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Denali, AK

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Denali, AK

Denali National Park is a United States National Park that is home to Denali, North America's highest mountain (also known as Mt. McKinley). In addition, the park protects an incredible wilderness area that contains grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves, and numerous other creatures. It is in the state of Alaska, 240 miles (386 km) north of Anchorage and 120 miles (193 km) south of Fairbanks.


Denali National Park comprises a massive area of six million acres (over 24,000 km2), slightly more than the entire state of Massachusetts. The park is best known for the 20,320-ft (6,194 m) Denali. The tremendous 18,000-ft (5,486 m) difference from the mountain's lowlands near Wonder Lake up to its peak is a greater vertical relief than that of Mount Everest. The park is bisected from east to west by the Alaska Range and the Park... Read more

Denali, AK


Denali National Park is a United States National Park that is home to Denali, North America's highest mountain (also known as Mt. McKinley). In addition, the park protects an incredible wilderness area that contains grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves, and numerous other creatures. It is in the state of Alaska, 240 miles (386 km) north of Anchorage and 120 miles (193 km) south of Fairbanks.


Denali National Park comprises a massive area of six million acres (over 24,000 km2), slightly more than the entire state of Massachusetts. The park is best known for the 20,320-ft (6,194 m) Denali. The tremendous 18,000-ft (5,486 m) difference from the mountain's lowlands near Wonder Lake up to its peak is a greater vertical relief than that of Mount Everest. The park is bisected from east to west by the Alaska Range and the Park Road is the only vehicle access into the park.


The park was established in 1917 as a wildlife refuge. It was originally named Mount McKinley National Park, but in 1980 the park was renamed and expanded in size by four million acres as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Today the park is managed as three separate units: Denali Wilderness is made up of the original Mount McKinley National Park and is managed to retain the undeveloped wilderness with no hunting allowed. The Denali National Park management area includes some of the 1980 additions and allows subsistence hunting. Denali National Preserve includes two areas of the park within which sport and subsistence hunting are allowed on a permit basis.


Denali, the "High One," is the name Athabascan native people gave the massive peak that crowns the 600-mile-long Alaska Range. Permafrost ground underlies many areas of the park, where only a thin layer of topsoil is available to support life. After the continental glaciers retreated from most of the park 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, hundreds of years were required to begin building new soils and re-vegetation. The dynamic glaciated landscape provides large rivers, countless lakes and ponds, and unique landforms which form the foundation of the ecosystems that thrive in Denali.

Flora and fauna

The terrain of Denali includes "tundra" and "taiga" zones. Taiga zones are made up of the stubby evergreen, spruce and aspen trees that are found in areas around the Arctic Circle. The taiga zone within Denali extends to approximately 2700 feet (823 m) above sea level, above which few trees are found. The treeless areas of the park can generally be classified as tundra. Within a tundra zone, the plants are often miniaturized, including tiny flowers, extensive mosses, and various shrubs. Be aware of the willow thickets in the tundra zone as they can be a major impediment while hiking.
Congress created the park to protect its abundance of large mammals. Today it is common to see grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and foxes throughout the park. Less common but still regularly seen are the park's many wolves. Black bears are also occasionally seen, and the very lucky visitor might glimpse a wolverine.


Weather in Denali is extremely variable, and changes occur without warning. Many rangers tell visitors to expect sun, wind, rain, and clouds and expect them all on the same day. Average summer temperatures range from 33-75°F (1-24°C). It has been known to snow in July, so prepare by wearing layers of clothing that can be removed or added as needed, and carry a waterproof raincoat or jacket.
Winters can be extremely cold with temperatures ranging from -40°F (-40°C) and below to high 20s (-2°C) on warm days. Specialized cold weather gear is necessary for mountaineering and winter visits. For more information on winter visits contact park headquarters at +1 907 683-2294.
The mountain is at least partially shrouded in cloud during most of the summer. If the mountain is "out" be sure to take advantage, as it may only be fully visible for a few days each month.

