Denali National Park is probably one of the top destinations you think of when you hear “Alaska,” and for good reason! It is home to America’s highest peak, Mt Denali, rising 20,310 feet above the Alaska range. It’s so tall that it creates its own weather system and is often shrouded in clouds – visitors proudly brag they are in the “30% club” when they get to see it as it’s usually under cloud cover 70% of the time.
Most visitors want to see Alaska’s “Big Five” animals in particular: moose, caribou, wolf, Dall sheep, and the brown/grizzly bear. See all five in the park, and you score what is called a “Denali Slam.” Unlike most wilderness areas in the continental USA, you don’t have to be an extreme backbacker in the remote wilds to see wildlife here in Denali – you have excellent chances of spotting amazing animals even without sleeping in a tent!
Here are some of the top activities to do in or near Denali National Park – linger a while here to appreciate this incredible preserve, and resist itineraries that have you rush your experience!
The park’s interior is strictly protected and to preserve its wilderness, only approved buses may transit past the 15-mile mark. The road is 92 miles long into the park. If you have your own car, you may drive as far as mile marker 15.
There are two main types of buses in Denali – narrated trips (tour buses) and non-narrated trips (transit buses). In addition, a few free buses travel routes around the park entrance, connecting visitor centers and points of interest in the same area where visitors may drive their own vehicles. The narrated/tour buses have driver-guides onboard and have three basic itineraries:
- Half day: Denali National History Tour, about 5 hours roundtrip, to mile marker 27
- Full day: Tundra Wilderness Tour, about 8 hours roundtrip, to mile marker 82
- Fullest day: Kantishna Tour, about 12 hours roundtrip, to mile marker 92
The non-narrated/transit buses follow the same road but are informal and do not have a formal “tour guide” onboard, although drivers will stop for animals and will share key pieces of information. These buses allow you to hop on/hop off at your convenience throughout the day for independent hiking, picnics, scenic viewpoints, and more. (For updated tours in 2022, check out the National Park Service page here.)
ATV Tours or Self-Drive Narrated Jeep Tours
For an active adventure, consider renting ATVs or jeeps to explore through the backcountry adjacent to Denali National Park. These guided adventures will thrill you with their views of the central Alaska Range and one of the USA’s most scenic drives. These tours do not go on the central road referenced above in the bus tour but is no less scenic and wildlife spotting is often possible on the Jeep tours!
See the sled dogs
You can visit the park rangers’ sled dogs and find out more about their training, for free! View a ranger-led sledding demonstration or simply stop by the kennels to visit the dogs. This is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about Alaska’s unique mode of transportation if you didn’t get up close with sled dogs during other parts of your trip. Free shuttles from the Denali Visitor Center depart daily in the summer to get to the kennels.
Denali offers hikes for visitors of all levels – for hiking enthusiasts, take the bus into the park and hop on/hop off throughout the day. For those who prefer to learn from park rangers, the rangers offer several guided hikes (free!) from the Denali Visitor Center which is easily accessible either with your own car or with a shuttle from your hotel. There are also trails in this area for you to do independently Ranger led hikes from the visitor center tend to be easy-paced, but they also offer ranger-led off-trail hikes that are more challenging and will drive you much deeper into the park before beginning a longer hike off-trail. If you’re not an experienced hiker but want to try off-trail hiking, I really recommend a ranger-led program.
For cycle enthusiasts, you can bike the entire 92 miles of the Denali park road if you wish. Electric bikes are allowed as far as mile 15.
Whitewater rafting or float trips
Most tours take place on the Nenana River just outside the park. Choose to battle the rapids, or simply embark on a 13 mile easy float (no rapids) with a guide that will help you spot bear, moose, caribou, lynx, Dall sheep, from the river. A river float is a very special way to appreciate the vastness of this area.
Get a bird’s eye view of Denali National Park with an airplane tour. You’ll be able to see glaciers, the Alaska Range, and even get within 5 miles of Mt Denali itself. Many people say this is an incredible memory-making experience and one of the highlights of their trip.
Do you need a car?
There are several hotels near the entrance to Denali National Park, often with restaurants in walking distance. Many hotels provide shuttles both from the train station and to/from the park entrance, so even if you don’t have a car, it’s quite possible to have a fantastic experience in this area.
I’m in the 30% club of people who have seen Mt Denali and it’s beautiful! What would you be most excited about experiencing in Denali National Park?
For more inspiration & for assistance in planning your next trip to Denali, please visit my Alaska planning services page!