Best time to visit: Summer
Recommended Hikes: Savage Alpine Trail, Mt Healy, Eielson Alpine Trail
Ideal For: Hiking, Back-country camping, Wildlife Viewing, Flight-Seeing, Mountain-Climbing
Where to stay: Campgrounds in the park, Towns of McKinley Park and Talkeenta
Far and away the tallest and most imposing mountains in North America - Denali National Park is a vast, pristine wilderness. The southern half of the park is entirely made up of jagged peaks and glaciers, including the 20,310 foot Denali. The northern half is mostly tundra, home to all of Alaska’s famous wildlife. Summer is the best time to visit Alaska for better weather and super long days. Plan for rain throughout Alaska on any given summer day.
What to Expect from Alaska:
I spent summer 2018 working for Talkeetna Air Taxi. Below is some basic advice for a trip in Alaska:
Drive times are brutally long. Expect traffic delays throughout the state due to road construction during summer.
Always be prepared for rain. Weather patterns change quickly and forecasts are often wrong even one day in advance.
Lodging is expensive and generally not luxurious. Campgrounds are abundant and far more affordable.
Don’t try to see too much. If something in Alaska is a must-see for you, budget extra days in that area and consider skipping attractions that aren’t nearby.
Denali - Must See Attractions:
Talkeetna - This awesome little town is basecamp for all flight-seeing and mountain climbing done in Denali National Park. The town is just 60 miles south of Denali’s peak, and on clear days, the sight of the mountain from town is jaw-dropping. Activities in Talkeetna include Denali Flight-Seeing, river rafting, fishing excursions, ATVing, and jet-boating.
Flight-seeing - Flight-seeing in Denali National Park is an incredible experience. Many visitors have told me that it is the highlight of the vacation. There are tons of flight-seeing companies throughout Alaska, and for Denali, I recommend Talkeetna Air Taxi. I worked for this company and I can say that their pilots, planes, and office staff are second to none.
Denali Sled Dogs - The sled dogs of Denali spend the winter patrolling the park and the summer entertaining park visitors. There are daily demonstrations and visitors can pet some of the dogs if they wish.
Denali Bus Tour - The northern tundra area of the park is accessible via park bus tours and it offers the best chance to see Alaska’s wildlife. The tour busses can be reserved online here. There are two types of tours - the less expensive one is the better option (in my opinion). Both tour types will stop for any and all wildlife sightings.
Eielsen Visitor Center and Wonder Lake - These are the last two stops on the bus tour and they offer the best views of Denali’s north face - the “Wickersham Wall” - which is the highest continuous mountain rise in the world. The bus tours start running to these destinations in early June and close in mid September.
Denali State Park - About halfway between Talkeetna and the National Park entrance. There are two major viewpoints of Denali in the State Park, and a couple of nice lakes. Kesugi Ridge is a popular backpacking destination in the area.
Where to Stay:
There are a lot of lodging options in the town of McKinley Park near the park entrance. The hotels are all pretty expensive.
There are six campgrounds in the park, and several more private campgrounds in the area surrounding McKinley Park. Camping is much more affordable than the hotels. Campgrounds in the park can be reserved online here.
Hiking in Denali:
The park is famous for “off trail” hiking. You are allowed to hike anywhere across the tundra, except for certain wildlife closures. There are also a few official hiking routes in the park, discussed below:
Mt Healy - A popular trail near the parks entrance - the hike climbs 1,700 vertical feet for a great view of the mountains in the area, although there are no views of Denali. The bottom half of the hike is below the treeline, making it potentially dangerous for moose and bear encounters. Read more about the hike here.
Savage Alpine Trail - This trail runs from Savage River to the Savage River Campground, but the best part of the trail is right near the parking area at Savage River. Most of the trail is above the treeline and it offers views of Denali on clear days. Read more about it here.
Eielson Alpine Trail - There is an awesome trail that departs from the Eielson visitor enter and climbs high with consistent views of Denali. The hike is harder to access given it’s at the very end of the bus tour - book an early bus if you want to do this one. Read more about it here.