Denali can provide a unique and memorable experience for all types of adventurers.
Consisting of 6 million acres, Denali National Park is huge and the only way to access this wilderness is through one entrace and one very long dead end road. Denali is located in the heart of Alaska, 237 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks. Despite the abundance of large wildlife and raw nature, in many ways Denali feels a lot like most National Parks and you have to remind yourself that you are actually standing in the Last Frontier.
There are a lot of great parts to Denali such as an abundance of space, large mammals, the boreal forest, which most of us don’t see everyday, and very few rules on how to explore its backcountry.
It also has a lot of negatives like not many trails, being far from any real city, and unpredictable, harsh weather.
While there are exceptions to this, it felt like there were only two ways to explore Denali: tour bus style or backcountry explorer. Hopefully the knowledge I provide in this blog can help you find a balance between the two and make your trip to Denali a very memorable one.
Overview of Denali
Let’s start with orienting yourself with Denali National Park. When you turn onto Parks Road, that starts mile marker 0. Parks road is 92 miles long and ends at Wonder Lake. Private vehicles (that’s you) can’t drive past mile 15. If you want to see the heart and soul of Denali NP and Denali mountain itself, you’ll have to pay for the shuttle (more on that below).
Since you don’t really need a car when you get to Denali, it may be worth looking into getting to Denali via bus or train.
The park entrance fee is $10 per person and good for seven days or you can purchase a Denali Annual Pass. Interagency Federal Recreation Pass, like Annual, Senior, and Access Passes also work.
Denali NP stays open year round up to the Parks Headquarters at mile 3.4– including Riley Creek Campground, which is free from mid-September to mid-May– but access to the backcountry can only be done through snowshoes, skis, or dog sled.
Keep in mind, when planning your visit, that most of the other campgrounds as well as the shuttle system doesn’t begin until mid-May and ends in mid-September . Dates may vary slightly so check the website before you book anything.
Pets on leash are allowed on roadways and in some campgrounds but not on trails, busses, or backcountry.
Cycling is allowed on park roads and some busses have bike racks, allowing you to have an epic adventure riding through Denali one way and shuttling the other (this one’s going on my bucket list).
For details on hunting, fishing, mountaineering, backcountry permits, or carrying weapons, check the NPS website.
Denali Visitor Centers
There are two visitor centers in Denali…
Denali Visitor Center
The first, Denali Visitor Center Campus, is located at mile 1.5. It’s a great place to start when you get to Denali. You can get up to date info on weather and area closures, ask the rangers questions, get hiking maps, watch the award winning short film Heartbeats of Denali (I loved it!), and explore the very educational exhibits on the boreal forest and wildlife in Denali. There is also a bookstore, a restaurant, and a Science and Learning Center at the Visitor Center Campus. Plus, many hikes start from here (see below).
If you have kids you’ll want to get their junior ranger books here plus the Denali Visitor Center offers free educational backpacks for families to checkout (one per family). It was unbelievable how many cool things were inside this… plaster to make an animal footprint mold, ph strips to test the river acidity level, a magnifying glass, and binoculars that came in very handy on the bus ride.
Eilson Visitor Center
The second visitor center, Eielson, is at mile 66 and can only be reached by shuttle bus. You will want to go there if you are hoping to get a good view of Denali Mountain. Eielson has a short film on mountaineering Denali Mountain that was incredible to watch. I highly recommend it! There are also a few hikes from here that you’ll want to do not only for the views, but to stretch your legs from the long bus ride.
Just before the Denali Visitor Center Campus is Riley Creeek Campground and The Mercantile. The Mercantile is where you go to check in for all campground reservations or to get a campsite. It’s also where you’ll find the RV dump, coin operated laundry, fee showers, WiFi, and a small store that sells a surprisingly nice diversity of alcohol, food, and merchandise. It also has a nice coffee shop.
Wildlife in Denali
If you go to any Ranger Program you’ll hear them talk about the Big 5: Bears, Moose, Dall Sheep, Caribou, and Wolves. Rangers will remind you often the importance of never running from bears or wolves, but if a moose charges, you absolutely should run, and run in a zig zag behind trees.
