Denali National Park Travel Guide + 14 Things To Do In Denali
Updated March 2021, 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. 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 nonetheless, 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.
Start planning your Alaska adventure here: The Ultimate Alaska Travel Guide
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
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 2021 will be September 17-21. 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
See The Alaskan Big 5
Everyone talks about Africa’s Big 5, but did you know there’s an Alaskan Big 5?
- Grizzly bears
- Dall sheep
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.
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
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 been 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.
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 no 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.
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
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).
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
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
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.
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
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 |
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).
White Moose Lodge | Healy
| Booking.com |
Backwoods Lodge | Cantwell
| Booking.com |
Best Restaurants Near Denali
229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern* | McKinley park
The Overlook | McKinley park
Alpenglow Restaurant | McKinley park
McKinley Creekside Cafe | McKinley park
The Salmon Bake | McKinley park
49th State Brewing* | Healy
Prospector’s Pizzeria & Alehouse* | McKinley park
Moose-AK Food Truck | McKinley park
Denali Thai Food* | McKinley park
Denali Park Cafe | Cantwell
Black Bear Coffee* | McKinley park
* = personal favorites
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
- Warm outer shell jacket x1
- Fleece x1
- Merino wool long sleeve base layer top x1
- Trekking pants x1
- Merino wool leggings x2
- Trekking socks x2
- Sports bra x2
- Mittons x1
- Warm hat x1
- Sunglasses x1
- Comfortable walking shoe x1
- Mosquito repellent
Useful Maps & Books
For Backcountry Trekkers & Campers
- Inreach Explorer+
- Bear spray
- Hiking boots
- Katadyn water purifier
- Sleeping mat
- 3-season tent
- Hydration Pack
- Sleeping bag
- Campstove and Cooking set
- Bear vault
- Silicone squeeze tubes
- Propane/butane canister
- Trekking poles
- Biodegradable wipes
- Toilet Paper
- First Aid Kit
- Dehydrated meals such as Mountain House
- Trail mix
- Dried fruit and nuts
- Peanut butter
- Spice packets
- Olive oil for cooking
- Fresh veggies, noodles, bread, etc
Have Any Questions About Visiting Denali National Park?
Ask in the comments section below.