The last wild west: Alaska’s Denali National Park
The main attraction at Denali National Park is magnificent Mt McKinley. (Brent Winebrenner/LPI)
For many travellers, Denali National Park is probably your best chance to see a grizzly, moose, caribou, lynx, fox or -- if you are lucky -- wolf. Clear days afford stunning views of Mount McKinley (known to most Alaskans as Denali) - North America's tallest mountain.
While much of Alaska can be experienced by the seat of your pants, it pays to be prepared before visiting Denali National Park due to its fleeting summer season, its overwhelming popularity and the regulations instituted to protect it. Follow our pre-visit tips to make your Denali trip a breeze.
When to go
From late June to late August, despite cool, cloudy conditions and drizzle, Denali's campgrounds are full, its road is busy with shuttle buses and its entrance area is fist-to-jowl with tourists. The hordes disappear once you are in the backcountry, and they are not an issue in the “frontcountry” come September - when the bugs thin out, the skies clear and brilliant autumn foliage dazzles. However, shuttle buses (your ticket into the backcountry) stop running in the second week of September. Your choices are then to bike it or enter the road lottery (held every July), which grants entry to 400 cars during a four-day window. The end of September will see the beginning of winter - the season characterised by chilly temperatures of -40F and 4.5 hours of daylight.
What to bring
Do not arrive in Denali expecting to outfit your expedition once you get there. Except for one small shop in Glitter Gulch and a tiny nook in the Wilderness Access Center, nobody sells camping gear. Groceries are even less available. Double-check your equipment and get all of your shopping done before leaving Anchorage or Fairbanks. Have a look at Denali's checklist for suggested backpacking gear.
Before showing up to Denali it is worthwhile to secure advance reservations for campsites and on shuttle buses through the Denali National Park Reservation Service. You can reserve online for the following year beginning 1 December; phone reservations start 15 February for the same year. Sites in five of Denali's six campsites can be booked in advance. The campgrounds are hugely popular, so visitors without advance reservations are unlikely to find a site on a walk-in basis.
Up to 65% of bus seats are available through advance reservation; the other 35% are set aside for in-person reservations. The latter can be made no more than two days in advance.
You can only reserve backcountry permits 24 hours in advance. For the itinerant souls who do not make reservations in advance, this may be your best bet for staying in the park.
A few itineraries to get you started
- One day If you have only a day in Denali National Park, there is only one option: take a park bus to Eielson Visitor Center (an eight-hour round trip).
- Two days Try to get a permit for an overnight backpacking trip. If you do not want to backpack, you could certainly day hike for two days (or two months!).
- Three or more days With this amount of time you will be able to go backpacking or get in a lot of day hiking. If you tire of the tundra and can afford it, you could also take a raft trip down the Nenana River or a flight-seeing excursion over the park.