A Guide to Denali National Park
Picture this: striking white mountain peaks, adorable sled dogs, and six million acres of undisturbed natural beauty.
It’s not every park where cyclists have to pull over because a huge grizzly bear is sleeping in the middle of the road. Alaska delivers such oddball scenarios, Denali National Park public information officer Katherine Belcher told Travel + Leisure.
The third-largest park in America boasts six million sprawling acres of land—more than the entire state of New Hampshire—and is home to a bevy of wildlife, from grizzlies and moose to caribou and dall sheep. Then there’s the mountain itself, which is the tallest peak in North America. For first time tourists or repeat visitors, take Belcher's advice for how best to explore Denali National Park.
Take the tour
There’s only one road running through Denali, says Belcher, and it’s only accessible in a private vehicle for the first 15 miles. From there on out, you can take a shuttle or tour bus. She’s taken tours herself (which is how she heard the grizzly tale), and loves them because of the wild stories rangers and drivers have accumulated over the years.
Watch out for wildlife
“A large number of visitors I speak to are here to see wildlife in their natural habitat,” Belcher said. That includes wolves, wolverines, lynx, snowshoe hares, moose, caribou, dall sheep, bears, and more than 160 types of birds. Belcher, who has visited dozens of national parks in her life, remembers seeing “the biggest caribou I’ve ever seen” near Wonder Lake—one of the best campgrounds in the park thanks to its proximity to Denali. “This guy had a rack between four and six feet wide,” she recalled. “I spent 45 minutes just watching him.”
Bundle up and layer
Low humidity and long, 55-degree days make summer trips to Denali incredibly pleasant. But in the winter it sure does get cold. (When Belcher chatted with T+L in December, it was a brisk negative 39 degrees.)
"Come prepared for anything and dress in layers,” Belcher said. She likes fleece-lined leggings to wear beneath pants, and garments rated for extreme cold temperatures and wind. “You get what you pay for when it comes to winter wear in Alaska,” she warned, so “don’t skimp.”
Be prepared for bears
If you’re planning on backpacking, you’ll need to apply for a backcountry permit in person, and go through an extensive safety program including a mandatory video. It includes bear preparedness: Rangers recommend you bring bear spray, know how to make yourself look big, and know how far is far enough from a bear. NPS employees will provide bear proof containers for you to store your food in, too—“little tiny trash cans that completely seal up,” said Belcher, helping you avoid unexpected visitors.
Reserve a camp site
Reservations are recommended for the six campgrounds in Denali—Belcher is partial to Wonder Lake—some of which you can park your RV at (although they have neither electrical nor water hookups). Hosts live at campgrounds during open seasons, which is handy if you need assistance or have an emergency.
Enjoy the view
Although you can’t always see Denali—“it’s covered with clouds a third of the time,” Belcher noted—when you can, the mountain is stunning. Ask at the visitors’ centers about maps that mark scenic viewpoints.
“Sometimes you have to drive a little ways before you can see Denali from within the park,” says Belcher. For extra-spectacular views, she likes the Polychrome Overlook on a hike.
Visit Glitter Gulch
Popular Nenana Canyon is right on the edge of the park, and has a big lodging facility. “There are touristy stores and gift shops, it’s only open from May to September, and it’s the only place that has lights!” Belcher said. It’s small, but it can be a nice break from the remoteness of the park. The NPS employees who live there affectionately call it “Glitter Gulch.”
Go to the dogs
Brace yourself for cuteness: A major way that rangers get around is by using sled dogs. That’s for environmental reasons (no gas, and no oil), and because it’s easier to get around. The park currently has a working kennel of 34 strong Alaskan huskies, specifically bred and raised to help pull sleds. And wow, they are adorable.
To see them in action—they’re typically born at the end of the summer—check out the Puppycam (which is disabled when dogs are busy being trained). The dogs get 65 thousand visitors annually, Belcher said, and they run an average of 3,000 miles every summer. They come in handy in the winter, too, when the road is closed beyond the park headquarters and only sleds can get through. If visiting in the summertime, make sure to check out the demonstrations: how the pups get hooked up, and what the sleds look like.
“Imagine 6 million undisturbed acres that you can drive through on this one road and a plethora of wildlife on this beautiful Alaskan range,” described Belcher. “It’s life-changing. It really is. It’s not an easy trip to make: It’s expensive, and lodging is expensive, but everybody should have the opportunity to see this. It’s a once in a lifetime experience.