Denali National Park’s most famous peak is Denali, formerly Mount McKinley, and its 20,310-foot summit has attracted mountaineers from all over the world for decades. In 2016, its name changed from Mount McKinley to Denali, thanks to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell whose efforts capped off 100 years of people lobbying for the name change. It had long been shared by Native Alaskans and residents of the state that the peak’s name should reflect one of the Native Alaskan names for it. Denali means “high” or “tall” in the Koyukon language on the north side of the mountain, and today, the peak name matches the park’s name.
More than 1,000 people attempt to climb Denali in a given year but only about 50 percent make it to the top. The mountain’s unforgiving weather, high altitude and extremely cold weather prevent many from reaching the summit.
Despite its iconic mountain, the park itself was actually created in 1917 to protect the tremendous concentration of wildlife that inhabit the area. And there’s no better way to spot Denali’s wild inhabitants than from a bus traveling Denali Park Road where you’re covering significant distances and seated up higher for better viewing. There are a number of bus options in the park (read farther down for details) and the park service offers a good wildlife-viewing guide on where to spot animals along the Denali Park Road.
But in addition to its tremendous population of moose, caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears and wolves, the park is known for a very special domesticated animal— sled dogs. Denali is the only national park in the United States that has its own sled dogs and kennel. Since 1922, sled dogs have been a part of the national park’s staff, helping park rangers protect the park in all sorts of snowy, frigid conditions. In fact, sled dogs have played a key role for generations of Native Alaskans, sensing dangerous ice below snow and navigating in white-out conditions.
You can learn all about the park’s six litters when you attend one of three free daily sled dog demonstrations in the park. They take place June 1- September 1 at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the park’s kennels. You can walk 1.5 miles mostly uphill to the kennels from the Denali Visitor Center or board the Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle 40 minutes in advance from the visitor center to the kennels.
Afterwards, explore Denali’s hiking trails. For an easy trail that brings you past cultural relics from McKinley Station, a former town, take the 1.6-mile McKinley Station Trail from the Denali Visitor Center. You’ll find the remains of historic buildings, the old railroad trestle and more. For a longer, steeper hike, do the 5.4-mile round-trip Mount Healy Trail near the Denali Visitor Center. You’ll start in a spruce forest as you hike up 1,700 feet to a beautiful scenic overlook about halfway up the mountain. The trail ends there and while some people do continue to climb to the top of the peak, park staff warn that people have died falling from the mountain above the conventional turnaround spot.
Navigating Denali National Park
Riding the rails to Denali is a step above most train travel you’ve experienced, regardless of the magnificent views along the way. Choose between two passenger classes — the luxury GoldStar Service or the more affordable Adventure Class. Both offer bar and dining services, but the GoldStar Service offers glass-dome ceilings, an upper-level outdoor viewing platform and an Alaskan tour guide narrating the journey. The Denali Star Train departs at 8:20 a.m. from Anchorage (check the schedule for up-to-date times) and arrives in the park at 3:55 p.m. It’s a breathtaking train ride to the park, and you can buy a train ticket à la carte or a ticket and lodging package.
If you arrive in Denali National Park by car, it’s important for you to know that you can only drive the first 15 miles into the park in your private vehicle during the summer. At mile 9, if the weather is clear, you’ll catch sight of Denali, which shoots 20,310 feet into the sky. The end of the road for you will be Savage River where there is a campground and a trailhead.
The park shuttle system has been in place since 1972 when most of the 92-mile park road was closed to private vehicles. Rather than drive, you can hop on one of the park-run free buses that run along that 15-mile stretch accessible to private vehicles. No reservations are needed.
In the summer, the park offers three free bus lines that start near the park entrance area to bring you to the visitor center and other park facilities— Savage River Shuttle, the Riley Loop Shuttle and the Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle. The Savage River Loop is great for those short on time who want to see the park but don’t need to travel too deeply into it. The shuttle will bring you to a couple of trailheads, as well as to Savage River where there is a campground, along with a trailhead and a place to picnic along the river. The Riley Creek Loop Shuttle links all major park facilities along with Horseshoe Lake and Mount Healy trailheads.
But there are also narrated tour buses and non-narrated transit buses that charge a fee and will bring you deeper into the park. They are not run by the park service. Transit buses cater to independent travelers who want to get off and on the buses to see farther-flung destinations. They do not offer narrated rides and are basically designed solely to drop you off and pick you up at specific destinations. Painted green, these buses will drop you off at a trailhead and when you are done hiking, you can board any green transit bus that passes by.
Tour buses are an entirely different animal. They provide an in-depth scenic experience and are a great way to explore the park with a trained naturalist who will point out the park’s wonders, wildlife and more. Tours can last 7-8 hours. All transit bus, tour bus and campground reservations in Denali National Park are handled by the bus concessionaire, Doyon/ARAMARK Joint Venture at 800-622-7275. You can also make bus reservations online at www.reservedenali.com.
It’s important to note that a dynamic landslide at Pretty Rocks prevented buses from going past the 45-mile marker on the Denali Park Road at the end of the 2021 season. Park officials are warning that this slide could prevent travelers from getting past that same area in 2022. Check the park website for up-to-date details.
Where to Stay in Denali National Park
There are no park service-operated hotels in the park. However, there are six campgrounds in the park where you can camp, with three allowing RVs and three tent-only. There are no RV electrical or water hookups at any campground in the park.
If you’re looking for a really remote experience, there are four private wilderness lodges located in the Kantishna area at the end of the park road. Kantishna is a six-hour bus ride from the park entrance.
Otherwise, there are a variety of lodges and campgrounds outside the park dotting Hwy. 3 between Cantwell 30 miles south of the park entrance and in the town of Healy 11 miles north of the park. Four hotels just seven minutes from the park visitor center are Denali Bluff Hotel, Grand Denali Lodge, McKinley Chalet Resort and Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.