A visit to Denali National Park is an experience of a lifetime. The park is massive – 9,492 square miles, nearly the size of Massachusetts. To get the most of your experience some planning is required. Of course the best way to really explore Denali would be to camp inside the park, but if you’re like me and require walls and a bathroom, here is what you need to know to make the most out of your remote visit.
How to Get to the Park?
Denali National Park is located 4 hours north of Anchorage. You can take a driving/flying tour from Anchorage or other larger towns. You can also get there by car. Another option is a train that runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks and stops directly in front of the park entrance.
Summer is the main visiting season, bus services within the park run May 20th through mid-September. Even though buses may be running, the entire park road does not open fully till June 8th. Outside of that season, the park is only open when conditions allow in the spring or through a special lottery in the fall. If you’d like to see the park map and details, click here.
The Visitor Center and transportation hub are located at mile marker O. The Center is open in the summer from 8AM-5PM daily. The main bus stop and train station are all located in the same area. There are also several hiking trails here. One of our favorite hikes was the Horseshoe Lake Trail – a 3.2-mile trail through woods to get to a beautiful lake and river.
Past the Visitor Center there is no food/water for purchase, so make sure you bring snacks and drinks for your day at the park.
Transportation in the Park
This part of the trip was very confusing to plan. The explanations we found online were pretty complex and left a lot of questions, so let me see if I can explain it in a simple way. There is one main road that runs in and out of the park. In season, private cars are only allowed to go to mile 15 (with the exception of campgrounds). There are two ways to explore the entire park past mile 15 – narrated tour bus and transit bus.
The narrated bus is exactly what it sounds like, a bus with a narrating bus driver who will tell you about the park, history, mountains and wildlife. You will stop along the way in designated spots, but you will always get back on the same bus and stay with your group all day. There are three types of narrated bus tours:
- Natural History Tour (4.5 hours focusing on the rich natural and cultural history of the park)
- Tundra Wilderness Tour (8 hours of the history of the park, while watching for wildlife and photography opportunities)
- Kantishna Experience Tour (11 hours discovering the full length of the park road and stopping at all rest stops)
The narrated buses are tan color and drive the same road and stop in the same locations as the green transit buses.
The transit bus is a hop-on/off kind of bus. You can get off at any rest area and hike, do a picnic and then get on any transit bus. You do not have to stay on one bus with this option. Buses usually run around every half hour in the peak times and less later in the day. Even though narration is not promised on the transit buses, our trip was very well narrated by the driver and we learned a ton of stuff. Our driver also had a keen eye for spotting wildlife and really tried to make sure we had an enriched experience.
You can choose four main types of the transit bus experience – the only difference is how far into the park they go:
- Toklat River (Mile 53) – 6.5 hours roundtrip*
- Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66) – 8 hours roundtrip
- Wonder Lake (Mile 85) – 11 hours roundtrip
- Kantishna (Mile 92) – 12 hours roundtrip
*Note: time estimations include all bus stops along the way. If you choose to stay on the same bus all day, that’s how long it would take to get back to the Visitor Center. If you’d like to learn more about each destination, check out this park page.
These buses all travel the same road and stop at vistas along the way up to their destination. It just depends on how much time you want to spend in the park and on the bus. Even though the transit bus allows for hop on/off, a lot of people stay on the same bus the entire trip, mostly because it’s already a really long day. The bus stops every 1.5 hours for 15-30 minutes at vistas and centers.
If you need a break, right before Wonder Lake you can get off and hike to Reflection Pond instead of going to Wonder Lake – just make sure to tell your bus driver, so he’ll drop you off at the right place. The bus will pick you up on its way back in 45 minutes. This was a great break from sitting on the bus all day, so I would recommend it. Since there is a lake and standing water there, if you’re doing this hike in July/August, make sure you have mosquito repellent.
Facts About the Buses
You should book your bus tour in advance, they do sell out especially in peak season. If you purchase the bus ticket, park entrance fee is included in it, so don’t pay a separate entry fee. Make sure you come early for your bus departure, they leave on time and seating is first come first serve.
No matter what bus you choose, the actual buses are pretty much the same, other than colors, there is no difference in comfort. The windows on the bus do open and a lot of people will have them open for photography, but that also makes the ride chilly and windy if you’re sitting by a window.
For the best views on the bus you need to pick your seat based on the direction of the bus. Driving into the park the Alaska Mountain Range will be on to the left of the bus. Driving back it’s on the right side of the bus. Since animals show up on both sides of the road, drivers are pretty good at making sure that both sides of the bus get to see the wildlife, if possible. Many times you the bus will stop and you’ll be able to the viewing side.
The Winning View
So, why would you sit on the bus for 11 hours? It sounds like torture, but honestly time passes quickly and there are many animal and astounding view distractions along the way. The main one being THE MOUNTAIN. As you’re exploring on the bus, don’t forget to keep watching for Mt. Denali. At 20,310 feet, it’s the highest peak of the Alaska Range and is visible in several spots along the way. By comparison, Mt. Rainier in Washington is only 14,427 feet in elevation. This is the winning view worth the trek.
Many times Denali peak is hidden in clouds and only 30% of all park visitors get to see the top of the mountain. Hopefully you’ll get lucky on your trip. This is what you have to look forward to —-
Denali Park is what’s called a trailless destination, which means that visitors can make their own trails throughout the park. In addition, there are a few designated trails, mostly at the Visitor Center and mile 15. If your time in park is limited, you should check out one or two of these trails: Horseshoe Lake Trail, Savage River Loop Trail and Reflection Lake trail. To see other trails, click here.
How much Time do You Need?
I would recommend 2 days – one of the bus tour and one for day hikes within the first 15 miles of the park. You could even take the bus to one of the early stops and hike from there. If you don’t have two full days, you could do this in a day and a half by selecting shorter hikes. If you only schedule one day, you’ll spend it mostly on the bus and there is not much time for hiking and exploring on your own.
Things to Bring with You
I mention several of these but here is a list:
- Food and water (you cannot buy it inside the park)
- Bug spray
- Bear spray/whistle (if you’re hiking away from people)
- Camera with a good steady telephoto lens (a lot of animals will be far away)
- Some people bring binoculars (I use my telephoto lens for looking)
- Layers of clothing (check the weather to see if you need waterproof clothes as well)
Visiting Denali makes a long day, but it’s definitely worth the effort. It’s a memory you’ll enjoy for the rest of your life and all other mountains will suddenly seem small in comparison. It’s also very different than other mountains, usually you have to drive up in the mountains on windy roads and there are a lot of view obstructions. Denali is not like that. It’s pretty much a straight road in a valley with almost unobstructed views. If you’re still not convinced, here is a video from one of the rest stops.
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