Visiting Denali National Park? In this guide we’re sharing the best things to do in Denali National Park, plus where to stay, tours we recommend, and more!
After spending 5 months driving to Alaska, including an epic drive on the Alaska Highway, we finally made it to the Last Frontier and our first stop? Denali National Park and Preserve!
It felt fitting to kick off our 2.5 months in the state, after such an incredible journey to get there, with the tallest mountain not only in Alaska, but in North America! We spent a total of 4 days in the park and experienced as much of it as we possibly could, including short day hikes, riding the bus, going on an off trail adventure, and seeing adorable sled dogs.
And in this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know before visiting Denali National Park, including important road closures, how to navigate the park, the best things to do in Denali, itinerary options, and more!
Looking for more things to do in Alaska?
- How to camp at the Teklanika River Campground in Denali National Park
- Hiking the Horseshoe Lake Trail at Denali National Park
- How to hike the Savage Alpine Trail (+ Savage River Loop Trail) in Denali National Park
- Hiking the Mount Healy Overlook Trail at Denali National Park
- The 24 BEST hikes in Alaska
- Things to do in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
- The BEST things to do at Kenai Fjords National Park
- RVing Alaska: Our top tips & things to know!
- The ULTIMATE Guide to Driving the Alaska Highway
- Summer Alaska Packing List
- How to spend 7 days in Alaska (4 itinerary options!)
- All of our Alaska vlogs
- All of our Canadian vlogs
- All of our Alaska guides
- About Denali National Park
- Understanding the different areas of Denali National Park
- Things to know before visiting Denali National Park
- The Best Things to do in Denali National Park (between miles 0-15)
- The Best Things to do in Denali National Park (between miles 15-43)
- Other things to do in Denali National Park
- Denali National Park Itinerary Options
- When to visit Denali National Park
- How to get to Denali National Park
- How to get around Denali National Park
- Where to Stay in Denali National Park
- What to bring with you to Denali National Park
About Denali National Park
Denali National Park is home to Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America, at 20,310 feet. It was first established as a national park in 1917, originally called Mount McKinley National Park, but in 1980, the park was renamed to Denali National Park and Preserve and in 2015, the mountain itself was renamed to Denali, which is a Koyukon Athabascan word that means “The Great One.”
Besides its monumental peak, the park is home to 6 million acres of wilderness, full of other beautiful mountains, taiga and tundra terrain, glaciers, and tons of wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou, and dall sheep, just to name a few!
Note: Denali is pronounced “Den-alley” not “Den-ollie,” despite what many people think (we blame GMC for mispronouncing their SUV name!). While how to pronounce Denali is a heated topic, as evidenced by our YouTube comments, our research using this article, plus this video from Chief Mitch Demientieff, and this video from the Denali Borough mayor, made us feel pretty confident that it is in fact “Den-alley.”
While this may not matter to those who aren’t making YouTube videos and saying the name publicly, we do think it’s important to learn the proper pronunciation of words and places, especially when they have indigenous origins.
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
Understanding the different areas of Denali National Park
Alaska is home to 8 US national parks, many of which require a plane or boat to get to, and Denali National Park is one of the most accessible, as it’s reachable by car.
However, it is quite a bit different than most national parks and before we dive into the best things to do in Denali National Park, plus other logistical information, it’s important to understand how the park is laid out and how you can get around.
The park itself is 6 million acres, but only a small portion is accessible by visitors along the park’s 92 mile long Park Road. Although, not all of this 92 mile road is accessible by private vehicle. In fact, the majority is not.
And because of this, it can be a bit confusing to visit. So below we are breaking down the park by three different areas and sharing what to expect for each one, how to get around, and more!
The first 15 miles of the park are the easiest (and cheapest!) to visit, plus offers a wide variety of things to do for all activity levels.
This is where you can find the main visitor center, a handful of maintained, day hike options, the dog sledding facility, and two large campgrounds. This is also the only part of the park where you can drive your own vehicle!
From mile 0-15, you are able to freely drive around the park and this stretch of park road is fully paved, with different pullouts, plus trailheads to enjoy along the way. And if you visit the park on a clear day, you can start to see Denali around mile 9.
While we suggest driving your own vehicle to get around this section, you do have the option to take one of the paid park buses (more on that later!) or one of the free shuttles, which can take you to the Mountain View and Savage River trailheads, Riley Creek Campground and Horseshoe Lake trailhead, plus the dog sledding demonstration.
If you want to venture further than mile 15, minus a few exceptions, which we will explain below, you are required to take one of the park buses. You have a couple options to choose from and we will break them down in the “things to do” section of this guide.
There are a few important things to know about this section of the park:
- The road from mile 15-43 is not paved, but is a pretty well maintained gravel road that is suitable for any type of vehicle.
- There aren’t many services in this area, minus a couple campgrounds and a couple of restrooms.
- There are no maintained trails and this area of the park is best explored by going off trail, which we will discuss later, as well as from the bus window.
Although it is a bit more difficult and expensive to visit this part of the park, we highly recommend it. This is where you get to escape the crowds of the first 15 miles and explore the tundra and wilderness that makes this park special. It’s also a great spot to see wildlife!
Want to drive past mile 15 on your own? Here are three ways you can do so:
Visit in April, May, or mid September
If you visit between mid April and mid May, you may have the chance to drive about 30 miles down the park road. The park begins plowing the road in March and until the bus service starts in mid May, you have the opportunity to drive a bit further than normal, weather and conditions permitting. You can check the spring road opening status here!
They also allow private vehicles to go up to 30 miles into the park, once again weather depending, usually about mid-September, after the bus tours end for the season and until snow forces the road to close.
