Denali National Park and Preserve is one of those experiences you must enjoy. The park offers guests an ecologically practical experience – exemplifying the balance between “hands-off” nature and tourism management. You can see the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness firsthand while minimizing your local environmental impact. As guests on this wondrous planet, we must collectively travel thoughtfully and move through environments that leave no trace of our visit.
I just got back from exploring Denali National Park and Preserve, and everyone I spoke to fell in love with the rugged beauty of the park; I’m sure you’ll like it too. I’ve put together a list of 11 things you need to know before you visit and hope you visit as soon as possible.
Note: Some information in this article was obtained through a sponsored press trip, but all recommendations are my own.
1. Denali Park Road
Denali Park Road runs 92 mostly gravel miles from the park entrance on Alaska Highway 3 to Kantishna. However, this road is not entirely passable with your personal vehicle. The Denali Visitor Center will have all the information you need to hike and horseback in the national park.
Only Denali National Park and Preserve licensed buses are permitted along Park Road and only up to Mile 43. Due to the Pretty Rocks landslide, the park has closed the road beyond Mile 43 – at least until the summer season 2023.
If you are driving your own personal vehicle, you must turn around at Mile 15 and are only permitted this distance from mid-May to early September.
Pro Tip: Check with your car rental company; some companies prohibit driving on Denali Park Road. You can actually void your car rental insurance if you have an accident while driving on a prohibited road.
2. Bus through Denali
The best way to see the park – without having to travel miles and miles – is to take one of the licensed buses. There are two different types of bus travel through Denali offering different ways to explore depending on your personal desires.
The “let’s go to our stop” bus is the untold transit bus. This bus will drop you off and pick you up anywhere along the navigable miles on Denali Park Road. This is the best option if you want to hop on and off to explore the park’s trails independently of tour groups.
You will meet a wide variety of characters on the public transport bus. There are on- and off-trail day-trippers looking to hike the open reserve, campers with multiple days of gear as they head into the natural features, and there will be people who just want to s Sit back and enjoy the scenic ride without the chatter of a narrator.
Guided tourist buses
Guided bus tours tell about park history, wildlife management, and park management education, plus a few well-practiced jokes along the way. Question: What do you call a Denali visitor who bikes through the park?
Denali Park Village offers two unique narrated tours of Denali National Park and Preserve.
- The Tundra Wilderness Tour is a fascinating tour that encompasses all aspects of park management. The tour turns at Mile 43 and guests experience the full stretch of the open road. During this trip, you will learn about the history of the park, its wildlife population and the management of the park. The driver/narrator stops frequently during this 5+ hour tour for wildlife viewing and restroom breaks.
- The Natural History Tour travels to Mile 25 along Denali Park Road with a U-turn at Teklanika Flats. The 4.5+ hour tour will explore the history of Denali National Park, including an introduction to Alaska Natives and a visit to the original ranger’s cabin, Savage Cabin.
Answer: Meals on Wheels!
3. Dress appropriately
The weather in Denali can change quickly and the temperature range from early morning through mid-afternoon to evening can fluctuate. Dressing in layers is an understatement.
Hike through the open spaces and then back into the wooded area where temperatures can be considerably cooler making outdoor clothing tricky. Layers like a sleeveless top, then a long-sleeved shirt, followed by a light jacket should keep you warm in the more temperate months. Heavier layers, woolen hats and mittens may be needed in early spring or fall.
A Denali expert recommended “Dress for the weather you don’t expect.” You never know when there will be snow and ice on the trail, a sudden downpour, or scorching heat.
Solid, broken-in hiking shoes are the key to any successful hike. Personally, I always bring my trekking poles. They help me move forward while providing additional balance. You will see many hikers using them along the trails.
4. Ditch the plastic
Plastic bottles create a pile of non-biodegradable waste. It takes about 1,000 years for a landfill plastic water bottle to photodegrade. Bring a refillable water bottle to stay hydrated while exploring and help us avoid tons of unrecycled plastic water bottles.
5. Binoculars for a better view
When you’re on a tour bus or on a hiking trail, wildlife is probably far from you. This is a good thing since you don’t want to encounter a grizzly bear, moose, or other large woodland creature up close. Binoculars and zoom-equipped cameras are the best way to get a great view of the people of Denali.
You may see people approaching wildlife for a closer look, but don’t! When a fast 1,500 pound moose is crazy and rushes at you with all his might, he’ll probably win the battle.
6. Phone batteries
Phone batteries have a limited charge, and you don’t want to run out of juice just when the perfect mountain view appears.
An easy way to increase your battery life is to switch your phone to airplane mode. This will prevent the phone from constantly searching for a cell signal. Either way, you’ll be too busy watching nature scroll by to scroll on your phone.
Pack a portable battery charger if you like to take large amounts of photos on your phone. Mine has saved me many times, allowing me to continue enjoying the scenery one snapshot at a time.
7. Wildlife up close
While hiking in Denali, you may very well encounter wildlife on the trail. A Denali guide joked, “Animals are like us, they like it easy. Why would they forge a new lead when there’s already one here?
Carrying and knowing how to use bear spray is a good safety measure. Talking while you hike will alert animals to your presence and help you keep them away. Stay away from animals, learn their habitats and be aware of your surroundings.
The Denali Animal Safety Guidelines page is a good place to prepare for your wilderness exploration.
8. Lock your passport
I will tell a story that was told to me firsthand. There was a group enjoying a nice gathering, chatting and sharing a snack at a picnic table. A grizzly bear arrives, hungry and curious. As the group took cover – shouting and waving his arms as per protocol – the grizzly decided to use one of the backpacks, pick it up and carry it away.
Unfortunately, a much-needed passport and cash reserve were in the stolen backpack, leaving someone stranded with no access out of the country.
Keep your passport and money in the hotel safe.
9. Rent a car
Denali and its surroundings are made up of wide open spaces. You can take a shuttle to get from place to place, but it is more convenient to have your own car. A drive down the Alaska Highway on a bright sunny day is a beautiful scenic drive in all directions.
Visit Denali National Park
The wilderness paradise that is Denali National Park and Preserve is best enjoyed when you are well prepared. There’s so much to see and do, you’ll love the park’s large scenic openness and accessibility. I hope you will experience Denali in the near future and this list of 11 must-have tips will help start your journey.
Use this guide as the perfect addition to your generic packing list. The park is home to many backcountry trails and acres – it’s time to get out and explore.