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Denali National Park Travel Guide + 14 Things To Do In Denali

Updated May 2020, Denali National Park Travel Guide + 14 Things To Do In Denali was originally written in February 2020

Denali National Park is one of Alaska’s most well-known landmarks, home to the tallest mountain in North America, as well as heaps of wildlife and more nature than you’d ever be able to explore in a lifetime.

Ironically, growing up in Alaska I never actually stepped foot into the National Park until I was 26 years old. Instead, I went traveling around pretty much everywhere but Denali – camping in some amazing places. And I don’t regret it for a second – I would encourage you all to look on campingfunzone.com for a cheap RV that you can take with you on camping trips around our great nation – but I definitely should have visited this amazing National Park much sooner! Sure, I could see Denali from my house growing up (even now I can still see it) on a clear day, and I’ve driven past it on my way to Fairbanks countless times and even stopped to take a photo, but I never made the effort to visit the park. Fast forward a few years and I’ve now visited several times, but none the less, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. So, without getting too carried away, here is a quick Denali Travel Guide, including the 15 best things to do in Denali.

Please note that due to the current COVID-19 Pandemic the Mount Denali and Mount Foraker climbing season has been suspended for 2020 and climbing permits for the two mountains are not being issued at this time. 

Start planning your Alaska adventure here: The Ultimate Alaska Travel Guide

Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

Important Denali National Park Info

  • Denali National Park is open year-round, however, the main Denali Visitor Center is only staffed from mid-May to mid-September. The Murie Visitor Center is only open in winter.
  • Personal vehicles can only be driven to Savage River (the first 15 miles of the Denali National Park Road), beyond Savage River you must take a bus/shuttle, go by bicycle, or walk the road, with the exception of during the Denali Road Lottery. In 2020 due to low projected visitor numbers, there will be a permit system put in place allowing private vehicles to drive the park road during the summer season. For more information on it, click here.
  • The entire length of the Denali National Park Road to Kantishna is 92.5 miles.
  • Entrance to Denali National Park is $15 per person (age 16 and older). Park entrance is free to youth 15 and under. A park pass is good for 7 consecutive days.
  • Denali was named Mt McKinley up until 2015 when it was decided to return it to the original Dena’ina name, you’ll still hear both names.
  • Many visitors never actually see Denali as it is covered in clouds many days.
  • Weather is erratic and unpredictable in Denali National park.
  • Very few maintained trails exist in Denali National Park. 99% of the park is wild and untamed and exploring it will require wilderness survival skills, bushwhacking, river crossings, potential run-ins with wildlife, and more hazards.
  • For the love of everything holy bring bug spray, and not that healthy stuff either (I don’t like to use DEET, but that stuff does work)– the mosquitos are diabolical out here, you’ve been warned. A head net can prove extremely handy on years with thick bug populations, I know they look dumb but omg will you be happy to take a breath without breathing in 3,956 bugs.

Want to see the best of Alaska in 10 days? Check out my 10 day Alaska road trip itinerary

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How To Get To Denali National Park

Denali National Park is located just off the Parks Highway. Most visitors will make the nearly 4.5 hour drive from Anchorage to visit the park. From Fairbanks, you can expect the drive to take roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes. If you are visiting Denali from Fairbanks and plan to return there and you don’t want to drive yourself, this $80 (each way) shuttle can prove handy.

Another option is to take the train. Book your Alaska Railroad ticket from Anchorage to Denali here, and from Denali to Anchorage here.

Trying to visit Alaska on the cheap? Check out my Alaska budget travel guide

Getting Around Denali National Park

Beyond Savage River (mile 15) you will need to take a bus to go any further along the Denali National Park Road (with the exception of the road lottery, which I will explain below), unless you plan to walk or bicycle the road.

