Pristine parkland, magnificent wildlife, and the towering Denali are highlights of this world-famous national park.
The granite spires and snowy summits of Denali National Park and Preserve straddle 160 miles of the Alaska Range and display so much elevation they are often lost in the clouds. Dominating this skyline is North America's highest peak. Denali ascends majestically to 20,310 feet and is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in Alaska. Approximately 400,000 intrepid travelers journey to Denali National Park and Preserve each year, primarily between late May and early September.
Things to Do
Denali has so much to offer - whether you’re hiking, biking, camping, rafting, fishing, wildlife viewing, or flightseeing.
At the entrance to Denali National Park is the Riley Creek Campground, the Alaska Railroad station, the Denali Visitor Center, the interesting Murie Science and Learning Center, and the Denali Bus Depot, which serves as the park's transport hub and campground reservation center. From the entrance, the 92-mile Park Road heads west through the heart of Denali, passing Eielson Visitor Center and five backcountry campgrounds including Wonder Lake Campground, where on a clear day campers enjoy a reflection of Denali on the mirrored surface of the lake. The road ends at the old mining settlement of Kantishna, now the site of several wilderness lodges.
The Denali Visitor Center is a 14,000-sq-foot facility dedicated to a better understanding of Denali National Park and Preserve. On the first floor are exhibits devoted to the area's natural and human history and a theater with movies that provide a glimpse of the park's wildlife and scenery. On the second floor is a giant table-top relief map that leaves no doubt in anybody's mind how rugged the national park is. Murie Science and Learning Center features fascinating hands-on exhibits as well as a display on research currently taking place in the park. The staff stages nature-related programs throughout the week during the summer.
Located at Mile 66 of the Park Road, the Eielson Visitor Center is Denali National Park's newest and most impressive interpretive center. The 7400-square-foot facility features exhibits on the natural history of the region, a massive model of Denali, and huge viewing windows to see North America's highest peak.
Within a few miles of the Denali Visitor Center are some of the only designated hiking trails in the park. Eight trails with various difficulty explore the lakes, rivers, and alpine scenery around the park entrance. Additional designated hiking trails can be found along the Park Road at Savage River, the Eielson Visitor Center, and Wonder Lake.
Denali National Park is home to the only sled dog team in the United States used to patrol a national park. Visitors can meet these canine rangers at their kennels and see demonstrations to learn about their unique history and role at the park. The kennels are open year-round near the park entrance.
The majority of the 92-mile Park Road that leads into the heart of the park is not open to private vehicles, so the best way to explore the park is by bus. There are two types of buses into the park: narrated tour buses and non-narrated transit buses. Tour busses are narrated by onboard naturalists and take you to the top sightseeing spots, pausing for wildlife viewing along the way. Half-day and full-day options are available depending on how far you want to travel along the road. Visitors are encouraged to make reservations for Denali National Park bus tours in advance and check the Denali National Park website for up-to-date visitor information.
Transit buses are hop-on, hop-off and are designed for campers and hikers who want a more independent experience of the park. These buses are cheaper and do not include narration. Day hikers can get off the bus anywhere along the Park Road and at the end of their trek can flag down any bus for a ride back to the park entrance. Mountain biking along the Park Road is another great way to experience the park, and transit buses are equipped with bike racks. There are also free buses that follow a circuit through the park entrance area and out to Savage River at mile 15 of the Park Road.
Visitors are welcome to drive their own vehicles 15 miles into the park to Savage River. From here, they can embark on the flat Savage River Loop that travels 2 miles along the river or climb the steep Savage Alpine Trail for 4 miles up to a ridge with sweeping views of the area. The annual Denali Park Road Lottery allows visitors to drive their private vehicles on the entire Park Road on select days in September.
For many, Denali offers the opportunity to escape into the backcountry for a true Alaska wilderness experience. Thanks to Denali's rigid restrictions and permits, backpackers can trek and camp in a slice of wilderness all their own, even if it's just for a couple days. Since the park has few designated hiking trails, the main way to explore on foot is by backcountry hiking over open terrain such as gravel riverbeds and tundra ridges.
Climbing Denali, the tallest mountain in North America and one of the world's seven summits, is a dream goal for many mountaineers, but an easier – yet still dramatic - way to tour Denali National Park is through a flightseeing or glacier landing tour of the Alaska Range. These flights depart near the park entrance or from the charming mountaineering town of Talkeetna, and are a fantastic way to take in the park’s spectacular sights from the air, especially if you don’t have time for a bus tour on the Park Road.
It’s not just the mountain that makes Denali National Park and Preserve a special place. The park is also home to 37 species of mammals, ranging from lynx, marmots and Arctic ground squirrels, to foxes and snowshoe hares, while 130 different bird species have been spotted here, including the impressive golden eagle. Most visitors, however, want to see Alaska's "Big Five" animals: moose, caribou, wolf, Dall sheep, and the brown, or grizzly, bear. Denali is also home to black bears that inhabit the forested areas of the park, while grizzly bears mainly live on the open tundra. Most of the bears seen by visitors along the Park Road are grizzlies.
Unlike most wilderness areas in the country, you don't have to be a backpacker to see this wildlife - people who never sleep in a tent have excellent opportunities to get a close look at these amazing creatures roaming free in their natural habitat. Narrated bus tours take you along all or some of the 92-mile Park Road and offer some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. The buses’ naturalist guides are experts at spotting wildlife and will provide ample time for wildlife viewing stops along the way.
Denali National Park and Preserve includes the central, highest portion of the Alaska Range, together with many of the glaciers and glacial valleys running southwards out of the range. The terrain spans boreal forest and Arctic tundra. More than 650 species of flowering plants, shrubs, lichen, and moss comprise the vegetation of the park, while coniferous trees, birch, and aspen grow in the lowlands. Only plants adapted to long, cold winters and short growing seasons can survive in this subarctic wilderness. Glacially-fed braided rivers, landslides, and moving glaciers define the ever-changing landscape of the park.
Staying in & around Denali
Most visitors to Denali National Park stay at the many hotels, lodges, and cabins located near the park entrance. These accommodations typically provide shuttle service to the park and can arrange tours and other activities in the area. If you’d like to stay in the park there are 6 designated campgrounds, from Riley Creek Campground at the park entrance to Wonder Lake Campground near the end of the road. Half of the campgrounds are tent-only and accessible only by bus and the other half are open to both tents and RVs. All are reservable in advance.
For a backcountry experience with more amenities, there are four wilderness lodges located on private inholdings at the end of the park road in Kantishna. These full-service, all-inclusive lodges are set in stunning, remote locations in the park and include meals, comfortable amenities, and activities like hiking and wildlife viewing right from their front doors.
The three main ways to get to Denali National Park and Preserve are by car, train, or bus. The closest major cities to the park are Fairbanks, 120 miles north of the park, and Anchorage, 240 miles south of the park.
The entrance to Denali National Park is located at Mile 237 of the George Parks Highway. Driving yourself to Denali is a fantastic way to take in the many sights and charming towns along the way. If you’d rather sit back and relax, the Alaska Railroad offers service to Denali from any stop along the railbelt and drops you off right at the park entrance. Private bus tour operators also offer bus transportation from Anchorage and Fairbanks.
When to Visit
The peak time for visiting the park is mid-May through mid-September, when the park busses and other amenities are operational, wildlife viewing opportunities are at their peak, and weather conditions allow for more activities like hiking, biking, backpacking, and camping.
If you’re prepared for harsh, snowy conditions and dazzling beauty, visiting Denali National Park in winter is a unique and rewarding experience. The Park Road and most of the visitor services are closed in winter, though the Murie Science & Learning Center, which serves as Winter Visitor Center, and Sled Dog Kennels are open. Once the snow falls, popular winter activities include cross country skiing, fat tire biking, and snowshoeing along the Park Road and designated winter trails near the park entrance. With long, dark nights and little light pollution, Denali is also a good location for northern lights viewing in winter.
Generations of Athabascans lived in and traveled through what is now the park for thousands of years. The first permanent non-Native settlement was established in 1905, when a gold rush gave birth to the town of Kantishna. A year later, naturalist and noted hunter Charles Sheldon was stunned by the beauty of the land and horrified at the reckless abandon of the miners and big-game hunters. Sheldon returned in 1907 and traveled the area with guide Harry Karstens in an effort to set up boundaries for a proposed national park. Sheldon was successful and the area was established as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917, with Karstens serving as the park's first superintendent. It was designated an international biosphere reserve in 1976.
As a result of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park was enlarged to more than 6 million acres and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. In 2015 President Barack Obama officially renamed Mt. McKinley to Denali, its Athabascan given name, meaning “the Tall One.” Denali National Park and Preserve now comprises an area slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts and is ranked as one of Alaska's top attractions.
Learn more about lodging and things to do near the Denali Park Entrance.
For more information, visit the Denali National Park and Preserve website.