Denali National Park – A Park with No Trails

Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali is a really cool park. We weren’t able to spend much time there due to weather (rain) and time restrictions, but we plan to head back next year so we can do it more justice. We only got one good view of McKinley (AKA Denali) during our time there, but it was actually more impressive than I imagined. It looks absurdly high, especially since you can actually see most of it, from base to summit. If you’re lucky enough to get a view of it, hang out and watch it for 30 minutes (or however long you have until it’s no longer visible). Don’t expect to get a view again, or get a view further down the road / trail. It also is really fun to watch its weather patterns change. We read that it has three competing weather patterns that battle it out near its summit. You can watch this happen, and watch glaciers slide down its face if you hang out and have a view for long enough.

Biking the park road was really neat. We did it with a couple older, beaten up road bikes and they made it just fine. I’d suggest getting out of the tour bus and hiking or biking around the park. It’s not as remote as Gates of the Arctic, but it’s the most remote place most people will see, and I firmly believe it’s worth getting out of your comfort zone and actually immersing yourself in nature. If you’re prepared, you’ll be fine, despite whatever your grandparents or friends from home may say.

Driving Denali National Park – There’s a road that goes pretty far into the park. You can only drive 15 miles on this road. To go beyond the 15 mile mark, you have to either hike on foot, bike, have bought a shuttle / tour bus ticket, or have paid to camp at one of the campgrounds. If you book one of the campgrounds, you get to drive 15 more miles into the park, and stay within its bounds.

Bus / Shuttles in Denali – Since you can’t drive the park, most people opt for a shuttle or tour bus. The shuttle bus is $40 per person (the tour bus is a bit more expensive). If you take the bus, expect a very long day (unless you’re backpacking and staying overnight). If you ride the bus as far as it goes, it’s an 11 hour ride. A few rangers suggested that we take the bus to the Eielson Visitor Center, which is a 4 hour ride each way. This is the main area within the park where you get views of McKinley (Denali). You can’t see it from everywhere (I’ll elaborate further below). You can ask the bus driver to stop and let you off wherever you want and go hike or bike around, however this is the only area where you have a real chance of seeing the monster mountain. Again, we opted to simply bike the road as far as we could since we had no chance of seeing McKinley regardless, so I can’t vouch for the bus experience.

Hiking Denali – There are a few hiking trails near the entrance of the park, however the rest of the park is trail-less (like Gates of the Arctic). What’s cool about this is, you can simply choose a ridge or area, ask the bus driver to stop, hop off and go hike that area, then catch a bus back when you’re done (or camp overnight).

Showers / Laundry / Food / Beer in Denali – There’s a cool spot right as you enter the park that has everything you could need. There are paid showers (I think they were around $5 per person, but can’t remember exactly). There also is paid laundry (both showers and laundry close at 8:30pm). There’s wifi, food, and 6-packs of good beer for purchase at this cabin as well. This store / mini resort is the first giant log cabin you come to after entering the park, before coming upon the Visitor Center.

Camping near Denali – There are a number of paid camping options both in and around the park, including the South and North viewpoints (the South viewpoint is in Denali State Park, while the northern viewpoint is in Denali National Park. The parks are connected to one another).

Free Camping near Denali – Free camping was really easy around Denali. We followed parks road and found a rest stop with free camping that we stayed and worked at for a day or so. We also found a good number of pull-offs and BLM land that we could stay on.

Cell Service near Denali – There’s no cell service in Denali, but cell service surrounding it was really good.

Bars / Breweries near Denali49th State Brewing is right outside Denali. It’s a super cool-looking spot with a great vibe. Unfortunately we weren’t too impressed with the beer, but it’s worth checking out. It has a replica of the Into the Wild bus (the hiker died on a trail that starts relatively close to where the brewery is located). We stopped at Denali Brewing outside Talkeetna as well. It was a really fun spot to taste beer, and had some pretty good brews. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Denali Highway  – We didn’t have time to take this road this year, but we plan to do it next year. I read that this is the original Denali Highway that existed prior to Parks Road, which is the main highway now. It’s supposed to be a stunningly beautiful drive that takes you the same general direction as the Alaskan Highway (however it adds 4 or so hours onto the drive). If you have extra time, check it out!

How to See Denali – In the summer, Denali is only visible 30-40% of the time, so set your expectations properly so you aren’t disappointed… There’s a good chance you won’t see it if you’re only there for a few days. We only got one view that lasted 20 or so minutes. One of the best places to catch views is Denali State Park near the southeastern corner of the park. You also can see it from the Eielson Visitor Center, as I noted above. We’ve heard that, on a clear day, you can see it from Talkeetna’s Riverfront Park, and the drive from Fairbanks to Denali.

Weather near Denali – We had bad weather luck in Denali. It rained and was cold (low 40s) the whole time we were there (we arrived in late August). Denali tends to be a bit cool, so expect colder temperatures even in summer. To maximize your chancers of avoiding ran (and seeing McKinley) I’d suggest arriving in May / June, or going to Denali in winter. Visibility is supposed to be much better in winter.

About the author

Lauren is a 'digital nomad' (for lack of a less obnoxious term) who works, lives, and travels out of her truck camper with her partner, Patrick, and dog, Odin, the one-eyed Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. She started TravelSages in the summer of 2013, and has since founded a digital marketing consultancy, called LyteYear, and a sustainability brand, called RePrint. Before moving into her tiny mobile home, Lauren lived in Chicago for 6 years, pursued two graduate degrees, studied abroad at Oxford, worked for a summer in Hong Kong, and traveled to various countries in between. She has a mildly unhealthy love of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Netflix, and breweries with good New England IPAs.

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