Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali National Park is probably Alaska’s most well known attraction, and it sees a little over 600,000 visitors annually. It is a mountainous park deep in the Alaskan interior, and it’s set around Mt. Denali, the highest peak in North America (20,310 ft.). Denali is also known for its abundant wildlife, and is home to robust populations of grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, fox, lynx, golden eagle and more. Given the northern location of the park, much of its area is covered with tundra – allowing for easy wildlife spotting and making it highly attractive to wildlife enthusiasts and photographers.
The park is also a fantastic hiking destination, but keep in mind that most of it is wild and undeveloped; maintained hiking trails are few and far between. If you feel secure with your off-trail hiking capabilities, Denali offers a wonderful mountain landscape with hardly any other people around.
While the scenery in Denali is beautiful throughout the summer, it reaches peak form during the short Alaskan fall; in most years, this means late August and the first week of September. The tundra and the trees turns red and yellow, the animals look great after an entire summer of feeding, there are less people around, and chances to see the northern lights increase as daylight hours grow shorter.
Should YOU include Denali in your trip plan?
Despite the superlatives and the PR, Denali is not a perfect fit for all visitors to Alaska. Before you automatically include it in your trip plan, consider this:
– The park is located about 239 miles north of Anchorage (approx. 5 hour drive).
– There’s only one dirt road traversing the park (93 mile long), with private vehicles permitted only to mile 15. The rest of the road is accessible using the park’s bus system only.
– A return trip on the Denali Park Road typically takes 7-11 hours, depending on how far you want to go.
– Developed hiking trails are found near the park entrance and around Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66). The rest of the park is wild and undeveloped.
– Wildlife sightings, while frequent and often very exciting, are not guaranteed. For example, while bears can be seen in many of the bus rides, they can be close to the road or far away. And of course, sometimes you don’t get to see them at all.
– The same goes to Mt. Denali, which is often wrapped in clouds during the summer months. This elusive giant is making a full appearance roughly once every few days.
Bottom line: The park is very impressive, and it’s popular for a reason. That said, realistic expectations are key.
Mt. Eielson Loop
An unofficial trekking route which offers some of the park’s most impressive mountain scenery. It takes two or three days, depending on your pace.
Important note: In order to avoid having the park loved to death by visitors, management limits the number of people allowed to camp in the backcountry. The park is divided to backcountry units, with each having a quota of overnight backpackers allowed. Permits are available on a first come, first served basis through the Backcountry Center at Park’s entrance. Popular areas of the park (such as Mt. Eielson Loop) fill quickly, so it’s probably going to take a few days before you can get your permit and start the trek. Most backpackers spend that time backpacking in other areas of the park, or camping along the park road and departing on day hikes (which don’t require permits). In any case, it’s worth the effort.
Did you know you can rent a bike outside the park and take it on the bus with you? It’s great fun, and it allows you to enjoy the road at your own pace. Remember to be careful when going around a bend – who knows what kind of wildlife may await on the other side. Carrying a bike is allowed only on camper buses (buses with extra carrying capacity). Make sure to check their schedule in advance.