Where to Stay and Eat
Lodging options in and around Denali serve up every version you can imagine of the word rustic. At Camp Denali, one of the park's oldest lodges (open since 1952), 19 cabins dot a hillside near the end of the park road. At $655 per night per person, the all-inclusive property that sees lots of repeat visitors doesn't come cheap, but don't expect anything overly cushy. Every cabin has its own outhouse (each with an amazing view) and guests share a shower house. From the moment a staffer picks you up at the park entrance, however, you're taken care of, including hearty family meals and naturalist-led hikes.
Other highly-regarded in-park lodges include the Denali Backcountry Lodge and Kantishna Roadhouse.
The Crow's Nest Alaskan Log Cabins sit on a mountain overlooking Glitter Gulch, the busy area just outside the park entrance that's loaded with gift shops, hit-or-miss restaurants and a top-notch coffee shop you'll miss back home. These rustic-style cabins come with full bathrooms and hot tubs. Another nice perk: The property will lend you a Go-Pro camera.
Six campgrounds ($15 to $46 per night in summer, free in the frigid winter) pepper the park road from mile 0.25 to mile 85, in pleasant settings ranging from forests to riversides. Three are open to tents and RVs; the others, tents only. You can drive to the Riley Creek, Savage River and Teklanika River campgrounds, but the others are accessible only by bus. Riley Creek gets somewhat busy since it's at the start of the road, but its sites are nicely spaced out. At the other end of the road (mile 85), you'll find Wonder Lake, a 28-site campground with the best view of Denali (and some fierce mosquitos).
Most of the campgrounds have pit or vault toilets and a few have flush toilets during the summer season. Only Riley offers showers. None of Denali's campgrounds offer electric or water hookups, but Riley does have a dump/fill station and a general store.
Much of the park is open to backcountry camping, as well.
No matter which campground you choose, keep your food and scented items in your car or food lockers, if available. Remember, you're in bear country.
When you're hungry, the park's cafeteria serves sturdy fare — everything from salads to pizzas — and snacks to go (good to grab if you're taking a full-day bus tour). At the Black Bear Coffee House in Glitter Gulch, the lines are long but worth standing in for the baked goods (try the scones), breakfast burritos, salads and coffee.
Things to Do
Hop on a bus. See Denali the easy way, on one of three bus tours. The Denali Natural History Tour runs about five hours and focuses on the park's culture and geographic history. On the eight-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour, you may see bears, caribou, moose and more. Ask your driver why the brown bears look kind of blond. Go deep into the history of Interior Alaska and the gold rush on the 12-hour Kantishna Experience Tour, which takes you the entire 92 miles of the road (and back). One advantage of the two longer tours: a view of Polychrome Mountain (mile 45.8). Made of volcanic rocks, the mountain explodes with colors you won't quite believe. Yes, you're seeing blue on a mountain. Operated by a concessionaire, the tours’ starting points vary. Rider tip: Don't be shy if you spot an animal off in the distance. Yell out the location; you'll be the bus hero.
Hike. Get some tundra under your feet on any of Denali's 21 marked trails. Most are two miles or less and start close to the park entrance. They range in difficulty but there's a hike for every ability.
"A really good one that is very, very, very flat is the Mountain Vista Trail,” says Tyler Devine, a Denali National Park Service guide. “It's six-tenths of a mile that you're walking through big open tundra. There is taiga forest that you're going through, as well.” The six-feet-wide loop trail begins at the Mountain Vista Rest Area (mile 12). Restrooms are available.
For something slightly more challenging, Devine recommends the Horseshoe Lake Trail, a two-mile round trip hike around the lake with a short uphill section that leads to a bench. Some trail sections go up to a 20 percent grade, making it difficult for people with mobility issues. To get to the trail, take the 0.9-mile gravel Taiga Trail from the main visitor center.
For an even more strenuous hike, set out on Mount Healy Overlook Trail, a steep and often rough 4.5-mile trek that takes you above the treeline for a view of hills that seem to go on forever. It starts near the main visitor center.
You could also opt for a ranger-led discovery hike in backcountry — in park parlance, a “disco hike” — to get a true sense of an Alaskan adventure. You could see a bear ambling along in the distance or a moose and its calf standing in a lake. Sign up two days in advance at the main visitor center. Be sure to ask about difficulty levels; some hikes stay closer to the road while others cross rivers or include elevation gain of more than 1,000 feet.
