Denali National Park Travel Tips
Within Alaska’s interior, Denali rises over 20,320 feet above the sweeping tundra. Surrounding North America’s largest peak, is the park named after it: Denali National Park & Preserve. There are few parks in America as grand as Denali. With a sprawling boundary of around 6 million acres (larger than Massachusetts) this park can feel overwhelming at times. Even with its size, Denali only contains one park road, which extends for 92 miles, taking you to the end at Kantishna.
Whether you plan on visiting this park for a day or over a week, below are some important and useful tips to remember when planning your visit.
How to Get There:
First off, you have to get to Alaska. There are many commercial flights into both Anchorage and Fairbanks everyday on major airlines such as Alaska, Delta, American, United, and so on. From Anchorage, Denali is a 4-hour drive north while it is around 2 hours south of Fairbanks. Even though Fairbanks is closer, flights to Fairbanks and rental cars tend to be a bit pricier. Another option is to take the Alaskan Railroad. There are typically only 1-2 departures from either city a day and the ticket price is hefty.
Check on flights to Alaska here: https://www.google.com/flights/
Outside the Park:
There are a cluster of lodges and campsites outside Denali’s entrance in the small towns of Healy and Cantwell. These lodges can fill up months in advance, so book early.
Two lodging options outside the park:
Inside the Park:
There are very few lodges inside the park and they are all located near the very end of the road. These lodges are the best options for those that want to really connect with the park’s true wilderness without having to pitch a tent. Since each lodge is fairly small, the per night rate can be large and just like with the lodges outside the park, these can fill up to a year in advance, so plan ahead!
Two of the nicer lodging companies inside the park:
For those on a budget and looking for the most intimate experience, you cannot go wrong with packing a tent and facing the elements (and in Alaska these can be very real!). Denali has 6 campgrounds: Wonder Lake, Igloo Creek, Teklanika, Sanctuary, Savage River, and Riley Creek campground (written West to East). Wonder Lake is generally considered not only the best campground in the park, but one of the best in the entire world. At mile 85, this small campsite of only 26 sites places you as close to the mountain as you can get without climbing it. From here, you can wake up every morning and have Denali and the entire Alaska Range as your backdrop. It is highly advised to book your camping reservation around 5-8 months in advance for Wonder Lake while the other campgrounds can be booked on later dates. Igloo Creek and Sanctuary cannot be reserved in advance and are first come first serve when you arrive. Almost every animal in the park will wander through the campgrounds, so always be alert even when just using the bathroom or cooking. Also be careful when camping in summer, as the bugs can be a nightmare! They typically do not die off till mid to late August as autumn sets in.
Backpacking is another great way to see the park if you handle traveling light. Unfortunately, you cannot get a trip planned officially until you arrive, as they do not issue permits until the day before you leave. So if the section (how they divvy up the park) is already full, you will need a Plan B and then possibly a Plan C.
Reserve camping here: http://www.reservedenali.com/camping-dining/camping-experience/
When to Go:
The best time to visit Denali is between mid-May and late September. In Alaska’s interior, winter comes early and stays late which means if you visit outside the months above, you are likely to encounter snow, closed facilities, and potentially crummy weather. Most visitors (coming off the endless stream of cruise ships) go in summer when the days are long, but there are some disadvantages such as mosquitoes and other insects as well as more crowds. For the traveler looking for the best time, late August through mid September is the prime time to visit. During this 2-3 week span, Denali’s tundra explodes with fall colors, nights are dark enough to allow aurora viewing, and the animals are looking their best. One can visit during the winter months, but you are generally confined to the first 15 miles of road and wildlife can be very hard to spot.
How to Get Around:
This is the quite possibly the largest hurdle for those used to controlling their travel. Denali does not allow cars past the first 15 miles of road, which means if you want to see the majority of the park, you are going to have to use their bus system. While intimidating at first, the bus system can be fairly easy to use once you get the hang of it. There are two types of buses in the park: green ones and white ones. The green ones are the non-narrative buses where one can hop on and off whenever and wherever they like. The white ones are narrative, cost more, and you cannot hop on and off unless you make sure you get picked up by that bus when it returns. So in short, green buses are good for those who are camping or want more freedom. The white buses on the other hand are good for those who are only visiting for a day or two and want a structured tour.