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Denali, AK: Port Information

Cruise travelers can visit this park on a cruise tour. Several cruise lines offer cruise lovers spend a couple of days in the park as part of Alaska cruise.

Get around Denali, AK

By shuttle bus

Shuttle buses are allowed past Savage River (mile 15) on the park road, as far as Kantishna (the end of the road). Passengers may disembark from the buses at any point west of mile 20, and then re-board any bus on a space-available basis. Anyone disembarking should be aware of the bus schedule, and plan for at least a one hour wait for a bus with seats available to arrive.
A very common question people have about the buses is, "So what's the difference between a shuttle bus and a tour bus." Simply put, most of the people on tour buses are on packaged trips with the local hotels, and they get a dedicated naturalist on their bus that is required to give commentary throughout the tour. Buying tickets for tours can be more difficult because the vast majority of the tickets are reserved when people book their packaged vacations. However, they are not necessarily "better" than a shuttle bus. Two important facts to note are that all the buses drive the same road (duh, there's only one road inside the park!) and that all the buses have similar destinations. By similar destinations, I mean that there's a tour bus to Eilson Visitor Center and there is also a shuttle bus to Eilson Visitor Center. So, if you ask, "Which bus is better for seeing wildlife?" The answer is that they are about the same since they are on the same road going to the same place. Your experience on the shuttle bus happens to vary quite a bit depending on the driver you get. Some of the shuttle bus drivers will talk just as much as a tour bus driver, however, they are not required to. Some of the shuttle bus drivers won't say much of anything unless somebody asks them a question. It's important to note that a pretty large majority of the bus drivers will give some form of commentary as they drive because they want to share their love of the park just as much as all the other employees. 

By foot

There are few trails within the park, but visitors are allowed (and often encouraged) to choose their own paths across the tundra. The less-adventurous may choose to simply amble along the park road after Savage River; keep an eye out for buses and wildlife when traveling on the road. Be aware that Denali hosts a large, robust population of brown bears and that they can be anywhere and sow bears are extremely fierce when they feel their cubs are threatened in any way. Always travel in groups and don't go into the backcountry without someone, preferably the park itself, knowing your plans. No one will come looking for you if they don't know you are lost, and Denali is not a place you want to be lost and alone.

By bike

A mountain bike is a great option for traveling on the park road. Sometimes bikers arrange backcountry permits at the Backcountry Information Center that allow them to spend a few days traveling out to Wonder Lake and back. This can, however, be logistically tricky - you will need to either spend the night in an established campground or be near enough to one that you can stash your bike (and food if you are not carrying a Bear Resistant Food Canister) overnight. The only areas where this is possible are: Wonder Lake; Toklat River (you can't sleep there, but you can use the food lockers at the temporary ranger contact station); Igloo Campground (again, you can't stay there, but you can utilize the food lockers if need be); Teklanika Campground; and Savage Campground.
If planning a trip by bike along the park road be prepared for travel on a dirt road with several major mountain passes and few guard rails.
One fun option is to take a bike out to Wonder Lake on a camper bus. You need to tell the person who you buy the ticket from that you plan to take a bike since only two bikes are allowed per bus. Once you get to Wonder Lake, you bike back out of the park. This trip can be done in approximately 10 hours if you keep a good pace. It is especially enjoyable if you plan this bike trip around the same time as the summer solstice. You can take the last bus going out to Wonder Lake so that you can bike the entire trip back with no buses on the road, all while getting to experience an awe-inspiring bike ride in the land of the midnight sun.

What to see in Denali, AK

The park is enormous, and the vast majority of it is accessible only on foot or (in winter) by dog sled. The first fifteen miles of the park road is open to vehicle travel, and park buses are available to take visitors farther. At a minimum, visitors should try to catch a bus to at least Eilson Visitor Center for the incredible views of the mountain (when it's out). Slightly more adventurous visitors should plan to spend a few nights camping at the Wonder Lake campground. For the serious outdoorsmen, several days backpacking in the backcountry is far and away the best way to enjoy the Denali experience.

