Planning your first trip to Denali National Park in Alaska?
My husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in Denali in June 2021. It was so exciting to check Denali off our bucket list!
We spent two nights in Denali, which gave us enough time to take an all-day tour and explore some of the hiking trails near the visitor center. On our first hike, we spotted a mama and baby moose. We loved seeing mountains, dense forests, lakes, rivers, glaciers, and more wildlife throughout our stay.
We picked up a lot of Denali tips and tricks during our stay and I'm sharing them all here. Read on to get the scoop on tours, transportation, hotels, hikes, and much more.
Denali is a U.S. national park and nature preserve located between Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska. It's the home of Denali Mountain, the highest mountain in North America, formerly known as Mount McKinley.
Denali is a remote park in the Alaska wilderness, but it's relatively easy to reach by train or car. There is a limited, but good selection of hotels, restaurants, and other visitor services nearby.
I've visited a lot of national parks, and it was exciting to add Denali to the list. However, my experience turned out to be a little different from what I originally expected. Here are a few things that surprised me…
First, you don't need a car to visit Denali. It's located in the middle of the wilderness, but Alaska Railroad runs between Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Denali every day in the summer. The train station is part of the main visitor center complex. During the peak summer season, you can ride buses to various parts of the park. Many local hotels offer complimentary shuttles.
Second, you should book a tour. Denali Park Road is the only road through the park and you can only see the first 15 miles of it via car or the free park bus. A narrated bus tour is a good way to see more of the park. Your chances of seeing bears, caribou, moose, and more are excellent on a narrated bus tour.
Third, you might not see Denali Mountain. The tallest mountain in North America is so big that it creates its own weather. So it's covered by clouds about 60% of the time – especially in the summer. The good news is that there are many places to see Denali in Alaska and it can emerge anytime.
Fourth, Denali is an amazing wildlife park. In most national parks, I feel like wildlife is secondary to the scenery. But not at Denali. Bears, moose, caribou, and other wildlife are abundant. And honestly, I didn't think that the scenery inside the park was better than the spectacular scenery we saw on our way to Denali.
Finally, there are no guarantees. This wasn't a surprise, but it's always a good reminder. You might see dozens of bears from the bus or (like us) only catch a glimpse of one or two from a distance. You might see a fantastic panorama of Denali Mountain against a blue sky or (like us) just see patches of it. You might get a perfect sunny week or (like us) it might be rainy and cold in the summer.
Denali is one of the wildest and most unpredictable places I've ever visited. And that's what made it exciting. We were still treated to plenty of gorgeous scenery and wildlife sightings. And we still felt like we'd experienced Denali. It's all the more thrilling because there are no guarantees.
Things to Do
There are a lot of fun things to see and do at Denali! Here are a few of the most popular activities.
- Book a Tour – A bus tour is the only way to get past Mile 15 on Denali Park Road. Book a narrated tour for more chances to see wildlife and the park's spectacular scenery.
- Wildlife – Spotting Denali's Big 5 – bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves – is one of the most exciting things to do in Denali. Just be sure to keep a safe distance!!
- Hiking – We enjoyed hiking a couple of easy-moderate trails from the visitor center. No matter your hiking style, there's a memorable hike waiting for you at Denali.
- Ranger Programs – See a sled dog demonstration, take a guided hike, or just learn more about the park with an expert.
- Flightseeing – Seeing Denali from a small plane is a great way to see more of the park's scenery. Learn more about flightseeing at Denali National Park at the park's official website.
When to Go
Summer is the most popular season to visit Denali National Park. The weather is usually pleasant. Roads and trails are all open. The summer season runs from mid-May to mid-September.
For hardy visitors, the park is open year-round. Expect lighter crowds, fewer services, less access to roads and trails, and colder weather. I've visited other national parks in the off-season and it's always a special and unique experience, as long as you know what to expect.
Denali National Park is in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, but there are several easy ways to get there. Popular options include:
- Alaska Railroad – This is how we got to Denali and I loved riding the train. Alaska Railroad's Denali Star Train travels between Fairbanks and Anchorage every day during the summer. The train station is part of the Denali National Park's main visitor center complex. Local hotels will pick up your luggage from the station and deliver it to your room while you explore the park. Hotel shuttles arrive regularly. CLICK HERE to read more of my Alaska Railroad tips.
- Rental Car – You can drive yourself to Denali National Park. This option gives you more flexibility to travel the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road and the region around Denali.
- Airplane – Flightseeing is a popular way to experience Alaska's dramatic beauty and cover vast distances quickly. It's not the cheapest option, but it's an experience you'll never forget. Learn more about flightseeing at Denali National Park at the park's official website.
- Cruise Ship – Most cruise lines offer excursions to Denali National Park. You choose the package and they will take care of the transportation (often Alaska Railroad), hotel, and park tour. Several resorts near Denali are managed by the cruise lines.
