We love travelling with our “no plan plan” but when it comes to visiting Denali, it bit us in the butt a little. A park this big deserves time and some planning.
Denali National Park, is home to Denali (also known as Mt McKinley) the highest peak in North America. When approaching the park from Fairbanks we were able to see Denali on a clear day from well over 100 miles away.
Even given its tremendous size it’s crazy to think that only a third of the parks visitors see the mountain. That’s right, summers in Alaska are gorgeous and the days are long, but this mountain range gets socked in pretty regularly. So don’t fret, if you don’t see it, you are not alone. But you may want to keep an eye on the weather for your visit and give yourself a more than a day or two.
This park is rugged and wild, its home to Grizzlies, Moose, Dall Sheep, Wolves and Caribou to name a few. There is a well maintained paved road up to mile 15 in the park. After which only campers with reservations and park tour buses are able to continue down the remaining gravel stretch of road.
The back country in Denali is definetly the way to go for those who want to get away from the crowd and experience a good portion of this massive park.
For those of us who don’t want to veer too far off the beaten path, not to worry… There are trails that are well marked and maintained in those first 15 miles. There are lookouts and information shared throughout.
A few things not to miss,
° Spruce Forest, Horse Shoe Lake and Taiga trails. These are easier trails to manage, see wildlife, check out the river, and the incredible work the local beavers do
°The sled dog demonstration! Yes Denali National Park relies on the service of their sled dogs for patrolling in the winter!
°Taking a walk around Mountain Vista trail, where the park has shared historic photos of what stood in that space when visitors first started accessing the park.
Let’s talk tours. Guided tours are generally not our thing, we prefer exploring on our own. Unless you are camping at Teklanika or tent camping further into the park, this is the way to see the remainder of the road. You know that iconic picture of Denali reflecting back over Wonder lake, you will need the get a spot on a bus to get to this point in the park. The park service has their own team of tour buses, that run anywhere from 3-12 hour tours.
We were unfortunately only able to go on the 5 hour trip, with Holly to consider we left early and got back before the afternoon temperature started rising. This is longer than we would typically ever be away from her. These busses are also your best bet for seeing wildlife! Though it’s not guaranteed, we saw at least 6 Grizzlies, several Caribou, Dahl Sheep, Moose, several birds including a Short Eared Owl, Hawk Owl and finally Golden Eagles a plenty. Our driver Kevin was also awesome, knowledgeable and just as excited about every sighting as the rest of us!
Things to keep in mind:
°Your national parks pass does cover the cost of admission into this park
°Your pass does not cover camping (when making your reservations online you may be charged the admission fees as well, so show your pass when checking in to get that part refunded.)
°Your pass also does not cover the tour buses, and make those reservations early, some buses were looking pretty full. You do get access to free shuttle buses for the first 15 miles with your admission to the park.
°During peak season the campsites in this park fill up weeks in advance!!! We definetly recommend grabbing a site at Teklanika campground. If you are travelling by RV also remember to check on the size of your rig for restrictions, we saw at least one Class A make the trip. But there are no hookups in this park
°If you are camping in the park make your tour reservation before heading to your site. Once your in your site, the park asks that you keep your vehicle in your campsite. The tour buses will come pick you up at the camground
°Remember that all the campsites in the park are dry. So make sure you are stocked up and charged up before you head in. At Teklanika campground you will be booking your site for a minimum of 3 nights, and again, the vehicle stays put once it’s parked
°Travelling with pets? This one is always a challenge for us, but pet owners are asked to stick to the roadside trail, and parking areas or the road, and of course always on leash. Keep this in mind when you are planning how to see the park. We understand the busses may allow dogs (double check when booking) but stops are limited. So that’s potentially either a long time for your pooch to be alone, or on a bus with alot of very excited tourists
°The park does have a free dumpstation and potable water at the campground registration office
°Thinking of staying outside of the park? There are some great boondocking spots (mostly a short drive from the park) as well as a a few full service RV parks nearby
We drove from Fairbanks which brought us through Healy on our way to the park. Definetly stop and check out 49th State Brewing, they have an awesome beer selection, and nice menu (late night half price appies after 9pm). This pub is also home to the prop bus from Into the Wild, a popular photo op for tourists.
Or if you’re up for the Stampede Trail its just on the edge of town. Logan made his way out to the real “Magic Bus” back in 2004. His travel buddy had read John Krakauers story about Chris Mccandless, and couldn’t pass up the chance to see for themselves. The hike is long enough, it’s an overnighter. With two river crossings, some muddy spots, and all the wide open spaces.