10 Essential Tips for Visiting Denali National Park

For many, planning a trip to Alaska can be a very daunting task. That’s understandable; it’s a large state that’s very difficult to get around. One of the most popular destinations is Denali National Park, a place I’ve had the pleasure of both visiting and living. It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and one of the world’s most unique wilderness areas. Like the state it calls home, Denali is huge and can be difficult to navigate if you don’t do your research.  Read on for essential tips for visiting Denali National Park that will make your visit a truly spectacular one.

1. You can’t drive the entire Park Road

A bus stops to view a caribou
NPS Photo: One of Denali’s transit buses stops to view wildlife

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This really surprises people. Here’s the scoop:

Denali’s only road is 92 miles long. The first 15 miles are paved, and vehicles can drive on it most of the year (expect closures due to snow any time). If you visit in the shoulder season (late-April to early-May or late-September to early-October), the road may be open for the first 30 miles, weather depending.

The only exception to the above rule is Denali’s Road Lottery. This annual event takes place over a five day period in September. From May 1-31, anyone can enter the lottery and winners are selected to drive the road for one of the five days. I recommend entering, as this is one of the more unique experiences you can have in the park.

Otherwise, visitors are required to visit the park by bus. It’s not as bad as it sounds, I promise. With the road’s hairpin turns and steep dropoffs, I’d rather have an experienced driver. Plus, buses sit much higher than cars and every person is another pair of eyes, offering better chances to look for wildlife. You can look too since you’re not driving.

Prices vary from $0-$200, depending on where you’re going and which type of trip you’d like to take. Buses travel as far as the end of the road, a 12-hour round-trip journey. For more information about bus options and information about how to book, visit Denali’s website.

2. Denali is a mostly trail-less Wilderness

Riley backpacking with Denali behind her on a clear day
A rare sight: Denali in full view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most national parks have numerous hiking trails for people of varying abilities. Denali is much different. There are only about 35 miles of trails, and all but three of them are accessed from the first 15 miles of the Park Road. However, you don’t need to stay on trail in Denali! You can get off of the park bus just about anywhere and go hiking, which I highly recommend. Only 1% of Denali’s visitors leave the park road, so if you’re looking for a unique experience, get off the main road and trails. If you’re nervous about hiking in Alaska’s backcountry alone, click here for information about Discovery Hikes, off-trail excursions led by experienced park rangers. Rangers are also happy to answer questions about Leave No Trace, wildlife safety, and more in the visitor centers in order to make you feel as comfortable as possible.

3. Do your research before backpacking

A tent in front of a mountain landscape at sunset
Denali’s Wilderness provides endless backdrops like these.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denali’s backcountry is special. It is a true Wilderness, meaning all visitors should feel as if they are the first people who have ever stepped foot there. Additionally, the park strives to make sure both backpackers and visitors on buses feel the Wilderness’s comforting solitude. There are rules on where tents can go, bear protocols and safety measures, and a quota system limiting the number of people in backcountry units. Denali’s website does an excellent job of going in-depth on all of these topics and more for those interested in backpacking. All visitors are required to obtain a permit from the Backcountry Information Center before venturing off, and the more you understand the process before you go the better. It’s also a good idea to pick out a couple of areas you’re interested in exploring before you go.

4. Expect any type of weather at any time, and pack accordingly

One of the most important tips for visiting Denali demonstrated in a photo of rain and fog by a glacier
Denali in August – not as warm as you might think!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weather in Denali can change in a split second. I’ve experienced snow in June and hail in August. The road sometimes closes in June because of snowfall. Be prepared for anything, no matter when you plan to visit. You should always pack a coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. It also rains a lot in Alaska, so rain gear is highly recommended. The park is also enormous, about the size of the state of Massachusetts, so if you start your day boarding a bus near the park entrance, the weather could be completely different at your final destination. Always plan for potential weather changes, including snow, no matter when you go!

5. If you’re looking for the Northern Lights, visit when it’s dark

Northern lights shine bright green across the sky
Northern lights over Denali National Park in September

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, occur year-round. But without darkness, they’re pretty much impossible to see. If this item is high on your bucket list (and it should be!), visit from September-April. Keep in mind there are fewer services this time of year (buses stop running and the road will close when snow falls), but chances of seeing the Aurora are much higher.

VIEWING TIPS: find a place where you have clear skies and a view of the sky that’s uninterrupted. In this photo, I’m standing in a parking lot to help limit the obstructions. It also helps to find a place as dark as possible, so try to avoid things like city lights. Check the aurora forecast online to see if chances are high or not and get an idea of what times will be best. Be prepared to stay up late or wake up early. Dress in warm layers so you can stay out in the cold for long periods of time. The farther north you are, the better views will be.

