Your Complete Guide to Denali National Park and Preserve

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I have never seen a place with so much rugged, beautiful scenery and fantastic wildlife. Denali National Park and Preserve (Denali National Park) strives to honor the mountain and protect the untamed wilderness and her wildlife.  

The park is spectacular and worthy of being on your travel bucket list. We cover everything you need to know so you can plan your visit to Denali National Park.

What is Special About Denali National Park?

You have an opportunity to see the tallest mountain in North America, untamed wilderness, and unique wildlife all in one place.  

The park’s star attraction is Denali, a 20,310 feet-high snow-covered mountain. Denali was formerly known as Mount McKinley.  

The park’s terrain includes tundra, spruce, and glaciers. The varied terrain attracts many different types of wildlife.

Location

Denali National Park is located halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks in south-central Alaska. It spans more than six million acres.

You can get to Denali from Anchorage or Fairbanks by car, train, or bus. There is only one entrance. It is at Mile 237 on Highway 3. The highway is also called the George Parks Highway. Some simply refer to it as the Parks Highway.

Operating Hours and Seasons

The primary park visitation season is from May 20 through the third week in September. However, the park is open daily, 24 hours a day.

Fees and Passes

The park entrance fee is $15 per person, ages 16 and up. Children 15 and under are free.  

Your entrance ticket is good for one week, starting at the date of purchase. There are no refunds given for inclement weather.

Denali National Park offers an annual pass for $45. This pass is valid for 12 months from the date of purchase. It covers the cardholder plus up to three fellow travelers.  

You may want to consider an America the Beautiful park pass for $80. This annual pass is good for one year, starting at the date of purchase. It is valid at all our national parks.  

The Road Taken

There is only one road in the park, Denali Park Road. It is closed most of the winter.  

Mile markers note all points of interest so you know where to find them in the park.

You could take this road 93 miles into the park at one time. Unfortunately, ongoing landslide issues at Pretty Rocks have closed part of the road. Now, visitors can only go as far as Mile 43.

There is a significant project in the works to repair the road. In the future, visitors will once again have the ability to go 93 miles into the park’s heart.  

A firm target date has not been announced. It was obvious to us that park employees are not permitted to discuss the subject with visitors.  

Not Accessible

You may come across the names of a few points of interest that are not currently accessible. Let’s briefly list these key places so you are not blindsided.

  • Polychrome Overlook (Mile 46)
  • Stony Hill Overlook (Mile 62)
  • Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66)
  • Wonder Lake (Mile 85)

After the road repairs are complete, Julie and I hope to return to the park to see Wonder Lake. It is a natural reflecting pool that reveals Denali’s majestic, snowy peaks when you gaze into the lake.

Park Transportation

Caribout at Denali NP
Caribou at Denali National Park

From late May to early September, you may drive your vehicle to Savage River (Mile 15). Private cars are not permitted beyond Savage River.

The park offers two primary types of buses:

  • Tour bus
  • Transit bus

Let’s dig a little deeper so you can decide which transportation service makes the most sense for you.

Narrated Tour Bus

Narrated tour buses are tan. These buses make scheduled stops for restroom breaks and will stop for wildlife sightings. The tan buses will not stop to pick up hikers.

You will have a trained naturalist at the helm who provides narration throughout your tour. These buses are for people who want to enjoy the scenery and learn about the park on the ride. 

If you desire to take a day hike or explore on your own, this is not your bus. You want to take one of the transit bus options.

Savage River Shuttle

The Savage River bus will take you as far as Savage River. These buses are green. The ride is free and is not a narrated tour. It is considered a transit bus.

The Savage River Shuttle makes regular stops at:

  • Denali Bus Depot (Mile 0.75)
  • Denali Visitor Center (Mile 1.5)
  • Park Headquarters Bus Stop (Mile 3.5)
  • Mountain Vista Rest Stop (Mile 13)
  • Savage River Campground (Mile 14)
  • Savage River Trailhead (Mile 15)

Can you see wildlife on this bus route? Absolutely! Please do not let people tell you that you can’t.  

