In our collective consciousness, Alaska represents the concept of the raw wilderness. But that untamed perception can be as much a deterrent as a draw. For many travelers, in-depth exploration of this American frontier is a daunting task. Enter Denali National Park & Preserve: a parcel of land that's easily accessible without losing its primeval feel.
Things to do in Denali National Park
Here, you can peer at a grizzly bear, moose, caribou, or even wolves, all from the comfort of a bus. On the other hand, if independent exploration is your thing, you can trek into 6 million acres of tundra, boreal forest and ice-capped mountains – a space larger than Massachusetts. This all lies in the shadow of Denali, once known as Mt McKinley and to native Athabascans as the Great One. Denali, at 20,308ft (6190m) is North America’s highest peak, rightly celebrated as an icon of all that is awesome and wild in a state where those adjectives are ubiquitous.
Of course the park's massive signature summit and namesake is a must-see. But despite its lofty heights, the mountain is not visible from the park entrance or the nearby campgrounds and hotel. Your first glimpse of it comes between Mile 9 and Mile 11 on Park Road – if you’re blessed with a clear day.
What makes Denali one of the world’s great scenic mountains isn't its visual presence in the park, but the sheer independent rise of its bulk. Denali begins at a base of just 2000ft, which means that on a clear day you will be transfixed by over 18,000 feet of ascending rock, ice and snow. By contrast, Mt Everest, no slouch itself when it comes to memorable vistas, only rises 12,000ft from its base on the Tibetan Plateau.
If you’re a seasoned alpinist you can mount an expedition to the summit yourself, or be among the 25% of Denali climbers who are part of guided ascents. If you’re looking for a local guiding company, try Alaska Mountaineering School, which charges $8300 to lead you up the mountain. Another acclaimed company with a high success rate is Seattle-based Alpine Ascents. Its trips start at $8400 excluding meals, lodging and flights to Alaska. Book at least a year in advance.
Because hunting has never been allowed in the park, professional photographers refer to animals in Denali as "approachable wildlife." That means bear, moose, Dall sheep and caribou aren’t as skittish here as in other regions of the state. For this reason, and because Park Rd was built to maximize the chances of seeing wildlife by traversing high open ground, the park is an excellent place to view a variety of animals.
On board the park shuttle buses, your fellow passengers will be armed with binoculars and cameras to help scour the terrain for animals, most of which are so accustomed to the rambling buses that they rarely run and hide. When someone spots something and yells "Stop!," the driver will pull over for viewing and picture taking. The best wildlife watching is on the first morning bus.
If you’ve never veered off the beaten path, consider launching your trail-free hiking career in Denali National Park & Preserve. In most national parks in North America, hikers are constantly reminded to stay on marked trails in order to prevent soil erosion, deter damage to flora and fauna, and minimize the risk of getting lost. But Alaska – being Alaska – operates a little differently. Since most national parks in the state don’t have an extensive network of marked trails, visitors are actively encouraged to get off the beaten track and explore the backcountry on their own.
Denali’s 92-mile-long Park Road provides an excellent transport link into the depths of the park with regular hop-on, hop-off shuttle buses plying the route. Additionally, thanks to its high altitude, most of the park is above the treeline, allowing hikers to enjoy broad vistas across obstacle-free tundra. Not only does this mean Park Rd will be rarely out of sight (even when it’s 5 miles away), it also prevents any surprise encounters with wildlife.
Regardless of where you’re headed, remember that 5 miles is a full-day trip for the average backpacker in Denali’s backcountry. A good compromise for those unsure of entering the backcountry on their own is to take a ranger-led Discovery Hike: hiking without a trail but with a guide. To join a ranger on an easy, guided stroll (ranging from 30 minutes to 2½ hours) along the park’s entrance-area trails, check out the schedule at the Denali Visitor Center. There are also four hikes in the park entrance area that can be accessed from the Wilderness Access Center (WAC).
Eielson Visitor Center
Eielson Visitor Center, on the far side of Thorofare Pass (3900ft), is the most common turning-around point for day trippers taking the shuttle (an eight-hour round-trip from the park entrance). This remote outpost is built directly into the tundra slopes and the mountain seems to almost loom over you from the observation decks. Inside there’s a massive panorama to give you an idea of the mountain’s topography, as well as more utilitarian features such as toilets and potable water. The 7400-sq-ft facility cost around $9.2 million to build, and features several green design elements, including solar and hydroelectric power.
