Although it would mean riding in a car for around 4 1/2 hours right after running a half marathon in Anchorage (Skinny Raven Half Marathon), I knew I couldn’t go to Alaska and not go to Denali National Park. Sure, I could have added another day to Anchorage and left the day after the race, but we only had so much time to spend in Alaska and I preferred to spend that time in Denali instead since we had already spent three nights in Anchorage.
Denali National Park is a whopping 6 million acres, most of it natural and untouched by humans. Don’t expect to see even a quarter of the park when you go. There is one road that goes through the park and you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15 (the park entrance is the beginning of the mile markers, so Mile Post 15 or MP15 is as far as you can drive yourself into the park).
When you go to Denali National Park, you have some options as to how to spend your time in the park. You can camp in either a tent or RV, and there are six campgrounds, from mile 0.25 (Riley Campground, the only campground open year-round) to mile 85. If you stay at a campground beyond mile 14, you will need to take a camper bus to get there, with the exception of Teklanika River Campground at mile 29, which allows RV’s as well as tents. You can find information on camping at Denali here.
Since you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15, if you want to do some hiking beyond that in the park, you have to take a transit bus. Transit buses run from the Wilderness Access Center with the first stop at mile 53, Toklat River, which takes about 3 hours, 15 minutes each way or you can go as far as mile 92 to Kantishna (it will take 6 hours in and 6 hours out from here). We decided to go a bit more in the middle to mile 66 to Eielson Visitor Center, which takes 4 hours in and 4 hours out. More information on transit buses can be found here. In short, transit buses give you the flexibility to get on and off pretty much anywhere you want. There are bathroom breaks and our transit bus driver gave us some great narrative along the way and stopped for animal sightings any time someone from the bus saw something. Don’t believe what the website says about transit buses not being narrated, because ours were (both in and out, although the first driver was much more talkative than the second) and we were told most transit drivers do narrate along the way.
Although we wanted to do some hiking in the backcountry, we knew with such a long bus ride back (4 hours) we should keep it fairly short. At Eielson Visitor Center, there are two options for hiking, the Alpine Trail and the Tundra Loop Trail. Our transit bus driver told us we should only go on the Alpine Trail if we had bear spray but we should be fine without bear spray on the Tundra Loop Trail (but to still be aware of bears since they’re always a possibility in the park), so guess which trail we chose- yes, the Tundra Loop it was! The Tundra Loop Trail is around a third of a mile through alpine country. A spur trail adds an additional quarter of a mile, one-way, off the Tundra Loop. After hiking that, we waited at the visitor center for another bus and made our way back to the park entrance.
Your third option for spending time in the park if you want to go beyond mile 15 is to take a bus tour where you stay on the bus the entire time other than to take bathroom breaks and short stops. There are three bus tours, the Denali Natural History Tour (4.5 to 5 hours round-trip), the Tundra Wilderness Tour (7-8 hours round-trip), and the Kantishna Experience (11-12 hours round-trip). Some walking is involved on bus tours, but you don’t have the option to hike on your own.
The final option for spending time in Denali National Park is to explore the first 15 miles of the park on your own. There aren’t many trails in the park considering how large it is, but many of the trails are near the front part of the park, rather than the backcountry part, which is left natural. On our second day at Denali, we hiked the Horseshoe Lake Trail, Taiga Trail, Spruce Forest Trail, Morino Trail, and Rock Creek Trail. Information about all of these trails and more can be found here. We found a perfect balance to all of this hiking by sandwiching our hiking with a stop at the sled dog kennel and watching a demonstration after doing a few trails, then doing a few more trails after going to the sled dog kennels.
A note about the sled dog kennels. Denali National Park is the only national park in the US that has sled dogs. The sled dogs originally patrolled the park for poachers but continued the tradition once the rangers found the sled dogs were more reliable than snowmobiles. The kennels are open to visitors year-round. After a brief talk about the dogs and the history of the sled dogs by a ranger, we got to see the dogs in action as they pulled the ranger around on the cart used during the summer, then we took our own self-guided tour around the facilities. It’s obvious these dogs are true working dogs and they love what they do; they got so excited when they knew they were going to get to run. We were there for about an hour to hour and a half total.
We spent three nights in Denali, with 2 full days at the park, and found that to be a perfect amount for us. The transit bus turned out to be my favorite part of our entire time in Alaska. We got to see many brown bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots in the park. The bear sightings were all from the safety of the bus, so my fears of coming upon a bear while hiking were unfounded.
Have any of you been to Denali National Park? What did you do there? Would you like to go if you haven’t been?