The Ultimate Guide To Denali National Park
Denali National Park, home to the highest peak of North America & a plethora of wildlife species, is the crown jewel of Alaska!
Denali National Park, featuring six million acres of wilderness and a diverse ecosystem, is one of the most pristine National Parks in the US!
Denali National Park preserves and protects a large and diverse landscape and is home to a world of beautiful nature comprising of mountains, forested land, volcanic rock formations, glaciers, glacier-fed streams, gleaming lakes, and several species of wildlife, including mountain goats, wolves, grizzly bears! Denali National Park is also home to the highest mountain in North America – Denali, the summit of which measures about 20,300 feet tall and is often covered with snow and clouds!
Though since the beginning, the region today known as Denali National Park was mostly unoccupied due to the region’s high altitude and harsh winter conditions, hunting of wildlife was a growing concern in the area. In order to preserve and protect the wildlife and natural resources of the region, the Mount McKinley National Park was established in 1917, which was named after President William McKinley. However, the name “Mount McKinley National Park” was not much appreciated by the locals, who referred to the area as Denali, meaning “the high one,” so the Park was renamed to Denali National Park in 2015.
There’s a single road that passes through Denali National Park, and to protect nature & wildlife, and for the safety of the visitors, most of the Park is accessible only via Park buses!
There’s a single road, approximately 90 miles long, that passes through Denali National Park, of which only the first 15 miles are accessible by car, which leads to the Savage River, and beyond which the Park is only accessible via seasonal transit & tour busses operated by the Park. The transit busses are non-narrated hop-on-hop-off bus transportation within the Park which is great for exploring Denali National Park on your own. However, the Park also offers tour bus services featuring guided and well-narrated tours of the Park, which I highly recommend to all first-time visitors!
Here is my ultimate guide to Denali National Park, featuring essential trip-planning information, best ways to explore Denali National Park, things to do, and recommendations on hotels and restaurants near Denali National Park!
Planning Your Trip To Denali National Park
Visiting during the Summer months, flying into Fairbanks and then driving or taking a train to Denali, staying overnight near the Park, and taking one of the bus tours is the best way to explore Denali National Park!
Best Time To Visit Denali National Park: Winters are pretty long and brutal in Alaska, and unless you’re going skiing or snowmobiling, you should avoid winter and spring for sightseeing and outdoor activities in Denali National Park or anywhere in Alaska. Summer, particularly June through August, is the peak season in Denali. However, summer is also the busiest season, and a summer trip to Denali National Park should be planned ahead of time. If you don’t mind slightly cooler temperatures, visiting during the shoulder months, May & September, is a great way to beat the crowd at Denali National Park.
Time Required At Denali National Park: While a day is sufficient to explore the major highlights of Denali National Park, especially by using the guided tours offered by the Park, I recommend staying overnight and spending a minimum of a couple of days at Denali National Park as getting to the Park does involve a good amount of driving. However, you need to account for more time if you’re planning to go hiking and backpacking in Denali National Park.
Getting To Denali National Park: The best and most convenient way to get to Denali National Park is by flying into Fairbanks International Airport and then driving or taking a train to Denali.
- Flight: Fairbanks International Airport (FAI), Fairbanks, Alaska, about 120 miles north of Denali, is the closest airport to Denali National Park. You could also fly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC), Anchorage, Alaska, located approximately 240 miles south of Denali National Park.
- Train: The Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star Train Service, connecting Anchorage to Fairbanks, stops at Denali National Park. However, the train services to Denali National Park are seasonal and take a reasonable amount of time – Anchorage to Denali – about 8 hours and Fairbanks to Denali – around 4 hours.
- Bus: The Park Connection offers motorcoach trips to Denali from Anchorage on its seasonal Denali Express Route and takes about 6 hours.
Guided Tours In Denali National Park: To protect nature & wildlife, and for the safety of the visitors, most of the Park is accessible only via Park buses – Transit Bus Service & Guided Tours offered by the Park. There’s a single road, approximately 90 miles long, that passes through Denali National Park, of which only the first 15 miles are accessible by car, which leads to the Savage River, and beyond which the Park is only accessible via seasonal transit & tour busses operated by the Park. The Transit Busses are non-narrated hop-on-hop-off bus transportation within the Park which is great for exploring Denali National Park on your own. However, the Park also offers Tour Bus Services featuring guided and well-narrated tours of the Park, which I highly recommend to all first-time visitors.
Lodging & Dining Near Denali National Park: While camping and backpacking are definitely an option at Denali National Park, if you like the comfort of a hotel room, you will find a few good lodges and bread & breakfasts near the entrance of the Park. There’re no restaurants inside Denali National Park, but you will find several local eateries right outside the Park during the summer months. I have reviewed the lodging and dining options near Denali National Park in detail in a later section of this post.
Things To Do In Denali National Park
While the guided bus tours are the most popular & comfortable way to explore Denali National Park, you could also hike a few trails, go backpacking, or take a scenic flight at Denali National Park!
Denali National Park Bus Tours: There’s a single road, approximately 90 miles long, starting near the Park entrance, popularly known as Denali Park, stretching all the way to Kantishna, a historic mining town at the end of the Denali Park Road. Kantishna is the closest you can get to the Denali range in the Park without hiking or flying. However, only the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road is accessible by car, which leads to the Savage River, and beyond which the Park is only accessible via seasonal transit & tour busses operated by the Park.
Non-Narrated Bus Tours: The Transit Busses offered by the Park are non-narrated hop-on-hop-off bus transportation within the Park which is excellent for exploring Denali National Park on your own or getting to a trailhead if you’re going hiking in the Park. The transit buses stop at all major vista points and trailheads, and the drivers will also stop if they spot wildlife on the way.