While these are important safety reminders, your odds of having to do either is very slim. Moose walk through the campgrounds but as long as you keep your distance, two bus lengths away, you’ll be fine. It’s the people who don’t use common sense and try to take selfies with wildlife that end up hurt.
Buses in Denali NP
Denali National Park tries to preserve this wilderness by restricting car access to much of the park. The good thing with this is that you have a better chance of seeing wildlife here than the rest of Alaska, but in order to access the wild you need to pay to ride the park bus.
There’s no guarantee that you will see all of the big 5 on the bus ride. I rode the bus 3 days in a row and never saw a bear or a wolf. We saw plenty of the other: sheep, caribou, and even a few gray foxes, which aren’t all gray btw, and many moose in our campground, but no bears nor lynx.
Free Shuttle Bus
First, there are free shuttle buses between the entrance and Savage River, but the ones to take you out to Eielson Visitor Center, where you’ll hopefully catch a glimpse of Mount Denali and some of the big 5, are the green and tan buses.
Green Transit Bus
The green bus is the transit bus. It’s similar to what all the free shuttles are like in all the national parks with the driver giving a few bits and pieces of information about the area along the drive, but overall they are designed to be more flexible and affordable. You can choose how far out into Denali you want to ride the bus and the fare goes up a bit the further you go. Once on the bus, you may disembark / re-board anywhere along the road.
I highly recommend riding it to Eielson Visitor Center. Riding only to Tolkat means you won’t get a chance to see Mount Denali. I didn’t go past Eielson so I can’t say if you are missing out, but the 8 hours round trip to Eielson was a really long day already and once you pass Eielson the terrain becomes much flatter.
If you do choose to go all the way to Wonder Lake or Kantishna, then get the earliest bus you can so that you still have time to hike at Eilson. The Eilson Alpine Hike will take you about 2 hours and it’s so worth the views.
|Stop:||Mile:||Time (round trip)||Adult Fare:|
|Toklat||Mile 53||6.5 hours||$31.25|
|Eielson VC||Mile 66||8 hours||$40.00|
|Wonder Lake||Mile 85||11 hours||$55.00|
|Kantishna||Mile 92||12 hours||$60.00|
Children 15 and under ride for free, but they need a ticket reserved. Also, the price for the bus does not include the park entry fee.
If you are tent camping at Igloo, Sanctuary, or Wonder Lake Campgrounds or backpacking, you’ll need to ride the Camper Bus to any of the 4 campgrounds. Tickets are $42.75 for anyone 16 and older (15 and younger are free). Reserve here.
Tan Tour Bus
The tan buses are the tour buses and they cost quite a bit more. These buses provide a detailed and captivating program to accompany your journey along the Denali Park Road, as well as a snack or full lunch depending on which of the three tours you choose.
If you know you aren’t going to want to hike and you want the maximum information of Denali, you’ll probably want to pay extra for one of these tour buses. Click here for a detailed description of each tour.
|Denali Natural History||30||4.5 hrs||$85||$42|
|Toklat Shoulder Season||52||6-7 hrs||$116||$58|
|Tundra Wilderness Tour||63||7-8 hrs||$145||$75|
|Kantishna Experience||92||12 hrs||$225||$111|
Tips for the Bus Ride
Regardless of which bus you choose, you need to be prepared for a long day of driving. Besides the designated destinations, the bus will stop every 30-45 minutes for you to stretch your legs, take pictures, and use the restroom. They don’t want you to eat at these stops though because it will attract wildlife. Eat while you are on the bus.
Do you have a fear of heights? Don’t sit on the driver side of the bus on the way out then! However, if heights don’t bother you, that side had better views in my opinion.
Bring binoculars. A lot of the wildlife you see is from a large distance and binoculars will help so much.
Bring a small amount of cash. One of the stops is Tolkat which has a nice bookstore/souvenir shop.
Download offline maps. If you have an interest in hiking later then I recommend using your offline maps to drop pin to possible drop off or pick up locations on your initial bus ride out (westbound) that way you can get an idea of what you want explore then on the way back you can ask them to drop you off at a certain spot. Click here to learn how to use google maps as a GPS while hiking.
Entertainment for kids. We brought a ton of entertainment for the kids but didn’t need much. For the most part they were so engrossed with trying to spot wildlife that they were totally entertained. I think having one small backup is nice but snacks should be enough.
