At 20,310 feet, Denali dominates the already colossal landscape of the Alaska Range, rising above the horizon of Alaska’s two largest cities, Fairbanks and Anchorage. Seeing Denali remains at the top of travelers’ bucket lists.
The Athabascan Indians called it Denali, “the High One.” It was named Mount McKinley in 1896, by a prospector named William A. Dickey, for presidential nominee William McKinley of Ohio, although McKinley had no connection with Alaska. With passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, the park’s status and name was changed to Denali, although the U.S. Board of Geographic Names continued to show the mountain as McKinley, while the Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the mountain’s name back to Denali. The name was changed back to Denali at the federal level in 2015.
One of the most popular activities is exploring Denali by bus along the 92-mile Denali Park Road. Take in the extraordinary landscape and the opportunity to see Denali (weather permitting)! Tour bus drivers narrate and pause for views of wildlife and scenery. Less expensive, non-narrated shuttle buses, called Visitor Transportation Shuttles (VTS), provide more flexibility to explore the park at your leisure. These buses also stop for wildlife and scenery viewing/picture taking. Lucky visitors will see grizzly and black bears, wolves, caribou, moose and Dall sheep. Buses depart the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) every half hour between 6 am and 10 pm in the summer. You can make campsite and bus reservations at the WAC.
A must-see in Denali Park is the sled dog demonstrations. The sled dogs of Denali are an important part of the park as they are the only sled dogs in the U.S. that help to protect a national park. Park rangers give dog sled demonstrations at the Park Kennels three times a day during peak season. Visitors can photograph and pet the sled dogs before the formal demonstration.
We highly recommend you take advantage of the informative park ranger programs. Park rangers are available for hikes, talks and rides on certain bus tours. A schedule of ranger-led events is available at the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) and at the main Visitor Center Campus, where there is also a cafeteria (the Morino Grill), and bookstore. The Alaska Railroad depot is a very short walk from this complex. Or attend an educational program at the Murie Science and Learning Center, located by the traffic circle access to the Visitor Center Campus. Programs at the Science Center include field seminars, teacher training and youth camps. (This doubles as the winter visitor center when other services in the park close for the season.)
When planning a visit to Denali National Park, make time for one of the flightseeing tours by plane or helicopter that offer a view of Denali and the Alaska Range that is impossible to get from the ground. Many flight tour operators offer optional glacier landings on ski planes. Check out Talkeetna Air Taxi and K-2 Aviation and in Talkeetna; Denali Air, with air tours departing from their private airstrip just south of the park entrance; and Rust’s Flying Service in Anchorage.
Scenic and whitewater river trips are a very popular activity here. Denali rafting companies offer daily departures for Nenana Gorge whitewater trips, Upper Nenana River scenic floats and trips that combine both scenic and whitewater. Multi-day overnight raft trips are also available. Rafts are paddle or oar. Operators provide drysuits for whitewater, free transportation from local hotels, and safety briefings by experienced guides. Kayak trips using inflatable kayaks are also available. Both rafting and kayaking are very affordable ways to enjoy the wilderness, with or without the thrill of whitewater. Nenana Raft Adventures offers trips ranging from two hours to two weeks.
Consider seeing Denali from the treetops on a zipline tour! These cable-ride attractions have become increasingly popular in Alaska. Denali Zipline Tours offers spectacular views of Denali and the Alaska Range. An ATV tour through Denali Park offers thrills from the ground as you bounce across dirt tracks and experience the park’s wilderness from a single or multi-rider ATV. Two and 4 hour tours are available from Denali ATV Adventures.
Staying in Denali? There are many hotels to choose on the Parks Highway from south of the park entrance north to the cluster of businesses at the head of Nenana Canyon. Try Denali Grizzly Bear, Cabins at Denali, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, Denali Rainbow Village Motel or McKinley Chalet Resort.
Camping in and outside the park is also an option. There are 6 national park campgrounds along the 92-mile Park Road; 3 are tents only, 3 are tents and RVs (although there are no hookups). Make reservations online or checking in at the Riley Creek Mercantile campground desk or at the Wilderness Access Center (WAC). The park campground nearest to all visitor services is Riley Creek (Mile 0.3 on the Park Road), while the park campground farthest away is Wonder Lake (Mile 84.4 on the Park Road). Reservations are recommended for park campsites (www.reservedenali.com). Outside the park, camping is available at Denali Rainbow Village RV Park & Motel at Mile 238.7 Parks Highway; Denali Grizzly Bear at Mile 231 Parks Highway; Tatlanika Trading Co. & River RV Park at Mile 276 Parks Highway; and Cantwell RV Park at Mile 210 Parks Highway in Cantwell.
Visitors can access Denali National Park and Preserve by vehicle and by the Alaska Railroad. The park entrance is 237 miles north of Anchorage and 125 miles south of Fairbanks via the Parks Highway. Typical summer weather in the park is cool, wet and windy. Visitors should pack clothes for temperatures that range from 40-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Rain gear, a light coat and bug spray are essential.
The park entrance fee is $15 fee per person and additional fees are charged for the shuttle bus, tour buses and campgrounds (there is also a reservation fee). Free attractions in the park include the Sled Dog Demonstrations, guided ranger hikes and the Denali Visitor Center/Karstens Theatre. Season openings for park services and the park road are found at www.nps.gov/dena and at www.reservedenali.com.
The park, which celebrated its centennial in 2017, owes its status to naturalist Charles Sheldon, who was fascinated by the Dall sheep that he saw here. He recognized the need to protect the sheep and lobbied Congress to establish the park to protect the sheep, after observing that commercial hunters were decimating the population. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill creating the park on Feb. 26, 1917. Today, the park is home to 39 species of mammal including caribou, grizzly bear, moose, wolves and many others.