Narrated Buses

There are three different narrated bus trips to choose from, which will include a narrator that will explain a myriad of history, info, stories, point out important landmarks, and more. These buses make stops of wildlife sightings and for scenery. They also include a snack or lunch depending on the length of the trip. The narrated bus tours offered and prices (adult 16+/15 and under) are:

  • Natural History Tour | $101.75/$43.50
  • Tundra Wilderness Tour | $162.50/$73.75
  • Kantishna Experience | $240.75/$113.00 (Get a discounted ticket for the Kantishna Experience here!)

Purchase your Denali narrated bus ticket here.

Non-Narrated Buses

Non-narrated buses serve more like a transit shuttle in comparison to the narrated buses above. Non-narrated buses will still make scenic and wildlife viewing stops along the way (as well as restroom stops). You do not need to stay on the same bus for the entirety of your journey like the narrated buses. You can just flag a bus down in your desired direction, though this will depend on seat availability so you may have to flag a couple of buses down during busy times before finding open seats. Note that non-narrated buses are green, while narrated buses are tan. Additionally, there is a camper bus designed to transfer people hauling gear, like tents or bicycles with them that are doing the park road in one direction or taking on a backcountry trek. Here are the non-narrated bus prices, note that anyone 15 and under rides free, but still needs to have an actual ticket which can be booked by phone or online:

  • Toklat River | mile 53 | $33.50
  • Eielson Visitor Center | mile 66 | $42.75
  • Wonder Lake | mile 85 | $58.75
  • Kantishna | mile 92 | $64.00
  • Camper bus | $42.75

Purchase your Denali non-narrated bus ticket here.

Free Buses

Free shuttle buses connect points of interest along the first 15 miles of the park road up until Savage River. There are 3 free buses as follows:

  • Savage River Shuttle
  • Riley Creek Loop Bus
  • Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle

Read up more on what each of these free buses offers here.

Kantishna, Denali Park Road, Denali National Park Road, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska
Me at the end of the Denali Park Road in 2015 during the Denali Road Lottery

Denali Road Lottery

The Denali Road Lottery takes place for four days in mid to late September each year, the weekend following the end of the summer season at Denali National Park. This is the only time that visitors are allowed to drive motor vehicles the full length of the 92.5 mile long Denali National Park Road. You must apply for a Denali Road Lottery Permit and be selected in order to take part in the road lottery drive. You can apply for the lottery here between May 1 and 31 each year for the upcoming September drive. It costs $15 per entrant in the lottery. If you are selected you will need to pay an additional $25 after you’ve been notified that you’ve won. The dates for 2020 will be September 18-22. In 2015 I was able to do the Denali Road Lottery (my Dad was drawn) and drive the entire length of the road, read more about how to apply for your Denali Road Lottery Permit here.

Special Permits For 2020

Because the usual traffic in Denali National Park will be greatly reduced in 2020 owing to the current COVID-19 Pandemic, it has been decided that Denali National Park will open its park road on five weekends in the summer of 2020 to private vehicles, allowing visitors to drive the road to Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66) between July and September. It has also been decided that the park road will be open to private vehicles to Teklanika River from June 1-30 daily.

Permits will be required for private cars to drive to Tekalnika and Eielson. For visitors wanting to drive to Teklanika between June 1 and June 30 and visitors wanting to drive to Eielson on the special weekends July-September (July 10-12, July 25-26, August 7-9, August 21-23, and September 4-7), you will need to apply for your permit online at recreation.gov. Permits will go up for sale online 14 days prior to the date you want to enter. Each permit will cost $55 per vehicle, not including the Denali National Park entrance fee. Read more information on the special permits here.

As always, the Denali Park Road will be open to private vehicles to Savage River (Mile 15).

Things To Do In Denali National Park

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A bull moose near the Polychrome Mountains in Denali

See The Alaskan Big 5

Everyone talks about Africa’s Big 5, but did you know there’s an Alaskan Big 5?