A few park employees advised us that we would not see wildlife. Julie and I had three separate sightings of moose on this route. Our driver told us that moose, bear, and caribou sightings are relatively common on the Savage River bus loop.  

A few of our fellow travelers spotted bears from the same bus circuit. We missed seeing bears two times by a matter of a few minutes. So, animal sightings in the first 15 miles of the park are possible using the free transportation shuttle.  

Exiting the bus within this park section can yield wildlife sightings too. Bears have been observed on the hiking trails at Mountain Vista.  Dall sheep can sometimes be observed on the mountains at Savage River. These hiking areas have beautiful scenery and are well worth your time.

East Fork Transit

The East Fork bus will take you as far as Mile 43. Plan on this ride taking over four hours. The cost is $30 per person. There is no charge for passengers under age 16.

You will have various stops to get off the bus to hike or explore independently. This bus gives you an even greater chance to find wildlife as you go deeper into the park. The odds of wolf sightings increase on this bus.

Most people agree that the East Fork bus is well worth the price. You get to see more of the park, and there are good chances to see some of the big five mammals if not all. More on that in a moment.

The fact that you have the flexibility to hop off the bus to explore areas beyond Savage River makes this a great opportunity.

Note that the East Fork buses are also green. It is essential that you carefully read the bus signage to ensure that you catch the correct ride.

Denali Bus Depot

Buses are essential for getting around in the park. So, where do you catch a bus? At the Denali Bus Depot (Mile 0.75).  

In this area, you can also purchase bus tickets, book a campsite, or check in for an existing reservation. Note that the bus depot is closed in winter.

Denali Visitor Center Campus

You will find the visitor center and other buildings at Mile 1.5 on Denali Park Road. All of the facilities appear modern and clean. It is pretty impressive.

Denali Visitor Center

Dall sheep display at Denali Visitor Center
Dall sheep display at Denali Visitor Center

The park’s main visitor center is open only in summer. Julie and I agree that this is one of the best national park visitor centers we have seen. It looks somewhat like a log cabin or a nice lodge.  

There are excellent educational exhibits. You can collect your national park passport stamp here.  

A few rangers were available to answer questions. Everyone was so friendly and helpful.  

The park shows two different short films in the visitor center:

  • Heartbeats of Denali runs 18 minutes and portrays the park through all four seasons.
  • The True Heart of Winter runs 22 minutes and is about the park’s sled dogs.

Alaska Geographic Park Store

The park’s gift store has its own building. There are lots of souvenirs, books and clothing items. Regular summer hours are 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Hours typically vary during spring and fall.

Morino Grill

If you are looking for food, fear not. Morino Grill has you covered. Regular summer hours are 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. Hours typically vary during spring and fall. Morino Grill is closed in winter.

When you first enter the building, you will see a coffee shop. They serve Starbucks coffee drinks and quick service food items.  

Walk around the coffee stand and find additional food options, including burgers, sandwiches, wraps, fish and chips, fresh fruit, and salads. Essentially, this is a cafeteria-style eatery with breakfast and lunch options. You can dine in or order your food to go.

Murie Science and Learning Center

This building hosts educational science activities in summer from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. In the winter, it serves as Denali’s Winter Visitor Center. Regular hours are 9:30 am to 5:00 pm.

Other Services

You will find a few other services on the Denali Visitor Center Campus. These include:

  • Bag storage
  • Lost and found
  • Bus stop
  • Ticket sales and drop-off area for the Alaska Railroad Depot

Cell Service

Although it can be spotty, you will find the best cell service near the park’s entrance. Once you proceed beyond Mile 4, service is nonexistent.

WiFi

Free public WiFi is available at Riley Creek Mercantile, Denali Visitor Center, and Denali Bus Depot.