You'll also find two steep trails – one that leads up to ridge lines that tower over the park, and one that plunges to a riverbed where wildlife spottings are not uncommon (and sometimes far too close for comfort). Two ranger-led hikes are offered daily in summer: a two-hour, two-mile alpine hike, starting at noon and heading up the ridge behind the facilities; and an easier one-hour, 0.5-mile loop, starting at 1pm.
This scenic area, at 3500ft, has views of the Toklat River to the south. Polychrome Pass Overlook, which is a regular stop on Denali tour- and shuttle-bus routes, gets its name from the multicolored hues of the local rock faces. There's relatively easy access to ridge trails if you want to hike at higher altitudes.
Denali's sled dogs
Denali is the only US national park where rangers conduct winter patrols with dog teams. In summer the huskies serve a different purpose: amusing and educating the legions of tourists who sign up for the park’s free daily tours of the sled-dog kennels, as well as dog demonstrations. During warm months, the dogs briefly pull rangers in an ATV for the crowds.
The 40-minute show takes place at park headquarters; free buses head there from the Denali Visitor Center, departing 40 minutes before each starting time. These demonstrations are incredibly popular – there's no cap on visitors, so just plan on experiencing crowds. Watching the dogs literally jump for joy when it's their turn to pull the ATV. It's clear that they not only love running and pulling – they live for the experience.
The Stampede Trail and the Magic Bus
The Stampede Trail was an overgrown, semi-abandoned mining road in April 1992 when an idealistic 24-year-old wanderer called Chris McCandless made camp in an abandoned bus west of Healy, equipped with little more than a rifle, 10lb of rice and a copy of Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man in his bag. His quest: to attempt to survive on his own in the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness.
McCandless’ death a few months later, in August 1992, was famously chronicled in the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer in 1996. But it was Sean Penn’s cinematic rendering of the book in 2007 that brought the story to international attention and turned the Stampede Trail and the so-called "Magic Bus" into a pilgrimage site for a stream of romantic young backpackers.
The deluge of hikers has led to problems. Thanks to two dangerous river crossings along the Stampede Trail’s muddy if relatively flat route, some of the more amateurish hikers have found they've bitten off more than they can chew. As a result, search-and-rescue teams are called out five or six times a year to aid stranded or disorientated travelers and, in 2010, a Swiss woman tragically drowned while trying to cross the Teklanika River.
Today the Magic Bus – a 1946 International Harvester (number 142) abandoned by road builders in 1961 – has been moved to the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, but a replica of bus 142 sits outside the 49th State Brewing Company in Healy. You can still hike the Stampede Trail, however, which begins 2 miles north of Healy (the first 8 miles are accessible in a vehicle).
Go prepared, preferably in a group, and take extreme precautions when crossing the Savage and Teklanika Rivers (and if they’re flowing high, don’t cross them at all). Bears are common in the area and the mosquitoes are savage. Alternatively, you can take an ATV tour along the trail in summer, or head out in winter on a dogsledding trip from EarthSong Lodge.
Dining in Denali
49th State Brewing Company
You can have the best evening out in Denali at 49th State Brewing Company, a multifarious place which is 1) a brewpub brewing its own fine ales; 2) a wonderful flame-grilled restaurant; 3) a live-music venue; and 4) a dedicated purveyor of dozens of whiskeys. A celebratory atmosphere is generated at the communal tables both inside and out, where fun games shorten the wait for your food. Brewery tours with free tastings take place on Fridays at 4pm.
South of McKinley Village, a stylish timber-frame hideaway called 229 Parks is quintessentially modern Alaskan: locally owned, organic and fervently committed to both the community and environment. Everything is made on-site, including the bread and butter, and the menu changes daily, though it usually features local game dishes and a veritable cornucopia of vegetarian options. And don’t worry if you can’t finish every mouthful: scraps go to feed local sled dogs. Reservations definitely recommended.