6. Going hiking? Carry bear spray

A grizzly bear in Denali
NPS Photo: A grizzly bear in Denali National Park

Bear spray is proven to be the most effective defense against bears. Chances are you won’t need it, but better safe than sorry.

Since it’s typically not sold in the national park (and sells out extremely quickly), you should pick some up before you arrive. You can’t fly with it, so you may need to wait until you arrive in Alaska to purchase. Make sure the safety is on. I’d also advise tieing the safety to the can if you’re hiking off-trail so it doesn’t fall off. Keep it securely attached to your body or pack for the same reason. It should also be in a place you can easily and quickly access it in case of an emergency. If a grizzly is charging toward you and your spray is buried in the bottom of your pack, it won’t help you. When on park buses, put the spray inside a plastic sandwich bag and inside of a bag or backpack.

After your vacation, you’ll probably wonder what to do with your unused can. Head to the Denali Visitor Center or Backcountry Information Center and ask some of the other visitors if they need any. If you don’t have any luck, park rangers will take it off your hands. If you’re nervous about bears, read Denali’s bear FAQ. I also highly recommend reading up on other wildlife, like moose and wolves, and what to do in case of aggressive behavior from these animals.

7. Reserve your campground spaces in advance

A grizzly bear gnawing on a campground sign
NPS Photo: A grizzly bear cub nibbles on a campground sign

There are six campgrounds in Denali: Riley Creek, Savage River, Teklanika River, Sanctuary River, Igloo Creek, and Wonder Lake. All of them are fully booked really quickly, so get your reservations as far in advance as you can. No matter where you’re camping, but especially if you choose Wonder Lake, bring bug spray!

Campground reservations can be made at Reserve Denali.

PRO TIP: Visitors who camp at the Teklanika Campground, near mile 29 of the Park Road, receive a special pass to drive to the campground. From here, they are also required to take a bus to travel inside the park until their reservation period ends. But that’s 15 miles of the road you can drive that others cannot!

8. Don’t forget to visit the sled dogs

Riley poses with Disco, a Denali sled dog she walks three times per week
Riley with Disco, the sled dog she volunteers to walk three days per week in the summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denali is the only national park with a team of working sled dogs. Teams go into the park’s Wilderness every winter to help park rangers with research, preservation, and transportation. Summer is their off-season, and the kennels are open every day. There are also daily demonstrations where rangers discuss the dogs’ work and the dogs run around a small track pulling a training cart. It’s something every Denali visitor should see. Plus, the dogs are incredibly friendly and love getting belly rubs from visitors!

PRO TIP:  Parking is extremely limited near the kennels. If you want to attend one of the demonstrations, it is critical that you take one of the free shuttles. These demos can hold as many as 300 visitors, and there aren’t 300 parking spaces. It’s not something you want to be late for because you spent time trying to park. Just take the darn bus.

9. Chances are you won’t see Denali

Denali on a clear day basking in pink alpenglow
An uninterrupted view of Denali in alpenglow

When I say Denali here, I’m referring to North America’s tallest mountain. Alaskans have always called it Denali, the Athabaskan (native Alaskan) word for The High One, but the name was officially changed from Mt. McKinley in 2016.

No matter what you call it (you should call it Denali), it is said that only 30% of park visitors see the mountain. It is so tall that it creates its own weather, often shrouded in clouds. The best times to look for it are late at night or in the early morning hours (11 p.m. – 3 a.m.). It’s also easier to see in the colder months when there are clearer skies. Keep in mind, this is a 30% chance that you will see any part of the mountain. The chances that you’ll have a completely cloudless, uninterrupted view? Only 1%. The longer you stay, the better your chances are. Which brings me to…

10. MY MOST IMPORTANT TIP: One day is not enough!

Fog rolling over the Savage River near the park road
Fog rolling over the Savage River near mile 15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cannot emphasize this enough. If you’re going to ignore my other tips for visiting Denali, please listen to this one. Many people stop in Denali for just one day, sometimes just a few hours. This is not enough time to really see the park. There is so much to do and see that a few days are necessary. I recommend at least two days: one day for hiking on the front-country trails and one for taking the bus into the park. Most importantly, if you really want to experience this place, spend a night camping either at one of the campgrounds or (preferably) in the backcountry. Believe me when I say you will never see another place like this one. Make your visit count.

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