Pets

You can bring pets to the park, but they must be leashed at all times. The leash can be no longer than six feet.  

You may walk your pet on the park road, in parking lots, or on campground roads. Pets are not permitted on buses, park trails, or in the wilderness. 

Things to Do

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing views. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”

– Edward Abbey

There are many fantastic things to do in Denali. It is full of beautiful scenery and unique wildlife. The question becomes, what is the best way for you to explore the park?

Dilemma 

When Julie and I travel to a national park, we talk to park rangers, staff members, and residents to obtain suggestions, such as the best hikes and top spots for wildlife. Usually, we find a consensus. That was not the case for Denali.

I have never received so many opinions on the best hikes and top places for wildlife sightings. Our takeaway is that Denali has several great hikes and is blessed with an abundance of wildlife. There is not an obvious winner or single solution.

Hike anywhere or ride any bus. No matter what you do, nature will put on a show you will not forget. 

Different Experiences

We traveled to Alaska by cruise ship and took a land tour so we could visit Denali National Park. Some of our fellow cruise passengers did the same thing. We were fascinated to find that everyone had such a different experience.

We found that many people judge their Denali experience on two things:

  1. Did you see the mountain?
  2. Did you see wildlife?

Only about 30% of park visitors see Denali. The mountain is so massive that it creates its own weather. It is common for clouds to obscure your view of the mountain for much, if not the entire day.  

Wildlife can suddenly appear as if by magic. Two minutes later, those same animals are gone from view.

Your experience at Denali will rely on luck with your timing. The park is stunning even if you do not see the mountain or wildlife. There are plenty of other majestic mountains amidst the untamed wilderness.

Being able to say yes to those two questions feels pretty good. Being a member of the 30% club feels special.

Let’s dig into the top things to do at the park.

View the Mountain

Partial view of Denali from Mountain Vista
Partial view of Denali from Mountain Vista

For many visitors, the number one goal is to see Denali. When all of Denali Park Road was open, you could get a much closer view. Currently, you can only proceed to Mile 43. It is more than close enough to view the mountain.  

On a clear day, you can usually start seeing Denali as soon as Mile 9. Mountain Vista, at Mile 13, offers chances for a visual. At Mile 15, the Savage Alpine Trail is another opportunity.  

You will find additional areas as you go deeper into the park. Yes, you can see her directly from the bus at times. Of course, you need the weather gods to play nice for this to happen.

The massive mountain is visible from many miles outside the park. On a clear day, you cannot miss the alluring jagged peaks. There are several significant areas for sightings on the Parks Highway.

We could see Denali from our hotel room in Fairbanks. Some of our fellow cruise passengers had rooms on the opposite side of the hotel.

Again, luck can impact your experience. Or, excellent planning and the ability to choose your hotel room on the right side of the building can help too. In full disclosure, we got lucky.

Look for Wildlife

Moose in Denali NP
Moose in Denali National Park

You may hear people talk about “the big five.” Many visitors to Denali National Park hope to accomplish seeing this particular list of mammals in the wild. What are the big five?

  • Grizzly bears
  • Moose
  • Wolves
  • Dall Sheep
  • Caribou

Individually, each of these mammals is a thrill to watch. The possibility of finding more than one on this list makes Denali National Park special.

Julie and I have been attempting to see moose in the wild for nearly a year with our travels. Several of our destinations are known to have moose. We took recommended routes and trails in those places. However, all of our searches came up empty.

Our number one goal at Denali National Park was to spot a moose. I am delighted that we saw a total of eight. Upon realizing our dream, emotions got the best of us. It is something we will never forget.

Riding a bus in Denali and searching for the big five is the closest thing in America to an African safari. To say it is exciting is an understatement.

When an animal is spotted, there is such energy on the bus. It is electric! Even the bus drivers get excited at these encounters.