Related: Tips for Riding Alaska Railroad
How many days do you need?
Two to three days will be plenty for most visitors to Denali National Park. Your park fee is good for up to seven days.
We arrived in the afternoon of Day 1 and hiked near the visitor center. We took a full-day bus tour into the park on Day 2. On Day 3, we checked out of our hotel and hiked near the visitor center again before boarding the train to Anchorage.
Two nights wasn't enough time to do everything I'd have liked to do. And it wasn't enough time for second chances at seeing bears and Denali Mountain – neither of which made strong appearances on our bus tour. But it was enough time to feel like I'd experienced Denali. And it gave us time to explore other parts of Alaska, including Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Kenai Fjords.
Related: 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees
Where to Stay
There are a number of hotels near Denali. Book as early as you can because rooms for summer will fill fast.
Most hotels near Denali will aim to feel rustic or will actually be rustic. They are located in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, so you'll probably find that Wifi is spotty and that rooms, food, and other amenities cost more than they would in less-remote parts of the USA. Go with appropriate expectations and you'll probably have a marvelous time. We did!
Because of the popularity of cruise ship land-and-sea packages, some of the large resorts near Denali are connected to cruise lines. Anyone can book a room if there is availability. These resorts offer a lot of amenities like park shuttles, luggage delivery to/from Alaska Railroad, and tour bus pickup at the lobby. However, they may also feel really large and crowded.
Our Denali bus tour picked us up at our resort and made stops at several other major hotels nearby. Choose a hotel and tour that work together if you want this convenience.
We chose McKinley Chalet Resort for two nights and were happy with our choice. It's a 60-acre resort with a variety of room types, built on a hill with outstanding scenic views. We liked our room, the on-site restaurant, and the shops. McKinley Chalet Resort is owned by Holland America Cruise Line.
Our stay at McKinley Chalet Resort cost nothing because we booked with our Chase Sapphire credit card points. CLICK HERE to learn more about my money-saving credit card strategy.
Related: Why You Need a Travel Rewards Credit Card
What to Pack
We visited in mid-June. The weather was mild but rainy that week. Mostly it was cool and pleasant – perfect for hiking – but sometimes it was cold and I wished I'd packed more layers. Think lightweight down jackets, sturdy shoes, beanies, and light gloves. Consider a rain poncho or waterproof jacket too.
Don't forget mosquito repellent! Alaskan mosquitoes are huge and hungry in the summer.
Entrance fees to Denali National Park are currently $15 per person over age 16. Our annual parks pass covered both of us. There is no charge for kids ages 0-15.
Expect to pay $100-200 per adult for a narrated bus tour beyond Mile 15. These tours include the $15 park fee and you can get a refund if you have already paid the fee or if you have an annual parks pass.
You do not need a car to visit Denali. You can use several types of bus services to get around the park. Many hotels offer complimentary shuttles to and from the park.
There are three types of buses inside the park:
- Free Buses – Included in your park fee, these buses stop at several places along the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road.
- Narrated Tour Buses – These buses are not owned by the park, but are authorized to take visitors beyond Mile 15. An expert guide narrates the trip.
- Transit Buses – Hop-on, hop-off buses that travel beyond Mile 15, with no tour guide. These are not free, but cost less than a narrated tour bus.
We used the narrated tour bus and hotel shuttle options and they worked well. We found that there was a lot to do within walking distance of the visitor center too.
Visit the official Denali website for more details about Denali's bus services.
More Tour Tips
A major landslide wiped out a section of Denali Park Road in July 2021, so all the tours into the park have changed somewhat since our visit. The park service is working to repair it and you can get updates on Denali's official website.
You should still consider booking a narrated bus tour of Denali to get the most from your trip. Denali Park Road is closed to private vehicles after Mile 15. Tours currently go as far as Mile 43. That's a lot of opportunity to see the outstanding wildlife and scenery of Denali. And at 30 MPH on a dirt road, it's plenty for most families.
Here's what you can expect on most narrated bus tours
- An expert tour guide
- Bus drivers and guides often spot wildlife first and will help you see them
- Ride in a modified school bus on dirt roads
- Regular stops for sightseeing and bathrooms
- Snacks, drinks, or lunch may be provided
We considered the Tundra Wilderness Tour and the Backcountry Adventure Tour and ultimately chose the longer and more expensive Backcountry Adventure Tour.
We enjoyed the Backcountry Adventure Tour – which before the landslide was a 13-hour narrated tour that traveled the entire Denali Park Road and back. However, it was a really long day and I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. Due to the landslide, this tour's route has changed a lot.
Compare tours carefully and read post-landslide reviews to find the right one for you.
Visiting Denali was such a thrill and I definitely recommend visiting Denali if you get the chance. I hope that our experience has helped your family plan a great trip.
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