Denali National Park draws in over 600,000 visitors per year and for good reason. Denali is a vast, breathtaking and exciting national park, filled with interesting megafauna and endless scenic landscapes. Most visitors rarely venture past the park entrance or get off the bus that explores the Denali Park Road, providing incredible opportunities for adventurous visitors to go deeper into the park for unique experiences and pristine Alaska solitude.
The AdventureSmith Explorations team has had years of experience sending travelers to Alaska and knows the ins and outs of this incredible park. Read this guide to learn the best way to see and explore Denali National Park—and what to avoid to get the most from your travels.
Why Travel to Denali National Park?
Denali National Park and Preserve covers over six million acres of pristine wilderness in the heart of Alaska’s interior. The centerpiece of the park is the spectacular Alaskan Range and 20,310-foot-high Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley), the tallest mountain in North America. Known as one of the crown jewels of the U.S. National Park Service, Denali is on the bucket list of most Alaska travelers.
The centerpiece of the park is the spectacular Alaskan Range and 20,310-foot-high Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.
Unlike most national parks established to protect natural wonders, Denali was established to protect an entire functioning ecosystem. An area the size of New Hampshire—covered in mountains, glaciers, glacial valleys, boreal forest and arctic tundra—is bisected by only one 92-mile road. The park is home to 38 species of mammals, 160 bird species and 758 species of plants. Most visitors hope to see the big five, or a “Denali Slam,” which consists of moose, caribou, wolf, Dall sheep and the brown or grizzly bear. Travelers interested in nature, wildlife, native culture, history and extraordinary scenery will love a visit to Denali National Park.
How to Get to Denali – Planes, Trains & Automobiles
Denali is in the heart of Alaska’s interior (more than 200 miles north of Anchorage) and is easily accessed by road, rail or air. Alaska is huge and travel distances are vast, so plan your itinerary accordingly. The park entrance, also known as Denali Park, is located at mile 237 of Alaska Route 3, also called George Parks Highway or simply the Parks Highway. The trip from Anchorage will take about 5.5 hours by road (longer if there is road construction, which is common during short Alaskan summers). Coming from Fairbanks, the drive takes about 3 hours.
The Alaska Railroad Denali Star Line runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks, parallel to the Parks Highway. There is a departure from each city every summer morning for this quintessential rail route. The northbound route from Anchorage will take about 8 hours, the southbound train from Fairbanks about 4. All of AdventureSmith’s package and custom tours to Denali include guided bus and/or train transportation to and from the park—a bonus for these long hauls.
An efficient but more expensive alternative is to fly. Charter options from Anchorage can take you to the park entrance or Kantishna, the small community that sits within the park at the end of the Denali Park Road. With a flight you will save a long day of travel and you will receive an incredible flightseeing experience along the way, but keep in mind that weather in Alaska is unpredictable and flights can get delayed or cancelled. If you fly all the way into Kantishna, you will miss the drive along the Park Road, which is a highlight of any visit to Denali.
The Denali Park Road
The Denali Park Road parallels the Alaska Range traversing low valleys and high mountain passes with beautiful landscapes at every turn. The 92-mile road is mostly unpaved and is the only road in this massive wilderness area. Transiting the Park Road takes about 5 hours and is a highlight of any visit to Denali.
The wildlife along 92-mile Denali Park Road is uniquely accessible, and sightings along the road are a huge part of the Denali experience.
Private cars are not allowed past mile 15 on the Park Road, and the National Park Service has instituted a system of buses as the primary means for visitors to explore the park. This system of buses not only reduces traffic, but it makes vehicles predictable to wildlife. Over time, animals have become accustomed to the buses, so much so that they are not afraid to approach the road. The result is that wildlife here is uniquely accessible, and sightings along the road are a huge part of the Denali experience. Bus drivers act as naturalist guides, pointing out sights, locating wildlife, answering questions and interpreting park history. Passengers also act as spotters. When someone shouts “bear,” the bus stops, everyone lowers their window and points cameras in the direction of the animal. Often so accustomed to the buses, the animals will sometimes amble right next to the vehicle as if it isn’t even there.
Where to Stay in Denali: Park Entrance vs. Kantishna
More than 90 percent of Denali’s large visitor base will stay at the park entrance, but the real Denali is best experienced deep within the park in my opinion. Here is a look at your two primary options for lodging within Denali National Park and some key differentiators.
Park Entrance – Best as a Stopover Option or If Short on Time
This is where the park headquarters and visitor center are located as well as huge hotels owned by big ship cruise lines. Affectionately known as Glitter Gulch, this area offers endless opportunity for distraction including raft trips, ATV trips, horseback trips, flightseeing, hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking, zipline adventures and souvenir shops catering to the many tourists who flock to Denali every summer. Most of these travelers will experience the park on 5-, 8- or 12-hour Denali bus tours operated by the National Park Service.
The park entrance can be fun and appeal to casual tourists, but it is undoubtedly a crowded mass-tourism enterprise with little connection to the solitude, tranquility and wilderness that makes Denali famous. Consider staying at the park entrance if you don’t mind crowds, are short on time or want to break up the journey from Anchorage to Kantishna, farther inside the park. AdventureSmith-recommended accommodations at the park entrance include: Denali Park Village, Denali Park Cabins, Grizzly Cabins and Deneki Lakes Bed & Breakfast.
Kantishna – Best All-Around to Stay within the Park
Most often, I suggest travelers forego the park entrance in favor of Kantishna, a historic mining town located at the end of the Denali Park Road and completely surrounded by the National Park and Preserve. Kantishna is as close as you can get to the base of Denali without hiking or flying in. This private inholding takes additional effort to reach but offers adventurous travelers several advantages over staying at the park entrance.
Kantishna is as close as you can get to the base of Denali without hiking or flying in.
First and foremost, you trade the crowds for solitude and true Alaskan wilderness. Exclusive lodges provide comfortable accommodations and a base from which to actively explore the surrounding backcountry. Each day offers opportunities for active guided exploration and wildlife encounters. Lodges here offer daily guided hikes ranging from easy nature walks to all-day challenging explorations into the backcountry. AdventureSmith-recommended lodges in Kantishna include: Kantishna Roadhouse, Denali Backcountry Lodge, Camp Denali and North Face Lodge. A few other Kantishna differentiators include:
Multi-Day, Experienced Guiding
The experience and demeanor of your guide will have a profound impact on your overall experience. Accommodations at the park entrance are geared for independent travelers with no guided exploration unless you book a day tour. The Kantishna lodges all include guided daily activities with excellent, skilled naturalists and guides.
Camp Denali and North Face Lodge in particular have the most experienced guides and appeal to travelers who appreciate informative, thematic interpretation on the trail and at the lodge. Each evening after a delicious dinner expect an entertaining and informative presentation enhancing your knowledge of the park and its inhabitants. Fully guided small-group explorations of Denali such as Alaska Coast to Denali Journey or Alaska Grand Adventure offer the best of both worlds with an experienced trip leader along for the whole journey, combined with excellent local guides on each itinerary stop.
Another bonus: the lodges in Kantishna use private buses instead of the National Park Service buses, which translates to a more intimate and comfortable ride with more experienced driver/guides and often better windows for photography opportunities.
Off the Grid
Plan to disconnect on your trip to Denali; after all, isn’t this part of the point?
Plan to disconnect on your trip to Denali; after all, isn’t this part of the point? At the park entrance you will have cell service, and lodges offer WiFi internet access. However, once you transit the Denali Park Road, cell coverage disappears. In Kantishna, there is no cell coverage and lodges do not offer internet access. Lodges have courtesy phones for calls out, and incoming calls can be received at the front desk. A visit to Kantishna is a chance to truly disconnect and immerse yourself in solitude for a few days.
Small Groups, Likeminded Travelers
When staying in Kantishna you will be among a small group of likeminded travelers in an intimate setting with a shared sense of purpose to actively explore up close. Lodges in Kantishna are relatively small, ranging from 15-room lodges to properties dotted with 18 to 42 individual cabins. Choose Kantishna if you desire an authentic Alaskan experience away from crowds and hope to connect with Alaska’s ancient natural rhythms.
Spending more time in the park dramatically increases your chances of seeing wildlife and mountain views of Denali clear of clouds. Read the next section about Where to See Denali for even more insight about why Kantishna is the place to be if you want the best chance to see the tallest mountain in North America.
Where to See Denali – Best Views of the Mountain
Denali is so big that it creates its own weather and is often shrouded in clouds. Less than 30% of park visitors ever see the mountain so if you do see it, consider yourself lucky. However, there are ways to increase your chances. When the mountain is “out,” it can be seen from as far away as Anchorage, but you need to know where to look. When you arrive at the Anchorage International Airport, look for Denali to the north as you walk out of the terminal. Or try Earthquake Park or hike to the top of nearby Flattop Mountain. In Fairbanks, Denali can be seen at the Denali and Alaska Range Overlook or the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
When the mountain is “out,” it can be seen from as far away as Anchorage, but you need to know where to look.
There are numerous pullouts along the Parks Highway and along the Alaska Railroad routes, so be sure to ask your driver or train conductor. The mountain is not visible from the park entrance so for the best views you’ll want to transit the Denali Park Road. The first glimpse is possible at mile 9 of the Park Road, and the farther you travel the bigger the mountain gets. The pinnacle of mountain views and photography are at the Eielson Visitor center at mile 66 and Wonder Lake at mile 85.
If you stay in Kantishna, your chances to see the mountain increase dramatically, as more time spent in the park allow for more opportunities for the mountain to show itself. Guests at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge have views from their accommodations and the best chance to see the mountain. Other lodges in Kantishna aren’t in direct view of the mountain but will provide shuttles to Wonder Lake when the mountain is out.
When to Go to Denali – What is the Best Time to Visit?
Summer is short in Alaska’s interior and the national park is only open to visitors from early June through mid-September. Keep this in mind if you are trying to pair your Denali trip with an Alaska small ship cruise. Summer days are long with 20 hours of sunlight on summer solstice (June 21). This core season is packed full of intense activities for wildlife and visitors alike. Spring is brief with the tundra turning from brown to green in a matter of days. In early June wildflowers begin to bloom and provide color until late July. Animals are active all summer squeezing a year’s worth of living and eating before the onset of another cold winter. Mosquitos are also active in early summer dissipating by early August. Fall comes early and by mid- to late-August the tundra turns brilliant red, orange and yellow. This time of year, nights get dark enough to see northern lights when they occur. For a more detailed account of Alaska’s seasonality, read AdventureSmith’s Alaska by Month guide.
How Long to Spend in Denali?
My recommendation is to spend at least three nights, preferably in Kantishna, in order to truly explore this massive park.
It is not possible to visit Denali in one day, unless you are simply flying over it. Many tours visiting the park entrance will spend as few as two nights, but even this only allows for one full day of exploration, usually on a bus. My recommendation is to spend at least three nights, preferably in Kantishna, in order to truly explore this massive park. If the trip from Anchorage to Kantishna is too long of a travel day for you, consider adding one day at the park entrance. This way you can enjoy the park entrance while also appreciating the solitude of the park’s interior.
Call it Denali or Mount McKinley?
The controversy about the name of the park and its namesake mountain began before the park was established in 1917. From time immemorial, at least five Native groups had unique Athabaskan names for the mountain roughly translating to “the tall one” or “mountain-big.”
The name “Denali” stems from “deenaalee” from the Koyukon language traditionally spoken on the north side of the park. Mt McKinley emerged in an 1897 New York Sunarticle, and although the president had no direct connection to Alaska the name was popularized following his 1901 assassination. Although many Alaskans wanted to honor the native name, authorities responsible for the formation of the park felt it was not descriptive and that Americans already knew the name Mount McKinley and the famous efforts to climb it. Mount McKinley National Park was created on February 26, 1917, and efforts to rename it continued for 100 years.
In 1980, along with legislation to expand the park, it was renamed to Denali National Park and Preserve, but the mountain remained Mount McKinley. In 2017, the name of the highest peak in North America changed to Denali on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The timing not only helped mark the agency’s centennial but also illustrated the long human history of the park and a naming debate that had lasted more than 100 years.
An opportunity to fly over the Alaska Range is a dramatic highlight of any trip to Alaska and should not be missed. From the window of a small aircraft, the enormity of the park is revealed from colorful valleys to gentle foothills, meandering glaciers and the astounding canyons and peaks of the Alaska Range. In addition to spectacular scenery, flights may reveal mountain climbers striving to summit the great one.
Most flightseeing companies, including fixed-wing planes and helicopter operators, are based in the nearby communities of Talkeetna, Denali Park, Healy and Kantishna. Some flightseeing routes also originate in Anchorage or Fairbanks. A number of routes are available, and for an additional fee you can even land on a glacier aboard a ski-equipped airplane. Because Alaskan weather is unpredictable, flightseeing is not typically booked in advance.
Keep some time in your itinerary available, and if you get a clear day, don’t hesitate or wait for a better opportunity. Do it.
Keep some time in your itinerary available, and if you get a clear day, don’t hesitate or wait for a better opportunity. Do it. A popular option for travelers visiting Kantishna is to fly from Kantishna to the park entrance at the end of your stay. This not only provides your transportation in lieu of the Park Road but also the opportunity to soar over Denali on an unforgettable trip.
Planning a Trip to Denali & Alaska with AdventureSmith
Our travel philosophy in Alaska is to venture beyond the roads and rails to explore true Alaskan wilderness. We believe folks come to Alaska for incredible scenery, amazing wildlife, getting back to nature and enjoying the quiet solitude that escapes our everyday lives back home. They also come to learn from experienced guides and return home as ambassadors for these wild lands. Once you have arrived in Alaska’s backcountry, we believe that an experienced guide is essential to safely exploring and learning about the environment you have come to see. All AdventureSmith’s cruises and land tours are designed with this focus in mind.
In Denali this ethos means spending a little more time and money to avoid tourist crowds to actively experience the true wilderness of Alaska. AdventureSmith Explorations offers a variety of Alaska land trips to get you out into this incredible environment. Join us!