It is possible to see moose, bears, and caribou in the first 15 miles of the park. Your odds will likely increase further if you take the East Fork bus and head deeper into the park. Wolves tend to hang out beyond the Savage River area.

Dall sheep can be found on mountains in the park. They are regularly spotted in the Savage River region.  You will most likely need to exit the bus and use binoculars to see them. Similar to mountain goats in Glacier Bay, they will appear small due to being so high in the mountains. 

Beyond the big five, you may also see:

  • Lynx
  • Porcupine
  • Red fox
  • Collared pika or “rock rabbit”
  • Arctic ground squirrel

Hiking

Denali offers:

  • Trail hiking 
  • Off-trail hiking  

Off-trail hiking allows you to hike in any area you choose. While you have an opportunity for a memorable adventure, you must remain fully aware of your surroundings.

A free permit is required if you plan a backpacking adventure with at least one overnight stay. You can find details on the park’s backpacking page.

Here are some of the park’s best hiking trails.

Hiking Trails Near the Denali Visitor Center

Horseshoe Lake Trail
  • Distance: 4 miles round trip.
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Elevation change: 250 feet.
  • Description: The wide path takes you around a beautiful lake and along a scenic forest.
McKinley Station Trail
  • Distance: 1.6 miles one way.
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Elevation change: 100 feet.
  • Description: The compacted gravel trail takes you through woodlands, along a creek, and under the Alaska Railroad trestle.  
Rock Creek Trail
  • Distance: 2.4 miles one way.
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Elevation change: 400 feet.
  • Description: The quiet hike is generally uphill, takes you through a forest, and provides a view of Mount Healy.
Mount Healy Overlook Trail
  • Distance: 2.7 miles one way.
  • Difficulty: Strenuous.
  • Elevation change: 1,700 feet.
  • Description: The steep trail leads you out of the woods and into the alpine country. There is potential to see Denali. 
Triple Lakes Trail
  • Distance: 9.5 miles one way.
  • Difficulty: Strenuous.
  • Elevation change: 1,000 feet.
  • Description: It is the longest trail in the park. You cross two bridges above flowing creeks and have fantastic views of three lakes.

Hiking Trails Between Mountain Vista & Savage River (Miles 12-15)

Mountain Vista Trail
Mountain Vista Trail in Denali NP
Mountain Vista Trail
  • Distance: 0.6 miles round trip.
  • Difficulty: Easy.
  • Elevation change: 50 feet. 
  • Description: The level trail offers gorgeous views of mountains on the horizon. If the weather cooperates, you can see Denali.
Savage River Loop
Savage River Loop at Denali NP
Julie hiking Savage River Loop
  • Distance: 2 miles round trip.
  • Difficulty: Moderate.
  • Elevation change: None.
  • Description: The path takes you along each side of the Savage River, between Mount Margaret and Healy Ridge. The beautiful mountains provide opportunities for possible Dall sheep sightings.
Savage Alpine Trail
  • Distance: 4 miles one way.
  • Difficulty: Strenuous.
  • Elevation change: 1,500 feet.
  • Description: The steep trail connects the Mountain Vista and Savage River areas. You have lovely mountain and forest views throughout the hike.

Julie and I did not get to hike as many trails as we would have liked. We hiked both the Mountain Vista Trail and the Savage River Loop. Both were thoroughly enjoyable.

The Mountain Vista Trail gave us beautiful views of the mountains. It was breathtaking! As a bonus, we saw part of Denali during our time here.  

A bear was spotted in the parking lot a few minutes before we arrived. We were on high alert the entire time. The bear had moved onto another area.  

As much as I wanted to see the bear, this was probably a blessing in disguise. The takeaway is that you can potentially spot animals here.

The Savage River Loop was a peaceful hike with close views of the Savage River. You will cross the river on a lengthy wooden footbridge.  

Dall sheep are known to hang out in the mountains in this area. We used our binoculars a lot but unfortunately did not observe any here.  

