A First Timer’s Guide to Denali National Park

A Denali National Park tour bus in front of a mountain and tundra backdrop

All About Denali National Park and Preserve, the No. 1 Destination in Interior Alaska

By J.C. Thomas

Denali National Park, the prime tourist destination in interior Alaska, is an astonishingly impressive section of the continent’s far north. It takes a whole litany of facts to convey the park’s massiveness and wildness. Here are just a few: It’s the third-largest national park in the United States, bigger than New Hampshire at more than 6 million acres, and almost all of it untouched. It includes the tallest peak in North America, the 20,310-foot Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley).

Sitting at 63˚ north, just 3 degrees shy of the Arctic Circle, Denali National Park has a nine-month winter. Almost all visitation is crammed into June, July and August, which locals only half-jokingly call spring, summer, and fall, respectively. Denali’s animal life intensifies its wild credentials. The most iconic are grizzly and black bears, wolves, moose, caribou and cliff-conquering Dall sheep. These and many smaller creatures inhabit distinct zones of tundra, boggy brush and spruce forest, which becomes sparser and spindlier with elevation. Hardier species roam the jagged rocks, glaciers and deep valleys of the Alaska Range, the park’s dramatic backdrop.

For visitors from California, where the grizzlies are long-gone and our seasons are pretty much the inverse of Alaska’s, Denali’s extreme scope might be equal-parts enticing and intimidating. For this first-time visitor, back from a summertime family road-trip through interior Alaska, my major takeaway is this: Denali National Park has a golden ratio of dazzling wildness to approachability. This is largely thanks to the national park’s unique tour and transit system, which limits visitors’ impact on a fragile ecosystem while showcasing a plentiful fragment of its remarkable vastness. With some planning, common sense and caution, a trip to Denali National Park is an achievable, unforgettable adventure.

Purple and yellow wildflowers sit next to the Denali Park Road, which crosses a vast tundra landscape with a mountain backdrop in Denali National Park

Know Before You Go: Denali’s Seasons and Tour System

Denali National Park has just one, partially-paved road – the 92-mile Denali Park Road. The first 15 miles of the road are open to private vehicles; beyond that point, only park-run tour and transit buses, bicyclists and pedestrians may use the road. This system is in place to protect the park’s ecosystems and keep the wildlife truly wild. Denali offers several hiking trails and campgrounds, but almost everything beyond those areas is entirely undeveloped and inaccessible.

The main visitor season for Denali National Park is May 20 through mid-September. This is when bus tours and transit, and most visitor services and activities are available in the park. During the two shoulder seasons, April to mid-May and mid-September until whenever the snow settles, private vehicles may drive as far as the 30-mile marker, weather permitting. Throughout winter, the road is typically closed from Mile 3, but a small number of visitors come for skiing, dog mushing and breathtaking snow-covered scenery.

The park operates free shuttle buses around the entrance area. Transit buses take visitors along Denali Park Road beyond Mile 15, but do not include narration. Tour buses with narration from expert naturalist-drivers depart regularly throughout the day during the summer season. With over 20 hours of daylight in the middle of summer, there are dozens of departures available, but book as early as possible to avoid disappointment. Book tickets through park concessionaire Doyon/Aramark Joint Venture, and visit their website for up-to-date information. (Note: 2022 tickets are not yet available at the time of publication, but reservations for 2021 summer tours opened on December 1, 2020).

Covid Restrictions

Covid-related restrictions were in place during our 2021 summer trip to Denali National Park, and remain a possibility for summer 2022. In 2021, the visitor centers had moved operations outside, most campgrounds were open, the Eielson Visitor Center and Murie Science and Learning Center were closed, ranger-led programs and tours were limited, and masks were required when inside. Check the park’s website for up-to-date conditions.

Getting There and Around

Anchorage, 240 miles south of Denali National Park, and Fairbanks, 120 miles to the north, are the two closest hubs for out-of-state visitors. Both have international airports with many high-season flight connections to California, as well as full line-ups of rental car companies. We flew from LAX to Fairbanks with a connection in Seattle, but a variety of routes are available.

The national park has one road entrance along Alaska Highway 3, which directly connects it to Anchorage and Fairbanks. The closest year-round community is Healy, 12 miles to the north of the park entrance. Rental cars were in short supply in 2021, but we were able to arrange a van rental through GoNorth Alaska. It will probably be a good idea to make car reservations early for 2022 as well. Private bus and van services to Denali are available from both Anchorage and Fairbanks. 

