Alaska Vacation Recap: Denali National Park and Preserve
This is the second trip recap of our 2017 vacation to 4 of Alaska’s national parks. Park Chasers also posted a series called “Project Alaska” on how to plan an Alaskan vacation without a travel or cruise agent. Check out today’s recap of our visit to Denali National Park, then see all of our other posts on Alaska’s amazing National Parks.
About Denali National Park
Denali National Park has been on our bucket list of national parks from the very beginning of our #parkchasing adventures. We’ve read dozens of books about the mountain, the park’s history, and the unique stories of adventure and misfortune that surround this place. Each and every story adds another layer to an already complex wilderness landscape. If you’re new to Denali, here is what you need to know about the park:
- As with Gates of the Arctic and Wrangell-St. Elias (two of the other parks we visited on our trip), Denali National Park and Preserve is HUGE. At 6 million acres or 9,492 square miles the park is more than 100 square miles larger than the state of New Hampshire.
- Denali is maintained as untouched wilderness in its natural state. Glacier National Park in Montana has 700 miles of marked trails in its 1 million acres. Denali has 35 miles of marked trails in 6 million acres.
- There is only 1 road that travels into the park. It’s 92 miles long and mostly unpaved. Visitors can only drive the first 15 or so miles, all other trips must be taken in designated park vehicles.
- At 20,310 feet Denali is the tallest mountain in North America. The Wonder Lake campground–the closest established campground to the peak–is at 2,055 feet above sea level. From Wonder Lake over 18,000 feet in elevation gain (height) is visible. In contrast, Mount Everest rises only 12,000 feet off of the 17,000 foot high plateau it stands on.
- Denali creates its own weather, which is unlike the surrounding areas. Park staff state that less than 1/3 of visitors actually get to see the entire mountain exposed because of the dense cloud cover that frequently shrouds the peaks.
Creating a Denali Itinerary
Denali National Park can be reached by either Fairbanks or Anchorage. It’s a 2 hour south from Fairbanks or a 4 hour drive north from Anchorage. During the summer peak season there is a constant stream of campers and RVs traveling on the Parks Highway which past the entrance. The Alaska Railroad also provides service directly from the Anchorage airport to the park. With Denali’s primary purpose to remain a protected wilderness area, there are limits on how to experience the park. Basically, visitors hike alone or with a guide, or visitors ride one of the famous Denali buses.
Riding the Denali Bus
The NPS has a page dedicated to helping visitors choose the best bus. It is important to know how long you are able to stay in the park and what your interests are before you book a bus. It’s also important to understand that there are two types of buses run through the park: guided tour buses and shuttle buses. Guided tour buses offer a tour of a particular area of the park road. You purchase a ticket which is a particular seat on a particular route. Your bus driver (or a park ranger) will provide a narration of everything you see in Denali. These tour buses are different than shuttle buses. On shuttle buses you have a reserved departure time for the day, but after that you are welcome to hop on and off the bus at any of the shuttle stops. It gives you the option to ride the bus into the park, hop off for a hike or lunch and then hop back on a different bus later in the day. As you’ll see in our itinerary below, we knew we wanted to spend time with a ranger, so we chose the Kantisha Tour Experience for our first bus trip. On the next day, we rode the shuttle bus to a hiking trail we scoped the day before. We also met visitors during our stay who chose different options: ride with the same driver three days in a row on different routes; choose a tour bus that stopped for a ranger-led hike; or shuttle in to stay in a remote campsite overnight and take a shuttle bus out the following morning. Every experience in Denali is different and no two bus rides are ever the same!
Arrived in Denali National Park late morning and checked into the Riley Creek Campground to set up camp. (Reservations are highly recommended since this is the most popular front-country campground in the park.) Visited the park visitor center to collect our park stamps and to check for any trail updates. Hiked the Mount Healy Overlook Trail that departs from the Visitor Center parking area. We extended the hike from our campsite into a challenging 8-9 mile hike, but the views were well worth it. Ended the day at the 4 PM demonstration at the sled-dog kennels. Denali National Park maintains active sled-dog teams that run patrols through the park in the winter. Visitors can hear about the history of mushing in Alaska, watch the dogs in action, and talk with the rangers who are lucky enough to work with these athletes every day.
Woke up at 5 AM for a quick breakfast before departing for the Wilderness Access Center. All bus tours depart from here, including our 6:15 AM Kantishna Experience Tour bus. While this was really early for a vacation day, the views of Denali were best in the morning during our 4 day visit. By late morning clouds started to fill in the sky around the peaks. This tour went to the absolute end of the 92 mile road where we met with a Park Ranger who showed us around Wonder Lake and the mining settlement of Kantishna. We were really lucky to have clear skies surrounding the mountain on the day of our tour. The driver & tour guide stated this was only the 3rd time the mountain was this clear since the start of the bus season. Returned to the campground around 6 PM for dinner on the campfire and another early bedtime.
Awoke at 5 AM again for the 6:30 AM shuttle bus to the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66. Even though this was not a designated wildlife tour like the day before, the cooler weather meant more wildlife were out near the road. Every bus (tour or shuttle) stops for wildlife viewing so be sure to bring your camera and extra batteries.
On this day our bus completed what’s called “The Denali Grand Slam.” A view of a (mostly) unobstructed Denali, a wolf, grizzly bear, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep. We arrived at the Eielson Visitor’s Center just after 10:30 AM. We hiked the Old Gorge Creek Trail down to the stream. While this hike is only a mile each way, the scenery is remarkable. With picturesque views of Denali and wildflowers blooming on the hillsides it is a remarkable area. We ate a packed lunch (no food options out on the road) and spent some time at the visitor center, including checking out the number of climbers on the mountain. Rode the 1:00 PM bus back to the campground with more wildlife viewing. Stopped at the main park visitor center to watch the park documentary and shop for some souvenirs before we departed in the morning.
While we easily could have spent another full day riding the park bus, it was time to depart Denali. After pay showers at the Riley Creek Mercantile and watching a mother moose and two calves outside the shower building, we broke camp and departed for our next stop: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
Other Travel Notes
- Plan ahead and be sure to make your camping or hotel reservations early as possible. The summer season is short in Denali so 99% of the visitors come at the same time.
- Bear spray is not needed if you are only going to be riding the buses in the park. It has to be stored underneath in the luggage area anyway. The park service does recommend it if you’ll be staying anywhere out in the park.
- Flight-seeing tours are a major controversy in the park right now. Noise pollution in the protected wilderness area was definitely noticeable during our stay both in the front country and along the park road. Consider this carefully if you’re thinking about a mountain tour.