A few magpies searched for food close to the path. I do not recall ever seeing magpies prior to this. That was our consolation prize.

In Ohio, our rivers are often brown from the mud. Due to silt from glacier runoff, the Savage River has a cloudy, gray appearance. It adds a majestic feel to the whole scene. This hike is beautiful and certainly worth your time.

Mountaineering

Those who want to climb Denali or other peaks in the park must stop at the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station for an orientation and to acquire a climbing permit. 

This ranger station is located about 100 miles south of the park’s entrance in Talkeetna. You can find more information about mountain climbing on the Denali National Park site.

Camping

Denali National Park has six designated campgrounds. We will list them in order of proximity to the park entrance.

Riley Creek Campground

The campground is located less than a half-mile into the park. It is the only campground that is open all year. The area is somewhat wooded and accommodates both tents and RVs. Fees are only charged in summer.

Riley Creek Mercantile, open daily in the summer from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm, sells sandwiches and pre-packaged foods. It is located at the campground. Note that Riley Creek Mercantile is closed in winter.

Savage River Campground

The campground can be found at Mile 14. It is nestled in a spruce forest and welcomes tents and RVs. The area is only open in summer (mid-May to mid-September).

Sanctuary River Campground

You can access the campground by bus at Mile 22. It accommodates tents only and is open from mid-May to mid-September.

Teklanika River Campground

The campground sits at Mile 29 and is open to tents and RVs. It requires a minimum stay of three nights.

Igloo Creek Campground

The campground is at Mile 35 and is open only in summer. The area can be accessed by bus and accommodates only tents.

Wonder Lake Campground

The Wonder Lake Campground sits at Mile 85 along the main road. Due to the current road closures, these campsites are closed.

Regulations and Important Information

  • Reservations may be made online.
  • Fees vary but range from about $20 to $40 per night.  
  • No fees are charged from late September to early May.
  • You may check-in for all campgrounds at either Riley Creek Mercantile or the Denali Bus Depot.
  • Check-in and check out is 11:00 am.
  • The maximum RV length is 40 feet.
  • None of the park campgrounds offer water or electrical hookups.
  • All campgrounds have toilets. Some are flush, while others are vault-style.
  • Potable water is available at all campgrounds except Sanctuary River and Igloo Creek.
  • Quiet hours are from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am.
  • The maximum stay is 14 nights.

Visit the park’s camping page for more information and to make reservations.

Cycling

The park has a few options if you enjoy exploring parks by bicycle. Roadside Bike Path is a paved 1.7-mile one-way course that has an elevation loss of 150 feet as you ride down to the Nenana River Canyon. You will likely encounter pedestrians along the way.  

Campground loops have less traffic and are mostly flat. You can ride on Denali Park Road itself. The road gets busy, and there are no shoulders or bicycle lanes.

No matter where you ride, it is essential that you maintain a keen eye for wildlife. Biking in these areas will give you a spectacular view of the Alaskan wilderness.

Flightseeing

Helicopter ride at Denali
Helicopter ride at Denali

If you would rather see the park from above, flightseeing can be a thrilling adventure. There are various options available. Some will even land on a glacier.  

Flightseeing is considered an outside excursion as these rides are not offered directly by the park. Visit the park’s flightseeing page for more information and a list of approved vendors.

Viewing Denali from a helicopter or small plane allows you to see more of the park in a short time frame. These tours can be expensive.

Julie and I booked a helicopter ride and hiking adventure. It was pricey. The helicopter ride was exhilarating, and we had a fantastic view. However, the ride time was only five to ten minutes each way. The hiking time was between two and three hours.

Was it fun? Yes. Did we see wildlife? We did not observe any animals on the flight there or on the hike. On the return flight, we saw Dall sheep on top of a mountain.

Was it worth the price? For me, it was not. My main goal was to see wildlife. The overall experience was neat, but we saw more wildlife on the free bus ride in the park.   