Many Denali visitors arrive on the Alaska Railroad, which links the park to Anchorage and Fairbanks and runs right through the entrance.

Denali Lodge at Denali Park Village, a large two-story log structure illuminated at dusk
(Courtesy of Aramark)

Where to Stay Near Denali National Park

There are no hotels inside Denali National Park, but a variety of options are in its vicinity. Denali Park Village, just 7 miles from the park entrance, hosted my family of four and was an ideal base for our two-night visit. The village is an expansive property, over 20 acres, along a wide, wood-lined stretch of the Nenana River. A few light hiking trails wind around the village and there are more trails nearby, but the resort’s atmosphere is more conducive to strolling, grabbing a bench by the river and relaxing after a day in Denali.

Accommodation options include cabins and lodge rooms, available in standard (two queen beds to sleep four) and king (to sleep two) with village or river views. The rooms are very clean and comfortable. They include everything you might need in those short moments before falling asleep, exhausted, or rising early, keen for the day’s adventures. Standard amenities include a coffee maker, flat-screen television and hairdryer in the private bathroom. The lodge buildings back onto the river, and each has a furnished deck with views. Ice makers are available, while food and drink services and more are just a short walk away in the main lodge building.

Shaded tables and chairs on the back patio of a lodge building at Alaska's Denali Park Village, with trees and the Nenana River in the background

The main lodge is a grand log structure with a huge, light-filled lobby and plenty of plush seating. The building houses the front desk, where guests can arrange national park tours and other activities such as water rafting. Lodge and tour packages are available, so consider that option when making a reservation. Denali Village is a pickup point for park tours and local rafting and hiking excursions. The resort offers a complimentary shuttle to the Alaska Train Depot, visitor center and ParkMart where local outfitters operate along with numerous shops and restaurants.

The main lodge also includes a gift shop, and Quigley’s Coffee Cart with grab ‘n’ go snacks, ice creams and a Starbucks counter. For full sit-down dining there is the Gold Rush Dining Room, which offers a breakfast buffet, dinner and full bar, and the fireside Lucky Miss Saloon, which has its own food menu as well as a full bar. Patio seating is available along with a large indoor dining room.

Closed for 2021 but potentially open next summer, Denali Village boasts the brand-new Miner’s Plaza, a Gold Rush-themed area of restaurants, stores and activities. Highlights include the Cabin Nite Dinner Theater offering all-you-can-eat dining and a show in a roadhouse setting, burgers and shakes at The Shack, and a gold-panning station.

What to Do in Denali

There is quite a lot to see and do in the entrance area of Denali National Park, whether by car or using the free shuttles. This area includes the visitor center, sled dog kennels and several shorter hiking trails. Yet, the only way to really appreciate the natural wonder of Denali is to take a tour and see as much of the park as possible. In a typical year, three narrated bus tours are available: a 5-hour Natural History Tour, 8-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour, and 12-hour Kantishna Experience. My family took the Tundra Wilderness tour, the original (since 1923) and most popular tour, and the only one available in 2021 due to pandemic restrictions.

Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour

At 7 to 8 hours, the Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour promises a comprehensive national park experience, showing you a wide range of remarkable habitat zones with an excellent chance of seeing lots of wildlife. The tour is conducted by bus, with stops every hour or so at viewpoints and rest areas. A certified driver-naturalist keeps a keen eye out for wildlife throughout the tour and stops for every significant animal spotting.  

Our tour took us to the 62-mile marker at Stoney Overlook, where on a clear day you can see the gleaming white, glacier-packed peak of Denali itself. On two out of three days of the tourist season, Denali’s peak is invisible, fully curtained-off by clouds and revealing only its lower foothills. Our visit was on one of those days, so we did not get to admire Denali in its full glory. The outstanding mountain scenery elsewhere in the park made up for this, and there was certainly no shortage of photo-worthy vistas.

The Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour strikes a great balance between the slow serenity of staring out the window of a rumbling vehicle, taking in the scenery that is unlike anywhere else on Earth, and the anticipation of seeing enormous wild beasts. The driver’s narration, packed with fascinating tidbits of information about the park, adds immeasurably to the experience. Our expert guide’s stories covered the most recent (of very, very few) grizzly-related incidents, the impossibly slow timeline of a sprouting Alaskan wildflower, and how the right socks can make or break a mountaineer’s Denali ascent, among many others.