Camp at the Teklanika River Campground
The Teklanika River Campground is located at mile 29.1 and you are allowed to drive your personal vehicle to this campground, however, you are not supposed to stop along the way. And once at the campground (which requires a 3 night minimum), your vehicle cannot leave until you check out and you can only explore by bus during your time there, using a special pass called a Tek Pass.
While this may seem restrictive, we personally loved it! We were able to camp in our van and have our pup Kona with us, as well as reduce a lot of bus commuting time by being further into the park.
Read more about how to camp at the Teklanika River Campground in our guide, plus watch our video of our experience!
Win the lottery! (Currently NOT being offered)
No, not that lottery! Every September the park has a four day event called Road Lottery, where those who win the permit lottery are able to drive as much of the park road as possible, which depending on the weather, can be all the way to the end! This permit costs $25 and the odds are about 1 in 7.
There is also a fifth day offered for active duty military. You can learn more about both of these lotteries here!
NOTE: This is NOT being offered currently, due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide, which we will detail below. But hopefully it will come back, so we wanted to mention it anyway!
If none of these options work for you, you do have one more option: ride a bike! Bikes can travel anywhere you’d like on Park Road, but keep in mind that after mile 15, the road is not paved. You can rent bikes from Bike Denali if you need one!
As we mentioned above, the park road is 92 miles long, but unfortunately due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide that happened around mile 45.4 back in August 2021, the park is closed past mile 43.
You are still able to take the park buses to just before mile 43 and walk some of the road right until the closure, but you are unable to go any further. They estimate that this part of the park will be closed through summer 2024, which is a big reason as to why we wanted to write this guide, to help people navigate this closure and still find things to do in Denali National Park!
The one exception: Denali Backcountry Lodge
There is one way you can experience the back half of the park, by visiting Denali Backcountry Lodge! This lodge requires you to fly on a helicopter to the property and starts at $1,650 a person per day, so it’s definitely not for the vast majority of travelers. But we imagine it would be worth it if you could afford it!
Is it still worth visiting the park with the closures?
It depends! We personally liked that there was less to do, as it made the park less overwhelming. However, we do hear the best views are past mile 43, so we will be back someday to see that!
But you can still have an amazing time in the park with the closures and if you’re going to Alaska already, we would suggest still going. If you want to make a special trip to Alaska just for Denali National Park, you may want to wait. We personally liked the other national parks in Alaska even more than Denali, so it will not ruin your entire trip if you can only experience part of the park.
Things to know before visiting Denali National Park
You aren’t guaranteed to see the mountain
Even though Denali is the tallest mountain in North America, it can still be difficult to see. Only 30% of visitors get to see Denali when they visit because of weather that can block it. We were lucky enough to join the 30% club on our first day in the park! But the remaining three days in the park were too cloudy to see the mountain.
The mountain can be seen from the Park Road as early as mile 9 and you get a great view on the Savage Alpine trail too!
It costs $15 per person for a 7 day pass, for those 16 and older, to visit Denali National Park year round. This is a bit different from other parks, which have a flat fee per vehicle. And also unlike many parks, there is no entrance booth at Denali National Park. You can either buy your pass online in advance, get it at the visitor center, or use an automated pay station at the Murie Science and Learning Center.
If you visit many National Parks, we recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass, which is $80 per year and gets you into all National Park Service managed sites and federal lands for free.
Alaska is home to all three species of North American bears and in Denali National Park you’ll have a good chance of seeing black bears and grizzly bears. As awesome as that is, it is very important to know what to do if you encounter a bear so you can avoid a negative interaction.
A few very important tips are:
- Never approach a bear.
- Don’t surprise a bear! Make noise as you are hiking.
- Don’t feed a bear or leave food out for them to get! Feeding them makes them accustomed to humans which will cause them to expect food from humans and increasing the chance of negative encounters. A fed bear is a dead bear.
- Always be alert and look for signs of a bear. If you do encounter a bear, stay calm, ready your deterrent, stand your ground and group up with the other people in your party, talk calmly to the bear and do not run.
- You can read more on the Alaska Fish and Game website to learn more about what to do if you see a bear, as the best approach does vary a bit depending on the species of bear.
Bears aren’t the only big animal you’ll want to be on the lookout for. While we didn’t see any bears in Denali National Park, we saw quite a few moose! Moose are often viewable from the side of the road, but if you’re like us, you may encounter some on trail.
Here are some moose safety tips to understand before visiting, so you don’t have a negative encounter:
- Never feed a moose, or any wildlife for that matter.
- Try to stay at least 50 feet away and if they start approaching you, maintain that distance, and give it the trail.
- If a moose has its ears back or the hair on the back of its neck raised, it’s probably angry and it might charge you. If you are charged, try to sneak behind a tree and never get between a cow and its calf.
Cell coverage in the park was very good around the visitor center. In fact, we spent days working in the visitor center parking lot before actually exploring the park. But the cell service got worse to non-existent after a few miles away from the visitor center area.
The visitor center has ample parking, including for RVs! There was a pretty large lot that had pull-through spots, which could fit both truck and trailer style RVs, plus large Class A RVs.
There is one restaurant in the park, the Morino Grill, which is right by the visitor center. However, you can find quite a few options just outside of the park! We personally recommend bringing a packed lunch though.
Dogs can be walked on park roads, campgrounds, or in parking lots, but are not allowed on trails or off-trail in the wilderness, except for Roadside Trail and the Bike Path. Just be careful…we got trapped by 3 moose on this dog friendly section and had to go through bushes to get back to the road.
The good thing is that even though your pup cannot enjoy much of the park, you can get your dog fix at the Dog Sled Demonstration in the park!
Learn how we travel with a dog and what we do with Kona when she cannot join us on our adventures.
