Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali is a mountain park deep in the Alaskan interior, along a towering mountain range that was creatively named the Alaska Range. The Park is mainly known for the vast amount of animals living in it and for its mountain landscape, especially Mount Denali itself (the highest peak in North America, almost 20,500 feet above sea level). Denali is one of Alaska’s most famous attractions, and almost every trip to Alaska passes through here at some stage. But it also has some disadvantages, and the truth is that quite a few visitors leave Denali a little disappointed. So before you automatically include Denali in your trip plan, you should consider whether it really works for you.
Consider before traveling
Here are some factors you should consider when planning to visit the park:
- To get there you have to travel from Anchorage almost 250 miles in each direction.
- There’s only one dirt road traversing the park (90-mile long), and private vehicles are permitted only until the 15th mile. To continue forward you have to take a park bus.
- Getting to the depth of the Park and back takes 7-9 hours, and not everyone has the patience to sit it out (could be particularly problematic if you’re traveling with kids).
- During most of the drive, and especially in the beginning, the driver talks non-stop. Not everyone has the patience for that as well.
- There are almost no hiking trails. You can get off the bus and travel around, but it’s a real field trip with all that this entails.
- Mostly, you don’t always see what you want to – the views are sometimes obscured by clouds, and the animal aren’t always around.
We personally think that Denali is nonetheless very impressive, and enjoyment is largely dependent on the visitor’s level of expectations and patience. There are excellent reasons for all the issues we described: the Park’s management has to handle hundreds of thousands of visitors that come here over a limited period of three months, and its goal, first and foremost, is to stop the masses from trampling the Park to death. If you’ve ever been to American national parks such as Yosemite or Yellowstone on busy days, you know they can get so overcrowded that you actually miss the traffic jam you’re usually stuck in on your way to work. The bus system solves this problem, and truthfully Yosemite and Yellowstone would gladly adopt a similar method, but it’s impossible there for political reasons.
For the same reason there are almost no trails here. The idea is first of all preserving nature in its most primal state. As far as Park administrators are concerned, if you’re confident enough to travel here, great. If not, there are plenty of other places in Alaska that do have trails.
The bus drivers do like to talk, but if you listen you’ll find they are extremely knowledgeable. Knowing how to identify a bear or a moose from afar is one thing, but the drivers can offer you additional interesting information, like what that bear did yesterday in another area of the park (and to whom). Many of the drivers return to work here year after year, and their knowledge of the area is extensive.
Wild life in Denali
The million-dollar question: how many animals do you actually see in the park? The answer, as in many other aspects of life, is “we really don’t know”. Sometimes you sit on the bus a whole day and end up only seeing some mountain sheep from afar.
that been said, in the majority of cases you do see bears during the ride, but sometimes they are right on the side of the road, under the bus’s window, and sometimes they are one mile off. Usually there’s also a good chance of seeing herds of Caribou (reindeer) and mountain sheep, and also foxes, wolves and even lynx if you’re lucky.
Bottom Line: there’s no other place in Alaska where you can see such a variety of animals in such a short time, and if you can incorporate the Park in your trip it’s definitely worth it. But as you may have realized – nothing is mandatory, and it’s important to adjust your expectations before you start and not to take anything for granted.
- Recommended Season
- Mt. Eielson Loop
You can rent bicycles outside the park and take them on the bus. It’s great fun, and it allows you to stop and enjoy the road at your own pace. Remember to be careful when going around a bend. Who knows what animal awaits you on the other side. Note that you’re only allowed to take the bike on camper buses (the green ones, intended for backpackers who enter the Park with a lot of equipment). The camper buses depart relatively seldom, so you should check their schedule in advance.
A nice bicycle rental company: Denali Outdoor Center