Anyone who’s ever seen Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), a wonderful biopic of the intrepid Alexander Supertramp, should be acquainted with the sheer sublimity of Alaska’s deepest wilderness. That’s precisely what awaits in the eye-wateringly wonderful Denali National Park. Here, glaciers converge on swathes of taiga plains, spruce forests cascade to steppes, tundra crashes into wide rivers that gush with the energy of a stampeding caribou herd.
Let the stats speak for themselves: 6 million acres, the highest summit in North America, 1,400 square miles of glacier fields. With the possible exception of the great deserts of the south, this is surely America at its most feral and savage. Nevertheless, nearly 500,000 visitors make the trip to this remote U.S national park every year. They come to spot grizzlies, tread the tundra, photograph fantastic peaks, and get an all-round feel for the stark isolation of the so-called Last Frontier.
Where is Denali National Park?
Look north on the map. Denali National Park is wedged into the uppermost parts of the American Cordillera, a range that runs right through the U.S and Canada. The official territory starts by the side of the AK-3 highway. It doesn’t end again until you get all the way through to the tiny town of Healy (a brewery waits there!). The nearest cities are Anchorage—about three hours drive south—and Fairbanks–about two hours drive to the northeast side of the reserve.
Denali National Park Facts
Lovers of dinner-table factoids are sure to have plenty to chat about when it comes to the Denali National Park. Where to begin? Take the mountain at the centre of it all: Denali itself. That has one of the biggest peak isolation measures in the world, which means it’s visible from a whopping 200 miles away! Secondly, this whole park is larger than Wales. Oh yea, and this is the home of the weird and wonderful wood frog, which is known to freeze its own heart into hibernation for the winter months.
Getting to Denali National Park
If you’re coming in from outside of Alaska, you’re almost certainly going to want to book a flight. Otherwise, you’re looking at one hell of a road trip along the coast of untouched British Columbia. Arrival points are available in either Fairbanks or Anchorage. Generally speaking, the first is better for hitting the Alaska Range peaks, while the second is great for river tours and hiking. Route AK-3 is the only road that bisects the preserve. It’s also known as the George Parks Highway and is a downright stunning drive, so have the camera fully charged.
Denali National Park Weather
The summer! This far north, average lows in the winter can hit a moustache-freezing -10 degrees F. There’s also guaranteed snow and a mere five hours of daylight in total. Much better for exploring are the warmer, brighter months. Typically, tours won’t start in earnest until the thaw does, which is around May time. However, July and August are considered the better options. About 50% of the days are sunny then and temperatures hover between 60 and 80.
Denali National Park Hours
Like most US national parks, Denali is officially open all year round. However, the situ on the ground isn’t so simple. You’re really at the mercy of the weather in these parts. November to March is basically out of the question for most casual travelers;it’s just too cold, too dark, and too snowy at that time of year for any services to run. Access roads, campgrounds, and visitor’s centers usually open properly in mid to late May.
Denali National Park Entrance Fee
Folk have had to fork out some dosh to get into the primeval lands of Denali since the late 80s. There have also been some recent hikes in the price, which means every individual will now need $15 for a pass. An annual pass is also available for $45 (allows as many entries as you like within 365 days). The good news is that an estimated 80% of the money raised from entry is pumped straight back into the maintenance of the wilderness itself.
Denali National Park is under limited operations due to COVID-19. For current status and frequent updates, check out the current conditions.
Hiking in Denali National Park
If you’re ready to stretch your legs (but not sure where to start), here’s a list of some of our favorite hiking trails in Denali National Park:
Easy, great for beginners:
- Horseshoe Lake Trail (2.1 mile loop)
- McKinley Station Trail (2.9 mile loop)
- McKinley Bar Trail (4.6 mile out-and-back)
Moderate, fairly strenuous:
- Taiga Trail (1.6 mile loop)
- Blueberry Hill Trail (0.9 mile out-and-back)
- Quigley Ridge Trail (6 mile out-and-back)
Hard, experience recommended:
- Mount Healy Overlook Trail (6.1 mile out-and-back)
- Triple Lakes Trail (18.5 mile out-and-back)
- Stampede Trail to Sushana River (38.2 mile out-and-back)
Denali National Park Lodging
Denali National Park Camping
Planning a night under the stars? Here are some of the best campgrounds and campsites inside and outside of Denali National Park:
- Teklanika River Campground
- Wonder Lake Campground
- Savage River Campground
- Igloo Creek Campground
- Riley Creek Campground
- Denali View North
- Byers Lake Campground
- K’esugi Ken Campground
- Denali RV Park & Motel
- Sanctuary River Campground
Denali National Park Hotels
If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of resorts, hotels, hostels, inns, cabins and B&Bs within a quick drive of Denali National Park. Here are some of our favorites:
- Denali Tri-Valley Cabins
- White Moose Lodge
- Denali Lakeview Inn
- McKinley Creekside Cabins
- Denali Crow’s Nest Log Cabins
- Denali Bluffs Hotel
- Aurora Denali Lodge
- Denali Primrose B&B
- Denali Park Hotel
- Denali Cabins
Denali National Park Airbnb
The only Airbnb stays that you’ll find within the borders of the Denali National Park will be rustic cabins that stand totally alone. They’re always going to be basic, but do promise to evoke that true frontier spirit. For something a little less Robert Redford, head to the towns that straddle the George Parks Highway. Some B&Bs and mountain inns combine with homier rentals there, so it’s certainly better Airbnb territory for family visitors and those who like to keep their creature comforts.
Denali National Park Tours
An organized tour is one of the most popular ways to see Denali. There are all sorts of packages, from high-altitude mountaineering routes up the Denali summit itself to family-friendly safaris to see grizzly bears and caribou. Other popular tour outings include dramatic panoramic flight tours of the park, packrafting, and heli-hiking combos, all of which take you to truly untouched quarters of Alaska where there’s not a town or a road in sight. That’s what you came for, right?
Denali National Park Landmarks
Lifting 20,000 feet above sea level and hailing as the highest peak in North America, Mount Denali (or Mount McKinley, as it was known previously!) is one aspect of the park you simply can’t ignore. It’s actually visible some 200 miles away–that’s just how colossal its snow-doused flanks are. Climbing the summit is a real challenge (with only a 50% success rate), but you don’t have to harness up to enjoy Denali. Mind-blowing views of the mountain are on offer from Primrose Ridge and the Stony Hill Scenic Overlook to name just two.
A warning: Polychrome Pass is not for the faint of heart. A rumbling dirt track that weaves high into the mountains, it zigzags over scree slopes and mudslides to the Polychrome Overlook. There, you can survey strange peaks that are colored ochre and rust red, dashed with green and encircled by blue rivers below. Be sure to check times for the once-daily Polychrome Shuttle for the ride.
There’s hardly a more iconic vista in Denali National Park than the great summit framed by the reflective waters of Wonder Lake. It’s no cinch to get to, wedged into the wild valleys between Denali itself and the banks of the roaring McKinley River. Still, that’s the draw; this is a picture-perfect example of the real Alaskan outback in all its glory.