Denali National Park and Preserve is one of those experiences you need to enjoy. The park offers guests an ecologically practical experience — exemplifying the balance between “hands off” nature and tourism management. You can see firsthand the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness while minimizing your local environmental impact. As guests on this wonderful planet, we collectively need to travel thoughtfully and move through environments leaving no trace of our visit behind.
I just returned from exploring Denali National Park and Preserve, and everyone I spoke to fell in love with the wild beauty of the park; I am certain you will love it too. I have assembled a list of 11 things you need to know before you visit and hope you visit as soon as you can.
Note: Some information in this piece was obtained during a sponsored press trip, but all recommendations are my own.
1. Denali Park Road
Denali Park Road stretches for 92 mostly gravel miles from the park entrance on Alaska Highway 3 to Kantishna. This road, however, is not entirely traversable in your personal vehicle. The Denali Visitor Center will have all the information you need to set off hiking and riding the national park.
Only Denali National Park and Preserve-permitted buses are allowed along the Park Road and only to Mile 43. Due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide, the park has closed the road past Mile 43 — at least through the 2023 summer season.
If you are driving your own personal vehicle, you must turn around at Mile 15 and are only allowed that far from mid-May to early September.
Pro Tip: Check with your rental car company; some companies prohibit driving on Denali Park Road. You can actually void your car rental insurance if you have a mishap while driving on a prohibited road.
2. Buses Traversing Through Denali
The best way to view the park — without having to hike miles and miles — is on one of the permitted buses. There are two different types of bus trips traversing through Denali offering different ways to explore based on your personal desires.
The “let’s get to our stop” bus is the non-narrated transit bus. This bus will drop you off and pick you up anywhere along the navigable miles on Denali Park Road. It is the best option if you want to hop on and off to explore the park trails independent of tour groups.
You will encounter a wide variety of characters on the transit bus. There are on- and off-trail day-trippers looking to hike through the open preserve, campers with several days’ worth of gear as they head out to face the natural elements, and there will be people who simply want to sit back and enjoy the scenic ride without the chatter of a narrator.
Narrated Tour Buses
The narrated bus tours offer park history, wildlife management, and park management education along with a few, well-practiced jokes along the way. Question: What do you call a Denali visitor riding through the park on a bicycle?
Denali Park Village offers two unique narrated Denali National Park and Preserve tours.
- The Tundra Wilderness Tour is a fascinating tour encompassing all aspects of park management. The tour turns around at Mile 43 and guests experience the complete stretch of open road. On this trip, you will learn about the history of the park, its wildlife population, and park management. The driver/narrator stops frequently during this 5-plus-hour tour for wildlife viewing and washroom breaks.
- The Natural History Tour travels to Mile 25 along the Denali Park Road turning around at the Teklanika Flats. The 4-and-a-half-plus-hour tour will explore the history of Denali National Park including an Alaskan Native presentation and a tour of the original ranger’s cabin, Savage Cabin.
Answer: Meals on Wheels!
3. Dress Appropriately
The weather in Denali can change quickly, and the temperature range from early morning to mid-afternoon to evening can fluctuate. Dressing in layers is an understatement.
Hiking across the open spaces and then ducking back into the forested area where temps can be considerably cooler makes outerwear tricky. Layers like a sleeveless top, then a long sleeve shirt, followed by a light jacket should keep you cozy during the more temperate months. Heavier layers, wool hats, and mittens can be necessary in early spring or fall.
One Denali expert recommended you “Dress for the weather you don’t expect.” You never know when there will be snow and ice on the trail, a sudden shower, or sweltering heat.
Solid, broken-in hiking boots are key to any successful hike. Personally, I always bring my trekking poles. They help move me along while providing additional balance. You will see plenty of hikers using them along the trails.
4. Ditch The Plastic
Plastic bottles create a mound of non-biodegradable trash. It takes about 1,000 years for a landfill plastic water bottle to photodegrade. Bring a refillable water bottle to stay hydrated while exploring and help save us from tons of un-recycled plastic water bottles.
5. Binoculars For A Better View
When you are on a tour bus or hiking trail, the wildlife is probably far away from you. This is a good thing since you don’t want an up-close encounter with a grizzly, moose, or other large woodland creature. Binoculars and cameras fitted with a zoom lens are the best way to get a great look at Denali inhabitants.
You may see people closing in on the wildlife for a closer look, but don’t do it! When a fast, 1,500-pound moose is mad and running at you full force, he is probably going to win the battle.
6. Phone Batteries
Phone batteries have a limited charge, and you don’t want to run dry of juice just as the perfect mountain vista comes into view.
A simple way to increase your battery life is to switch your phone to airplane mode. This will keep the phone from constantly searching for a cell signal. Anyway, you will be too busy watching nature roll by to be scrolling on your phone.
Carry a portable battery charger if you love taking copious amounts of photos on your phone. Mine has saved me on many occasions, allowing me to continue to enjoy the scenery one snapshot at a time.
7. Wildlife Up Close
While you are hiking in Denali, you may very well encounter wildlife on the trail. A Denali guide quipped, “The animals are just like us, they like things easy. Why would they forge a new trail when there is already one here.”
Carrying and knowing how to use bear spray is a good safety measure. Chatting while you are hiking will alert animals to your presence and help keep them at bay. Give animals a wide berth, learn their habitats, and be aware of your surroundings.
The Denali Animal Safety Guidelines page is a good place to prepare for your wilderness exploration.
8. Lock Up Your Passport
I am going to retell a story that was told to me firsthand. There was a group enjoying a nice gathering, chatting and sharing a snack at a picnic table. Along came a grizzly bear, hungry and curious. As the group took cover — screaming and waving their arms according to the protocol — the grizzly decided to help himself to one of the backpacks, picking it up and carrying it away.
Unfortunately, a much-needed passport and cash stash were in the pilfered backpack, leaving someone stranded without access out of the country.
Lock up your passport and cash in the hotel safe.
9. Rent A Car
Denali and the surrounding area are composed of wide-open spaces. You can hop a shuttle bus to get you from spot to spot, however, it is more expedient to have your own car. A drive down the Alaskan Highway on a bright sunny day is a gorgeous scenic drive in every direction.
Visit Denali National Park
The wilderness wonderland that is Denali National Park and Preserve is best enjoyed when you are well prepared. There is so much to see and do, you will love the scenic wide openness and accessibility of the park. It is my hope you get to experience Denali in the near future and this list of 11 need-to-know tips will get you started on your journey.
Use this guide as the perfect addition to your generic packing list. The park is home to many trails and acres of backcountry — it is time to get out and explore.
For more on Denali and other National Parks, explore these articles: