Denali National Park and Preserve: Alaska’s Best!

Denali

Denali is so big even Texas would be impressed. Not only is it the highest mountain in North America, but it’s also the most remote spot for your mountain selfies. In Denali National Park, you can go for a hike, a bike ride, or even camp under the stars – just be sure to pack your bear canister because nobody likes sharing their snacks with a grizzly.

This national park is full of natural wonders and beautiful scenery, offering every activity and experience for visitors of all ages and abilities.

Bus Tours in Denali National Park

The park’s road system is restricted, and the best way to access the interior is by hopping on one of the park’s buses. Whether you choose a narrated tour or the more flexible shuttle service, you can spot wildlife, including bears, moose, and Dall sheep, while viewing the awe-inspiring Denali.

Denali National Park
Denali’s Bus Ride

We decided to take the Tundra Wilderness Tour in the summer of 2023, which came with a hefty $282.50 price tag for the two of us. It was pricey but worth the extra money. Our friends also experienced the same tour on a different day and had a great time. However, they said the less costly, non-narrated transit bus, costing $33.25, was just as fantastic. They made several animal-watching stops on their “non-narrated” trip, which was just as educational as the more expensive tour. Choose the bus that best suits your needs, schedule, and budget.

Denali views out the bus window

Scheduling the bus tour marked the time for our visit. We planned in late August and got a tour about ten days later. So, if you know when you’re heading to Alaska, schedule your bus ticket (and campground) as early as possible.

Denali National Park
Caribou from the Bus window

Sled Dog Facility

The Denali Sled Dog Kennels offers a unique window into the park’s past and sled dogs’ function. You’ll see demonstrations of these fantastic canines in action and learn about the history of dog mushing. In addition, the facility serves as a gathering place for park rangers who continue the custom of patrolling the park with sled dogs, particularly in the winter. It’s a touching and instructive event for people of all ages.

During our visit, the dogs lined up to pull the training sled (wheeled in summer) and a special visitor. A young man, about 12 years old, got to ride along in celebration of visiting his 100th park. He was super excited, and the crowd loved that he got to ride along. After the ride, we talked with him and his parents (the real heroes who made his 100 visits happen!) I know that sled dog adventure will be one of his fondest memories as he grows and matures.

Denali National Park
One of Denali’s Sled Dogs

It was terrific seeing the dogs in their homes, petting them, and watching their excitement as they were called to the sled. It’s certainly a memory I’ll cherish!

Watch the Park’s sled dog video before visiting the dogs to understand their essential role better. Denali has the only working sled dog team in the country. And they genuinely do a lot of work throughout the winter.

Sled dog exhibition

Hiking Opportunities in Denali National Park

Denali provides a range of trail options for hikers of all experience levels. Discover a variety of landscapes and ecosystems on walks ranging from short, leisurely strolls to strenuous backcountry treks. Popular paths include the Horseshoe Lake Trail, which offers a more challenging experience, and the more accessible Savage River Loop Trail, which provides excellent opportunities to observe wildlife.

Experienced hikers may even want to try the strenuous ascent up the rugged Mount Healy Overlook Trail, which offers breathtaking views of the park.

Unlike our longer backpacking treks, we opted for shorter hikes in Denali National Park. The Savage River Loop Trail is relatively level and only a couple of miles. We got great views and the relaxing sound of running water. Plus, it wasn’t very crowded. I’d highly recommend this short adventure for families.

Steve at Savage River

You can also take a ranger-led hike that starts from the Visitor Center. They’re usually around 2:00 pm, and participants must sign up in person. We had heard about one of the rangers who led a mushroom-hunting type of hike, but as it turns out, that was maybe something special for other rangers and park personnel. While one ranger is a mushroom expert, he doesn’t lead specific hikes to pick them.

Some ranger-led hikes are short and easy, but others require a bus ride and a couple of hours of hiking. So that’s why you need to sign up in person to assess the hike compared to your abilities.

Denali National Park
Moose on the way to the campground

Denali National Park Campgrounds

We recommend reserving a campground in Denali National Park as early as possible. You can check out the reservation system on December 1st before your trip the following summer.

Campgrounds are open mid-May through mid-September after most snow melts and closing before it starts dumping again. We experienced snow flurries in September but no real accumulation during our visit. However, a few days before our arrival, the Park got a couple of inches of snow. So, it made everything look beautiful while still mainly having clear roadways.

We stayed at Riley Creek Campground, the closest to the park entrance. It’s also the only campground with the cell service we needed for remote work. In early September, about a quarter of empty campsites remained, so it may not be as necessary to plan later in the season. But I’d still make prior reservations if your travel schedule has little to no flexibility.

Cupcake at Denali

All campgrounds are dry camping, so there are no water or electric hookups. However, you can use a generator from 8 to 10:00 a.m. and again from 4 to 8:00 p.m. Since we boondock regularly, it wasn’t a big deal. We picked a site with clear sky views, so we had enough solar power to avoid using a generator during our stay.

From Riley Creek Campground, we took the trail to the Visitor Center. It wound through the forest and beneath the railway bridge, taking about an hour. The trail is well-maintained and clearly marked. A posted sign notified us of bear activity, so we carried bear spray, but we only saw a few chipmunks.

Denali National Park
At one of the bus tour overlooks

Visitor’s Center at Denali

The Visitor’s Center and the Bus Depot are the hubs of Denali National Park during the summer. Free shuttle buses and marked trails take visitors around the park.

From the Visitor Center, catch a bus to the Sled Dog Center. But don’t forget to watch the video before you go—it enhances the whole experience! Inside the Visitor Center, there are informative exhibits that will take about an hour to view, plus a couple of videos to watch in the theater.

The Murie Science and Learning Center (MSLC) is a short walk away and serves as the Park’s Visitor Center during the winter. We didn’t visit the center because it was closed during our time at Denali.

Between the MSLC and the Visitor Center, there is a big gift shop and dining area. Prices are standard national park prices, so expect to pay more for a hamburger and fries than you will at McDonald’s. I tried the chowder, and it was tasty!

So much beauty, everywhere we looked!

Other Things to Do in Denali National Park

Beyond camping, bus touring, and hiking, you can also backpack or bicycle in Denali National Park. An intelligent entrepreneur opened an e-bike rental shop just outside the park’s boundaries. So you can bike through Denali on paved bike paths with electric assist. The owner of that shop is a genius! What a great way to see the park up close without killing yourself on a regular pedal bike. We discussed renting e-bikes but opted for the bus and hiking instead.

You can also take a free shuttle bus to Sanctuary Tent Sites for a remote camping experience. We’ve backpacked around Utah’s Canyonlands National Park in the past, and I highly recommend the remote experience. Check out the backpacking options in Denali. I’m sure you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views of mountains and wildlife.

You can fish in the Park, but you won’t be catching salmon. The glacier water is too silty for them, but you may catch lake trout or graylings. If you’re looking for great fishing, Denali National Park probably won’t satisfy your Alaskan fishing dreams. But it might be nice for an afternoon.

Photography is a massive hobby inside Denali National Park. Our Tundra Wilderness bus driver stopped multiple times for riders to take pictures of scenery and wildlife. We had several clear views of the great mountain herself before clouds overtook her. We also saw moose, ptarmigan, and caribou on or near the road. What a great experience!

I’ll never forget our visit to Denali National Park. The mountain is beautiful, and the wildlife is plentiful. It’s definitely a must-see destination in Alaska!

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