  • Denali Visitor Center, Mile 1.5. A visitor center located near the railroad depot, opened in May 2005. The visitor center provides a movie and is the starting point for many interpretative, ranger-led trail walks. For shuttle bus tickets and campground reservations, visit the Wilderness Access Center (Mile 0.6).
  • Savage River, Mile 14. Nearly everyone who drives to Denali will stop at Savage River because traffic beyond this point is not permitted for private vehicles. There are several trails on both sides of the river that leave from the parking lot, and the more adventurous can attempt to seek out Dall sheep on the top of Mount Margaret, which rises across the river, across from the parking lot.
  • Polychrome Pass, Mile 46. Named after the area's multi-colored bluffs, Polychrome Overlook offers spectacular views of the Alaska Range. The Polychrome Shuttle departs only once per day– typically in the early evening (5– 6 PM) providing opportunities for photography in the great evening light, and a great shorter trip into the park if you have limited time and prefer the latest available departure.
  • Eielson Visitor Center, Mile 66. Eielson is most easily reached by shuttle bus and provides one of the most dramatic views of the mountain if you are lucky enough to visit on a day when it isn't shrouded in clouds. There are several short trails around the visitor center, and displays inside of the visitor center provide info on the natural history of the area.
  • Wonder Lake, Mile 86. Forever immortalized by the photos of Ansel Adams, Wonder Lake is a beautiful lake at the base of the mountain. Reflection Pond, along the park road on the east side of the lake, is a favorite of photographers when the mountain is out. An established trail to the heavily braided McKinley River is also worthwhile for a glimpse of the McKinley River.
  • Sled Dog Demonstrations. The park service keeps sled dogs for use in the winter, and during the summer offers daily demonstrations for visitors. Demonstrations are at 10 AM, 2 PM, and 4 PM and last for 30 minutes. There is no parking at the demonstration site; you must take a shuttle from the Denali Visitor Center. Arrive at the visitor center 40 minutes prior to the demonstration start time. Shuttle and program are all free, assuming you have already purchased some kind of entrance pass.

What to do in Denali, AK

The park is an outdoor paradise and offers activities for visitors of all ages and experience levels.

  • Bus tour. Since the park road is closed to private vehicle traffic, bus tours are the easiest way to see the park interior. Note that the National Park Service does not run any of the buses into the park. Instead, look for shuttle buses and tours such as the "Tundra Wilderness Tour" and "Denali Natural History Tour" operated by Doyon/Aramark Joint Ventures and "Denali Backcountry Adventure" operated by Denali Lodges and Alaska Denali Tours. Tours are more expensive are better for groups interested in learning as much about the culture and history of the area as possible. Shuttles are a better option for budget travelers, people wishing to day-hike or backpack, and groups interested in seeing as much of the park as possible (as shuttles all travel as far, or in many cases farther, than the tours). See the Shuttle bus section for more information.
  • Hiking. There are a handful of trails within the park, but the majority of visitors will eventually find themselves picking out their own path. When hiking off trail it is best if groups spread out and avoid hiking single-file in order to minimize damage to the vegetation from being repeatedly trodden upon.
  • Backpacking. It is not only possible but likely that a backpacker can travel for days without seeing another human. Permits are required for all overnight stays and can be acquired at the Backcountry Information Center, adjacent to the Wilderness Access Center (mile 0.6). Strict limits are placed on how many people may camp in any park unit at a given time, so permits for popular areas and units cannot be reserved in advance, so it is good to keep in mind several possible areas to explore.
  • Photography. Just about every famous nature photographer will at some point make a visit to Denali for its tremendous landscapes and abundance of wildlife. Amateurs will appreciate the opportunity as well.
  • Mountaineering. Denali itself is one of the most challenging climbs in the world, but climbers from all over are drawn to it, as well as to the other peaks of the Alaska Range. Fortunately, Denali has one route, the West Buttress, which is accessible by fit, moderately experienced climbers. A select few guide services are permitted to lead expeditions up Denali and Foraker. Climbers on Denali and Mt. Foraker must register with the park service. Registration for private climbers must be done at least sixty days prior to climbing. Contact the Talkeetna Ranger Station by email or at +1 907 733-2231 for additional information.
  • Whitewater rafting. Whitewater rafting is available on the near-freezing waters of the Nenana River, which parallels the Parks Highway. Two different two-hour trips are available or they can be combined into a four-hour trip. Contact Nenana Raft Adventures, Denali Raft Adventures or the Denali Outdoor Center for information.
  • Denali Wilderness Safaris, Box 181 Cantwell Alaska 99729, ☎ +1 907 768-2550. Heated, enclosed, USCG-inspected twin engine Jet boats.

