Ready, Set, Go! Denali National Park
Denali National Park. It's famous for its vast wilderness. But you don't have to spend days in the backcountry to enjoy and appreciate this pristine habitat. Even if you have only a few hours to spend, it's worth a visit.
In this blog, I share some ideas on how to get to the park, and what to do once you arrive. Ideas for lodging and restaurants are included as well. This post is rather lengthy, but if exploring untamed wilderness excites you, keep reading!
Getting to Denali
“All roads lead to Rome”. Well, maybe in Italy, but in Alaska, there aren’t many roads at all and only one leads to Denali - AK-3S, and it wasn’t finished until 1958! Pretty simple huh? It’s kind of hard to get lost in this vast state, that is…. if one is driving. Now hiking and backpacking…that’s another story we will get to in a bit. But for those of us who are directionally challenged, you will love the simplicity of Alaska’s road systems. You can see the roads here: http://www.alaska.org/assets/content/maps/Alaska-Driving-Map.pdf
Most people who visit Denali National Park fly into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport which is 238 miles from the park. It’s a 4.5-hour drive if you are hankering for a road trip, and be sure to check out milepost.com for valuable highway information. Unlike the lower 48, gas stations and provisions may be few and far between. Cars and campers can be rented from companies near the airport. Just do a Google search - there are many to choose from.
Before the Denali Highway opened, most tourists came by the Alaska Railroad which was completed in 1923. Today, one can still travel to the park by rail. From mid -May through mid -September, the train provides daily passenger service from Anchorage to Denali. The convenient depot drops you off right at the Denali National Park Visitor Center. You can find more information out about the train service here: https://www.alaskarailroad.com.
Check out the short video clip below, but please forgive my camera shake. I was so excited…only in Alaska can you get this close to a speeding train!
If driving isn’t your idea of a vacation, there are cruises which offer side trips to Denali, motorcoach tours which originate in Anchorage, or you can charter a light plane via http://www.katair.com to fly you to Kantishna, an old mining town located deep in Denali National Park. Visit https://www.anchorage.net for helpful information with trip planning.
Lodging during your stay
The small town of Healy located just outside the park has a variety of hotels, motels, lodges, and cabins. We stayed at the White Moose Lodge for one night before boarding the bus to Camp Denali. You can see by the picture, the outside looks rather cute. The inside was spartan but clean as is the case of many motels outside of Anchorage, but most importantly, the heat worked. It’s chilly at night even in the summer. After the one night at White Moose Lodge, our group boarded the bus for the iconic Camp Denali - 5 days in true wilderness. That’s a whole other story to follow in this blog. All I can say is, GO!
We had 3 meals in Healy before boarding the bus to Camp Denali, and one I’ll always remember. The 49 State Brewing Company, https://www.49statebrewing.com/denali/, a diverse menu that should satisfy everyone in your group. You won’t be lonely here. This place reverberates with a fun crowd, energetic vibe and live music, so go early or call for reservations. While you wait you can visit an exact replica of the bus in which Christopher McCandless died in Sean Penn’s non-fiction movie “Into the Wild”. It’s parked on the property, a sobering reminder of the untamed wildness of Alaska. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth 2 1/2 hours of your time.
Dawn found us at Rose’s Cafe for a good old-fashioned breakfast where the locals go. Bottomless cups of fresh, steaming coffee and huge pancakes are my best recollections.
Fannie Q’s Saloon at Denali Wilderness Princess Lodge offers a nice lunch/dinner menu from 11 a.m. - 11 p.m. - very convenient not having to plan a definitive meal time.
The Sled Dogs of Denali
Back in the day, before motorized vehicles, sled dogs were mandatory for survival if you lived in rural Alaska. Every household had their own team, but then snowmobiles came along and the need for the dogs gradually faded. Here in Denali National Park, the only park in the United States with working sled dog teams, the dogs are of paramount importance. Motorized vehicles are prohibited in the wilderness, so to continue their work through the long winter, the National Park Service Rangers use sled dogs for transportation.
Mushing has always been a way of life in Denali which allows the park to never close, even in winter, and mushing safely through extreme weather requires strong, hardy dogs that are trainable, love their work and are sociable with people and other canines. These characteristics are carefully bred into the dogs and the teams are trained by a dedicated group of park rangers.