A pair of ravens sit on a railing looking at a wide vista of Denali National Park tundra and mountains in Alaska

The most exciting part of the tour is spotting, and briefly stopping to observe, some of Denali’s amazing animals. Bring binoculars, as the landscapes seen from the bus are vast, including gravely river beds, boggy meadows and wide-open tundra often miles across. The “Big Five” are moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears and wolves. There’s a pretty good chance of seeing the first four on any given tour; wolves are more elusive, as are the black bears that mostly live in the outer reaches of the park.

Our guide mentioned that she sees grizzly bears daily, most often grazing in meadows. With an 80% vegetarian diet, these massive creatures behave much more like cows than the marauding predators we imagine. She spotted our first grizzly on a broad foothill polka-dotted with ice patches, and described its position relative to bushes and ditches to the squinting tourists on the bus. Using a video feed linked to TV screens, she zoomed in on the blond bear. While just a distant dot from the bus, we all got to see the bear up close, busily foraging and fattening up as the species does single-mindedly all summer long. We stopped for closer viewings of caribou, some wandering along in small herds, and another lolling solo on an ice patch where he remained hours later on the return leg of the tour.

Moose are more often seen near the park entrance, where they can hide from predators among the evergreens. Dall sheep inhabit sheer cliffs where they’re safe from wolves, while caribou, which are fast enough to outrun most pursuers, live on the open tundra. Don’t overlook Denali’s smaller creatures, such as the ptarmigan that scratch around brushy areas, super-smart ravens and the Arctic ground squirrels that hang around the entrance-area buildings sniffing out trail mix.

Before booking a tour, know that one small-ish stretch of the Denali Park Road winds around a high, sheer cliff with no guardrails and sharp curves. The bus drivers are highly-trained experts who very coolly handle the challenge, but fearful passengers might want to avert their eyes from the cliff-side windows. Passengers are asked to be silent and stay inside the windows whenever the bus pulls over for wildlife viewing; the animals view the buses as benign and the park wants it to stay that way. Bottled water and a snack pack are included with the tour, but you might want to bring extra snacks considering it’s a 7- to 8-hour experience.

A sled dog naps in his log kennel under the sign featuring his name "Royal" at the Sled Dog Kennels in Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali Sled Dog Kennels

Another delightful experience at Denali National Park is a visit to the Denali Sled Dog Kennels, home to the park’s working dogs. The kennels are at Mile 3.4 of Denali Park Road, and visitors are welcome to walk through the dog yard, chat with rangers and see outdoor exhibits about dog-mushing historically and today. In normal times there are demonstrations, but these were cancelled for 2021.

Denali Raft Adventures

Rafting tours are an amazing way to see the breathtaking landscapes of Denali from an unrivaled perspective. One operator, just minutes from the park entrance, is the family-owned Denali Raft Adventures. They offers two-hour, four-hour and six-hour river runs on the Nenana River, an icy-cold and turbulent glacial ice-melt river with Class III rapids. The company offers milder river runs for ages 5 and older, with the option to paddle or have a guide do all the paddling. Whitewater rapids tours are for ages 12 and older.

The two-mile McKinley Scenic Run, ideal for families and anyone nervous about whitewater, takes you 11 miles downstream on a scenic stretch of the Nenana River. It includes approximately 2 hours on the water, with a variety of gentle floating with the current and splashier sections navigated by an expert guide. Gore-Tex dry suits, latex socks, neoprene boots and life jackets are provided, so participants need to just wear warm layers, preferably not cotton. Only your face and hands will be exposed to the cold water. The ride is exciting as well as scenic, and an unforgettable way to immerse yourself in such a dramatic landscape.

A bear warning sign posted in a wooded area next to a trail in Denali National Park, Alaska

Worried about the Wilderness?

Some visitors to Denali National Park, and Alaska in general, have little fear of the wildlife or the harshness of its wilderness. Others are – quite reasonably – fearful of animal encounters and other potential hazards. Talk to park rangers, guides and other locals and you’ll understand that you don’t need to be terrified, but you do need to be aware of the risks and take precautions.

Denali is very much bear country. While hiking, make noise, keep kids close by, and learn how to handle a potential encounter. Buy and carry bear spray and know when and how to use it. Do not run!

Moose, locals told us, are a greater threat than even grizzlies, partly because they appear to be gentle giants. They’re not, and they tend to wait until unsuspecting persons get too close before charging. Stay far away from moose, and if they run towards you – run!

Interested in Alaska? Click the link to read “Traveling Near and Far: The Kenai Peninsula” by Joann Deutch.

Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.  

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