They are:

  • Grizzly bears
  • Moose
  • Caribou
  • Dall sheep
  • Wolves

If you plan on taking the buses both narrated and non) through the park, you’ll have pretty good odds of seeing some wildlife in Denali National Park. I’ve had the chance to see grizzlies, moose and Dall sheep up close in Denali. Plenty of visitors will see caribou (I swear caribou have a secret pact against me and hide when the word on the street trail is I’m headed for the interior), wolves are likely going to be the hardest of the Big 5 to spot.

If you plan to shoot wildlife photos, I recommend grabbing or renting a lens with at least 200mm zoom on it. 400mm+ is usually best.

Dall sheep, Dall sheep Alaska, Dall sheep, Denali sheep, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska
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Don't laugh but... this is the first time I've ever seen a caribou in the wild. I have no explanation for why it took 33 years Caribou, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

Take A Narrated Bus Tour

The Narrated bus tours on offer of Denali National Park are a great way to get to know the park with interpretive stops and a naturalist guide to explain and point out various landmarks (as well as help you spot wildlife). There are 3 different narrated tours on offer:

Tundra Wilderness Tour

The Tundra Wilderness Tour is one of the narrated bus tours on offer of Denali National Park. If you’re out to see wildlife, this is the tour you wanna be on. The drivers are usually excellent at spotting wildlife and tend to know the usual hangouts for lots of the wildlife, plus park rangers keep drivers in the know of what animals are spotted where throughout the day. The Tundra Wilderness Tour lasts about 8 hours, snacks are provided, but I’d recommend bringing some of your own as well.

Kantishna Experience Tour

The Kantishna Experience Tour is the only one of the narrated bus tours that drive the entirety of the Denali National Park Road. The Kantishna Experience has a focus on the sweeping landscapes of Denali National Park and its Gold Rush history as you travel to the old mining town of Kantishna at the end of the road. The Kantishna Experience also includes a tour around Wonder Lake with an interpretive park ranger and naturalist. This tour is about 12 hours in duration.

Get a deal on your Kantishna Experience Tour by booking your ticket here

Denali Natural History Tour

The Denali Natural History Tour has a human focus, making stops for an Alaskan Native presentation that shows how to land surrounding Denali has been used for the last 10,000 years, as well as stops for the original ranger cabin at Savage River and more. Your driver and naturalist guide will also point out wildlife and explain the geology, landscape, and history of the park. The tour lasts about 5 hours in duration.

Mt Healy Overlook, Mount Healy Overlook, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska
View from the top of Mt Healy Overlook

Mt. Healy Overlook

Mt. Healy Overlook is a trek that gives great panoramic views of the Denali National Park entrance area. From the Visitor Center, you can access the Mt. Healy Overlook trail by first taking the Taiga Trail and take the Mt. Healy Trail that veers from it. You can optionally summit Mt. Healy by trekking an additional 1.5 miles beyond the end of the trail, but do note that it can be a bit treacherous and many people have fallen and bee injured and even died, so take caution. Read more about the Mt. Healy Overlook Trail here.

  • Mt. Healy Overlook Trail | 2.7 miles (5.4 miles return) | 1,700 feet elevation gain/loss |

Whitewater Raft Nenana River

Wanna get out on the river for a wild ride getting bucked around on Alaskan rapids? No problem. You can book a 2 hour long Nenana whitewater rafting trip. You’ll, of course, be set up with dry suits (the water is frigid), helmets, and paddles and provided with an experienced river guide. Don’t laugh, but I’ve never actually been whitewater river rafting in Alaska (I mean, I have pack rafted and floated plenty of rivers here)- I’ve only truly whitewater rafted the Chong Kemin River in Kyrgyzstan and the Zambezi between Zimbabwe and Zambia. With that said, my friends Corin and Brian worked as river guides out here for a summer several years back and still talk about their adventures out here on the Nenana River.

If you’re not that adventurous, perch up from a good lookout along the river, off the Parks Highway and watch for rafters sailing down the river.