There are two seasons in Alaska, winter and construction season. Many roads across the state will be under construction if you visit in the warmer months and you might encounter long stretches of gravel road and be stalled by waiting in construction traffic. Alaska 511 will be your best best for information on construction and road conditions. During our visit, there was a big chunk of construction near the park that we did have to sit in for a while.
How long do you need?
Denali National Park is a large park, but the areas you can easily visit are relatively small. While you could spend one day exploring the easier to access spots, we’d suggest at least two days to enjoy both the first 15 miles and up to mile 43. We spent a total of four days and really enjoyed that amount of time, as it allowed us to not rush.
At the end of this guide we’ll be including different itinerary options, ranging from one to four days!
The Best Things to do in Denali National Park (between miles 0-15)
Since the experience in Denali National Park varies by area, we will be breaking down the best things to do in Denali National Park by mileage, to hopefully make it easier to plan your own trip. And first up, miles 0-15, which is the area you can explore on your own!
Go for a day hike
Hiking in Denali National Park is a bit different from other parks. Despite being about 6 million acres, there are only around 35 miles of actual developed and maintained trails in the park, all of which are in the first 15 miles of the park road. Beyond that, you can enjoy off trail hiking, which is something we will share under the “Things to do in Denali National Park (Miles 15-43)” section.
Below are the trails you can find in the first part of the park!
Savage Alpine Trail
Miles (point to point): 4.1
Elevation: 1,414 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
The Savage Alpine trail was one of our favorite hikes in the park, especially within the first 15 miles!
This hike will take you through a little bit of forest, before gaining elevation (it’s pretty steep!) and getting above the treeline, with sweeping views of the valley, the park road below, as well as mountains almost all around. And if you have a clear day you’ll hopefully have the ultimate sight in the park, a view of the Great One, Denali!
Compared to the Mount Healy Overlook trail, which we will discuss below, the view from Denali is much better on the Savage Alpine trail, as it’s less obstructed. We feel so lucky that we hiked this on a clear morning and got to see this majestic peak!
The trail itself is pretty rocky once out of the tree filled section, with some steeper, slick gravel to walk on, plus some unique rock formations that you’ll hike between. While none of it is that difficult, having shoes with good grip will help!
One important thing to know about this hike is that you can start and end in different spots, making this a one way hike versus roundtrip. We started at the Mountain Vista Picnic Area and ended at the Savage River Loop Trailhead.
While you can turn around at the Savage River Loop Trailhead and hike back the way you came, we suggest instead adding on the Savage River Loop trail (more on that below!) for about 6 miles total, and then taking the FREE park shuttle back to the Mountain Vista Picnic Area.
You also can park at the visitor center and take the free shuttle to the Mountain Vista Picnic Area and then take it back to the visitor center from the Savage River area, if you don’t want to drive.
To learn more about hiking the Savage Alpine trail, plus Savage River trail, check out our guide to combining both trails, which includes more information on the trails!
Savage River Loop Trail
Distance (round trip): 2.1 miles
Elevation: 413 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
The Savage River Loop trail starts right at mile 15, but you are allowed to drive here yourself. This is a really short, sweet, and flat hike that offers a lot of bang for your buck. The trail follows the beautiful glacial Savage River for about a mile, when you’ll then cross a bridge (which was closed for us, but we hear has been fixed) and return on the other side of the river. Along the way you’ll have some unique rocky walls surrounding you!
We almost didn’t get to do this hike though, as just before we started it, a grizzly bear had been spotted right by the picnic area and they closed the trail. They thankfully reopened it right before we started the hike!
Mount Healy Overlook Trail
Distance (round trip): 6.9 miles (closer to 5 miles if you do not go to the summit)
Elevation: 2,483 feet (closer to 1,700 feet if you do not go to the summit)
Reviews & Current Conditions
Located very close to the beginning of the park, the Mount Healy Overlook trail is a leg burner, but well worth it for the views it affords! The first half of the trail is steep and mostly through the forest, with views behind you.
But don’t worry, you’ll eventually get above the tree line and have more views and after almost 2.5 miles you’ll reach a more open area, where the views really open up! From up here you’ll have 360º views. And if you’re lucky, you may see Denali off in the distance too! It was pretty cloudy for us, but we could make out part of the mountain.
At this spot you’ll notice a sign that says “end of maintained trail.” You can continue on from here to the actual summit (the AllTrails map and stats above are for the actual summit), but from this point forward the trail is not maintained and it’s a pretty steep climb. We were too tired to continue on, but hope to try this next time!
As great as this trail is, if you only have time for one day hike, we’d recommend the Savage Alpine Trail over this one because the Savage Alpine has more expansive views on the way up and we personally thought the view of Denali was more open and closer from the Savage Alpine Trail.
Check out our guide to hiking the Mount Healy Overlook Trail, to learn more about the hike and what to expect along the way!
Horseshoe Lake Trail
Distance (round trip): 2.1 miles
Elevation: 393 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
The Horseshoe Lake Trail may seem easy and less exciting on paper, as it doesn’t gain a ton of elevation, but we found it to be a very fun and diverse hike. You’ll hike from the park road, across railroad tracks, and through the woods to a beautiful, although partially covered in trees, overlook of Horseshoe Lake, which is shaped like a horseshoe and has a stunning bright blue color in certain areas and when hit by the sunshine.
The trail then descends down to lake level and you make a figure 8 shape as you hike. Along the way you’ll encounter beaver dams, the Nenana River, and get to walk right along the lakeshore.
To learn more about what to expect along this hike, read our guide to hiking the Horseshoe Lake Trail!
