A Guide to Visiting Denali National Park: The Best Things To Do in the Summer
August 13, 2021
Table of Contents
Denali National Park encompasses six million acres of mostly undeveloped land. The protected land is larger in area than the state of New Hampshire, and has only one main road. Denali is home to the highest point in North America and is full of incredible wildlife and alpine landscapes.
Things You Should Know Before Visiting Denali:
- Only the first 15 miles of road in Denali are open to private vehicles. After that, you must take a bus. The park service offers a narrated bus tour or a transit bus service. Check out my Denali bus blog post to find out which is right for you!
- If you do not have bus tickets, there are trails and activities to enjoy along the first 15 miles of the park road.
- As of this writing in October 2021, a landslide inside the park at mile 45 could impact bus service in 2022.
- The weather can change quickly in Denali. Come prepared with clothes and gear for all types of conditions.
- Only about 30% of visitors actually get to see Mount Denali (I was not one of the lucky ones!). Keep your expectations low so that you’ll be extra appreciative if the sky is clear during your trip.
- If you are hiking, it is necessary to carry bear spray and know how to use it. If you are camping, you will also need a bear canister. Be sure to do some research and/or talk to a ranger about bear safety before you set off.
I stayed in the Denali Bluffs Hotel, which is located just outside of the park entrance. The hotel comprises 12 buildings on the hillside overlooking Denali. Many of the rooms have balconies, allowing for a beautiful view on a clear day. My room was clean, nicely furnished and quite spacious. The hotel also has a restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner and is known for having a great BBQ platter.
Denali has six campgrounds if you are visiting with an RV or tent. Riley Creek Campground is the largest and the closest campground to the park entrance. It has 142 sites and is open year round. Reservations are strongly recommended in the summer, but you may be able to get a spot without one.
Summer is the time when the vast majority of visitors go to Denali National Park. Transit bus service into the park typically begins on May 20 each year, but park buses do not traverse the entire road until June. The summer season ends in mid-September.
If you visit in the spring or fall, park buses will not be available and services will be limited, but this can still be a great time to see wildlife and explore certain parts of the park.
Typically, Denali hosts a “Road Lottery” each year in September for permits to drive private vehicles on the Denali park road. Visitors apply to win the permit to drive as far as they wish on the road. An extra fifth day of the lottery is dedicated to active duty military service-members and their families. Unfortunately, this event has been cancelled for 2021 due to a landslide.
In the winter, vehicle access is limited but you can explore the park by skis, snowshoes or even dog sled.
This blog post is based upon my experience of visiting Denali in August.
I flew into Anchorage for my trip to Denali, but flying into Fairbanks is also an option. The park is four hours of driving from Anchorage and two hours of driving from Fairbanks. I rented a car, but you can also take the Alaska Railroad right into the park from either city! If you decide to take the train, note that you may be limited on times. Regardless, be sure to book early because cars and train tickets sell out in advance.
If you drive to Denali, note that the Parks Highway is the only way to reach the park. Expect possible delays on this road due to construction or accidents. The road is remote at times so be sure to download offline maps and fill up on gas often.
- Pack plenty of layers. The weather changes quickly in Denali, so you should be prepared with a windbreaker and gear for cold weather.
- A zoom lens or binoculars for wildlife spotting! There is so much incredible wildlife in the park that you will want to see.
- If you are hiking, you should bring sturdy hiking shoes, trekking poles and purchase bear spray when you arrive in Alaska.
Denali is the only US national park with a kennel for sled dogs! Generations of these incredible Alaskan Huskies have been working with park rangers since the 1920s. In the wintertime, sled dog teams travel out into the Denali wilderness and perform a number of jobs, including transporting research equipment, offering assistance and providing information on trail conditions. Other visitors also use sled dog trails for their own skiing, snowshoeing or for their own sled dog teams.
In the summertime, you can visit the dog kennels and see the dogs up close! Depending on the dog's personality, there are dogs fenced in pens or out in a more open space where they can get close to visitors. If a dog is close enough, you are able to give it a pet. There is also a small museum that discusses dog sledding in more detail. Typically, demonstrations of the dogs in action are offered in the summer months.
Visiting the dog kennels was such a unique and fun experience! I highly recommend making some time for this, but be sure to check their hours as they tend to be limited.
In Denali, there are a limited number of marked trails. Along with exploring the maintained areas, visitors are able to explore in any direction they choose off of a marked trail.
If you choose to explore the park off-trail, be sure to discuss your plans with a ranger and make sure you are prepared.
Here are a few maintained trails accessible within the first 15 miles of the park.
Horseshoe Lake Trail
The Horseshoe Lake Trail is an easy-rated 2 mile trail close to the park entrance. The trail is full of beautiful river and lake views and you might see some beavers or otters along the way.
Mount Healy Overlook Trail
The Mount Healy Overlook trail is 6.9 miles with 2,483 feet of elevation gain and is rated moderate. The trail ascends above the treeline and leads to amazing views of the park.
Triple Lakes Trail
The Triple Lake Trail is 9 miles one way and is rated hard. It includes beautiful views of lakes and of the surrounding area. You can hike this trail one way and take the shuttle back, or you could just do a portion of the trail.
The park service offers two different types of buses for exploring Denali past the first 15 miles of road. You can either take a transit bus, where you will have the chance to get on and off wherever you decide, or a narrated tour bus, where you will stay on and learn about the park along the way.
I took the transit bus and saw an incredible amount of wildlife and amazing views along the way. I detail the difference between the buses, plus my experience on the transit bus, in another blog post!
A scenic plane ride is an incredible way to get up close and personal to Mount Denali and the surrounding peaks. I booked a flight with K2 Aviation, a company that flies out of Talkeetna. Note that Talkeetna is located two and a half hours from the main entrance of Denali National Park, so you’ll need to allow transit time between the plane ride and exploring the park by foot.
Fly K2 offers a few different tour options of varying lengths and prices, starting at $230. You can also choose to add a glacier landing to any of the tours offered. Unfortunately, the weather was not clear enough for my tour and I received a full refund. This is a common occurrence and Fly K2 does a great job of making sure you can modify, reschedule or cancel your trip for a full refund.
While I didn’t get to take the plane ride, I recommend that you consider splurging on this experience if you have enough time!
Talkeetna is a very cute town to explore whether you take a plane ride from here or not. It is known for electing Stubbs the cat as mayor from 1997 to 2017.
If you are driving from Anchorage, stop at the Denali Viewpoint South and Denali View North on your way to the park. These viewpoints are located in Denali State Park and provide an excellent vantage point to see Mount Denali and the surrounding mountains on a clear day. The viewpoints also have restrooms and signage to read about the topics involving the history and climbing of Denali.
I learned here that climbing Denali typically takes three weeks and many who attempt are not successful in making it to the top.
No matter how you choose to explore Denali, it will make for a memorable experience. Learn more details on the Denali transit bus, Denali wildlife and more in this post!
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