Wanna go white water rafting? This Nenana rafting tour comes highly recommended

Denali Kennel and Sled Dog Demonstration

For those interested in learning more about dog mushing, sled dog demos are done with park rangers at 10 am, 2 pm, and 4 pm every day in the summer. If you are unable to make it during one of the demonstrations you can still visit between 9 am and 4:30 pm to meet the dogs.

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Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska, Flightseeing, Flightseeing Denali
Flightseeing, Flightseeing Denali, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

Go On A Denali Flightseeing Trip

If you ask me, without a doubt in my mind, this is the best way to see Alaska. Flightseeing is a great way to not only cover a lot of ground but get to know Alaska from a different perspective- aerial. Truth be told, I’ve not gone on a flightseeing trip around Denali (don’t worry it’s on the to-do list), but I have done lots of flightseeing around Chugach State Park, Prince William Sound, and Wrangell St. Elias National Park. My friend Tay dropped the money and did a flightseeing tour around Denali and raved about it, especially going past the Wickersham Wall and landing on a glacier. Flightseeing photos by Tay & Dave

Book your Denali flightseeing tour here

Stony Hill Overlook

Stony Hill Overlook is the spot that many of the photos you see of Denali are shot from. On a clear day, this is the best place for viewing North America’s tallest peak in all its glory. Stony Hill Overlook is located just a hair before mile 62 on the park road.

Triple Lakes Trail Hike

The Triple Lakes Trail is about 9.5 miles one way (expect it to take about 4-5 hours), with an elevation gain/loss of about 1,000 feet. The trailheads are located near the Denali Visitor Center (north) and at the parking lot next to the Nenana Bridge (Crabbe’s Crossing) at mile 231 (south). There are not shuttles to the southern end of the trail, however you can arrange a taxi or a pickup with your accommodation. Read more about the Triple Lake Hikes here.

Savage Alpine, Savage Alpine Trail, Savage River, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska
The views from the Savage Alpine Trail

Hike Around Savage River

Savage River, located at mile 15 of the Denali Park Road is the furthest you can drive into the park with your own car. From the parking lot here there you can set off on a few different hikes ranging from 0.6 miles to 8 miles in length that will suit nearly every walker and trekker’s fitness levels.

  • Mountain Vista Trail | 0.6 miles roundtrip | 50 feet elevation gain
  • Savage Cabin Loop | 0.8 miles roundtrip | 50 feet elevation gain
  • Savage River Loop | 2 miles roundtrip | 0 feet elevation gain
  • Savage Alpine Trail | 4 miles one way/ 8 miles out and back | 1,500 feet elevation gain

Eielson Visitor Center

The Eielson Visitor Center is another place for great views of Denali and the Alaska Range on a clear day (I have yet to see Denali from Eielson!). The Eielson Visitor Center is only open in summer and houses an art gallery and has park rangers on hand to answer questions. There are 3 hikes that can be done from Eielson, they are:

  • The Tundra Loop + Spurr Trail | 0.65 miles
  • Thorofare Ridge Trail (out and back) | 4.1 miles | 1,000 feet elevation gain/loss
  • Gorge Creek Trail (out and back) | 7.5 miles | 1,100 feet elevation loss/gain
Reflection Pond, Reflection Pond Denali, Wonder Lake, Wonder Lake Denali, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska
Reflection Pond

Wonder Lake & Reflection Pond

Located at mile 84.5 and 85.3 respectively, Wonder Lake and Reflection Pond are a dream for photographers.  If you’re dying to get the reflection shot of Denali I’d recommend camping at Wonder Lake and moseying on over to Reflection Lake in the morning for the perfect shot (weather permitting of course). Late evening in the summer can yield some nice shots as well. Do be warned, the mosquitos are thick out here, so come bug-doped up and wielding a bug net if you don’t want to be eaten by while simultaneously inhaling mosquitos.

There is one hike in the area called the McKinley Bar Trail that connects the Wonder Lake Campground with the McKinley River. It’s 2.5 miles one way (5 miles return).

