At 20,310 feet, Mount Denali is North America’s highest peak and the national park is a spectacular wilderness area of just over 6 million acres.
A visit to Denali is a highlight of a trip to Alaska – don’t miss it!
Take a look at our Denali National Park photos.
We drove to Denali from Anchorage with a lunch stop at Talkeetna – a quaint town with some interesting shops and good places to eat.
Another stop not to miss on the way to Denali National Park is the McKinley South Lookout – wonderful views of the Alaska Range. Not far beyond the Lookout, the George Parks Highway traverses Broad Pass around Mile 195 and the scenery is spectacular.
Denali Park Road in Denali National Park
There is just one road in and out of Denali National Park – the 92-mile long Denali Park Road ending at Kantishna. Denali Park Road starts at Mile 237 on the George Parks Highway.
During peak tourist season, private vehicle access is restricted on Denali Park Road. There is a shuttle bus/tour bus system in place for visitors and this helps protect the park by reducing traffic on Park Road, so the only way to drive along Denali Park Road in peak season is on a National Park Tour Bus, a National Park Transit Bus or a National Park Shuttle Bus. There are also a couple of private operators that run bus tours to Kantishna (more details below).
The first 15 miles of Denali Park Road are paved and in May 2018 we were able to drive to Mile 15 – Savage River. Once at Savage River, the gate was open and we were fortunate to continue driving to Mile 30 – Teklanika River. The speed limit varied from 20 to 35mph.
Because of the restricted private vehicle access, most people see the park by taking one of the three National Park bus tours, or one of the private bus tours to Kantishna.
National Park Bus Tours
There are three guided, narrated tours run by Aramark (a Denali National Park Concession Joint Venture) in summer:
- Denali Natural History Tour – 4-5 hours, travels to Mile 30 Teklanika River.
- Tundra Wilderness Tour – 7-8 hours, travels to Mile 62 Stony Hill Overlook.
- Kantishna Experience Tour – 11-12 hours to Mile 92 Kantishna – as far as you can go on Denali Park Road.
Tours depart from the Wilderness Access Center (Denali Bus Depot). It is advisable to book online well in advance. More information and bookings can be found at The Denali Tour Experience .
There is a large parking area at the Wilderness Access Center should you have your own car.
There is very limited food or drink available in the Park, so be sure to take your own, or check if your bus tour includes lunch. Our hotel, McKinley Chalet Resort, offered box lunches from the Grizzly Grind kiosk (order and pay the night before and pick up the morning of your tour – be sure to allow plenty of time as queues to collect lunches are long!).
In the National Park, during the peak summer season only, the Morino Grill restaurant (next to Denali Visitor Center) is open, and the Wilderness Access Centre sells drinks/snacks, and the Riley Creek Campground store sells drinks/sandwiches/camp food. None of these places were open during our visit in May.
Natural History Tour
When we visited in May, only the Denali Natural History Tour was operating as Denali Park Road was still snowed in beyond Mile 30. We had booked this tour online well in advance – www.reservedenali.com – before leaving Australia. The Natural History Tour typically runs for 4-5 hours but ours was a little shorter due to heavy snow preventing us doing the full itinerary. Our driver and guide, Sheryl, has worked at Denali for 18 years and had never seen so much snow at this time of year!
The tours are run on school buses that are very comfortable and have big windows. We found that many pairs of eyes was a big advantage when spotting wildlife – we saw moose, caribou, snow hares, willow ptarmigan (state bird of Alaska) and Hoary marmot. The scenery is beautiful.
Sheryl’s narration was informative and entertaining. We can highly recommend the National Park narrated tours. If either of the longer tours had been available we would have done one of them.
National Park Transit Buses
These green buses require a ticket and allow visitors to get on or off anywhere along Denali Park Road. There is no narration on Transit Buses. They are a good form of transport for those wanting to walk one of the trails in the park.
National Park Shuttle Buses
The shuttle buses are free buses that operate within the park during summer and travel along the first 15 miles (to Savage River) of Denali Park Road. There are three routes:
- Savage River Shuttle
- Riley Loop Shuttle
- Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle
Shuttle Bus schedules – https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/courtesy-shuttle-buses.htm
National Park Ranger Programs
To make the most of your trip to Denali, it is worth considering some of the ranger activities including trail hikes, talks, off-trail hikes and sled dog demonstrations. See details on the Denali National Park website.
Sled Dog Demonstrations
Rangers still use sled dogs to access remote areas of Denali NP during the winter months. The kennels and sled dog demonstrations are available to visitors during summer. See website for more details – www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/sled-dog-demonstrations.htm
Private Bus Tours to Kantishna
There are a few private companies offering tours in Denali including:
- Kantishna Wilderness Trails – Denali NP Day Trip Bus Tour
- Denali Backcountry Adventure
Denali Backcountry Adventure is a private tour operator with access to the Park. Their full day tour takes visitors along the length of Denali Park Road to Kantishna. Information on their tours and accommodation at Denali Backcountry Lodge can be found on their website – www.alaskacollection.com/day-tours/denali-backcountry-adventure/
- Stampede Excursions – offer several types of tours in Denali – see their website for more details – https://stampedeexcursions.com/
Visitor Centres – Denali National Park
There are five visitor centres with staff in the park:
- Denali National Park Visitor Center (Mile 1.5) – This is the place to go for advice on what to see and do in the park. Walk through the excellent displays and take time to watch the two films in Karstens Theater. There is a café and bookshop close by. This Visitor Center is only open in summer.
- Denali Bus Depot (Wilderness Access Center) (Mile 1) – This is where to book and catch national park bus tours, and to book a NP campground. Only opens in summer.
- Murie Science and Learning Center – This is the Park’s Information Center during Autumn, Winter and Spring.
- Toklat River Station (Mile 53) – Visitor information, rest rooms and a small bookstore.
- Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66) – Open during Summer, has amazing views of Mount Denali and a number of ranger-led programs.
For more details, see Plan Your Visit on the Denali National Park website.
Where to Stay
The closest accommodation to the entrance to the Denali National Park are in two settlements – one just north of the entrance and one just south of the entrance. Be prepared for crowds as many package tours visit Denali. Even in May, at the very beginning of the season, the place was busy – but don’t let that put you off – it is a great experience.
North of Denali NP – about 1.5 miles north of entrance to Denali NP
For our visit to Denali we stayed at the McKinley Chalet Resort, about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Denali National Park in a settlement called Nenana Canyon. We were very happy with the location and our accommodation and can highly recommend a stay. The main accommodation in this location, other than McKinley Chalet, is the Princess Wilderness Lodge.
On the other side of the road to McKinley Chalet and Princess Wilderness Lodge there is a row of small timber buildings known as the Rainbow Village Boardwalk Mall – several shops, eateries and tour outlets.
It is worth noting that services at Nenana Canyon are closed over Winter.
South of Denali NP – about 6 miles south of entry to Denali NP
There is a cluster of accommodation in this area that includes the Denali Grizzly Bear Resort and the Denali Park Village. We heard good things about Denali Grizzly Bear Resort.
Accommodation in Denali National Park
Apart from camping, the only place to stay within the national park is at the small settlement of Kantishna (92 miles from the park entrance). Be aware that it is a long bus trip to and from Kantishna, or a small plane flight in. A good overview of accommodation is available on the Alaska Travel website – www.alaskatravel.com/denali/kantishna-lodges.html – and includes:
- Camp Denali – http://campdenali.com/
- Kantishna Roadhouse – www.kantishnaroadhouse.com/
- Denali Backcountry Lodge – www.alaskacollection.com/lodging/denali-backcountry-lodge/
- Skyline Lodge – www.katair.com/skyline-lodge/
Good to Know About Denali National Park
- Cell phone service stops at about Mile 6.
- Only 10% of visitors to Denali NP actually see Mount Denali – it is often hidden in cloud.
- Out of season, it is possible to drive your own car to Mile 30, weather permitting.
- There is no entrance gate to Denali National Park. Park entry must be paid for at the Visitor Centre (US$10 per person for 7 days). If you have booked a bus tour, the entrance fee is usually included.
- If visiting out of season, be flexible and prepared for changes to normal schedules – it is a wilderness area and weather is unpredictable.
- The number of visitors to the park are now over 600,000 per annum so it is advisable to book tours and accommodation well in advance.
- Denali NP has an excellent website for planning your visit and booking buses and campgrounds.
- Denali National Park Website – www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm
- Plan your visit – www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm
- In Summer, mosquitoes are a problem in Denali and other parts of Alaska.
For more information on planning a trip to Denali National Park, contact Dave Upton at email@example.com
17-18 May 2018