A vast wilderness of coniferous forests and tundra dotted with blue glacial pools and endless snow fields, Denali National Park and Preserve is best known as the home to Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. The park is named after this mountain which Alaska’s Native American’s named Denali, meaning ‘the high one’. Whilst Everest may carry the mantel as the world’s highest mountain, Mt McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is in fact the tallest mountain in the world as its starts to rise just above sea level.
Climbers from all over the world come to scale the rugged Alaska Range and dramatic Mt. McKinley offers the greatest challenge. But these mountains have not always been so accessible. It’s really thanks to the naturalist, Charles Sheldon who spent nine years lobbying for legislation to create Alaska’s first National Park. Eventually in 1917, his dream was realised when Mount McKinley became Alaska’s first national park, changing its name to Denali as recently as 1980. It was fundamentally set up as a game refuge to protect the abundance of wildlife from increasing exploitation by hunters from Fairbanks and the Alaska Railroad construction camps. Today, more than a thousand adventurers climb the mountain's slopes each summer. But don’t panic, you won’t be required to bring your climbing gear with you. Although the mountain is the biggest attraction, you actually don't even need to see it, let alone climb it, to appreciate the park; in fact, few people who visit get any closer than within 35 miles to the mountain's slopes.
Heralded as Alaska’s most visited attraction, Denali gives you real access to incomparable wilderness - 6 million acres of it in fact, and to put the sheer scale of it into perspective, this is considerably more land mass than there is in the entirety of Wales. There’s just one park entrance which lies 237 miles north of Anchorage, 120 miles south of Fairbanks, and is approached by the George Parks Highway or the Alaska Railroad. Once inside the park, there’s just one solitary road though Denali - the 92-mile unpaved Park Rd. It is closed to private vehicles after Mile 14 which means that past this point, the only way to travel is by the park’s shuttle system or by tour bus.
Whilst other wilderness areas may be its equal when it comes to inspiring scenery and variety of wildlife; what makes Denali so special is its accessibility, visibility and diversity. Despite the half million visitors who make it to the park each year, Denali remains largely unspoiled and retains a real sense of solitude and mystery. You’ll find that a trip through the park will almost certainly be rewarded with sightings of grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose and perhaps – if you’re lucky – even a wolf.
Things to do
Top tips for visiting Denali National Park
1. Driving yourself
• From late May to early September, private vehicles may drive for the first fourteen miles to a place called Savage River. The road to Savage River is paved and features a number of pull-outs to admire the views and take photos. Mount McKinley can be seen from Mile 9 depending on the weather.
• A variety of wildlife can sometimes be seen on this stretch of road although chances to see wildlife increase greatly with a bus trip farther down the Park Road.
• After Mile 14 the road turns to gravel and traffic is primarily restricted to buses, which cuts down on traffic congestion and protects the natural resources of the park. If you are not taking one of our tours then you will need to take the park’s shuttle bus.
2. Park shuttle buses
• Shuttle buses are not only good value but are very flexible - you can hop on and hop off as you please, anywhere along the road. They stop for wildlife sightings, comfort stops and to take in the amazing scenery. However do note that they do not come with a commentary.
• In addition courtesy buses operate near the park entrance, connecting visitor centres and points of interest in the same area where visitors may drive their own vehicles.
3. Entrance fees
• Park entrance fees are currently US$10 per person, which are good for 7 days. There is no entrance station to collect the fee, but it is automatically added to your bill when you make shuttle reservations.
• Remember: the only road through the park is closed to private vehicles after the 14-mile marker so if you are not on a tour, then you will need to use the park’s shuttle service.
4. Grizzly spotting
• Sable Pass is prime grizzly country and one of the best places to spot these giants. In fact there are so many bears in this area that the Park Service has prohibited all off-road hiking here but do have your cameras to hand and start snapping away from the comfort and safety of your vehicle.
• It’s estimated that there are between 200 and 300 bears in total within Denali National Park.
5. Polychrome cliffs
• Make sure you have your cameras ready when you climb Polychrome Pass to the summit at Mile 45, where you will stop at the rest area.
• You will be treated to a fantastic view of the brightly coloured Polychrome cliffs which are volcanic rocks formed around 50 million years ago.
• The spectacular view to the south includes part of the Alaska Range, as well as a vast area of tundra.
6. Viewing Mt. McKinley
• As your bus approaches Stony Hill Overlook at Mile 61, prepare yourself for a spectacular view of Mt. McKinley. From the overlook, it is 37 miles to the summit although on a clear day, the mountain does appear to be very much closer.
• After a stop at Stony Hill, the bus will continue 4 miles to the recently remodelled Eielson Visitor Centre. Park rangers here can answer your questions and suggest good hiking routes in the area.
7. Outside the National Park
• Head south of the national park to visit Denali State Park to get some fantastic panoramic views of Mt McKinley and the Alaska Range.
8. Salmon spawning
• Take the Denali Highway east from Cantwell, at the edge of Denali National Park, to Paxson. Just south lies the Gulkana River where you will be able to see the incredible sight of spawning salmon from mid to late summer.
• The region also offers some excellent trout fishing opportunities.