Prospector's Pizzeria and Alehouse
Prospector's is perennially busy and with good reason! Set in the Old Northern Lights Theater building, this cavernous alehouse turned pizza parlor has quickly become one of the most popular eating establishments in the park area. In addition to a menu with two-dozen oven-baked pizza choices, there are some 50 beers available on tap from almost all of Alaska’s small breweries.
There are lots of young Eastern Europeans working the tourism season in Alaska, and this restaurant is testimony to the fact. Started by a Serbian former season worker turned American, Moose-AKa's serves fried crepes, schnitzel, Russian salad, stuffed peppers and of course, moussaka. It's vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, and a great departure from the usual bar food.
Denali National Park hotels, hostels, camping, and lodges
Aside from a few options in the community of Kantishna, lodgings are generally not available inside park boundaries, so if you want overnight shelter within the park you’ll need a tent or RV (recreational vehicle). That said, there are a lot of unique options close to the park well worth booking. You should definitely reserve something in midsummer – even if it’s just a campsite – before showing up. Note the Denali Borough charges a 7% accommodations tax on top of listed prices (except for campsites).
The Earthsong Lodge
North of Healy, off Mile 251 on the George Parks Hwy, this spotlessly clean lodge is pretty much on its own in green fields above the treeline. The private-bath cabins have an appealing at-home styling, with decorative touches such as sprays of wildflowers and hand-carved ornaments.
Breakfast and dinner are available in the adjacent Henry's Coffeehouse and there are sleddog demos, a nightly slide show and dog-sled and cross-country-skiing tours in winter. The lodge is just a short climb away from stunning views of the mountain, and just in case you wanted to know more about that peak, proprietor Jon Nierenberg, a former Denali ranger, quite literally wrote the book on hiking in the park’s backcountry.
Carlo Creek Lodge
The 32-acre grounds here, nestled amidst the mountains, are nothing short of spectacular, and the hand-hewn log cabins are filled with genuine old-Alaskan charm. Maintained by the descendants of the original homesteaders who settled this scenic little plot by the creek, the lodge has a fresh feel but still a healthy respect for tradition. Communal amenities include a laundry room, spiffy shower block, barbecue and cooking areas.
Denali Mountain Morning Hostel
Perched beside the gurgling Carlo Creek, this is the area’s only true hostel. That's cool – it makes up in quality for a lack of hostel quantity. The setting is a dream – mountains to one side, a stream running through it all. The hostel features a hodgepodge of tent-cabins, log cabins and platform tents. Only open during summer. There’s a fire pit, and visitors can cook meals and swap tales in the "octagon" – the hostel’s common area. Laundry facilities are available and the hostel offers free shuttle services to/from the park's Wilderness Access Center throughout the day.
Wonder Lake Campground
This is the jewel of Denali campgrounds, thanks to its eye-popping views of the mountain. The facility has 28 sites for tents only, but does offer flush toilets and piped-in water. If you’re lucky enough to reserve a site, book it for three nights and then pray that Denali appears during one of the days you’re there. Note that there is a $6 registration fee added on top of the camp fee.
Verging on legendary, Camp Denali has been the gold standard among Kantishna lodges for the last half century. Widely spread across a ridgeline, the camp’s simple, comfortable cabins elegantly complement the backcountry experience while minimizing impact on the natural world. Think of it as luxury camping, with gourmet meals, guided hikes, free bicycle and canoe rentals, killer views of the mountain, and staff so devoted to Denali that you’ll come away feeling like the beneficiary of a precious gift. Note that Camp Denali is only accessible via plane or helicopter; there is no road access.
Denali Dome Home B&B
This is not a yurt but a huge, intriguing geodesic house on a 5-acre lot, offering a fantastic B&B experience. There are seven modern rooms (with partial antique furnishings), an open common area with fireplace, and a small business area. Also: it's a dome home! How cool is that? The owners are absolute oracles of wisdom when it comes to Denali, and do a bang-up job with breakfast. They also offer car rental.
Tips for visitors
When to visit
The summer months from early June until the second week after Labor Day is the main visiting season, when shuttle and tour buses operate and ranger-led activities are plentiful. Summer itself has many mini-seasons: during June you may see caribou, moose and Dall sheep calving, and alpine-zone wildflowers blooming.