Triple Lakes Trail
Distance (point to point): 9.1 miles
Elevation: 1,922 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
The Triple Lakes Trail is the longest maintained trail in Denali National Park, at 9.1 miles point to point. You can start from either the north or south end, although most hikers park at the visitor center or from the southern trailhead and only hike a portion of the hike, turning around at the high point after 4-5 miles.
The hike is named after the three lakes that are on the southern end of the trail and depending on which portion of the hike you do, you’ll go through the forest, across multiple rivers, plus a suspension bridge (closer to the northern part), as well as have views of the mountains and of some of the lakes from above.
There is no park shuttle to take you between the endpoints so if you’d like to hike the entire trail, we read that there may be some taxi services in the area you can hire to help you, or if you’re staying at one of the nearby accommodations, they might be able to arrange a shuttle service for you.
McKinley Station Trail
Distance (round trip): 3.2 miles
Elevation: 446 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
The McKinley Station Trail begins near the Visitor Center and winds through the forest a bit and takes you by the river, where you can see a cool railroad trestle. While we wouldn’t pick this hike over the others, if you want an easier stroll, this is a good option!
Rock Creek Trail
Distance (round trip): 5.1 miles
Elevation: 1,000 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
The Rock Creek Trail is more of a nature walk through the forest, with occasional mountain views. The highlight of this trail is that you’ll end at the dog sled demonstration area and you can walk in and visit with the dogs. You can return the way you came, walk the Roadside Trail, or take the park shuttle back to the Visitor Center where you started. You can also take the shuttle to the dog sled demonstration and then walk this trail back instead!
Distance (round trip): 4.2 miles
Elevation: 767 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
The Roadside Trail parallels the Park Road, leading you to the dog kennels. It is similar to the Rock Creek Trail, except it is closer to the road. It is still pretty forested though! We used this trail to walk back from the dog sled demonstration and it was a nice alternative to taking the shuttle.
This is also one of the only dog friendly trails in the park!
Dog sledding demonstration
One thing that Alaska is famous for is dog sledding, specifically the Iditarod, which is a long distance race that occurs every March. And since 1922, Denali National Park has had sled dogs, which help rangers patrol the park in the winter!
The park offers free sled dog demonstrations in the summertime during three time slots each day, at 10 AM, 2 PM, and 4 PM. During this demonstration you’ll get to see the dogs run a short loop track, plus learn a bit about how dog sledding works and the different roles the dogs have. But the best part is that both before and after you can meet the dogs!
There is very limited parking by the sled dog facility, so we suggest either taking the free dog sled shuttle to get to it, which leaves 40 mins before the demonstration, or you can walk 1.5 miles each way along the Roadside trail (or Rock Creek trail). On our visit we didn’t want to risk not finding parking for our large van, so we took the shuttle and then walked the Roadside trail back.
Check out the Visitor center
The Denali National Park Visitor Center is really nice! They have a park film you can watch, different exhibits about the park, and you can speak with a park ranger to answer any questions you may have.
Beyond the visitor center, there is also the Murie Science and Learning Center, which is located at mile 1.3. In the summer rangers give a talk from 1-3 PM and you can see the exhibits that share about fossilized dinosaur footprints.
In the winter, the Murie Science and Learning Center acts as the main visitor center. If you decide to visit then, this is a good spot to chat with the rangers and even borrow snowshoes!
The Best Things to do in Denali National Park (between miles 15-43)
Ride the bus on Denali Park Road
The Denali Park Road is 92 miles and for those looking to venture further into the park than mile 15, you will need to purchase a ticket to ride one of the park buses. As of 2023 and through summer 2024, the park bus will only go to just before mile 43, due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide, but it is still worth taking the bus beyond mile 15, in our opinion!
You have a choice between a non-narrated transit bus and a narrated tour bus to choose from and below is a breakdown of the options!
Non-narrated transit bus
Cost: $32.75 for adults (free for children 15 and younger) and can be purchased through the park concessionaire. The price for the bus ride does NOT include entrance to the park.
Bus Color: Green
Length: 4.5 hours round trip, not including any stops you make.
Who it is best for: Those who want to hike in this area of the park, including walking the riverbeds, walking part of the road closure, and hiking off trail!
The non-narrated transit bus is for those interested in an off trail hiking experience or want to experience the park on their own terms. These buses are here to move people around the park and are a hop on, hop off style, with the ability to get off anywhere you wish, not just at designated stops.
Along the ride, the bus driver will make restroom stops, stop for wildlife, and provide basic information about the park, but will not provide a formal talk or program. However, all of our drivers shared different facts and information along the ride, so we still feel like we learned a lot along the way.
The drivers were also very knowledgeable about the park and helped us in deciding which off trail hike we wanted to pursue. And if you do want to hike off trail, you will simply tell the driver to drop you off wherever you’d like to start your hike and you can be picked up anywhere along the road, just by waving down a green bus as it approaches (not the tan ones, those are narrated and do not pick up hikers). There does need to be space for them to pick you up, but we didn’t encounter any issues.
The buses leave from the visitor center and go all the way to East Fork, just before mile 43, and then turn around. Most people will get off here and walk the riverbed or walk the road closure as far as you can go, which we loved doing (and will share more about below)!
During peak season there are more than 20 buses traveling along the road and they leave about every 30 minutes, so you won’t have to wait long for another bus to come by. Be sure to bring a lunch or snacks with you because once you leave the visitor center area, there is no food to purchase!
Narrated tour bus
Cost: $114-$141.25 for adults ($49.50-$63.25 for children 15 and younger), depending on the tour. These can be purchased through the park concessionaire and DOES include entrance to the park.
Bus Color: Tan
Length: 4.5-5.5 hours round trip, depending on the tour.
