With six million acres of untouched wilderness from dense boreal forests to the cold, harsh tundra, Denali National Park is quintessential Alaska–massive, raw, and breathtaking.
There are a few things you have to do when you visit Alaska:
- Explore the Kenai Peninsula
- Eat fresh-caught salmon
- Stare a moose in the eye (from a safe distance)
- Marvel at one of the state’s 100,000 glaciers
- Chase a barking dog up a steep incline thinking there’s an injured hiker out of sight
(Maybe that last one is just me?)
Add Denali National Park to that list.
Founded as McKinley National Park in 1917, Denali plays host to 600,000 visitors every year who hope to catch a glimpse of Alaska in its wildest form.
And to the park’s credit, they do a phenomenal job serving that wilderness up to adventure-hungry tourists.
Whether you’re an experienced backcountry backpacker who wants to lose yourself for three days or a casual sightseer with half a day to kill, there’s something for everyone at Denali National Park…if you plan properly.
Where is Denali National Park?
Denali National Park is the third-largest National Park in the US. It also happens to be the third-largest National Park in Alaska, because just about all of Alaska’s National Parks are massive.
Spanning six million acres of Alaskan wilderness, Denali National Park is nearly as large as the entire state of Massachusetts.
Did You Know? Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest National Park in the United States. It encompasses 13.2 million acres, making it as large as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Switzerland combined!
Denali National Park is between Fairbanks and Anchorage along the George Parks Highway (Highway 3) with the nearest town being Healy.
The Denali area is a robust summer tourism town with a bunch of hotels, some nice restaurants, and more than a few tourist traps for gifts and shopping.
Denali is the tallest mountain in North America
There are a bunch of different ways to measure mountains, and each way produces a different answer for which is biggest.
Denali ranks atop three mountain-measuring leaderboards:
- Tallest peak in North America (20,308 feet)
- Largest rise above surrounding area in the world (~18,000 feet)
- Northernmost mountain above 18,000 feet in the world
That second bullet may be a little confusing. Some mountains have extremely high peaks, but they rise out of already-massive mountain ranges with other peaks nearly as tall.
Take Mount Everest for example. Its peak is the highest in the world (29,029 feet) but the Himalayas boast 10 of the world’s 14 highest peaks!
Denali is a different animal altogether. Its peak rises 20,308 feet above sea level, but the surrounding land is only about 2,000 feet. That sudden rise makes Denali seem particularly impressive and allows us to take photos like this one:
Remember Mount McKinley?
Unsurprisingly, Denali is the main attraction in Denali National Park. You may know it by another name: Mount McKinley.
Yes, Denali and Mount McKinley are one and the same.
Denali is the historic name for this mountain, but it was changed to Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector who wanted to attract the attention of presidential candidate William McKinley (1897-1901).
The name change was politically motivated. McKinley was a strong proponent of the gold standard for US currency while his opponent, William Jennings Bryan, favored the silver standard.
In 1975, the Alaskan Board of Geographic Names declared Mount McKinley would once again be Denali, but the name change was blocked at the federal level until 2015, when the Secretary of the Interior during Barack Obama’s presidency officially changed the mountain’s name back to Denali.
What does Denali mean? Denali translates to “the great one” or “the high one.” The mountain has been called many different names by the various indigenous peoples who have lived in the area, but they all refer to the mountain’s massive size.
Denali National Park map
The entrance to Denali National Park lies off Highway 3 connecting Fairbanks and Anchorage. There’s only one road (Park Road) into Denali National Park, and only a portion of it is open to the public.
The entire Park Road spans 92 miles, but private vehicles aren’t allowed past Mile 15. If you want to continue beyond that checkpoint, you need to be on a licensed park tour or take one of the various low-cost shuttles.
I sort of lied. Want to drive the Park Road in your own vehicle? You need to enter the Road Lottery. Entry is in May and costs $15, regardless of whether you’re chosen. The drawing occurs shortly thereafter with winners getting to choose between just five dates in mid-September. Those winners then pay an additional $25 fee. It’s a weird system, but you have about a 1-in-7 chance of being selected.
We reserved seats two days in advance for the Tundra Wilderness Tour, an eight-hour tour that drives out to Stony Hill Overlook (Mile 62) and back.
I wouldn’t recommend waiting until two days before your planned trip to reserve your seats. We got the last two seats on our tour, and many of the other departure times were already sold out.
However, there is one big benefit to waiting. Weather plays a huge role in whether you see the whole mountain, so having a string of clear days is extremely important.
The Denali 30 Percent Club
Only 30% of the people who visit Denali see the whole mountain. The other 70% have their visits marred by cloud cover that obscures Denali’s peak.