Meet the mushing dogs. At Denali's kennels, three miles inside the park, visitors can watch mushing demonstrations three times a day from June 1 to Sept. 1. You won't do any dog mushing yourself but you'll see how the dog handlers and their four-legged team members work together. To get there, take the free park bus or hike from the main visitor center on the Roadside or Rock Creek trails.
Bike. If you're a cyclist, you can pedal the entire Denali Park Road, but be prepared for lots of ups and downs, and watch out for wildlife. (Before you set out, read up on staying safe in bear country). Rent a bike and other equipment at Bike Denali. Hit the road when it first opens in the spring and you'll have fewer buses whizzing by you.
Learn. Go deep on a park topic with the three-day field courses offered in Denali each summer by Alaska Geographic (AG), the education and fundraising arm of the state's national parks. The organization posts course offerings on its website in mid-December for the following summer. Among past topics: bears, birds of Denali and paleontology. The courses, which include housing, usually in semipermanent tents, guided hikes and all meals, are an incredible deal at $360 for AG members and $400 for nonmembers. Pay attention to the physical requirements; some courses involve many miles daily over challenging terrain.
Cantwell sits 28 miles south of Denali's entrance and serves up one of the best photo opps outside the park — a giant concrete igloo (a hotel that never opened). Everybody takes a photo to show friends back home. It's delightfully strange.
One of the town's top spots to eat: McKinley Creekside Café. Make your way there for one of the massive cinnamon rolls — they're worth whatever sugar-crash nap you'll need later in the day. Its breakfast skillets will keep you satisfied for hours. Try the reindeer sausage, an Alaskan specialty.
The café is affiliated with McKinley Creekside cabins, a favorite go-to for many Anchorage residents needing a break from the city. From small cabins perfect for one person or a couple to larger family ones, the accommodations are comfortable, clean and fairly priced. You'll like their setting along Carlo Creek, surrounded by mountains.
Healy lies 11 miles north of the park entrance. A coal mining town that sprang up in 1918, it's now closely aligned with the park and tourism. The recently remodeled 49th State Brewing Company serves up plenty of fun in the beer garden — play some boccie or horseshoes while tasting beers both traditional (the chocolatey portage porter) and very Alaskan (the aromatic Spruceplosion, an IPA flavored with Sitka spruce tips). When you get hungry, order the baked mac ‘n’ cheese with crab meat, ridiculously decadent. If you're a fan of author Jon Krakauer, snap a photo or two of yourself in a replica of the famed bus from his 1996 nonfiction work, Into the Wild.
Also in Healy, don't miss one of Alaska's best restaurants. Home base for former Top Chef contestant Laura Cole, 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern was hand built by Cole's husband (with a little help from his friends) as a love letter to his wife. Her dishes, such as reindeer ragu with house-made goat ricotta, touch every sense through beautiful plating and deep flavors.
After dinner, retire to one of the 13 cabins at EarthSong Lodge. They're so very Alaska — everything you need but nothing excessive. While small groups appreciate the extra space in the two family cabins, the single-room standard ones are cozy, cheery little spaces.
It takes less than five hours to drive from Anchorage to Denali, but why rush? Stretch it out for a few days with fun stops along the way, especially in summer and its abundant sunlight.
Just 60 miles north of Anchorage, do some hiking at Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountain range and explore Independence Mine, a former gold mine. Overnight in a tiny red cabin at Hatcher Pass Lodge, where the view of the mountains and a seemingly endless sky from the lodge's massive windows will wow you. If you're in the area in August, keep an eye open for blueberries and bears. They go together.
The next day, detour off the Parks Highway again and head 14 miles down the Talkeetna Spur Road for a taste of one of South Central Alaska's most interesting little towns (and one of the best from-the-road views of Mount Denali anywhere along the way). Equal parts outdoorsy, artsy and Alaska quirky, Talkeetna is a town of big stories and huge personalities. (It's true — a cat served as mayor. Rest in peace, Stubbs.) The climbers who attempt Denali each year use the town as their gateway, catching their charter flights to basecamp here. You can pass on the climb and just go flightseeing with K2 Aviation.
Back in town, get breakfast or lunch at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, a local mainstay since 1944. The secret to the hotcakes? A sourdough starter dating back to 1902. When you're fueled up, head out rafting with Talkeetna River Guides. No experience necessary; guides do all the paddling.
Stay the night in one of Talkeetna Cottages’ three properties, including a centrally located log cabin, then start the next day with an easy hike in Talkeetna Lakes Park.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 28, 2020. It's been updated to reflect recent COVID-19 developments.