Car Seats are required on the bus for kids under 8 years old and less than 57″ tall OR less than 65 pounds. More info on that here.
Make sure your bear spray is in your backpack. Bus drivers are very nervous about bear spray accidentally going off in the bus. They prefer it to be in a ziplock bag inside your pack.
For time planning, it takes 4 hours from the start of the bus ride at the Denali Visitor Center Campus to get to Eielson (3 hours from Teklanika). When you get to Eielson, you’ll want to get off your bus and hike. The Alpine Trail will take 2 hours to hike and you’ll need a half hour at least at the visitor center to watch the movie on climbing Denali and look at the exhibits. When you get there, hike first thing then when you finish put your name on the wait list for the next bus, which will take at least a half hour and you can use that time in the visitor center.
Also, there is water at Eielson Visitor Center but no food.
Camping in Denali NP
One of our family’s favorite things to do is to camp inside a national park. When I was first planning our trip to Denali I was excited to reserve a campground inside the park but I wasn’t sure which one was the best one to camp at. I did a lot of research to try and guess which would be the best one for our family and in the end we chose to camp three nights in Teklanika and one night at Riley Creek.
None of the Denali NP campgrounds have RV hook ups, but there is a free sani-dump station near the entrance. Paid showers and coin operated laundry are available at the Mercantile. There is a 14-day stay limit during the summer.
|Campground||# of Sites||Fee||Type||Toilet|
|Riley Creek||147||$15-46||RV + tent||flush|
|Savage River||33||$24-46||RV + tent||flush|
|Teklanika River||53||$25||RV + tent||vault|
|Sanctuary River||7||$15||tent only||vault|
|Wonder Lake||28||$16||tent only||flush|
Here’s a break down of the campgrounds at Denali and everything I wish I had known before I booked our campground:
After spending a week in Denali, this is the campground I’d most often recommend. Even though I like getting off-the-beaten-path, the beauty of this campground, the hiking trails surrounding it, the abundance of wildlife, and the number of amenities at The Mercantile makes this a perfect camping experience.
Riley campground is in a wooded forest. There are two types of sites, both of which have a picnic table, fire pit, and tent slab. Site B’s fit RVs up to 30 feet while site A’s are for RVs up to 40 feet. Some of the B sites are quite small so if it’s a crowded time of year, I’d pay a little more if your RV is close to 30 feet so that you have more options. The restrooms in Riley are flush toilets with sinks making it a bit easier to camp, especially with kids.
There’s a free shuttle that picks up right in front of the campground and can take you to the Visitor Center Campus or all the way to Savage River area. Adjacent to Riley creek campground is The Mercantile.
If you want to skip the shuttle and go to the visitor center, it’s a pleasant 1 mile hike through the forest to get there.
Best of all (at least for a digital nomad) was that I actually had cell service at Riley Creek, which I usually don’t have in most national parks in the lower 48.
Riley Creek also had Ranger Programs nightly at 7:30 p.m. which was huge because our whole family usually loves going to these.
I was drawn to Teklanika because it felt like the VIP campground. Since visitors to Denali can only drive as far as Savage River, mile 15, it’s a big deal to camp at Teklanika because it allows you to drive your own vehicle out to the campground which is at mile 29.
Plus, if you camp here and pay for a bus ticket, which you should, then you get unlimited access to the buses. When you call to reserve your campsite, you will also reserve your bus ticket. You need to reserve a specific day and time on the bus. Most people reserve the day after their first night at Teklanika. It’s nice to ride the bus from here too because it cuts off an hour of the bus ride each way. For me, that was a huge because the bus ride is a bit long. The real bonus is that any other time you want to ride the bus between Teklanika to the end of the road or anywhere in between, you can ride standby for free.
The only negative to this is that you can only drive the road once to get out to the campground and once to get back to the entrance. Also, you can’t drive past your campground. It’s really not much of a negative as long as you remember to:
- Stock up on enough food for 3 days
- Fill propane if you want to cook
- Empty your holding tanks ahead of time at The Mercantile
- Fill water in your RV just in case the water isn’t running at the campground, but typically the faucets work
Note: It said there was no water at this campground but there was when we were there at the beginning of June. It’s still a good idea to have backup water just in case. Also, the maximum length of an individual RV or camper-trailer is 40 feet.