When we first arrived in Alaska on June 27, we stopped in Tok for the night. We headed to the local tavern to try our first Alaskan-brewed beers and struck up a conversation with a couple next to us who happened to be from Anchorage. They told us to book tour tickets quickly as cloud cover increases in late-July and August, making it more challenging to see the whole mountain.
On July 6 we noticed a string of sunny days coming up, so we booked tickets for a July 8 tour.
As you can see from the beautiful image of Denali above, we joined the 30 Percent Club!
It all starts at the Wilderness Access Center
At Mile 0.75 is the Wilderness Access Center and Denali Bus Depot. This center is the main hub for all things Denali:
- Ticket purchases
- Gift shop
- Parking for cars and RVs
- Start of many hiking trails
- Pickup spot for many bus tours
- Get your official Denali National Park passport cancellation!
Denali bus tours
Guided tours are expensive. Why pony up all that money when you can just take the less costly park shuttle and take a self-guided tour?
We get it. And usually, we’re right there with you! You can’t pay a premium for every guided tour you come across.
But you need to do the guided bus tours in Denali.
Three guided tours are offered in addition to the shuttle buses, which you can read about in the image below.
- Denali Natural History Tour (5 hours, 30 miles on Park Road)
- Tundra Wilderness Tour (8 hours, 62 miles on Park Road)
- Kantishna Experience (12 hours, 92 miles on Park Road)
Not sure which is the right tour for you? The National Parks Service put together this handy rubric:
Here’s our quick rundown of each.
Denali shuttle buses
Non-narrated tours of the park are available via the Denali shuttle system. Tickets cost $33.50-$64.00 depending on how far you want to go. This site has more info, including the shuttle bus schedule.
Note: It takes 6-7 hours to take the shuttle from the Wilderness Access Center to Kantishna at the very end of the park.
Denali Natural History Tour (5 hours, 30 miles on Park Road)
The shortest of the guided tours for people who want an abbreviated experience (or don’t like sitting on buses for long periods of time), the Denali Natural History Tour travels one-third the way down Park Road to Teklanika River.
Pros of the Denali Natural History Tour
- Includes one hour of off-the-bus learning
- Heavy emphasis on history and culture of the park and region
- Shortest tour, which allows plenty of time for other hikes or activities
Cons of the Denali Natural History Tour
- Doesn’t go into the tundra
- Probably won’t see as much wildlife
Tundra Wilderness Tour (8 hours, 62 miles on Park Road)
The most wildlife-focused tour available, the Tundra Wilderness Tour goes well into the Denali tundra–home of the grizzly bear–as far as Mile 62. The Mile 62 lookout at Denali is about as close as you can get to the mountain. Most images you see of Denali in this article were from that lookout.
Pros of the Tundra Wilderness Tour
- Wildlife-focused tour gives you the best chance at a Denali Grand Slam*
- Early tours can still get you back by 1:00-2:00 pm for a full afternoon
- Mid-point in price and time between the other two tours
Cons of the Tundra Wilderness Tour
- Doesn’t go the full 92 miles to Kantishna
- Only about 30-minutes of off-the-bus time, so you can feel kind of rushed
*What is the Denali Grand Slam? You’ll complete the Grand Slam if you see Denali’s four big land animals: grizzly bear, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep. The park also has wolves, but they’re rarely seen.
Kantishna Experience (12 hours, 92 miles on Park Road)
A full-day, 12-hour tour down the entire 92-mile Park Road to the unincorporated gold rush community of Kantishna.
Pros of the Kantishna Experience
- Most complete and immersive tour available
- Travels the whole Park Road, so good chance at a Denali Grand Slam
- Emphasizes the gold mining history of Denali region
Cons of the Kantishna Experience
- 12 hours on a bus can be exhausting
- Most expensive tour
- Wonder Lake view of Denali isn’t better than the Mile 62 lookout
We recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour
While the shorter Natural History Tour and longer Kantishna Experience may appeal to certain visitors, I don’t think there’s a better bang-for-your-buck Denali bus tour than the Tundra Wilderness Tour.
Reason 1: You need to visit the tundra
It’s imperative you venture into the tundra when visiting Denali. The tundra is the home of the grizzly bear, and what’s the point of visiting Denali if you aren’t going to try to see a grizzly bear?!
Couldn’t you also take the Kantishna Experience? You could, but 12 hours is a long time to spend on a bus. Even the eight-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour was a bit much for us.
Reason 2: Driver-operated zoom
OK, well why not take the shuttle bus for cheaper? Again, you could, but a lot of the wildlife you see is off in the distance. I needed a telephoto lens just to capture the following picture of two grizzlies. We saw seven grizzlies on our tour and this was the closest we got.
That photo has a 600mm focal length, which is 12x magnification. (Binoculars are a must on any of these tours.)
To see those in-the-distance animals, the tour buses come equipped with zoom cameras operated by the drivers.
You won’t get that on a shuttle bus.
Reason 3: The drivers know what to look for
At the start of our tour, our driver said something to the following effect:
I’m driving on a winding, bumpy dirt road and trying to keep you guys safe, so shout out if you see any animals.Our tour driver, basically
Our driver then proceeded to spot wildlife left and right while the 40 passengers struggled to keep up.
These drivers are an invaluable resource. Not only do they fill the silence in between wildlife sightings and stops with awesome facts about the park and its inhabitants, but they ensure you see everything there is to see.
Reason 4: You won’t get a better view of Denali than from mile 62
It seems logical that if you take the Kantishna Experience tour that goes the entire 92-mile Park Road distance, you’ll get closer to Denali. In truth, the best vantage point is from the Mile 62 lookout where the Tundra Wilderness Tour turns around.
You miss out on Kantishna and the gold mining history of Denali, but I don’t think that’s worth the extra price and hours.
The Nomadlyweds Tundra Wilderness Tour experience
Now that we’ve established why the Tundra Wilderness Tour is the best, let’s take a look at what you’ll see along the way.
Our day started with a two-hour drive from Fairbanks to Denali
Dawn and I were staying at the Fairbanks Walmart about two hours north of Denali National Park. Our tour departure time was 6:00 am, which means a 3:00 am wakeup time.
I’m not a morning person. Here’s a look at me waking up compared to Dawn.
At 5:40 am we finally arrived at the Wilderness Access Center. The problem is we weren’t supposed to be there. We were supposed to be at the McKinley Chalet about two miles back. And our bus would be departing at 6:00 am sharp!
We hopped in the truck and hurried to the Chalet. Our bus was right out front, so we quickly parked and boarded with three minutes to spare.
If you’re looking to stay in the Denali area, the McKinley Chalet is a beautiful option. They even have a Balto statue!
The tour buses are converted school buses
Get those luxury coach liners out of your head. You’ll be taking your tour on a school bus.
Actually, put those luxury coach liners back in your head, because these school buses have been converted for improved comfort. Gone are the typical uncomfortable school bus benches. In their place are small coach-style seats, but I do emphasize small. Dawn and I aren’t big people, but it was a little tight.
There’s overhead storage for your bags, and the tour company provides a snack box and free bottled water for your comfort.
First up is the Savage River lookout
Our tour bus didn’t stop at the Wilderness Access Center, making our first stop the Mile 15 Savage River lookout. This stop overlooks Savage River.
Savage River is a braided river. These rivers are marked by relatively small streams of water that weave through huge river basins.
Though it looks like the river sometimes spans the entire river basin, that actually isn’t the case.
Savage River is fed by glacial runoff, which carries a lot of finely ground sediment as the glacier’s movement grinds the underlying rock. The river carries this sediment and deposits it as water flows downstream.
Over time the sediment piles up and blocks the water’s flow, causing it to change course. The result is a wide basin with narrower streams that frequently change direction all throughout the basin area. As the name implies, braided rivers often look like braided rope or hair.
The Savage River lookout is about 60 minutes into the tour and is the first chance at a bathroom break.
The tour stops about every 60-90 minutes to let you use the bathroom and stretch your legs. The stops are brief–about five minutes–and once everyone is back on the bus, it’s time to take off.
The Teklanika River is the next stop
Mile 30 marks the Teklanika River rest stop and turnaround point for the five-hour Denali Natural History Tour. This is another braided river with bathroom facilities, a gift shop, and caribou and moose antlers that you can take photos with.
The Tundra Wilderness Tour won’t stop long enough to take these pictures on the trip out, but there will be about 10-15 minutes to look around when you stop on the way back.
We also got lucky enough to see a caribou walk straight through the rest area! By the time I got the lens on the camera, he’d walked past us and I was only able to get this shot.
Mile 46 marks Polychrome Pass
About 45 minutes after the Teklanika River you’ll come across Polychrome Pass. It’s a narrow stretch of road that winds around the hillside with the colorful Polychrome Mountain in the distance.
The road is narrow in parts–wide enough for just one tour bus–and it isn’t for everyone. Once through the pass, the bus stops so you can get pictures of Polychrome Mountain, like the one below.
Remember, this is Denali National Park. You don’t live here. The bears do.
After 5-10 minutes walking around the Polychrome Pass area, it’s time to get back on the bus for our final destination.
At long last, Denali!
After four fun hours on/off the bus, it’s finally time to see Denali!
We planned our trip for a day with a sunny forecast, but we got some luck with wildfire smoke blowing elsewhere. Look at that view.
Denali has multiple subpeaks, but South Peak is the mountain’s true summit. This view of Denali from north of the mountain ensures you get to see both North Peak and South Peak. Those who view Denali from the south don’t get to see North Peak because it’s positioned behind the larger South Peak from that vantage point.
I think Mile 62 is the best place to view Denali, but I’m probably biased.
Take a look at the following picture of Denali from Wonder Lake, which you’d see if you took the Kantishna Experience tour.
That’s an amazing photo in its own right, but I like the way Denali is framed at Mile 62–in the middle of the valley with the road fading into the distance. Photography-wise, I think it sets up for a better shot.
At the very least it’s a comparable view. I think our bus driver said the Mile 62 lookout is around 36 miles from Denali whereas the Wonder Lake viewpoint is around 27 miles away.
Wait a minute, where’s the wildlife?
Earlier I told you we hit the Denali Grand Slam and saw four of the park’s major animals. That wasn’t all we saw! Here’s the complete rundown:
- 7 grizzly bears
- 2 moose
- 12 caribou
- 2 Dall sheep
- 2 golden eagles
- 1 ptarmigan
- 1 hoary marmot
- Countless arctic ground squirrels and a couple of red squirrels
Unfortunately, much of the wildlife was hard to capture on camera from the bus. There were just too many other people vying for shots, and even with my zoom lens, the animals were just too far in the distance.
However, the driver-operated camera put every animal up on the screen. Despite leaving with few wildlife photos, we left with a ton of cool memories.
Hike one of the beautiful Denali National Park hiking trails!
Tours aren’t the only way to see Denali. If you’re looking for something a little more active, you could try one of the many hiking trails in the park.
That map is hard to read. Try this website for a complete list of all the trails, whether they’re near the park entrance or elsewhere in the park.
Trail Note: Out/back trails below show the distance of the one-way trail, so double it if you want to hike the whole thing. Loop trails are the whole trail’s length.
Hiking trails near the park entrance
- Horseshoe Lake Trail (Loop, 2.1 miles, 393 ft gain, 1.5 hours)
- Mount Healy Overlook Trail (Out/back, 4.3 miles, 1,666 ft gain, 4 hours)
- Roadside Trail (Out/back, 1.8 miles, 300 ft gain, 1 hour)
- Triple Lakes Trail (Out/back, 18.5 miles, 3,690 ft gain, 10 hours)
Hiking trails inside the park
- Savage River Loop Trail (Loop, 2.1 miles, 413 ft gain, 2 hours)
- Primrose Ridge Trail (Out/back, 1.4 miles, 500 ft gain, 1.5 hours)
- Upper Teklanika River Trail (Out/back, 32 miles, 4,200 ft gain, forever)
- Teklanika Trail (Out/back, 2.0 miles, 100 ft gain, 1 hour)
- Rock Creek Trail (Out/back, 2.4 miles, 400 ft gain, 2 hours)
- Toklat East Branch Trail (Out/back, 9.0 miles, 3,200 ft gain, 6 hours)
- Eielson Alpine Trail (Out/back, 2.0 miles, 1,000 ft gain, 1.5 hours)
- Wonder Lake Trail (Out/back, 2.0 miles, easy climb, 1.5 hours)
Want to do something a little more…adventurous?
Skip the trails and organized campgrounds. Instead, try backcountry camping and hiking in Denali.
Here are a couple of tips for maximizing your backcountry experience in Denali National Park:
- Arrive by 4:30 pm for a permit. Permits are only granted day-of and the day before.
- Once you have a permit, buy a camper bus ticket. It’s $42.95 for adults.
- Come with everything you need. The Denali area has a lot of shops, but they’re tourist traps and not supply stores.
- Make time to watch the advisory video at the Wilderness Access Center. You’ll need to prove you watched it at least once that season.
Thinking of Visiting Denali National Park?
I hope so. Dawn and I had an amazing experience in Denali. It was one of our top two Alaskan activities, right up there with the Kenai Fjords National Park boat tour in Seward, Alaska that took us out to Holgate Glacier.
If we had more time, we would have loved to do some backcountry camping. Alas, that will be an adventure for next time.
If you have any questions about visiting Denali, booking a tour, or Alaska in general, please comment below!