Some of the best views of Denali can be found at this state park
Located adjacent to the southern border of Denali National Park, the 324,240-acre Denali State Park is the fourth largest state park in Alaska and almost half the size of Rhode Island. Denali State Park straddles the Parks Highway 147 miles north of Anchorage and is situated between the Talkeetna Mountains to the east and the Alaska Range to the west.
While this state park lacks the amount of infrastructure and attractions of its national-park cousin, it does feature several campgrounds, awesome hiking, plentiful wildlife viewing and some of the best views of Denali – even better than those found in most parts of the national park. Byers Lake campground is great for camping, boating and easy hiking.
When the railroad trip from Seward and Anchorage to Fairbanks took two days, travelers in the early 1900's sometimes stayed an extra day at Curry to ascend the east side of Curry Ridge and gaze upon Denali and its wonders from Curry Lookout.
The mountain’s Athabascan given name is Denali, which translates from Koyukon as “The High One.” However, the peak was designated from 1917-2015 as Mount McKinley, in honor of William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States. In 2015 President Barack Obama officially renamed Mount McKinley to Denali.
The park is the beginning of the transition zone from low, coastal environment to the spine of the Alaska Range. Its terrain ranges from heavily forested streams and river valleys to the alpine tundra of the Curry and Kesugi ridges, making up the 30-mile long backbone of the park.
Denali State Park is home to both brown and black bears, moose and marmots. In the lower areas, visitors will encounter muskrats, beavers, possibly red foxes and porcupines, among other resident wildlife. On the east side of the park the Susitna and Chulitna rivers are home to Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, rainbow trout and all five species of Pacific salmon. Small numbers of lake trout occur in Byers, Spink and Lucy lakes, and rainbow trout, grayling and Dolly Varden are found in Byers Lake and Troublesome and Little Coal creeks.
The park’s diverse habitats draw an especially rich bird community. More than 130 species use the park for breeding or during migration. Year-round residents include raven, the gray jay, willow ptarmigan (the state bird), and acrobatic flocks of black-capped and boreal chickadees. However, most birds migrate long distances to frequent the park. Migratory species include the arctic tern, the lesser golden plover, golden-crowned sparrow, Wilson's warbler, and ruby-crowned kinglet. Water birds such as the rare trumpeter swan, the loon, and osprey fly in for the park's lakes and streams.
While Denali, the tallest peak in North America, resides in Denali National Park, this state park features the best views of Denali. Denali State Park has superb vantage points to view both Denali's north and south summits, where the latter rises up a dramatic 20,310 feet.
Kesugi - a Dena'ina Indian word meaning 'the Ancient One’ - is a ridge four to six miles wide that parallels the Parks Highway. Kesugi and neighboring Curry Ridge reach heights of only 4,500 feet and lack the jagged spires, rock walls and knife-edged ridgelines that are the trademarks of Denali and the Alaska Range to the west. Instead, visitors will find gently rolling tundra at the top of the ridges much more conducive to trekking. While Denali, the tallest peak in North America, is not located in the state park, the park features some of the best panoramic views of Denali. Denali State Park has superb vantage points to view both of Denali's north and south summits, which ascends to an elevation of 20,310 feet.
Beyond gazing at Denali, hiking, fishing, and rafting are favorite summer activities at Denali State Park, in addition to camping to wilderness exploration. Visitors should be aware that except for roadside facilities, the park is undeveloped wilderness and hiking routes may not be clearly marked.
The main recreational development at the park is Byers Lake Campground at Mile 147 on the Parks Highway. Byers Lake has 73 campsites, picnic areas, fishing and boating. There are also six walk-in campsites known as Byers Lake Lakeshore Campground with three public-use cabins and toilets but no drinking water. During the summer, canoe and kayak rentals are available at Byers Lake Campground.
Denali View North Campground at Mile 162.7 of the Parks Highway offers 20 campsites equipped with toilets, drinking water, a picnic area and spectacular views of Denali and the Alaska Range. There are also nine campsites at Denali Viewpoint South at Mile 135.2 of the Parks Highway and 10 campsites at the Lower Troublesome Creek Trailhead at Mile 137.2.
Beyond gazing at Denali, hiking is the main activity at Denali State Park in the summer. There is access to the park's alpine areas and spectacular views from the three-mile Ermine Hill Trail and the two-mile Little Coal Creek Trail, both of which depart from trailheads along the Parks Highway and climb to Kesugi Ridge Trail. The Troublesome Creek Trail heads 15.2 miles north to Byers Lake Campground while the Kesugi Ridge Trail is a 27.4-mile alpine route between Little Coal Creek Trail and Byers Lake Campground. Trekkers who climb Kesugi Ridge will be stunned by the view of the Denali massif on a clear day. Byers Lake Loop Trail around Byers Lake offers an easy, flat hiking trail for visitors looking for a less strenuous route.
Trails are not maintained in the park during winter months but cross-country skiing is outstanding in March, April and occasionally even in May for skiers who travel up Curry or Kesugi ridges. Snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles are permitted in the park only when the snow is deep enough to protect vegetation, usually above 16 inches.
A staffed visitor contact station is located at the Alaska Veterans Memorial, at Mile 147.1 of the Parks Highway just north of the Byers Lake Campground. Along with displays and videos, the center sells topographical maps, books and even bear spray. Bulletin boards displaying detailed information on the park's history, natural resources and hiking routes are found at trailheads and camping areas.
There are nightly fees for camping at Byers Lake Campground, Denali View North Campground and Lower Troublesome Campground and a daily parking fee at Ermine Hill Trailhead and Little Coal Creek Trailhead. There is also a fee for the sanitary dump station at Byers Lake and a nightly fee for the three public-use cabins, which can be reserved online through the parks reservation system.
Denali State Park is accessible from the George Parks Highway, 147 miles north of Anchorage and 216 miles south of Fairbanks. The seldom-used east side of the park also offers excellent wilderness recreation opportunities and is accessible via the Alaska Railroad out of Talkeetna, on the Hurricane Loop flag-stop run. The best place to disembark the train for access to Denali State Park is just after the railroad crosses the Susitna River.
For more information on Denali State Park contact Alaska State Parks office (907-745-3975) in Wasilla.