If a picture is worth a thousand words, then here’s a whole book about Denali National Park in Alaska!
From the Denali National Park website:
“Denali is six million acres of wild land, bisected by one ribbon of road. Travelers along it see the relatively low-elevation taiga forest give way to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains, culminating in North America’s tallest peak, 20,320′ Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). Wild animals large and small roam unfenced lands, living as they have for ages. Solitude, tranquility and wilderness await.
Denali National Park and Preserve has one road, simply called the Denali Park Road, and it is the main avenue for visitors to see and experience Denali. The road is 92 miles long, and only the first 15 miles of it are paved. That paved portion, leading from the park entrance to Savage River, is open during the summer for public (non-commercial) vehicles to drive. Summer travel beyond mile 15, which is hugely recommended, is by shuttle or tour bus, or under human power. The summer season in Denali runs from late May through early September.”
Here are some tips from our experience at Denali (many of which were bestowed upon us by locals – thank you again!) for a great visit to the park:
- The bus system is a little pricey, and complicated to figure out. Make your reservation ahead of time or you may be waiting a while, or completely shut out that day. It’s completely worth it though if you want to see the interior of Denali. The first 15 miles you can drive in your car is still a beautiful segment and allows you to hike some trails and view several points of interest, but the park really gets the most rugged and wild beyond that when the road turns to gravel. Don’t miss the full experience if you can help it!
- Most of our animal sightings were deeper in the park, and being on a bus instead of driving gives you the ability to rubberneck and take photos and video to your heart’s desire! The best place to sit for panoramic mountain views is on the driver’s side on the way out, and the “passenger” side on the way back.
- If you want the full narrated experience, take a tour. If you want to be able to hop on and off at stops for hiking and breaks, take the green shuttle buses (this is what we did). We were worried about missing out on the narration, but our driver still did his best to educate us the whole drive and answer questions anyway! The drivers seem to love their jobs and want to make sure you have a good time.
- Here’s a list of items to consider bringing on your visit to Denali. The most important thing to note is that there’s no food or water available in the park once you leave the visitor center, unless you’re on a tour bus that provides a snack or meal, so plan ahead. There are bathrooms with vault toilets, but no running water at several stops. They do provide hand sanitizer. The Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 does have regular restrooms with running water, and you can also refill your water bottles there.
- You can bring a bike on certain buses and pedal the park road a portion of the way, but the road is narrow, dusty when buses go by, and there are lots of steep drop-offs, so it’s not for the faint of heart! Hiking is mostly on unimproved trails, so unless you’re prepared for backcountry hiking you’ll want to stick to the more popular ones.
- The mountains in Denali tend to form their own weather, independent of the surrounding area, so planning ahead based on the area’s forecast doesn’t always help. Your best bet is to allow several days for your excursions in the park to see it in different weather conditions. You may even see lots of weather changes if you only have a single day out there (we did!), so wear or bring several layers of clothes and a good rain coat. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see many animals or Denali (Mount McKinley) – conditions can change quickly for or against your favor. We saw the mountain’s peak for a few minutes during a clearing in a storm, then it was back behind the clouds again. Here’s a list of other places you can view the mountain outside of the National Park.
- The best time to see animals is supposedly during cloudy periods, or during and after rain – so don’t let a dreary day stop you from visiting the park! They like to take their naps during the warmer and sunnier parts of the day and forage for food when it’s cooler. During sunny weather we saw very few, then when the weather turned more overcast they started coming out in droves.
- We didn’t camp in Denali, but you can – just be sure to make reservations. Camping beyond mile 15 in the park requires you to have a site booked ahead of time, and to stay at least 3 days – once you’re in, there’s no going in or out except by your own foot/bike power or on a bus! Past mile 2 you’ll lose all cell phone service, and plan to be fully off-grid with no electricity hookups at the campgrounds. More information about the park’s campgrounds can be found here.
- For a memorable adventure just outside the park (especially if you don’t have time to do the bus ride or just love the water too), consider a rafting or kayaking trip on the Nenana River. Rafting companies in Healy and just outside the park entrance in McKinley Park offer whitewater experiences or calmer scenic floats on the river that borders the national park. We did a 2-hour scenic guided float with Denali Outdoor Center and learned a lot about the area and national park, plus we had some great geology lessons up close while viewing the rock cliffs on either side of the river canyon.