We just took a trip to Alaska, and boy did we love it. There’s something absolutely epic about being outdoors in Alaska: the crispness of the air, the sheer scale of the environment you’re in, and the fact that at any moment a hungry grizzly bear might appear out of the chest-high bush.
We visited a few places in Alaska, but Denali National Park was of course at the top of our list. We’d heard legends about the epicness of this place, and the fact that you can only see “the mountain” less than 30% of the time added to the mystery and allure.
Despite this, online research didn’t give us much to work with in terms of what we should do while we’re there and how the logistics of making the most of your time there should work. We dug a little deeper, referenced our trusted Lonely Planet guide, and came up with an itinerary that maximized our Denali experience given our timeframe (3 nights there).
We wanted to share what we did and how much we loved it, so that it can be a resource for you as you plan your trip to this must-see, hard-to-get-to National Park extraordinaire.
First, Denali is about 4 hours driving from Anchorage, your likely point of arrival. You can take a bus or a train in order to get there, but we rented a car and would recommend that approach. Having a car gives you the freedom to go where you want when you want (obviously) but is doubly important in Alaska as you are almost certain to see moose and/or bears from the road and will want to stop to take pics.
The timing of most flights into Denali and the need to drive four hours makes it likely that you’ll arrive at the park in the afternoon or evening. This is actually perfect – lay up for a night at the Riley Creek campsite ($22 / night, book here) right at the entrance. Facilities are great, including showers, firepit, bear locker, and a well-stocked general store. If it’s still open, mosey up to the Visitor Center and check out some of the exhibits. The cafe food up there is good but way overpriced. We had dinner at the creatively named Thai and Chinese Food to Go. Not creative, but delicious and filling.
If the weather is nice, drive into the park for sunset. The park has one road in, 90 miles from start to finish. Private vehicles are only able to go about 15 miles up the road, the rest are access via shuttle/bus. Fifteen miles should be enough to see some wildlife, an awesome sunset, and get yourself super pysched for the real thing tomorrow.
SEEING THE PARK
We camped at Wonder Lake, 85 miles into the park. We strongly recommend this campsite. The views of the mountain are amazing from this spot (it’s the closest you can get to the mountain). The amenities at this campsite are phenomenal as well, with flush toilets, bear storage, and picnic tables at each campsite. And did we mention the literal millions of blueberries in and around the camp? Probably the best $16 / night campsite we’ve ever stayed at (book here).
PRO TIP: Camping here is first come, first served. This makes getting off the bus a bit of a race to the best sites. In our opinion the best campsite is the one further to the top of the map (center-left at the top) you can find on this TA page. It affords an unobstructed view of the mountain and has some separation between the other sites. Let us know if you have another favorite!
To get there, you’ll want to have lined up an early morning camper shuttle (7am). One thing we were concerned about was the 5 hours plus bus ride to get to the campsite. Normally, 5 hours on a bus is something we’d try to avoid. Boy were we wrong – this was more like an arctic safari, with a budget price tag and no shortage of amazing experiences.
If luck is with you, Wendy will be your driver. She was a phenomenal guide. We’re sure the other guides are great too, but Wendy was the best. Jokes, friendliness, and real expertise in terms of the wildlife and scenery. Regardless of your driver, settle in for the best 5 hour bus ride of your life. Stunning vistas around ever corner, a high likelihood you’ll see a good share of the Denali “Big Five” (bears, moose, caribou, sheep, and wolves) – we saw four of five. No wolves, unfortunately. The highlight is seeing the mountain, something a stunning minority of people actually get to see because of weather and clouds that usually hang around the mountain. We were lucky:
HIKING THE PARK
There are actually very few trails in Denali. Unlike pretty much every other national park, Denali is a park that encourages you to go cross country and blaze your own trail. Rangers will be deliberately vague when they give recommendations – they don’t want hikers taking the same routes and killing the bush. The freedom to go wherever you want is amazing, but also comes with drawbacks. It’ll take you longer than you think to go a given distance, and if it rained recently then your boots and legs will get absolutely soaked by the vegetation. Keep this in mind as you plan your walks!
From Wonder Lake, there’s a short 2.5 mile trail down to the river. It’s an easy walk, but not much in terms of scenery. If it’s clear, the view of the mountain across the river is probably worth it. If it’s not, you could probably avoid this one in favor of something else. Highlights sans mountain include kettle ponds, potential moose sightings, and a great example of an Alaskan spruce forest.
The famous reflection lake that allows for epic pictures of the mountain is actually not Wonder Lake itself. Instead, there is a pond about a half mile further down the main road that allows for you to shoot an epic reflection shot. Note that you’ll need two things for this pic to work. 1) A clear day where you can see the mountain, say 30% chance of that. 2) A still day, where the pond allows for a reflection, say 30% chance of that. The upshot is that you’ll have less than a 10% chance of pulling this off. Still worth checking out because it’s so close, but don’t get your hopes up too high.
To scratch the hiking itch and do something epic, we’d recommend you backtrack down the main road (catch the first camper bus out of Wonder Lake at 6:30am in the morning – the driver sleeps there to make this possible) to the Eielson Visitor Center. Look out across the valley in front of you and pick a high point or peak that looks good to you. Go climb it. We summited Bald Mountain, affording epic views of the taiga and rivers below and the peaks across the valley, including Denali itself.
A few other things:
1. Bear spray. We didn’t bring bear spray, but you totally should – it was an oversight by us. Bears are everywhere in the park, and while they normally don’t disturb humans, you’ll never want bear spray more than the moment you round a corner on the trail and a mama grizzly and her cubs are staring right at you. The instructions for attempting to survive a grizzly attack sans spray are distressingly simple:
- First, play dead
- Second, if (when) it starts eating you, fight back.
Bring bear spray.
2. Other places to go in Alaska. Check out Homer and the state park across the bay via Halibut Cove. We also loved loved loved Kenai Fjords National Park and Seward. More on both of these to follow.
Interested in the National Parks? There’s more where that came from:
Hopefully this was a helpful overview of how to do Denali National Park the right way. We’d love to hear from you if you have a different perspective or other stories to share!