Who it is best for: Those who want to learn as much information as possible and would rather see the park from a bus, instead of getting to hike or explore on their own.
On the narrated bus you will be driven by a trained naturalist who will provide an informative trip into the park. This bus is intended for visitors who want to be guided through the park and learn more about the park’s culture and history, rather than hike and explore on their own. In contrast with the transit buses, visitors will stay with the same bus the entire tour rather than getting off and re-boarding onto other buses.
Currently there are two different tours you can choose from and those are the Denali Natural History Tour and the Tundra Wilderness Tour (the longer and more expensive of the two). These bus tours are offered from mid-May to mid-September.
Denali Natural History Tour
On the Denali Natural History tour you’ll learn all about the natural and cultural history of Denali National Park over 4.5 to 5 hours. The tour makes several stops along the way including the Savage Cabin, an Alaska Native presentation where you’ll learn how the land has been used for over 10,000 years, and for any wildlife sightings.
It costs $114 for adults and $49.50 for kids (15 and younger) and the entrance fee to the park is included in the price and you do get a water bottle.
Tundra Wilderness Tour
This tour is a 5.5 hour experience that takes you as far as you can go on the Park Road to where the road currently ends. Along the way you’ll stop for wildlife and once at East Fork you’ll learn about Adolf Murie and explore his cabin, where he conducted his wildlife research during the 30s and 40s.
The tour costs $141.25 per adult and $63.25 for those 15 and younger. The entrance fee to the park is included in this price and you do get a water bottle and snack pack!
Walk the road closure
As we mentioned above, the Transit bus can take you all the way to East Fork, which is where the road is closed due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide. However, there is still about 2 miles of road that you are able to walk once getting off the bus!
While you will be walking on a gravel road, which doesn’t sound too exciting, the views were phenomenal! We could see tons of mountains, including some that had an orange hue to them, plus we saw a bunch of caribou down below.
The walk along the road ends right where the official road closure is, which is marked by signs and orange barriers. From here, you can see the actual landslide, which is pretty wild to see. And what is even crazier is that people rode on a bus on this road just days before the landslide…can you imagine knowing you just missed it?!
After walking the entire road, we went down to the river, right by the bus stop and enjoyed wandering around for a bit down there. It is a braided river, with many different streams of water and places to hop across the river. We saw another caribou enjoying the riverbed as well!
Go for an off trail hike!
Unlike many national parks, which require you to stay on trail, Denali is a bit different, as off trail hiking is not only allowed, but encouraged.
As avid Leave No Trace followers, this was a weird concept to us, as we always try to stick to existing routes, but after talking with many rangers we did confirm that yes, it’s totally okay to go off trail! The reason for this is that since the park is so vast, having off trail routes helps eliminate the same areas being constantly worn down by hikers.
We will say though, off trail hiking is daunting and we struggled to find much information about where to even hike off trail! They say you can go almost anywhere, but how do you even know where to start?
So below we are sharing your two main options for hiking off trail, one of which is with a ranger and the other, totally on your own.
The easiest way to hike off trail is to sign up for a Discovery Hike, which is a ranger led off trail hike. On these experiences you’ll meet with a ranger and then ride a park bus out to your hiking destination. The Discovery Hike is free to sign up, but you’ll need to purchase a transit bus ticket to ride on the park bus if your hike begins past the mile 15 checkpoint.
However, there is a specific “disco bus” (disco=discovery) for you, so you won’t have to worry about park buses selling out. Also, if you’ve already purchased a bus ticket, but end up signing up for a Discovery Hike, your ticket can be exchanged, although it is the same price.
Discovery Hikes are offered starting mid-June and you can reserve a spot on a Discovery Hike only in person at the visitor center (with everyone in your group present), just one to two days beforehand. When you sign up, the rangers will discuss with you what the upcoming options are for hikes, including distance, difficulty, etc.
If you decide to do a Discovery Hike, plan to spend up to 10 hours on the experience. The bus ride itself could be up to 2 hours each way and you could be hiking anywhere from 3-5 hours. During the experience, your ranger will lead you on an off trail hike over all sorts of terrain and the hikes will vary in difficulty from more flat and easy to more elevation gain and large river crossings.
Off trail hiking independently
We considered doing a Discovery Hike, but ultimately decided to try a hike on our own. And it turned out to be our favorite experience in the park! However, we had quite a bit of anxiety about the experience beforehand.
We had read about some routes online, but still felt pretty clueless about where to go. So we talked to several rangers both in the visitor center, on the bus, and at mile 43 road closure trying to get a grasp of a good starting point for us.
We wanted a medium challenging experience that wouldn’t take all day (as Kona was going to be in our van at the Teklanika River Campground) and would be relatively easy to follow. And we ultimately decided to hike up to Mount Margaret, which we loved! You can view our AllTrails activity if you’d like to replicate it and you can also watch our experience in this video.
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
We let our bus driver know where we wanted to hike and he dropped us off alongside the road, right where there was a slight opening in the brush. Although there was a short section of thick brush to get through before we got above the treeline (we made LOTS of noise here to hopefully scare off bears!), it was very open after that, which made it easy to see where to go. We also had a slightly beaten down path to follow, which almost made it feel like it was an actual trail.
Along the hike we walked along the tundra, with amazing mountain views and we even saw about 22 Dall Sheep off in the distance! Minus a small group of people at the beginning, we also had the entire trail to ourselves, which made the experience extra special for us.
The beauty of off trail hiking is that you can go as little or as far as you’d like. We hiked up to a ridgeline, which was like another world! It was such a vast and open area with crazy rock formations and plenty of rocks to sit on and enjoy lunch. It also started to get really foggy, which added a moody element to the hike!
Turning around and heading back was straightforward, as we could see the road the entire time and we had also tracked our route on AllTrails, making us feel confident that we wouldn’t get lost. We safely made it back down to the road and waited alongside the road for the next green hiker bus going west, waving down the first one that we saw. We hopped on and enjoyed an easy ride back to our campsite, feeling super accomplished for what we achieved on our own!
Tips for off trail hiking:
- If you have the time, what many people do is get on the green transit bus as early as possible and go as far as the bus can take you, making note of some spots that look like they would interest you to hike to. Then, on the way back, let your driver know where you’d like to be let off and then begin your hike. You can also ask the driver what spot would be good to do an off trail hike and they can take you to a starting point.
- If the route that we did seems too daunting to try on your own, one easier option for an off trail hike is to walk along the braided river at East Fork. This is where the transit bus will turn around and you can get off here and walk along the river as far as you’d like.
- Once you finish your hike you just hang out along the road and wait for the next green transit bus to come by, which is usually every 30-60 minutes, and wave them down. It would be helpful to have a copy of the bus schedule on your phone so you can have an idea when the next bus will be coming by, as there will be no cell service.
How to have the least amount of impact on your off trail hike and stay safe:
- Do not travel in a single file line. Make sure to spread out!
- Hike on durable surfaces when possible. The tundra is fragile, so stick to rocks when you can!
- Be prepared with plenty of water and food.
- Let someone know your plan.
- Expect bad weather and be prepared with layers.
- Carry a first aid kit and the 10 essentials.
- Try to track your hike on AllTrails so that you can follow your route back and not get lost.
- We would only recommend off trail hiking to experienced hikers and ones that have the ability to track their route with GPS.
Other things to do in Denali National Park
Go on an adventure tour
There are a variety of tour options you can take in and near Denali National Park, which can add some extra adventure (and even more epic views) to your visit!
For the ultimate view of Denali and the park, go on a flightseeing tour! This is something we’d love to do on a future trip, as we have heard it is truly spectacular! There are several operators in the area to choose from.
Based out of Healy, Fly Denali offers a handful of different flightseeing tours. They fly four times per day and recommend you make your reservation as soon as possible.
Denali Air Flightseeing Tours
Denali Air Flightseeing Tours is located the closest of any to Denali National Park, so almost all of your flight will be inside the park. This tour operator has up to seven flights per day, so they are very flexible if you need to reschedule or adjust your reservation.
K2 Aviation is a popular tour provider based out of Talkeetna, which is about 100 miles south of the park. We heard especially good things about this company! They offer a variety of tour options, ranging in cost, with the chance to add on a glacier landing as well!
Talkeetna Air Service
This flightseeing tour with glacier landing also leaves from Talkeetna, AK and looks amazing!
Prefer to fly on a helicopter? You could also go on a helicopter tour with TEMSCO Helicopters Inc.
Go Whitewater Rafting
One activity that we saw many people do in Denali National Park was whitewater rafting! This tour with Denali Raft Adventures will take you down the Nenana River, right by Denali National Park!
Bike the Park Road
Another epic way to enjoy the park would be to bike the Park Road. Bikes can go anywhere on the Park Road, minus wildlife and construction closures. eBikes are also allowed, as long as they are under 750 Watts and (you can see all eBike rules here).
Denali National Park Itinerary Options
One Day (Option #1)
This option is best for those who want to hike in the park and experience the best things the first 15 miles has to offer!
- Start the day with a hike on the Savage Alpine trail, with the addition of the Savage River Loop trail. We suggest starting at the Mountain View trailhead and then taking the free shuttle back from the Savage River trailhead.
- Head towards the visitor center, which will be your homebase for the rest of the day.
- If you’re not too tired from the Savage Alpine trail, hike the Mount Healy Overlook!
- Attend one of the sled dog demonstrations, taking the bus at least one of the directions.
- Hike the Horseshoe Lake trail to end the day!
One Day (Option #2)
This option is best for those who want to see as much of the scenery as they can in the park and don’t want to spend as much time hiking.
- Take one of the bus tours! You could either do a narrated bus or take the transit bus and add on some time around mile 43 to explore the road closure area.
- If you have any additional time after your tour, do one of the day hikes in the first 15 miles of the park or go see the sled dog demonstration!
If you have two days in the park, we suggest combining the two one day options above to make the perfect two days in Denali National Park!
- Start the day with a hike on the Savage Alpine trail, with the addition of the Savage River trail. We suggest starting at the Mountain View trailhead and then taking the free shuttle back from the Savage River trailhead.
- Head towards the visitor center, which will be your homebase for the rest of the day.
- If you’re not too tired from the Savage Alpine trail, hike the Mount Healy Overlook!
- Attend one of the sled dog demonstrations, taking the bus at least one of the directions.
- Hike the Horseshoe Lake trail to end the day!
- Take the transit bus tour to mile 43 and spend a couple hours exploring the riverbed and also the road closure area.
- Do an off trail hike! You can either do one of the Discovery Hikes or take the transit bus and have it drop you off in a spot that looked good to hike at the day before!
- If off trail hiking isn’t for you, spend this day hiking more in the first 15 miles, including the Triple Lakes trail!
This itinerary is perfect for anyone staying at the Teklanika River Campground, as it will incorporate many activities in the back half of the park!
- Hike the Mount Healy Overlook to start the day!
- After finishing the hike, make the quick hike to Horseshoe Lake.
- Attend one of the sled dog demonstrations, taking the bus one or both ways, depending on how much time you have and how early you want to get to the campsite.
- Pick up your campsite permit at Riley Creek Mercantile and then head out to the Teklanika River Campground.
- Drive out to the Teklanika River Campground and enjoy the rest of the night there!