Narrated Bus Tours: Denali National Park offers several guided tours of the Park, which includes a knowledgeable guide cum driver who would point out all points of interest along the route, provide facts about the region, and help spot wildlife. There’re several guided tours offered in the Park, which primarily vary in length. Below are the three main guided tours provided at Denali National Park, which I highly recommend reserving in advance online on reservedenali.com –
- Denali Natural History Tour: The shortest of all guided tours in Denali focuses on the natural and cultural history of the area and takes about 5 hours.
- Tundra Wilderness Tour: The Tundra Wilderness Tour takes approximately 8 hours and features natural history and ample wildlife in the Park.
- Kantishna Experience Tour: The most extensive tour of Denali National Park, the Kantishna Experience Tour takes around 12 hours and features natural history, wildlife, and a visit to the historic gold town of Kantishna located on the end of the Park Road.
Hiking In Denali National Park: Hiking and backpacking is a popular activity in Denali National Park, but given the vastness of the Park and the ample wildlife, you must carry proper hiking gear and take appropriate safety measures. Also, due to the large size of the Park, only a handful of hiking trails are maintained by the National Park Services, and the rest of the courses are off-trail hikes.
- Trail Hikes In Denali: Most of the trail hikes in Denali National Park are short but provide a well-marked path to the hikers. Here’re are the most popular trail hikes in Denali – Horseshoe Lake Trail, Meadow View Trail, Mount Healy Overlook Trail, Triple Lakes Trail, Mountain Vista Trail, Savage River Loop, and Thorofare Ridge Trail. You can find more details about each trail on the NPS Website.
- Off-Trail Hikes In Denali: Once inside the Park, you’re free to explore any humanly explorable region in the Park, and that includes several miles of wilderness and alpine areas of Denali. You can use the Transit Bus Services provided by the Park to get to a desired section of the Park and then start your off-trail hike. However, do keep in mind that Denali is home to several species of wildlife, and there’s hardly any cellular coverage, so please go prepared.
Biking In Denali National Park: The Park offers two biking trails (1) Roadside Bike Trail – 1.7 miles paved bike trail from the Park entrance to the visitor center along the Denali Park Road (2) Parks Hwy Bike Trai – 1-mile bike path along the Highway 3.
Sled Dog Kennels: Denali National Park still uses sled dogs to assist rangers during the harsh winter conditions, and during the summer months, the rangers, along with the sled dogs, offer Sled Dog Demonstrations which is a unique experience and a must-see in Denali National Park. The sled dog kennels are accessible only via Park busses departing from the Denali Visitor Center or a 1.5 miles hike also starting from the visitor center.
Scenic Flights In Denali National Park: Riding a small aircraft and soaring over the mountain ranges and ice fields, and landing on the glaciers, the Scenic Flights of Denali National Park are undeniably one of the best ways to explore the Park’s diverse landscape! However, only select flightseeing concessionaires of the National Park Services are allowed to land on the glaciers in Denali National Park, and I highly recommend making your reservations in advance. Denali Scenic Flights are available from Denali Park, Talkeetna, Healy, and as well as from Anchorage & Fairbanks. Here’re a few companies that offer scenic flights in Denali – Fly Denali, Talkeetnaair, and Kantishna Air Taxi.
Lodging & Dining In Denali National Park
While camping & backpacking are very popular in Denali National Park, if you love the comfort of a hotel room, you will find a few lodges inside the Park and hotels near the Park entrance, but they should be reserved well in advance!
Campgrounds In Denali National Park: Camping and off-trail backpacking are undeniably the best way to experience the wilderness in Denali National Park. However, Denali is home to several wildlife species and has no cellphone coverage, so adequate safety measures must be taken when camping and backpacking in Denali. Denali National Park has six campgrounds, of which three are front country campgrounds and open for cars, RVs, and tents, and the other three are backcountry campgrounds, strictly tent only camping and accessible by Park busses. The campsites in Denali National Park can be reserved online at Reservedenali.com.
- Front Country Campgrounds (RVs, Cars, & Tents): Riley Creek Campground(Only campground in Denali that’s open year-round), Savage River Campground, Teklanika River Campground.
- Backcountry Campgrounds (Tents Only): These are located in the interior of the Park and can only be accessed by Park busses – Sanctuary River Campground, Igloo Creek Campground, and Wonder Lake Campground.
Hotels Near Denali National Park: If camping is not your thing and you prefer the comfort of a hotel room, you can stay in one of the hotels near the entrance of the Park, known as Denali Park, or in one of the privately operated lodges inside the Park. Though you may not find luxury hotels and resorts in Denali Park, there are quite a few decent bread & breakfasts and a few hotels, but you must plan ahead and make your reservation well in advance. Here’re my top picks for hotels near Denali National Park –
- Lodges Inside Denali National Park: Kantishna Roadhouse, Denali Backcountry Lodge, Camp Denali, and Skyline Lodge.
- Hotels & Lodges Outside Denali National Park: McKinley Chalet Resort, Denali Bluffs Hotel, Denali Park Village, and Denali Totem Inn.
Restaurants Near Denali National Park: While dining options inside Denali National Park is limited to its one seasonal restaurant, Morino Grill, located near the Denali Visitor Center, you will find quite a few dining options near the entrance of the Park, especially during the peak season in the summer months. Here’re my top picks for restaurants in Denali National Park – The Overlook Restaurant for American fare with great views, Moose-AKa’s popularly known for its authentic Serbian food, 49th State Brewing Denali Park for comfort food, and The Black Bear for great coffee & breakfast.
Other Alaska Attractions & Related Posts
I hope you enjoyed reading the post, The Ultimate Guide To Denali National Park, and I hope this will help you plan your trip to Denali National Park. You can find other Alaska attractions in my Alaska Travel Guide.
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