Denali National Park and Preserve, the heart of Alaska’s spectacular wilderness, with 6 million acres, is larger than the state of Massachusetts.
The park contains North America’s highest mountain, the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. The mountain is known to locals by its Athabascan name Denali. In translation this means the “high one” or the “great one”. The Park is located 238 miles north of Anchorage on the George Parks Highway.
Denali National Park can be reached by car, bus, train or airplane. More than 400,000 people enter the park from mid May through September. Visitors enjoy what has been called “the greatest sub-arctic sanctuary in the world”.
Denali National Park and Preserve is a wild and unspoiled place. It encompasses a vast sub-arctic ecosystem with a variety of specific taiga and tundra vegetation supporting an impressive array of wildlife. This includes Alaska’s large land mammals – the “Denali big five” – grizzlies, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and wolves. To minimize visitors’ impact on the environment and to protect wildlife from the stress of motorized travel and human intrusion, the park has been designed with just one access road and no trails.
Private vehicles are not allowed inside the park. The park has no food or accommodation services.
During the summer, visitor activities include wildlife viewing, mountaineering camping, mountain bicycling, horseback riding, helicopter tours and backpacking. There are no closed areas within the park during the winter. Starting in November, wintertime activities include dog sled travel, cross-country ski expeditions, and in some areas, snowmobiling.
A trip to Denali is the central piece of any vacation to Alaska. Most visitors come to Denali National Park for two main reasons. The first is to see Mount McKinley and the second one is to see wildlife. Many of them can see both right from the windows of a shuttle bus which traverses Denali National Park between the main park entrance and the Kantishna District. Bus tours can take from 8 to 13 hours. Most visitors take the 8 hour round trip excursion to the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles into the park, or the 11 hour round trip ride to Wonder Lake, 85 miles into the park.
If it is a cloudless day Mount McKinley is visible from several viewpoints along the park’s 91-mile road. The favorite view of Mount McKinley is with the mountain reflected in the Reflection Pond, at mile 85, near the north end of Wonder Lake.
Being so large, this stunning mountain with its 18,000 foot vertical rise of rock and ice above the surrounding tundra has its own localized weather. This explains why Mount McKinley is obscured most of the time by a layer of clouds. It can be seen only 30 percent of the time.
Except moose that may be seen anywhere along the park’s road, between the main park entrance and Toklat River, mile 53, wildlife viewing starts at mile 33. With no trees in this area, caribou may be spotted anywhere, followed by Dall sheep and grizzlies. On a lucky day, it is more likely to see grizzly bears on Sable Pass, between mile 37 and mile 43. Wolves also may be seen periodically in this area. Bear country is, in the heart of the Alaska’s Range, between Toklat River and the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 65). Grizzlies may be seen along the park road, down in the streambed, or up on the hillsides.
Each year an impressive number of visitors trek the Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali’s visitors have increased ten-fold in 30 years. During the “peak season” from mid-June to mid-August, the park is a busy place.
Denali has something for everyone. Plan your trip with insights from real travelers and also use insider’s tips. Unlike other places in Alaska, the park is heavily regulated. Permits are required for many park activities.
A visit to Denali is a unique experience. Be prepared! Acquire “Denali Alpenglow” the official park free newspaper published by the Alaska Public Lands Information Center; buy a Denali National Park map and a copy of “How to Find Wildlife at Denali Along the Park Road”.
Here are some key steps to a successful visit to Denali National Park:
- Plan at least three days or more to explore the park
- Make advanced reservations;
- On-line: www.reservedenali.com,
- by phone: 1-800-622-7275, 1-907-272-7275 (international),
- In person: at the Wilderness Access Center up to 2 days ahead
- Depending on the purpose of your visit to the park, select one from two most popular bus tours: the Tundra Wildlife tour that goes to Tolkat River, mile 54 (the beige school buses) or the Kantishna Wilderness Trails bus tour that goes to the Kantishna district, mile 91 (the shuttle green school buses)
- Rent a car to reach your destination instead of taking a bus or train
- Book accommodations outside the park close to the eastern entrance
- Confirm your reservations to the Wilderness Access Center
- See the park traveling on a bus that enters and leaves the same day
- Be an independent traveler, get deep inside the park to experience its wonders, and travel to the very end of the park road.