Teklanika also has a nightly ranger program at 7:30 p.m..
If you love the idea of being more in the wilderness or you really want to off-trail hike, then this campground is great. I didn’t love off-trail hiking and we did get a lot of rain while we were there, but if we hadn’t camped here I think I wouldn’t feel like I got the full Denali experience. That being said, there’s not a lot to do in Denali besides riding the bus and hoping you get to see wildlife and the elusive Mount McKinley.
In the end, I felt like it was one of those things you need to check off the bucket list, but not one of those most thrilling bang-for-your-buck experiences. Still, you should do it and 3 days was just enough time.
Savage River Campground
Savage River campground is at mile 13. This is a good in between option and also fits RV’s up to 40 feet. You can come and go as you like, it’s close to a few trailheads, it also has nightly Ranger programs at 7:30 p.m., and I’m sure wildlife still wanders through the campsites.
Igloo, Sanctuary, and Wonder Lake- Tent Only Campgrounds
All three of these campgrounds are tent only and past mile marker 15, which gives you unlimited access to the transit buses. These are great options if you are tent camping and want to do some backcountry hikes. All three have food lockers and vault toilets, except Wonder Lake which has flush toilets.
Sanctuary is a very small campground and seemed like it was good if you were hoping for spotting wildlife.
Igloo is right at the base of some great mountains that you can summit.
Wonder Lake is way out there at mile 85 and as off-grid as you can get in Denali without backpacking into the wilderness. This campground has great views of the Alaska Range. If I was tent camping, I would probably choose this campground to get the full Denali experience.
I’ve heard that the mosquitos can get pretty bad here though so bring plenty of repellant and citronella candles.
- Holding tank empty and water filled
- Check your propane level that you have enough for 3 days
- Firewood and hatchet
- Food meals and snacks list
- Generator and extra gas
- Maybe bring an outdoor cooktop so you can enjoy the scenery while cooking
- Having a tarp in case it rains is nice too
- Don’t forget rain gear after all, the show must go on even if the weather doesn’t cooperate
How to Reserve a Campsite
You can reserve online here or call 1-800-622-7275.
Hiking in Denali NP
There are easy to strenuous trails that start by the Denali Visitor Center Campus and by the Savage River, which you can drive to or hop on the free shuttle from the Denali Visitor Center to get to. There are also a few trails from Eilson Visitor Center.
If you feel a little adventurous, hiking in Denali can be an experience like no other you’ve even done. With the exception of the area right by the two Visitor Centers and Savage River, everywhere else is free game with no trails to guide your way. It’s a pretty freeing and yet, a very confusing system.
While I didn’t really have a fear of getting lost or hurt by wildlife, I was so overwhelmed with choices. I just wanted a list of the best hikes and a ranking system to help me decide. But try as I did, and I asked a lot of people, I couldn’t get a definitive “You absolutely have to do blank hike. It’s the best!”
Which means lots of hikes are amazing and it’s not so much about the destination but more about the journey.
The only exception to being able to hike anywhere is places with wildlife closures. The rangers can tell you where those are, there’s a map of it at the Visitor Centers, there are also signs posted along the area, and the bus drivers know where these spots are and will only drop you a half mile away from them.
The rule at Denali is DON’T CREATE TRAILS
They want you to hike side by side since the boreal forest has such a short growing season that it takes a long time grow back. If there’s a group of you, spread out to minimize the damage to vegetation.
When you’re done hiking, you just head back to the road and flag down a green bus (the tan/white busses won’t pick you up).
Tips for Hiking in Denali
Make sure to download or just take a picture of the bus schedule. Even though it’s not exactly accurate, it will give you an idea if a bus will be coming along within a half or full hour. They say it’s rare that you may need to wait up to an hour for a bus, but somehow every time we walked the road, it took the entire hour for a green bus to come by :/
There are many mountains you can summit and plenty of glaciers to walk to, which makes it sound like there are specific hikes to do, but that’s not the case. For example, if someone says to hike Cathedral Mountain, it literally means you blaze your own trail up to the top. Hike to Polycrome Glaciers and you are literally hiking the drainage, which means the parts of the river bed that aren’t currently under water.