The park is at its most accessible in July, while in August, autumn colors start creeping in. In September, moose rut and the northern lights begin to make their presence known. Also, mosquitoes start thinning out. During the spring and fall, visitors may drive to Mile 30, but only until snow closes the roads, which can be as early as October and last until April.
Also, if you swing by Cannabis Cache to pick up a smokeable stash, don't forget that Denali National Park is federal land and cannabis is only legal in Alaska. Leave your weed at the hotel and don't run afoul of the park rangers.
The park entrance area, where most visitors congregate, extends a scant 4 miles up Park Road. It’s here you’ll find the park headquarters, visitor center and main campground, as well as the Wilderness Access Center, where you pay your park entrance fee and arrange campsites and shuttle-bus bookings to take you further into the park. Across the lot from the WAC sits the Backcountry Information Center, where backpackers get backcountry permits and bear-proof food containers.
The Denali visitor center is the place to come for an executive summary of Denali National Park & Preserve, with quality displays on the area’s natural and human history. Every half hour in the theater, the beautifully photographed, unnarrated film Heartbeats of Denali provides a peek at the park’s wildlife and scenery. You can also pick up a selection of park literature here, including the NPS’ indispensable Alpenglow booklet, which functions as a user’s manual to Denali.
The Park Road
A straight shot into the heart of Denali, Park Road is also the jumping-off point for most hikes. It begins at George Parks Highway and winds 92 miles through the heart of the park, ending at Kantishna, the site of several wilderness lodges. After that the road passes the Savage River (Mile 14) – which has an established trail alongside the river – and then dips into the Sanctuary and Teklanika River valleys. Both these rivers are in excellent hiking areas, and three of the five backcountry campgrounds lie along them.
Park Road continues past rivers, backcountry campgrounds, overlooks and mountain passes that afford stunning views on those rare clear days. Kantishna (Mile 90) is mainly a destination for people staying in the area’s private lodges. The buses turn around here, and begin the long trip back to the Wilderness Access Center.
Permits are needed if you want to camp overnight and you can obtain these at the Backcountry Information Center, where you’ll also find wall maps with the unit outlines and a quota board indicating the number of vacancies in each. Permits are issued only a day in advance, and the most popular units fill up fast. It pays to be flexible: decide which areas you’re aiming for, and be prepared to take any zone that’s open. If you’re picky, you might have to wait several days.
The history of Denali National Park
The region that is now Denali National Park has been home to humans for over 11,000 years. For Athabascan people, this was a fertile hunting ground where the tribe would reliably encounter Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and even grizzlies. It was also game that attracted white settlers in the early 20th century, after gold was found near Kantishna in 1905 and big game hunters followed the miners' stampede. Conservationist Charles Alexander Sheldon began work the year following Kantishna's gold boom to protect the park's wildlife from the kind of wholesale hunting frenzy that decimated bison herds in across the Great Plains.
Sheldon mounted a campaign, but it was a long play to get what was then known as Mt McKinley declared a national park. The concept of national parks – and conservation in general – were still new. Yellowstone National Park was just 34 years old and though Mesa Verde had just entered the club, it had been rammed through by President Teddy Roosevelt using his controversial Federal Antiquities Act of 1906. The kind of archeological discoveries found in Chaco Canyon were scant in the remote Alaskan backcountry. Instead, Sheldon turned to another invention of Roosevelt's – the Boone and Crockett Club, a conservation group dedicated to preserving wildlife and habitat for regulated hunting.
The Boone and Crockett Club helped persuade Alaska's representatives and the Department of the Interior that Denali needed official protection as a national park. It wasn't until 1921 that the process of lobbying and legislating was complete. In 1923, when the railroad first arrived in Denali, 36 visitors enjoyed the splendor of the brand new park. Nowadays some 400,000 visitors are received annually.
That's not the only change that Denali National Park has seen over the last century of its existence, however. As a result of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park was enlarged by 4 million acres, and renamed Denali National Park & Preserve. However, it wasn't until 2015 that the name of the mountain itself was restored to Denali by President Barack Obama after almost 120 years as Mt. McKinley.