- Using your Tek Pass, take the transit bus to mile 43 and spend a couple hours exploring the riverbed and also the road closure area.
- Head back to the Teklanika River Campground and enjoy a relaxing rest of the day there!
- Do an off trail hike! Since you will not be able to get on a Discovery Hike from the Teklanika River Campground, you will need to take the transit bus and have it drop you off in a spot that looked good to hike at the day before.
- Make the drive from the Teklanika River Campground back to the first 15 miles of the park.
- Hike the Savage Alpine trail and Savage River trail!
When to visit Denali National Park
Denali National Park is technically open year-round, but as you may expect with the park being in Alaska, the park gets a lot of snow (55 inches of snow fell within a 7 day period this past December!) and most of the park is inaccessible for the majority of the year.
So with that said, we’d suggest visiting between May 20 and September 14, which is when the 43 open miles of the park road will be accessible and the buses will be operating (these exact dates may vary, but those are the 2023 dates).
By visiting during this timeframe, you’ll be able to experience mostly snow free trails (there may be some lingering snow), go as deep into the park as currently allowed, camp within the park, and take advantage of park amenities, like the visitor center.
As for the weather in the summer, temperatures can range from the 30s at night and early in the mornings to the 60s-70s during the hottest part of the day. However, one thing to be aware of is that June-August is the rainy season at Denali National Park, so make sure to be prepared for some rain and even the off chance of some snow.
Another thing to know is that fall in Alaska starts at the end of August, so if you visit towards the beginning of September, you’ll have a good chance of seeing some fall foliage in the park, which looks stunning!
We visited around June 17-20, 2022 and had one very sunny day, a couple partly sunny days, and a couple cloudy days with the occasional quick rain storms. We encountered very little snow on trails and the crowds also weren’t that bad either!
How to get to Denali National Park
Flying to Denali National Park
The two most popular airports in Alaska are the Ted Stevens Airport (ANC) in Anchorage and Fairbanks International Airport (FAI) in Fairbanks. Both of these airports are good options to fly into when visiting Denali National Park, with the best choice depending on what else you plan to do during your trip.
Driving to Denali National Park
Whether you fly or drive to Alaska, there is a good chance you will also have to drive to Denali National Park, as it’s a bit of a trek from both major airports.
Denali National Park is a little over 4 hours drive north of Anchorage (239 miles) via the Parks Highway (AK-3) and a 2 hour 10 minute drive (123 miles) south from Fairbanks via the Parks Highway (AK-3). However, summer is construction season in Alaska, so we’d advise planning for additional time than the hours listed.
Although Fairbanks is the closer starting point for visiting Denali National Park, Anchorage is closer to the majority of the drive-able destinations in Alaska. If you plan to do Denali first, we’d suggest starting from Fairbanks and then leaving from Anchorage.
Planning to drive to Alaska? We have created the Ultimate guide to driving the Alaska Highway, which covers all the logistics and must visit stops on this epic journey to Alaska.
Don’t want to drive to Denali National Park? Another popular way to get to Denali National Park in the summer is by train. The Denali Star Train operates from late May to early September and looks to be an amazing scenic ride, although it is a bit pricey!
One perk of the train is that the train depot at Denali National Park is only a 5 minute walk from the visitor center, so you could get away without having a car and experience Denali by utilizing the park’s shuttles and buses.
How to get around Denali National Park
As we mentioned above, you can only take your personal vehicle up to mile 15 in the park, unless you meet one of the exceptions we listed. Beyond that, you will need to take one of the buses.
There are three bus options, including a free hiker shuttle to get to the trailheads within the first 15 miles, a narrated tour bus, and a non-narrated transit bus, which is solely to transport you. We will share more insight into the narrated vs. transit bus in the “things to do in Denali National Park (miles 15-43)” section, so you can decide what is best for you.
While you could visit the park without a car, by taking the train in, for most visitors, having your car or renting a car will give you more flexibility. It is a long drive to Denali National Park and there is a lot to see and do along the way as well!
Where to Stay in Denali National Park
There are a variety of options of where to stay when visiting Denali National Park, ranging from nearby hotels and lodges, to camping inside the park.
Camping inside Denali National Park
There are 6 campgrounds inside Denali National Park, but only 5 are currently accessible. Minus the Riley Creek Campground, which is open year round (and free in the winter!), all of the campgrounds are only open in the summer.
For all campgrounds, you will need to make reservations in advance on reservedenali.com. However, even though you reserve a site in advance, your exact site will be chosen when you arrive at the campground. Another thing to note is that none of the campgrounds offer water or electric hookups for RVs, but they do have a dump station at the Riley Creek Campground, as well as laundry and shower facilities.
Something else good to know, that we didn’t know, is that you will check in for your campsite for any of the campgrounds at either the Riley Mercantile or the Backcountry Center. We stayed in the Teklanika River Campground, which is past the mile 15 checkpoint, and assumed you would check in for the campsite at the checkpoint, but that is not the case and they will send you all 15 miles back to the beginning of the park to check in…don’t ask us how we know this! 😜
Riley Creek Campground
The Riley Creek Campground is the largest campground in the park and most accessible, as it’s located just minutes inside the park. It is also close to many conveniences and amenities, including the visitor center, businesses outside the park, and the Riley Creek Mercantile (which is just steps away!) which features a general store, camping supplies, food, shower house, laundry facilities, and an RV dump and water fill station.
Most of the sites are open for tents and RVs. One of the loops is for walk-in tent campers only on a first come, first served basis and cannot be reserved ahead of time. But for the rest of the sites, make sure to reserve ahead!
Savage River Campground
The Savage River Campground is located at Mile 14 and has 32 sites that will accommodate both RVs and tents.