If you want to off-trail hike, or even if you just want to walk the road, which can be pretty cool if you ask me, the bus driver can drop you off anywhere you like. Just remember that if you go off-trail hiking, especially up mountains, it often includes:
- Bushwhacking– ducking under tree branches and pushing branches out of your way
- Muskag– walking through sphagnum and moss covered bogs that may be ankle deep
- Shale– slabs of sedimentary rock
- Scree– small loose stones on mountain slopes that slide out from under your feet
Climbing up a trail-less mountain will take a lot longer than a hike up a trail takes you and the tall plants make it hard to see wildlife. Talking loudly is the best way to prevent a wildlife encounter.
If you do go up to a peak, the fastest way is usually up and down a drainage area. Keep in mind though that these drainage areas tend to be filled with a lot of small rocks or shale and they slide out under your feet so you’ll want to have steady legs and maybe hiking poles. When we hiked Igloo Mountain (photos shown below) we literally had to crab walk down some of the scree it was so steep.
Accessing some of the mountain bases require river crossings.
- Make sure to cross in places where the river bar is wide and braided
- Unclip the straps of your pack so that in case you fall your pack doesn’t cause you to drown
- Forecast an “out” in case you do fall and get dragged downstream.
Before arriving in Denali, I had four hikes in mind: Cathedral, Igloo, Divide Mountains and Polychrome Glaciers. But as I rode the bus I started rethinking my plan.
I was glad that we just rode the bus the first day all the way to Eilson so I could get my bearings and scout out future hikes.
One day we chose the easier off-trail option and just hiked the river bed from one end of Sable Pass to the other, I guess it was the Polychrome River Bar. At first I thought it was going to be a lame hike but I was pleasantly surprised.
Even though you get the same views from the bus, being alone in the vastness of Denali and taking in the silence, the colors of the rocks, the curves in the river, the changes in light bouncing of the glaciers in the distance, and the wildlife made it a very rich experience.
That’s saying something because we had to walk an additional one hour in rain and lightning before a green bus drove by to pick us up!
My favorite hike ended up being the well worn trail, Eilson Alpine Trail (shown above). It’s a popular hike from the Eilson Visitor Center and if the weather is good, the views of Mt McKinley from here are the best.
I also really enjoyed the popular hike from the Denali Visitor Center Campus to Mount Healy Overlook.
If you want to off-trail hike but feel a bit intimidated, sign up for a guided off-trail hike with a ranger.
Biking in Denali
Hiking isn’t the only way to see Denali
Biking the Parks Road is officially now on my “Couples” bucket list for when the kids are grown. It was a little too much to schedule and navigate for this trip mostly because each bus can only carry 2 bikes and it needs to be reserved ahead of time.
It’s a 66 mile ride to go from the Denali entrance all the way to Eilson so doing this as an out and back in one day would be impossible (for me at least).
Biking tips and planning:
You can bike camp by getting a free backcountry permit and then you can break up the ride and maybe add some hiking along the way. If you do leave your bike to go explore, carry your bike 25 yards away from the road and out of view (then drop a pin on your offline maps so you don’t forget where you left it).
- Check the weather.
- Layer Up
- Be sure to pack sufficient food.
- Both visitor centers have drinking fountains to fill water bottles. If you go hiking off-trail, pack some form of water filtration bottle like this.
- Always practice leave no trace. Pack out what you pack in.
If you have to go #2 on the trail, dig a hole 6” deep and 100 feet from water. Pack out your TP.
Wildlife Safety on a Bike
Also, don’t leave food or scented items by your bike. Remember the rules for the big 5:
- Moose, stay 2 bus lengths away. If it charges, you can try to outride or outrun it.
- Bear or wolf, never run. Look big. Stay together. Back away slowly. You want to stay 3 football fields away from bear. The best way to avoid a bear encounter is to make noise, preferably talking, singing, shouting. Always carry bear spray and know how to use it. If you are attacked by a black bear, fight back. If it’s a grizzly, play dead. It’s easy to tell a grizzly by the hump between the shoulders.
Hope this helps you plan your bucket list trip to Denali National Park. If I missed something or you have any questions, please let me know in the comments.
Save It For Later, Pin This: