Denali attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year thanks to its spectacular wildlife. Try to spot the "Big Five": grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep.
Mount McKinley, the continent's highest peak, draws climbers from all over the world, but you don't have to climb the mountain to experience it. Although mountaineering is a popular activity, consider "flightseeing," or simply taking in the view from a number of scenic overlooks.
In the winter, you can explore Denali by snowshoe, cross-country skis, or on dog sleds. Visit the National Park Service's dog kennel, where rangers continue the tradition of using dog patrols, first started in the 1920s. One concessionairy—Denali Dog Sled Expeditions —is permitted to operate mushing trips into the park for those visitors without a dog team of their own.
The Murie Science and Learning Center is a great stop for families with children. Peruse the exhibits, take classes, and attend field seminars, youth camps, or speaker events. On display is a fossilized footprint of a three-toed Cretaceous Theropod dinosaur, discovered in the park in 2005.
The park's main road stretches 91 miles into the interior and takes a full 13 hours to explore round-trip. Private vehicles can drive on it for 15 miles to the Savage River Check Station. There visitors pick up the shuttle bus and enjoy a hop-on-hop-off ride through the wintry expanse of the tundra. Take in scenic glacier flows, spruce forests, roaming wildlife, and Mount McKinley looming 70 miles away.
Although Denali is primarily wilderness, visitors can access trails of all levels of difficulty. Those looking for a leisurely route should try the Horseshoe Lake Trail. Wrapping 1.5 miles through aspen and spruce forests to Horseshoe Lake, this hike takes about 90 minutes to complete. Highlights include inspiring views of Horseshoe Lake and the Nenana River as well as possible wildlife sightings.
Those looking for more of a challenge should veer off Taiga Trail to access the Mount Healy Overlook Trail. This strenuous hike climbs 1,700 feet, taking hikers up very steep sections that at points are at a 25 percent grade. Those who endeavor to complete this three-to-four-hour trek—about 2.2 miles one way—are rewarded with dramatic overlooks of the park entrance, the Nenana River Valley, and alpine ridges. Mount McKinley is visible on a clear day more than 80 miles to the southwest.
Vegetation in Denali consists of taiga and tundra. The park's taiga features coniferous forests, primarily white and black spruce trees, with some birch shrubs. The tundra is blanketed with delicate lichens, berries, wildflowers, and woody plants, bringing beautiful color to the Alaskan landscape, particularly in August. More than 1,500 species of plants, mostly mosses and lichens, thrive in Alaska. Denali's vegetation is the foundation of the park's ecosystem.
A wide variety of animals inhabit Denali's taiga and tundra. Along with the "Big Five" one can spot foxes, martens, lynx, and beavers. The 167 species of birds that frequent the park include gyrfalcons, ptarmigans, black-capped and boreal chickadees, and redpolls.
Animal life and activity are dictated by the seasons. Although animals have adapted to the subarctic temperatures, during the long, cold months of winter Denali is quiet. Mammals are in hibernation, and birds have migrated to warmer locations. In the spring, Denali awakens to the return of 80 percent of the bird species. Hibernating mammals emerge from their long naps. The summer becomes a wildlife showcase, with animals raising their young and engaging in busy preparations for the return of cold weather.
The Stony Hill area rises and falls through an impressive landscape of hills, creeks, and canyons. Stony Hill Overlook serves up scenic views of Mount McKinley (weather permitting), 36 miles away, as well as views of up to 2,000 caribou during migration periods. Stony Creek weaves its way through deep multicolored rock canyons, opening up to an expansive view of Stony Creek Valley. Those hankering for great Mount McKinley photos should keep in mind that it is most visible in the mornings; clouds often pile up during the day.
Smart Traveler Strategies
Fifteen miles into the park along Denali Park Road is the Savage River Check Station. Beyond this point, private vehicles are prohibited. The park offers various bus options.
The shuttle buses provide informal access to the park. The hop-on-hop-off system gives visitors access to many entrance trails. For rides on buses departing from the Wilderness Access Center it is best to reserve in advance.
The Camper Bus service transports visitors directly to campgrounds and backcountry areas. Access is only available with a campsite reservation or backpacking permit.
Bus Tours are a more formal (and expensive) way to explore the park. Choose from three interpretive and narrated tours: the Tundra Wilderness Tour, the Denali Natural History Tour, or the Kantishna Experience.
Confused by which option may be best for your family? Visit the park's website and click on the "Which bus shall I take?" link for a decision checklist.
Be sure to review wildlife and bear safety tips before your departure. Both grizzly and black bears reside in Denali. While hiking, make noise to notify bears of your presence. Always be alert, store food in closed containers, and never run from a bear. Keep a safe distance. The National Park Service recommends you stay at least 300 yards away from bears.
Wildlife safety is important, but it doesn't mean you must hide from the animals. The best time to see wildlife in Denali is early morning or late afternoon.
Not sure what to do, where to go, or how to get around? Download the park's free visitor guide, Alpenglow. Here you can read about which bus to take, find shuttle schedules, check out campground fees, and decide how to plan your visit.
Excursions Outside the Park
Abutting the national park is 325,240-acre Denali State Park, which includes similar terrain and animals and has four developed campgrounds with more than 120 campsites and two year-round cabins (reservations required).