Since it is located before the 15 mile check station, private vehicles can be driven to and from the campground freely. If you don’t have a vehicle or you want to leave your vehicle at the campground, there is a free bus called the Savage River Shuttle that will take you between the campground and park entrance.
A big perk of this campground is that on a clear day Denali can be seen a short walk from the campground. Only this campground and the Wonder Lake campground (closed until further notice) offer that!
Sanctuary River Campground
The Sanctuary River Campground is a very small campground with only 7 tent sites. It is located at Mile 22 and can only be accessed by the park bus (no cars are allowed to drive here, unlike Teklanika River).
There is no electricity or water so you must bring a method to purify your water. The nearby Sanctuary River runs close to the campground and it runs clear for most of the year.
Teklanika River Campground
We stayed at the Teklanika River Campground (nicknamed Tek) at mile 29.1 and it was a unique and fun experience! There are 2 loops in the campground and all sites can accommodate RVs (up to 40 feet) and tents.
The sites are spaced out a good amount and many offer lots of shade, while others don’t have as much tree cover, which is good for someone who relies on solar power, like us! There is potable water for filling water jugs and very nice pit toilets, but no other facilities.
Although the campground is located at mile 29.1, you are allowed to drive your personal vehicle to this campground, however once at the campground (which requires a 3 night minimum), your vehicle cannot leave until you check out and you can only explore by bus. You do get a special pass called a Tek Pass, which allows you to ride the bus multiple times for one fee!
To learn more, check out our guide to camping at the Teklanika River Campground (coming soon!), which includes more information on the rules, how to get around from the park using a Tek Pass, and things to do while staying there!
Igloo Creek Campground
The Igloo Creek Campground is a very small campground similar to the Sanctuary River Campground. The campground has 7 tent only sites, a pit toilet, and no potable water. Water can be obtained from Igloo Creek and runs clear, but do bring a way to filter it.
It is located at mile 35 and is accessed only by park bus, no private vehicles allowed.
Camping outside of Denali National Park
Waugaman Village RV Park
Waugaman Village RV Park is located just a few miles away from the park entrance. We didn’t stay here, but the Google reviews are pretty good. They don’t have a website so you must contact them by phone in order to reserve a site.
Cantwell RV Park
We stayed here for one night before we went into the park because we needed to hook up to charge our batteries and we can recommend this place. It is a standard RV park that is basically a parking lot, but it has hot showers and laundry.
It is about 30 minutes south of the park entrance, but is a bit cheaper than the options right by the park and was worth the extra drive.
Along the Parks Highway (Route 3) there are many pull offs where you can sleep overnight. We stayed here and here (this is a neat spot, but very loud from the noise from the bridge) during our time in the area. While some pullouts do say “no overnight parking or camping,” these two did not and we usually had a neighbor sleeping there with us.
There are several spots south of the park about 45 minutes that are much more serene and beautiful. We found iOverlander to be the best website to find free camping in Alaska and Canada.
FYI: You cannot sleep overnight in national park parking lots.
Curious how we find free campsites? Check out our detailed guide to free camping to learn which tools we use, rules to follow, and other tips!
Denali Park, AK
What to bring with you to Denali National Park
If you’re doing any hiking, make sure to bring the appropriate hiking gear with you (see what all we take here!). We also always recommend having the 10 essentials on you!
One key hiking item to bring are good hiking shoes, as some trails are a bit rockier. Kathryn rocks Lowa Women’s Renegade GTX on the trails and she LOVES them! Adam wears the ALTRA Lone Peak 6 Trail Running Shoe, which is a trail running shoe, so they are less bulky than boots, but still great for the trail.
Trekking poles can really be a big help, especially on off trail hiking. We have the Black Diamond Equipment Distance Z poles and highly recommend them!
Weather in Alaska can be extremely unpredictable. One minute it feels like a cold, windy winter day and the next the clouds part, the sun is beaming, and it feels like summer. Carrying some layers with you helps you be prepared for a day in Alaska.
Rain jacket and rain pants
Similar to above, it can rain or snow any day of the year so having rain gear is recommended. Kathryn wears the Patagonia Torrentshell jacket and Adam wears a Columbia rain jacket.
Rain pants or waterproof pants are another highly recommended item that we did not have, but will hopefully have in the future for Alaska trips. The reason being that many trails in Alaska, including off trail in Denali, require you to go through brush, which can often be wet and soak your pants.
Denali National Park and Alaska are home to a variety of wildlife, including bears. Specifically, both black bears and grizzly bears, with grizzlies being the more aggressive of the two.
Although we didn’t see any bears in Denali National Park, you have a good chance of seeing one and carrying bear spray is highly recommended. We always had our bear spray strapped to our hip or chest when we were hiking on trails and even walking along the roadside trail with Kona.
Not only is it important to have bear spray on you, but you need to have it readily available and know how to use it. We’d recommend watching this video that explains how to use bear spray, if you aren’t familiar.
If you haven’t heard, the common joke is that the state bird of Alaska is the mosquito. Inland Alaska is definitely where they can be the worst and Denali National Park was one of the few areas in Alaska where we noticed mosquitoes. Make sure to bring bug spray with DEET! We also brought a Thermacell for camping and we think it helped some.
You’ll often be hiking above the treeline, which therefore means having zero to no shade, and even on cloudy days in the park you’ll want to have sun protection. Sunscreen and a hat will be very helpful!
The vastness of Denali National Park is truly remarkable. You’ll be able to see very long distances, so carrying binoculars is a great way to get a closer look! We have the Bushnell H20 Roof Prism binoculars and we love them! They came in real handy when we spotted some caribou at the park road closure.
Ready to visit Denali National Park?
Pin this list of things to do in Denali National Park to help plan your trip!