If you are camping, you will take what’s called a “Camper Bus” into the park. These are green buses, but they removed the seats from the back third of the bus to make room for bags, tents, and other gear. When you reserve your campground, you will be taken to the site in one of these buses, but you must reserve your departure time on the same website that you booked your camping reservation. When you are camping, you will automatically receive a bus pass where you can hop on any green bus as much as you would like. One of the weird exceptions is what is called the “Tek Pass” for those staying at Teklanika Campground. This pass only allows you to travel west into the park, not east of the campground. No driver seems to follow this rule, so if you go east towards the entrance, just make sure to get off at Savage River or the bus drivers may make you pay a fee to get back to your campground.
If you are a professional photographer/videographer, you can apply for a special permit that allows you to take your car into the park. They only give a few of them out and there are plenty of blackout dates, so check out the calendar on their website to see the dates work.
Reserve buses here: http://www.reservedenali.com/tours-transits/transits/
You are bound to see wildlife during your visit, whether you go 15 miles in or all the way to the end. Moose, grizzly bears, wolves, black bears, caribou, and dall sheep are just some of the critters you can expect to see. For those that look closer, you may find smaller species such as lynx, porcupines, martens, wolverines, owls, red fox, and more. The first 15 miles of road is the most crowded spot to watch wildlife due to traffic from the buses and cars. This however is one of the park’s best spot to see moose. Another good area for moose is near Wonder Lake and all the Kettle ponds around it. Most wildlife is viewed from the bus, which is a safe spot to watch certain animals such as grizzly bears who otherwise need over 900 feet of room. Up on Polychrome Pass and the mountains to both the east and west, look up for the white colored dall sheep. Caribou can be found mostly between miles 12-25 and then again between 75-90. There are only around 100 wolves inside the park, but many use the road and riverbeds as a means of travel giving you an above average chance of seeing one.
The best way to see any wildlife is to get off the road and start walking in any direction. Whether you walk near the kettle ponds and open-tundra surrounding Wonder Lake or in the taiga forests near the east, keep your eyes and ears open, as there’s most likely wildlife around. Denali has almost no trails and almost no rules about where you can walk, so stop the bus wherever you see fit (especially if you see an animal) and begin your trek. While the tundra looks flat, it is anything but easy to get across. Bushes that seemed ankle high from far away turn into 6-foot tall mazes while small creeks and flooded meadows block your path. It is best to bring boots or knee-high waders when heading out!
ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOU HAVE BEAR SPRAY! Grizzly bears can be hard to see in dense brush and having the spray ready might just make the difference.
Other Important Info:
- There are no restaurants or stores inside the park, so whatever food you bring in is what you get! Make sure to stock up even earlier, like Anchorage or Fairbanks early, as there are no grocery stores near Denali. There are a few general stores in Healy and another general store at the park entrance called the Riley Creek Mercantile.
- The Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66) has electricity and is heated with flush bathrooms and fresh water making it a nice spot to relax. Every bus heading towards Wonder Lake or Kantishna will stop here.
- When you get on a bus, make sure you know how far it is going. If you need to get to Wonder Lake, but the next bus only goes to Eielson, get on it as it is better to get as close to your destination as possible. Buses that go beyond your destination are good as well as you can always request a stop. For example, if you are traveling into the park and you need to go to Teklanika Campground, but the bus goes to Eielson, just tell the bus driver when you get on where you want to stop.
- Some buses will pass and they may be full, but do no worry. A bus comes by about every 15-20 minutes, so just hop on the next one.
- If staying in the park a few days, make sure to take a photo of the bus schedule. If you are out hiking and miss the last bus to your campground, you might be in trouble!
- Pack accordingly! Even in summer, Denali can get snow so always have warm layers in case the elements turn sour.
- If going for at least a few days, stay in at least two campgrounds so you can explore different areas of the park. The ride from the entrance to Wonder Lake generally takes over 4 hours, so it is not the quickest place to get around.
These are just a few tips to get you going while planning your Denali adventure. It is a wonderful park and now matter when you go, you will surely leave in awe. Learn more about the park, lodging, wildlife, backpacking, and more at the official website:
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Hey, I'm Chase Dekker, a wildlife and nature photographer looking to share my stories and expertise with as many people as possible. My blog gives you a glimpse into my life as a photographer - whether it be stories from my travels, or guides on how to make your own trips as successful and special as possible.
I hope to give you valuable insight on everything from travel, to animals, to photography tips and more!