Photograph by Barrett Hedges, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A large caribou runs across the tundra in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Photograph by Barrett Hedges, Nat Geo Image Collection

Everything to know about Denali National Park and Preserve

The pandemic has disrupted travel to national parks and wilderness areas. To find out which parks are open and how to visit them safely, scan the National Park Service’s coronavirus resource page. You can also search for parks by state. Planning a visit to a nearby park? Practice safe social distancing, pack your own food and necessities, and don’t forget the bug spray.

Visitors to Alaska’s most well known national park, Denali, are often rewarded with sights that will stay with them the rest of their lives. A golden eagle may be seen soaring off the colorful cliffs at Polychrome Pass, or a herd of Dall’s sheep could be spotted resting along the green shoulder of Primrose Ridge. A massive grizzly bear might ramble over the tundra at Sable Pass. Maybe a caribou will pause on a ridgetop, silhouetted by the warm light of day’s end, or a loon will call across Wonder Lake.

Perhaps the park’s famous—and often notorious—clouds will part to reveal the great massif of Denali itself, 20,320 feet high, the roof of North America.

Larger than the state of New Jersey, Denali National Park and Preserve is a vast wilderness that is mostly untouched by human hands, save for the one park road and a few scattered services. It is known for legendary wildlife and big adventures, from backcountry camping to mountaineering. Even for those who stick to a bus tour of the park road, and its scenic overlooks, wild adventures often await to suprise and delight.

Cant miss experiences

Even though the park revolves around perpetually snowcapped Denali, it’s often the rest of the park that leaves a lasting impression on visitors: the boreal forest and tundra, the wild rivers and glaciers, and the creatures that wander this amazing Alaska landscape, in particular the formidable brown bears that call Denali home.

Located about halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Preserve can be reached via the Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3), air services into McKinley National Park Airport, or the Denali Star Train.

Both the airport and train station are within a very short walk of the Denali Visitor Center, open summer only. During the other three seasons, Murie Science and Learning Center (MSLC) across the street assumes the role of park visitor center. The third (and perhaps most important) of the buildings clustered near the park entrance is the Wilderness Access Center (WAC), where visitors can reserve campsites, obtain backcountry permits, hop a shuttle bus, or purchase tickets for the park’s popular bus tours.

Clouds Rolling in Over Denali National Park Storm clouds speed over the mountains of Denali National Park, Alaska

There’s plenty to do near the park entrance, including day hikes to Triple Lake (9.5 miles), the lofty Mount Healy Overlook (5.4-mile round-trip), and the relatively easy Taiga Trail to Horseshoe Lake (0.9 mile). Visitors can also pop into the Denali Sled Dog Kennels to watch a demonstration of how they help patrol the park in winter. The paved road (and private vehicle access) ends at Savage River, where there’s a campground and a 1.7-mile loop trail that crosses the river on a wooden footbridge.

Denali Park Road meanders 92 miles through the heart of the park to scenic spots like the Toklat River crossing, Wonder Lake with its remarkable views of the Alaska Range and Denali’s north flank, the old gold mining town of Kantishna, and Eielson Visitor Center with its interactive exhibits and ranger-guided activities. But only the first 15 miles of the road are open to private vehicles. The only way to cruise the rest of the route is by foot, bicycle, or bus. Traveling Park Road is the best way to spot wildlife, in particular bears, wolves, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and a variety of birds.

Three narrated bus tours ply the route during the warmer months (May-September), including the Denali History Tour to the Teklanika River, the Tundra Wilderness Tour to Stony Overlook, and the Kantishna Experience to the very end of the road. Along the way, the buses stop at prime wildlife viewing spots.

Backcountry hikers, campers, or those who merely want to explore on their own can hop a nonnarrated shuttle bus from the WAC to four different stops along the road.

While anyone with a backcountry permit is free to hike the wilderness and camp overnight, several outfitters offer guided treks into the Denali wilderness. Alaska Alpine Adventures has guided backpack camping trips of one week or more at distances ranging from 20 to 50 miles through the park. Six companies are authorized by the Park Service to guide ascents of Denali peak and other mountains in the park, including Alpine Ascents International, which offers three-week expeditions between May and July.

McKinley Airport is home base for many of the park’s scenic flight operations. A variety of aerial choices are available during the summer. Fly Denali is one of several aviation companies that offer flightseeing around the big peak, glacier landing trips, and climbing support for mountaineers. Talkeetna Air does helicopter sightseeing over the glaciers and valleys leading up to Denali’s south side.

Outside the park, the Nenana River/Parks Highway corridor is also rife with outdoor activities, as well as most of the hotels and restaurants in the Denali region. Visitor services cluster in the little backcountry towns of McKinley Park, Cantwell, and Healy along the park’s eastern edge, as well as Talkeetna in the southeast.

Brave the whitewater of the Nenana Gorge and Talkeetna River—rapids that range up to Class IV—with Raft Denali, which also offers a multiday, heli-rafting experience along 33 miles of river. Home to Arctic grayling and rainbow trout, both rivers are also great for angling, either on your own or with services like Denali Fly Fishing Guides.

Denali past and present

Inspired by the beauty of the Toklat River, naturalist Charles Sheldon spent nine years lobbying for legislation to create the park—the first national park in Alaska. Originally established in 1917 with the name Mount McKinley, 63 years later it would be renamed Denali or "the High One," the native Athabaskan name for the majestic peak. That same year, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) enlarged the boundaries by four million acres, regrouping the land into Denali National Park and Preserve.

Over the past 30 years, Denali’s visitors have increased almost 200 percent. Accommodating them without eroding the park’s wilderness has been a struggle. Buses cut down on private cars, which aren’t allowed on most of the park road. Campgrounds are modest and unobtrusive. And the wilderness areas have strict overnight camping ceilings to prevent overcrowding and damage to the flora and fauna. Unless you plan ahead by using the park’s easy-to-use reservation system, you may have to wait a day or two to get your preferred campsite or bus reservation.