You can learn more about their comprehensive breeding and training program here by watching The True Heart of Winter: https://vimeo.com/189208961. If you love dogs, you don’t want to miss this video.
Summer is a good time to visit the kennels as the dogs are on vacation. Rangers are on hand to give demonstrations, answer questions, and guide your interaction with the dogs. A free shuttle bus will take you up the hill to their home. Check it out if you have time.
Fees for the Park
Getting Around The Park
This can be a bit confusing, but I’ll attempt to explain. The entrance fee for the park is $10 for an adult (16 years or older) and is good for 7 days. Kids under 15 are free. An annual pass is $40 for the year and covers 3 other people in your group. However, if you plan to ride a tour bus into the park (which will be outlined further down the page) the entrance fee is included with your bus ticket - so make sure you don’t pay twice! If you already have a Lifetime or an annual parks pass, such as an America the Beautiful pass when you purchase your bus ticket, you will be entitled to a refund - so make sure you inquire. You can find out more about this here: https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/fees.htm
Most people visit the park during the milder seasons to hike, camp and look for wildlife, so summertime can get busy. 92 miles of Denali Park Road begins at the George Parks Highway and continues to the old mining town of Kantishna. If you are in a private vehicle, just the first 15 miles is open to motorists. This section is paved and ends at the Savage River where there is a turn around as well as a parking area with access to Riley Creek and the Savage River Loop Trail. To venture further into the park, you have to ride a bus.
The Green Transit Buses
There are 3 buses that run near the entrance of Denali Park. The Riley Creek Loop shuttle continuously circles connecting the Denali Visitor Center, the Murie Science and Learning Center, the Denali Bus Depot, Riley Creek Campground, and the Horseshoe Lake/Mt. Healy Trailhead.
The Sled Dog Demo shuttle takes visitors from the Denali Visitor Center to the kennels which is a 1.5-mile uphill hike if you prefer the exercise. There is no parking available for private cars at the top, so riding the bus or hoofing it are your two options.
The third bus is the Savage River Shuttle which departs from the Denali Visitor Center and the Denali Bus Depot to transport tourists to the trailheads of Mountain Vista and Savage River. It is a 2 hour round trip if you are in it just for the ride, but if you elect to get off the coach, you can picnic or hike, then take another bus back when you are finished. This shuttle is great for those who arrive by rail or tour bus and only have a few hours to get acquainted with the park.
These are the hop-on/hop-off buses that you will see running through the park. They are not tour buses, although the driver will stop for wildlife, bathroom breaks and will give educated answers to any questions you may have. The purpose of these coaches is to transport backpackers and hikers to these specific destinations:
Toklat River, Mile 53, $33.50 for adults 16 and over, free for kids
Eilson Visitor Center, Mile 66, $42.74 for adults, free for kids
Wonder Lake, Mile 85, $58.75 for adults, free for kids
Kantishna, Mile 92, $64 for adults, free for kids
If you are a day hiker or backpacker and have purchased a green bus ticket and wish to return to the park entrance, simply flag down any green bus headed back that direction and hop on.
There are also Camper buses which have a tent icon for distinction. These buses have the rear seats removed for cargo space and are designed to ferry campers and their gear plus bikes to the campgrounds for a fee of $42.75 per adult, free for the kids.
The Tan Tour Buses
If you want to go further inside the park than Savage River but don’t plan to camp or stay at one of the lodges located within the Denali Wilderness, there are 3 available tours one can choose. These buses are run by a private organization and not the National Park Service, but the drivers are Certified Interpretive Guides who will fill your brain with interesting facts about the park and are great at spotting wildlife while negotiating the old, unpaved mining road. There will be restroom and educational stops along the way so no worries - you aren’t trapped on the bus for hours on end. A synopsis of the tours is below. For more details check out:
Denali History Tour - Available May 12 - September 20 This is a 4.5 -5 hour tour which will take you to the Teklanika River Rest Area at Mile 27. The cost for the 2019 season is $85.50 for adults and $42.72 for children 15 years of age and under.
