Visiting Denali National Park

Jenn Martin
Horseshoe Lake at Denali National Park

Home to the highest peak in North America and the only team of sled dogs to be employed by a national park in the U.S., Denali National Park is a six-million acre expanse of truly breathtaking wilderness. It's a haven for true adventurers looking to get off the beaten track, and a refreshing option for those looking for a different kind of park experience away from the built-up, small-city-in-the-wilderness feel you may get from larger parks.

Getting to Denali

The easiest way to travel to Denali is to fly to either Anchorage or Fairbanks and rent a car or take the train or bus from there. If you are renting a car, take the Alaska Highway 3 (also known as the George Parks Highway) which will take you to Park Road.

The state-owned railroad also runs to the park entrance, and during high season (the summer) a variety of bus services will also take you directly to the park entrance.

There is one road that goes through the interior of Denali, simply called Park Road, stretching 92 miles into the Alaskan interior. Consequently, much of the park's interior remains untouched and inaccessible. The public can access only the first 15 miles (the only portion of the road that is paved) to explore during the summer months. Beyond the 14.8-mile mark of Savage River Bridge, shuttle and tour bus services are available.

When to Go

Summer

Summer is considered the "easiest" time to visit Denali, because this is when the most services are available and the weather is the least risky. High season is from June 8 until mid-August, though the summer season technically lasts from May 20 until just after Labor Day, coinciding with the shuttle bus services.

Spring

Spring is an unpredictable time to visit and will be dictated by the weather's impact on road and park conditions. If you plan on traveling in the spring it's best to contact the park directly to inquire about road openings.

Fall

Fall in Denali National Park

Fall can be a unique time to visit Denali because of their annual Road Lottery event. After shuttle bus services are halted two weeks about Labor Day, a designated number of private vehicles are permitted to travel farther into the park (up to 30 miles, weather permitting) giving a few lucky visitors the unique chance to experience the park more remotely.

Winter

Winter gives way to a new list of exciting activities in Denali including skiing and dog mushing. Just keep in mind that weather (and consequently, your plans) can change without warning. Also make sure you are adequately prepared for a winter visit, bringing along plenty of warm clothes. The road is plowed and accessible up to mile 12.7 during the winter.

Fees

Seven-day entrance permits to the park can be purchased for $10 (youth and children under 15 are free). Annual park passes are available for $40, or, if you travel through a lot of national parks, consider purchasing a Federal Recreational Land Pass which will grant you access to all national parks for the year for a one-time fee of $80.

The park fee will be charged when you are paying for bus services or campgrounds, but if you are only purchasing park admission you can do so at the Denali Visitor Center.

Depending on your desired destination, bus trips will cost between $26 and $34.

Camping

Developed Campgrounds

There are six developed campgrounds in Denali National Park that will accommodate tents and RVs (though no interior campsites have electrical or water hookups for RVs). Campground check-in is at 11 a.m., and you can check in from the Wilderness Access Center. Most campsites have a limit of eight people per site and quiet hours are enforced from 10 p.m. - 6 a.m.

Reservations should be made in advance. Camping fees range from $14 to $28, depending on whether you wish to book a simple tent site or require space for an RV. Group sites can also be booked for $45.

  • Riley Creek: This is the largest campsite in Denali and is located just inside the park entrance close to a general store where you can find simple supplies, showers and laundry facilities. It is open year round (it's free in the winter!) and can accommodate RVs up to 40'. Sites have fire pits, bear-proof food lockers, picnic tables and flush toilets.
  • Savage River: This is a more remote campground located 13 miles into the park's interior. It is open from May 19 until mid-September and can accommodate RVs up to 40'. Sites have fire pits, bear-proof food lockers, picnic tables and flush toilets.
  • Sanctuary: Located at mile 23, this is small remote campsite (seven sites in total) available only to tent campers. It is accessible only by bus or foot from May 20 to mid-September, as cars are not permitted beyond mile 15 during those months. Sites have picnic tables and bear-proof food lockers.
  • Teklanika: This campground is located at mile 29 within a restricted area of the park, offering guests a more unique park experience by the Teklanika River and Cathedral Mountain from May 20 until mid-September. It requires a three-night minimum stay for anyone wishing to drive their private vehicle. The vehicle is not allowed to leave the campground until checkout - all further travel must be done by foot or shuttle bus. Sites have bear-proof food lockers and picnic tables.
  • Igloo: Another remote, tent-only site available from May 20 to mid-September, Igloo is located at mile 35 and must be reached by foot or shuttle. It has a vaulted toilet but no potable water or hookups. Reservations are made on a walk-in basis only.
  • Wonder Lake: Located at mile 85, Wonder Lake is the furthest campground and it only accessible by bus for tent camping purposes from June 8 until mid-September. Sites come with bear-proof food lockers and picnic tables and, unlike other sites, they are limited to four campers.

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping is also available in Denali, though it functions differently than most other parks. There are no designated backcountry sites or routes. Denali's vision is to let the explorer take control, so planning is crucial. This style of do-it-yourself backcountry camping is exhilarating for serious adventurers and has led to Denali affectionately being dubbed "the last wild west." It can be daunting and potentially dangerous for those who are used to developed, drive-in sites and who are not completely comfortable with self-planned routes and map and compass travel.