What to eat and drink in Denali, AK


There are several bars and restaurants clustered outside of the park entrance in the Canyon, 1 mile north of the park entrance. Within the park, the Riley Creek Mercantile (mile 0.3) offers small food items and supplies. The Morino Grill, located 1.5 miles from the park entrance, is open during the summer and offers prepared meals.


  • Black Bear Coffee House & Cyber Cafe, Mile 238.5 Parks Hwy, ☎ +1 907 683-1656, e-mail: Located just north of the park entrance, this cyber cafe serves coffee, snacks, small meals (sandwiches, etc.) and also has beer and wine available for purchase. 6 AM-10:30 PM daily.
  • Denali Salmon Bake, Mile 238.5 Parks Hwy, ☎ +1 907 683-2733. Restaurant by day, locals bar with live music by night. Hands down one of the most "hopping" bars in Denali. Given Alaska's' "best small business of 2007" by Alaska chamber of commerce, this destination is sure not to disappoint. They also offer lodging. Open 6 AM to 4 AM and providing an always free shuttle to and from the restaurant.

Shopping in Denali, AK

Meals, gas, camping supplies, and a ridiculous variety of souvenirs can be purchased just outside of the park entrance on the Parks Highway, in an area called "the Canyon," located about one mile north of the park entrance. Within the park, the Riley Creek Mercantile (mile 0.3) sells basic supplies, including such things as white gas for cook stoves, bug repellent, and other necessities. Please be a courteous visitor and do not take park signage, including the "bear danger" signs you may see around. Removing them could endanger another traveler's life. Replica signs may be purchased in the park gift shop for just a few dollars.

Safety in Denali, AK

Be prepared for massive hordes of blood-thirsty, man-eating, baby-snatching insects that will do their best to drive you from the park. Depending on winds and the time of year you may be lucky enough to avoid the bugs, but when they are out, the mosquitoes and black flies will do their utmost to test your sanity. Bug repellent is not sufficient; even if they don't land and bite, they will still buzz into your ears and eyes. Buy a mosquito-netting headcovering, and wear clothing that is capable of covering every millimeter of exposed skin.

The most advertised danger within the park are the bears. Grizzly bears are large, unpredictable, and can be dangerous, especially if they are with young. However, the same can be said of moose, caribou, wolves, and several other park animals. Keep a safe distance from all animals, make some noise while hiking to allow animals to identify you and avoid surprise encounters, and properly store all food, toiletries, and garbage to avoid attracting wildlife.

There are few trails within the park, so be aware of where you are when hiking. The tundra is fairly open, so in general, it is not easy to get lost. If you have to ford a stream be very careful, as the water will be very cold and the currents are almost always stronger than they look. If you are pulled under there is a great danger of spraining or breaking bones, and hypothermia can set in if you can't quickly get out of wet clothes and into dry ones. Be aware also that streams and rivers are frequented by thirsty wildlife and if there are rapids the chance of surprising them is heightened. You don't want to surprise a bear, a pack of wolves, or a moose so make noise as you approach any noisy streams or rivers.

Should problems be encountered, there is a small medical center located in the "Canyon," about 1 mile north of the Park Entrance. Another small center is 13 miles (21 km) north of the park entrance in Healy. Fairbanks, located 120 miles (193 km) north of the park entrance, is the nearest large hospital facility. Rangers can respond to emergency situations and can be contacted using the 911 emergency service.

Language spoken in Denali, AK

English is the official language. 


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