Savage River, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

Backcountry Hikes

Denali is comprised of 6 million acres of land- yes, that’s larger than several US States! This leaves much of the park for exploration by backcountry hiking. In order to take on any backcountry trekking into Denali National Park that will have you camping, you will need to obtain a backcountry permit for your chosen unit (unit of the park you’d like to explore). Backcountry permits are free (though you will still need to pay for park entrance and for the camper bus), but certain units are limited to the number of backpackers allowed in per night. You cannot obtain permits in advance and all your party must be present to apply. It’s recommended to arrive at the Wilderness Access Center at 8 am the day prior to departing for your hike to apply. You will need to complete a backcountry orientation (once per season) prior to departing, this takes 30 minutes and is offered at the Wilderness Access Center.

If you don’t have much backcountry backpacking experience units 1, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 18, 34, and 42 are good choices when selecting a unit for your permit.

You need to be self-sufficient in the backcountry. Read up more on the rules, regulations and important information to know prior to taking on a backcountry hike in Denali National Park here.

Wanna do a fly in backcountry day hike? Check out this heli-hiking tour in Denali

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I’ve never seen the aurora from Denali myself, but here’s a picture from near my home of it

Northern Lights

Denali National Park is a great place to hunt for the aurora from, without much light pollution. September is the best month for trying to see the northern lights from Denali National Park as it’s typically one of the most active auroral months, and the area isn’t completely shut for the winter season. For more great places to see the northern lights in Alaska from read this post here.

Visiting Denali in late August or September? Check out this Denali aurora hunting night tour

Savage River, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska, Denali Park Road
Denali Park Road

Bike The Denali Park Road

For serious cyclers, it’s possible to bike the entire 92.5 miles from the park entrance to Kantishna. Read all the info you need to know to cycle the Denali National Park Road here.

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Views from Mt Healy Overlook

Day Hikes In Denali National Park

Here is a list of all the day hikes in Denali National Park that are on maintained trails. Note that there are unlimited hiking opportunities in the backcountry, but those are completely off-trail. For more information on the hikes in Denali National Park click here.

Hikes near the Denali Park entrance

  • Horseshoe Lake Trail | 3.2 miles roundtrip | 250 feet elevation gain | moderate |
  • Jonesville Trail | 0.3 miles one way | 150 feet elevation gain | easy | *connects Riley Creek Campground with the business district outside the park
  • Taiga Trail | 1 mile one way | 75  feet elevation gain | moderate |
  • Mt. Healy Overlook Trail | 2.7 miles one way | 1,700  feet elevation gain | strenuous |
  • Mt. McKinley Station Trail | 1.6 miles one way | 100  feet elevation gain | moderate |
  • Rock Creek Trail | 2.4 miles one way | 400  feet elevation gain | moderate |
  • Roadside Trail | 1.8 miles one way | 350  feet elevation gain | moderate |
  • Meadow View Trail *connects Roadside and Rock Creek Trails | 0.3 miles one way | 0 feet elevation gain | easy
  • Morino Trail | 0.2 miles one way | 0 feet elevation gain | easy
  • Triple Lakes Trail | 9.5 miles one way | 1,000  feet elevation gain | strenuous |
  • Spruce Forest Trail | 0.15 miles roundtrip | 0  feet elevation gain | easy |
  • Bike Path | 1.7 miles one way | 150  feet elevation gain | easy |

Hikes near Savage Creek

  • Mountain Vista Trail | 0.6 miles roundtrip | 50 feet elevation gain | easy |
  • Savage Cabin Loop | 0.8 miles roundtrip | 50 feet elevation gain | easy |
  • Savage River Loop | 2 miles roundtrip | 0 feet elevation gain | moderate |
  • Savage Alpine Trail | 4 miles one way | 1,500 feet elevation gain | strenuous |