Other Lodging

There are no park-operated lodges in Denali. You will find a few privately-run lodges in the park, though they tend to be pricier and less convenient than the many lodging options available just outside of the park perimeter. Though more affordable, the park perimeter area is known as 'Glitter Gulch' because of the commercialism. If you are looking for a remote experience in the Alaskan wilderness, you may want to camp or pay the premium for a lodge in the interior.

  • Kantishna Roadhouse Backcountry Lodge: One of the four private lodges in the park interior, Kantishna is located at mile 90 in the middle of pristine Alaskan wilderness. It's a pricey option at approximately $500 per person per night, but the location and activities offered, including gold panning, fly fishing and hiking at the base of the mountain, ensure a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  • Denali Park Village Lodge: Located at the entrance to the park, this 20-acre village offers accommodations in the main lodge building or separate cabins six miles away on the banks of the Nenana River, plus plenty of dining options and on-site hiking trails.
  • McKinley Chalet Resort: This Swiss-chalet-style hotel is located one mile from the park entrance inside a spruce forest, giving it a remote lodge feel close to the amenities of the 'Glitter Gulch.' Casual and fine dining are available, as well as dinner theater. A shuttle will take visitors directly to the Wilderness Access Center and the Denali Visitors Center.

Eating

In keeping with its rugged and remote personality when compared with other popular national parks (Yosemite, Grand Canyon) there is only one sit down restaurant available inside the park, located next to the Visitor Center. Morino Grill is a cafeteria-style eatery offering everything from panini sandwiches to reindeer stew.

There are plenty of restaurants available before you enter the park along Highway 3, including the TripAdvisor top-rated Prospectors Pizzeria and Black Bear Coffee House. Camping food can be purchased at the general store by Riley Creek campground.

5 Must-Do Denali Activities

1. Experience Denali

Mount McKinley

Arguably the park's biggest draw, and Trip Advisor's top rated site in the park, Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) is the highest peak in the United States. Serious mountaineers flock to the park to bag this summit (being the highest peak in North America makes it part of the coveted Seven Summits), but if you're not up for making the more than 20,000-foot trek up the mountain there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the peak, including flight-seeing. One downside to visiting Denali is that the mountain is often shrouded in cloud, meaning you could leave disappointed if this is what you came to see.

2. Go for a Hike

Most of the marked trails in Denali will be in and around the Visitor Center. The majority are easy in nature, including the one-hour Horseshoe Lake Trail, the Roadside Trail to the dog kennels, and the Mount Healy Overlook Trail where you might get a peek of Denali on a clear day.

Though you can enjoy these easy and accessible trails, Denali is a park known for its backcountry, so much of the hiking is done off of marked trails - which can be exhilarating or intimidating. It's perfectly safe as long as you travel just off the Park Road, always carry a map and compass, have plenty of food, carry enough water and the proper gear and know how to detract bears. Consult the park's hiking guide for more details.

3. Visit the Sled Dogs

Sled dogs

The Denali sled dogs are an important part of the park's culture and are actively used to protect the park, its residents and its wildlife in the areas where motorized vehicles are prohibited. In summer, when the dogs are not on patrol, visitors are welcome to visit the kennels (the kennel sees over 50,000 visitors each year). In the winter, when the dogs are on patrol, you can track their movements on a park map.

4. Take a Bus Trip

Visitors can use shuttle buses or tour buses to explore the Park Road beyond the 15-mile point where private cars are no longer permitted (Savage River). Tour buses and shuttle buses will make the same stops and both will pause for wildlife viewing. Shuttle buses are cheaper and you can embark/disembark at any time, while tour buses will provide narration and include lunch.

5. Spot the Big Five

Dall Sheep Ram

According to National Geographic, one of the top experiences in Denali is spotting its "Big Five" wildlife: wolves, grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep. Denali is often considered to be one of the best places to view wildlife in Alaska and this is definitely a big draw to the park, but just as with its namesake mountain, you might not always get what you came for. As one excited visitor and TripAdvisor reviewer aptly stated, "when it comes to wildlife viewing, timing is everything."

Be Prepared

Camping and hiking in the Alaskan wilderness is a different experience than the rest of the country which comes with its own set of risks, mostly tied to weather and wildlife. Thus, there are a different set off safety preparations you need to consider. Moose and bear are dangerous, so make sure to do proper research and be prepared for animal encounters. Be familiar with the different kinds of bears you are likely to encounter in the park, and make sure you know how to react accordingly.

More Risk, More Reward

Denali is an entirely different kind of national park. It's focused on true backcountry wilderness adventure which can be exciting or daunting, depending on your experience and intent. It can require a lot of preparation compared with other parks, but visitors who truly delve into the interior will be rewarded with views unlike anywhere else on earth. If you plan on blazing some trails (as you should!), make sure to read up on bear safety, make sure you have the proper gear and acquaint yourself with your compass.

Visiting Denali National Park