My advice is to read the details of the tour very carefully and ask a lot of questions. Know your primary objectives and keep these in mind when considering alternatives offered by outside vendors.

If you are a thrill seeker, short on time, or prefer an aerial view, this may be a great option. If your goal is to see wildlife, you can accomplish this more economically on any bus ride offered by the park.

Visit the Sled Dog Kennels

Denali NP sled dog
Elsie peering out at park visitors

Denali National Park is the only national park where you can meet working sled dogs. Regular kennel hours are 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. You can find the kennels near Mile 3 on Denali Park Road.

These dogs are freight hauling Alaskan huskies. They typically weigh 60 to 90 pounds and can carry heavy loads through deep snow.  

I must say the dogs are gorgeous. They draw lots of deserved attention from both kids and adults. You can plainly see the rangers have a lot of affection for these beautiful animals.

Sled Dog Demonstrations

Beyond visiting the kennels, you can also watch a sled dog demo. From June 1 to early September, three demonstrations are given daily. These occur at 10:00, 2:00, and 4:00. In mid-May and mid-September, the park usually presents one or two daily performances.

There is no parking available at the kennels. You can either walk or take a bus. It is a 2-mile walk from the visitor center. Bus rides are free and leave the Denali Visitor Center bus stop at 9:20 am, 1:20 pm, and 3:20 pm.

Seating is available in addition to quite a bit of standing room. The show goes on rain or shine.

Some of the demonstrations feature adult dogs, while others focus on puppies. Check the sled dog program schedule to verify.  

We were fortunate to catch the puppy show, which included a race. The husky pups were adorable. You could hear oohs and aahs throughout the demo. If you have younger children, this is a surefire hit.

Best Time to Visit

For most of us, the best time to visit will be peak season, which is May 20 to mid-September. 

The park can get busy, but there are a few positives:

  • The weather is mild.
  • More tours and accommodations are open.
  • Chances of seeing wildlife are greater.

How Many Days Do You Need?

I acknowledge that there is not nearly as much ground to cover with Denali Park Road closed after Mile 43. However, there is plenty of beautiful wilderness to explore and unique wildlife to observe.

We recommend three or four days in the park if your primary goals are to see the mountain and wildlife. The weather may prevent you from seeing Denali. Animal sightings can be random and unpredictable.  

Going for three or four days improves your odds of seeing the mountain and some of the big five. It will give you more time to explore all the park offers.  

I have never heard someone regret spending too much time in Alaska’s last frontier. Julie and I had two days. We both wish we had more time at the park.

Where to Stay

There are plenty of hotels and lodges close to the park. Expedia is a great resource to explore your options. 

Weather & What to Bring

Since most people visit between mid-May and mid-September, we will focus on this timeframe. Park rangers recommend that you bring gear for temperatures ranging from 35 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Summer is typically cool, wet, and windy. Snow is possible. Pack plenty of light, warm layers, rain gear, a hat, and gloves.  

I can tell you from personal experience that the brisk morning wind can leave your exposed hands feeling numb. Pack a pair of gloves, just in case.

The wilderness is beautiful but rugged. Pack your sturdy hiking shoes or boots if you plan to explore the park on foot.

Binoculars come in handy for viewing wildlife from a distance. In particular, Dall sheep can be difficult to spot without binoculars as they typically hang out on the mountaintops.  

Denali is special. You will want pictures and videos of your trip. Be sure to bring your camera to capture those memories.

Mosquitoes are jokingly called the Alaska state bird. They can get pretty large and thirsty. Pack your insect repellent for protection. 

Wrap Up: Visiting Denali National Park and Preserve

The idea of going to Alaska can be daunting. However, the prospect of seeing the tallest mountain in North America, gorgeous, untamed wilderness, and the big 5 is as thrilling as it sounds. You will be rewarded for your long journey with treasured memories.

Denali is calling you. This is a call you do not want to miss!

About the author

We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.

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