Hikes near Eielson Visitor Center

  • The Tundra Loop + Spurr Trail | 0.65 miles roundtrip | 0 feet elevation gain | easy
  • Thorofare Ridge Trail | 2.1 miles one way | 1,000 feet elevation gain | strenuous
  • Gorge Creek Trail | 3.2 miles one way | 1,100 feet elevation gain | strenuous

Hikes near Wonder Lake

  • McKinley River Bar Trail | 2.5 miles one way | 0 feet elevation gain | moderate
Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

Campgrounds In Denali National Park

It’s possible to camp in Denali National Park, and it’s going to be one of your cheapest options for accommodations in and around the park. Campground fees are $13-34 per night, depending on location and whether you’ll be tenting it or in an RV. All campgrounds are only open from mid to late May until mid-September, with the exceptions of Wonder Lake Campground which does not open until June, and Riley Creek which is open year-round. Note that camping is free at Riley Creek only in winter. Make campground reservations well in advance as these do book up, especially between June and August. For more detailed info on camping in Denali National Park and to reserve campsites, click here.

Also, note that there is no fee for backcountry camping in Denali National Park, however, you will need to have a backcountry permit and have completed the 30 minute backcountry safety class. For more info on backcountry and backpacking in Denali National Park click here.

  • Riley Creek Campground | mile 0.25 | open year-round | tent + RV |
  • Savage River Campground | mile 14 | open mid-May to mid-September | tent + RV |
  • Sanctuary River Campground | mile 22 | open mid-May to mid-September | tent |
  • Teklanika River Campground | mile 29 | open mid-May to mid-September | tent + RV |
  • Igloo Creek Campground | mile 35 | open mid-May 20 to mid-September | tent |
  • Wonder Lake Campground | mile 85 | open June to mid-September | tent |
Denali Road Lottery, Denali National Park, Alaska, Savage River
Savage River

Best Hotels In & Around Denali

Lodging around Denali National Park can be quite expensive, so I’ve also included nearby Cantwell and Healy in addition to McKinley Park (which is the nearest to the park).

Budget

The Runaway House | Cantwell
Booking.com | Agoda.com |

White Moose Lodge | Healy
Booking.com |

Denali Park Hotel | Healy
Booking.com | Hotels.com |

Midrange

Cantwell Lodge | Cantwell
Booking.com | Hotels.com |

Backwoods Lodge | Cantwell
Booking.com |

Splurge

McKinley Creekside Cabins | McKinley Park
Booking.com | Hotels.com |

Denali Cabins | McKinley Park
Booking.com | Hotels.com |

Grande Denali Lodge | McKinley Park
Booking.com | Hotels.com |

Best Restaurants Near Denali

Fine Dining

229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern* | McKinley park

The Overlook | McKinley park

Alpenglow Restaurant | McKinley park

Midrange

McKinley Creekside Cafe | McKinley park

The Salmon Bake | McKinley park

49th State Brewing* | Healy

Prospector’s Pizzeria & Alehouse* | McKinley park

Budget

Moose-AKa Food Truck | McKinley park

Denali Thai Food* | McKinley park

Denali Park Cafe | Cantwell

Black Bear Coffee* | McKinley park

* = personal favorites

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Safety In Denali National Park

In terms of safety, your biggest concerns will be wildlife, and slips and falls associated with hiking/climbing/etc. I would recommend purchasing a can of bear spray on arrival in Alaska and educating yourself on how to use it at the very least. If you plan to camp or trek in the backcountry I recommend buying a bear canister (this one in the link is the one I personally own and use) to mask food odors from animals, especially bears. Read more on bear awareness and wildlife safety here.

Denali Packing List

For General Visitors

Useful Maps & Books

For Backcountry Trekkers & Campers

Have Any Questions About Visiting Denali National Park?

Ask in the comments section below.

Mt Healy Overlook, Denali, Denali National Park, Alaska

Need Travel Insurance for Alaska?

Start shopping plans over at battleface, my go-to travel insurance choice, or over at World Nomads.

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