Welcome to 6 million acres of Alaskan wilderness: The ultimate playground for enthusiastic outdoors adventurers, intrepid naturalists, and happy woodland wanderers. I would put myself in the last category, a little less intrepid and adventurous, but certainly curious with a daring edge. Denali National Park and Preserve is one of the most amazing trips offering breathtaking scenery and exciting adventures for everyone. Denali insists you open your eyes and heart to the wonders of nature and the role we play in the evolution of our environment.
Visiting Denali National Park, whether it is on an Alaskan cruise extension or as a stand-alone adventure, should be on the top of your “places to see” list.
Note: Some information in this piece was obtained during a sponsored press trip, but all recommendations are my own.
1. Drive Denali Park Road
Denali Park Road stretches for 92 miles on a gravel-formed road from the park entrance on Alaska Highway 3 to Kantishna. Park-contracted buses carry visitors along the Park Road to Mile 43. The road is closed at Mile 43 to vehicles due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide.
If you are driving your own car, you must turn around at Mile 15; personal vehicles are not allowed past this point.
Pro Tip: Check with your rental car company if you plan to drive Denali Park Road. It is prohibited by some rental companies and you can void your car rental insurance if you have a mishap while driving on a prohibited road.
2. Relax On A Narrated Bus Tours
Denali Park Village offers two narrated bus tours that take you through Denali National Park and Preserve and provide a unique perspective of life in the park.
- The Tundra Wilderness Tour focuses on the wildlife population, park management, and park history. The 5-plus-hour round trip to Mile 43 and back is a protected immersion into the park. Frequent stops allow you to stretch your legs, snap a few photos, and use the washroom. With everyone on the bus scanning the passing scenery, you have a better chance of spotting a variety of wildlife — from grizzly bears to Arctic ground squirrels.
- The Natural History Tour is a 4-plus-hour tour out to Mile 25 and back. Turning around at the Teklanika Flats, the tour explores the history of Denali National Park. Included is an Alaskan Native presentation and a tour of Savage Cabin, an original ranger’s home.
Pro Tip: Bring your binoculars. Some wildlife will be up close, but most will be away from the tour bus and binoculars will give you the best view.
3. Enjoy Dinner And A Show
The Alaska Cabin Nite Dinner Theater performance tells the version of Gold Rush history. From late May to mid-September, guests enjoy the tale of Fannie Quigley and her adventures in the Alaskan wilderness. As the waitstaff switches between performing and serving, you are drawn into the show, sometimes literally. Guests are encouraged to participate as a group and a select few are chosen to expand their acting chops and become temporary cast members. The fun and frivolity paired with a delicious dinner is a wonderful end to an adventurous Denali day.
Family-style dinner is served in an authentic log cabin at long tables where you can enjoy a shared experience with your tablemates. The all-you-can-eat fare includes sticky barbecue ribs, Alaskan salmon, drop biscuits, and other hearty dishes.
Pro Tip: Cut loose and join in the fun. It is a great opportunity to make new friends and swap Denali stories.
4. Hiking Trails And Backcountry
Whether you prefer hiking on well-worn trails or backcountry bushwacking, trekking the park is the heart of the Denali experience. From the easy 2.1-mile long Savage River Loop Trail that winds along the Savage River to the 9.5-mile, out-and-back Triple Lakes Trail with overlooks of the Nenana River and three park lakes, there are trails for every fitness level. Denali has 43 curated hiking trails; you will find it difficult to narrow it down to just a few.
Off-trail hiking in Denali National Park is part of the charm of this beautiful wilderness. Transit shuttle buses pick up and drop off day hikers and campers along the side of the road.
Consider taking a hike with an interpretive guide. Hikers of every skill level will enjoy hiking with an experienced guide. Not only will you not get lost, but your guide can also enlighten you on the local flora and fauna, often spotting critters you might have missed.
Pro Tip: You can explore a variety of the most popular hiking trails in Denali, so start building your hiking bucket list now.
5. Make Friends With A Sled Dog
The Denali Sled Dog Kennels is home to the team that helps monitor Denali during winter. With a regular route through the snow-covered trails, the dogs and their sled — with a ranger in tow — patrol the park checking on trail conditions.
The kennels are open daily and demonstrations are held at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. from early June through early September.
6. Find Your Wings
Use your binoculars to hunt for all the amazing birds that call Denali National Park home. Birding in Denali is a favorite pastime for many visitors. Ornithologist want-to-bes will love spotting a golden eagle soaring high above or a willow ptarmigan perched in a willow bush. The ubiquitous black-billed magpies are everywhere; their aerial grace and on-the-ground antics are entertaining.
Pro Tip: Binoculars are a must for spotting the many birds of Denali.
7. Soar Above The Trees
Denali Park Adventures offers flightseeing tours that take you off the ground for a bird-eye view of Denali National Park. Circle the majestic mountain, land on a glacier, or see all the beauty of Denali from high above the treetops. This is a magnificent way to experience Denali without breaking a sweat from all the hiking.
Pro Tip: Denali weather is changeable and the flights are weather dependent.
8. Tackle The Terrain
If you want to get down and dirty, try an ATV Tour. Hop on your one, two, or up to six-person All Terrain Vehicle and explore a guide-led ride through the hills and forests near Denali National Park. Conquer Alaska’s wild side on this explosive adventure. It is the perfect, close-to-the-ground ride covering miles of wilderness in just a few hours.
Pro Tip: Check out their spectacular Midnight Sun Tour and experience a classic Alaskan sunset.
At the end of your exhausting day, you need a place to rest and dream of tomorrow’s adventures. Some will choose to set up camp out in the National Park — personally, I like a few more comforts. Besides backcountry camping, there are several other options. The Lodge at Denali Park Village has all the creature comforts you desire. You can also camp in a designated park campground — a compromise between luxury and roughing it.
9. The Lodge
At the Lodge, you have the option of staying in a well-appointed room or suite, some with private deck views of the Nenana River. The main lodge is a beautiful gathering place for groups and has a cute gift shop, a cozy bar, a great restaurant, and a large deck with gorgeous views. It is the perfect spot to enjoy the amenities you desire and the rustic nature of the area.
Another option at Denali Park Village is the cabins. Cozy camp-like accommodations with full baths and stunning views. They give you the sense of roughing it but offer much-needed creature comforts after a day exploring Mother Nature’s wonderland.
10. In-Park Campgrounds
There are great camping options in Denali National Park and Preserve. You can have the security of a home base to return to each evening after your daily adventures.
There are six in-the-park camping areas where you can reserve a spot for up to 14 days of wilderness wonderment. The sites vary from tent camping to select RV sites. Some are accessible by car, others require the use of the transit bus. None of the sites have water or electric hookups.
- Riley Creek Campground (RV access)
- Savage River Campground (RV access)
- Sanctuary River Campground
- Teklanika River Campground (RV access)
- Igloo Creek Campground
- Wonder Lake Campground (closed for the 2022 season)
11. Backcountry Camping
For the ultimate wilderness exploration, Denali National Park offers backcountry camping units. Overnight backpacking requires a permit (free), an orientation, and approved bear-resistant food containers. Permits are issued in person no more than one day before your backwoods adventure begins.
If you love communing with Mother Nature on her terms, this may be the perfect accommodation for you and your besties.
Adventures In Denali National Park And Preserve
The wonderland that is Denali National Park and Preserve is amazing. Filled with adventures that make lasting memories, your visit to this Alaskan wilderness will be nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Visit as an intrepid outdoor adventurer, a thrill-seeking globe trotter, or a curious nature lover; but you must visit Denali National Park and Preserve.
For more on Denali and other National Parks, explore these articles: