Why Visit Denali National Park?
First let’s consider ‘why people visit Denali National Park,’ and then the Best Way to see Denali National Park. More than 400,000 people from around the world visit Denali yearly. I don’t think it’s because Denali is the world’s coldest mountain in the land of eternal winter. People want to see the elusive Denali, the highest peak in North America. Denali Mountain, previously known as Mount McKinley, is the centerpiece of Denali National Park which was established in 1917. At 20,310’ high, Denali is taller than Mt. Everest as measured from base to summit – 18,000′ vs 12,000′. Located in south-central Alaska in the Alaska Range, Denali Mountain is one of the most isolated peaks in the world.
In addition to the mountain itself, Denali National Park has 6 million acres of incredible natural beauty. The park offers primitive wilderness, varied wildlife, hiking trails – marked or off-trail, rolling tundra hills, and icy glaciers. It’s a great place to witness so many of the things people visit Alaska to see.
Top things to do in Denali National Park
We went to explore Denali National Park for 4 days – to see the wildlife, the vistas, the Alaska Range and of course Denali Mountain. Most people tent camp and RV camp in Denali’s campgrounds. Backcountry camping is also available. It’s important to reserve any Denali camping in advance; if possible 6 months in advance since it fills early and fast.
Visiting Denali in your own vehicle is limiting. Vehicles can drive only 15 of the 92 miles into the park, or all the way to miile 29 if camping at Teklanika campground. Alternatively, a bus tour or private tour is a great way to get deeper into the park.
How to Visit Denali National Park
There are a few ways to visit Denali:
- Drive a vehicle and stay outside of the park or camp in the park
- Take the Denali Park Shuttle Bus or Camper Bus deeper into the park
- Take a train to Denali and take a Denali Park Bus Tour or Shuttle Bus
- Fly into to Denali and stay at Kantishna Lodge, and take a tour or Denali Shuttle Bus from there
- See Denali from the air – a Flightsee
Denali Park Bus Tour
There are several different Denali Park bus tours, and these tours enable visitors to see and explore the balance of the 92-mile road and its surroundings, or any portion of it from mile 15 to 92. There is a Denali Park Shuttle Bus and Camper Bus for independent park visitors, a Denali Natural History Tour, a Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour, and a Kantishna Wilderness Tour.
For transportation in Denali National Park, we took the Camper Shuttle Bus, which is similar to the Denali Park Shuttle Bus and stops at the same places. These shuttle buses are not formally narrated, and some of the bus drivers to a fantastic job on the facts, history, and Denali wildlife, as well as spotting and stopping to see the various animals.
All shuttles require Denali bus reservations. We reserved our seats at the same time as reserving our campsite since we were visiting in high season. When reserving for the shuttle or camper bus, there is an option to choose your furthest stop – Kantishna. After going as far as Wonder Lake, 5 miles short of Kantishna, we recommend traveling only as far as Eielson Visitor Center, mile 66, on a bus 1-day round trip. We saw everything we wanted to see by taking the bus to Eielson – moose and calves, bear – grizzly sows and cubs, caribou, golden eagle, foxes, coyote, Dall sheep, porcupine, arctic warblers, and snowshoe hares.
On two of the days, we used the hop-on-hop-off Camper Shuttle Bus to see the park. We started from our campground at mile 29, and on the first day we went to Wonder Lake; it was an all-day journey on the bus with no time for hiking. On the second day, we went to Eielson at mile 66 and had plenty of time to hike, as well as having the Camper Bus tour both ways. To and from Eielson on the second day, we had many animal sightings, including a Caribou pair sauntering down the middle of the road in front of the Camper Bus – it was slow going for a while.
For those who want an adventure for less, the Denali Shuttle Bus or Camper Bus is a great inexpensive way to explore Denali, as the bus drivers often informally narrate. Both the Denali Shuttle and Camper Bus are hop-on hop-off, offering flexibility for hiking, picnicking, or photography. Be sure to make your Denali Bus reservations in advance, if possible.
Hiking in Denali National Park
Hiking is the best way to see Denali up close! On our first day at Denali, we spent time in the Visitor Center to learn about the different Denali hiking options. There are a few hikes near the visitor center and on the way to the sled dog demonstrations and kennels, plus many hiking options to explore Denali. Also, check out the sled dog demos if you haven’t seen them.
There is never enough time to do all of the hikes we want to take on, which was the case in Denali Park. On our first day camping in the park, we hiked on the riverbed near Teklanika campground. We heard that other hikers saw both bear and moose on the river bed, but we weren’t that lucky – not yet anyway.
There are plenty of hiking options to and from Eielson, too. My favorite hike from this trip is the Thoroughfare Ridge Trail across from the Eielson Visitor Center. On this hike, we watched a Grizzly sow with two older cubs from across a ravine. While at the top of Thoroughfare Ridge, the clouds cleared briefly so the top of Mount Denali was revealed. On our return hike, the same bears were close enough that the rangers closed the trail as we were descending. We felt no threat from the bears, just the excitement of seeing them.
Denali Flightseeing Tour
After hiking, busing, and flying, I can honestly say that the most magical way to see Mount Denali is to experience a Denali flightseeing tour. Soaring above the Alaska Range, taking the 200-mile flight to fly within a ½ mile of Mount Denali is a breathtaking experience. I don’t think words or photos can do it justice.
DISCLAIMER: Many thanks to Denali Air for hosting me. While I was hosted at no charge, I received no payment for this post, and this post is my honest opinion.
Ascending from Denali Air’s private airstrip and runway through the woods, we fly over the canyons and valleys to gain a majestic view of the Alaska Range. We wind through and pass over the green wilderness – looks like velvet – and over the Nenana River to the eastern park boundary and the Alaska Range spine.
The Alaska Range is a 400-mile-long range that extends all the way to the Alaskan Peninsula. The Alaska Range is so massive, that I was immediately awestruck as it came into view.
As our very experienced pilot, Dan, dips between the mountain ridges, we are treated to a variety of spectacular views – striking views that took my breath away. Dan is a seasoned pilot with 20 years of experience, and he fully narrates during the flight. Dan explains, ‘this rugged topography is a result of millions of years of rock formation, erosion, and the theory that 3 tectonic plates colliding caused uplift, forming the Alaska Range.’ These glaciers and ice-fields influence the weather and provide Alaska with its water.’ I completely trust Denali Air, as they are the oldest and most experienced flightsee company at Denali.
Next, we head toward the glaciers, and there are hundreds of glaciers in Denali National Park with only 40 of them formally named. As we pass the icefields and snow-covered valleys between the peaks, Dan points out the tiny dots on the snow – Caribou cooling off in the snow. On the way to Mt. Denali, we fly over the Brooks Glacier at 13,000’, a stepping stone to Denali. Above the mountain range, we truly get a sense of this land of eternal winter with snowfields, and glacial rivers. Above 8,000’ and so far from the equator, there is snow and ice year-round.
The Flightsee Tour
Our Denali Air pilot, Dan, is committed to sharing the science, topographic development, and history of these mountains with us. He takes us to see a window into a glacier – the blue cracks where the compressed glacier splits, and a plane could fit. As we fly over Root Glacier, we learn that it is 3,000 feet thick. Flying around and through the valleys of Mount Foraker at 17,400’, Mount Hunter – the longest glacier, and more, we see four base camps for climbers who are ascending Denali.
There is no better way to get a sense of the vastness of Denali Park than on this 200-mile round-trip flightsee. Denali National Park with its glaciers is considered, ‘One of the most striking features on the planet,’ and ‘one of the world’s great geological showcases,’ according to the National Park Service. For me, taking a Denali air tour to fly around Denali is the best way to visit Denali National Park. Fly with Denali Air, as I did, to have an extraordinary experience of a lifetime.
Where to View Denali
The majority of the time Mount Denali is shrouded in clouds – 7 out of 10 days. Only about 30% of the people who visit actually see Denali. I think the greatest chance to see Denali is on a Flightsee. It’s even better to see it from different vantage points. We consider ourselves lucky to have seen Denali from the Eielson Visitor Center, the bus, on a hike, and from above too.
In order to see Mount Denali when visiting, make sure to fully explore Denali Park. To increase your chances of seeing Denali, ‘the great one,’ do a flightsee, a hike, and take a bus tour. Throughout the tours, as the clouds move, look in the direction of Mount Denali.
Ways to Explore and See Denali
Explore Denali on one of the bus trips, and get off at Eielson Visitor Center. Start at the visitor center by heading to the observation deck. Look toward the right to see if Denali is visible. Check out the signage to identify all of the peaks that can be seen from this vantage point. If Denali is not exposed, check out the visitor center or take a hike. Come back to the center’s observation deck regularly to try and capture a glimpse of the elusive Mount Denali.
While hiking, stop to take in the views and look towards ‘the great one’ to see if Denali is exposed. The Thoroughfare Ridge Trail affords gorgeous views of the Alaska Range. It increases in elevation to provide a straight-on view of Denali. When we reached the top of this trail, we were treated to a view of Mount Denali.
Of course, the best and closest view of Mount Denali is on a flight tour of Denali. As we approached Denali by air, it was not visible. Since Denali Air includes 60-70 minutes of flight time, we flew around the glaciers and between some of the mountains, and ‘voila’ Denali finally revealed itself. A Denali flight tour gets you closest to Denali, and Denali Air, provides several vantage points to see and photograph Denali; therefore, I think flying Denali is the best way to view this impressive mountain.
Best of Denali
On any trip to Alaska, in my opinion, it’s a must to visit Denali National Park. Denali is worth visiting for the scenery, to learn some of the geological history, and for the animals – bears, caribou, golden eagles, moose, foxes, coyotes, possibly lynx, wolves, porcupines and so many more. There are not many places in the world where people can see the enormity of glaciers, snow and icefields, and so many tall snow-covered peaks as can be seen on a flight tour of Denali. I highly recommend spending at least 3 days or more if you can, to explore this magnificent park – Denali National Park, and the Best Way to See Denali National Park.
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