Tundra Wilderness Tour - From May 20 - May 31, the tour ends at Mile 53 at the Toklat River. Starting June 1 -September 12 the excursion ends at Stony Overlook, Mile 62. The tour is 7-8 hours in length giving more time and opportunity for wildlife viewing. Multiple buses may run during the day and the schedule varies according to demand. The cost is $142.25 for adults and $75.75 for children 15 and under.
Kantishna Experience Tour - Available June 8 - September 12. This is an all-day affair lasting 11-12 hours. There are two departure times: 6:15 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. For this tour, the bus will pick up tourists that are staying at lodges in Healy outside of the park and you will be driven the entire length, all 92 miles, of the Denali Park Road. This is your best opportunity to see wildlife, plus you get to explore the old town of Kantishna at the end of the road. The cost of $222.25 for adults and $111.00 for the kids includes lunch, snacks, and beverages. A National Park Ranger will join your group midway through the trip to provide additional information and answer questions about the park.
For more information about any of these trips and to book your ticket go to https://www.reservedenali.com or call 1-800-622-7275.
Hiking and Camping
For those who long for unfettered exploration, this park is for you. Out of the millions of acres of wilderness, only a handful of trails exist, mostly short loops near the entrance of the park, but anyone can hike anywhere they desire. Set off across the open tundra - the park is yours - but be mindful of the environment for the safety of yourself and the park. Remember - this is untamed wilderness with wild animals, breathtaking but unforgiving landscape, rushing rivers, and fickle weather. Prepare before setting out. At the very least have a compass, a map, rain gear, layers for the cold, emergency equipment, protein bars, plenty of water, a flashlight, bear spray and mosquito spray. The mosquitoes will probably bother you more than the bears! For those fearless ones who prefer to camp in the backcountry, a permit from the Denali Visitor Center is required before starting out. Check out this page for more information on overnight backpacking:
Campers who prefer the company of a campground have six to choose from:
Riley Creek Campground - Mile 0.25 Open year round for RVs and tents. Campsite fees are charged only in the summer.
Savage River Campground - Mile 14. Open May to September. Tents only.
Sanctuary Campground - Mile 22. Open May 20 - mid-September. Tents only. Access is by bus. Cannot be reserved in advance. No potable water. Bring a water filter.
Teklanika Campground - Mile 29. Open May 20 - mid-September. RVs and tents. Igloo Creek Campground - Mile 35. Open May 20 - mid-September. Tents only. Access is by bus. Cannot be reserved in advance. No potable water. Bring a water filter.
Wonder Lake Campground - Mile 85. Open June 8 - mid-September. Tents only. Access is by bus. Reservations for campsites can be made in advance at https://www.reservedenali.com
Just so you know - RVs must be 40’ or less to use campgrounds inside the park. Note that there are no water or electrical hookups at the campsites. All campgrounds have toilets of some kind, vault or flush, but not all campsites have potable water.
For more details about camping in Denali, visit: https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm#6/63.421/-148.491
The information in my blog is just a smattering of what you need to know to take advantage of this vast, pristine playground. The National Park Service of Denali has a very comprehensive website, https://www.nps.gov/dena/index.htm
Take some time to explore the website before you go and create your very own personal itinerary.
You made it! You've reached the "End of the Road" of my blog. But I'll not say goodbye. I'm already planning my next post which will feature the iconic Camp Denali where we stayed during our fall photography adventure. It is located almost at the true end of the road, and was probably the first eco-lodge in the United States, maybe even the world....AND...it all began with the dream of two women.
Until then, stay well and stay healthy.
I hope my blogs inspire you to get outside and enjoy this beautiful world. Find a park near you!
Comments? I'd love to hear from you!
Debbie Jakelichon April 25, 2019
Julie, you sure do get around. Awesome pictures and narrative my dear friend:) My daughter and I are making road trips to the
5 Nat'l Parks in Utah. Lots of hiking! We're headed to Bryce Canton Nat's Park in September. Then just have Capitol Reef and then on to another State. So much to see as you clearly have shown here.. Wow! That bear seems really close up. Again great
photos. Thank you for sharing. I hope this finds you and your husband well. Look forward to more of your travels.