Denali National Park

There’s no more quintessential Alaskan destination than Denali National Park. Made up largely of the Alaskan Range, Denali National Park is the home of Denali (aka Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America. This huge park encompasses forest, tundra, mountains, glaciers, giant rocks, and tons of snow.

Some Defining Features

One of the most obvious things about Denali National Park is its size. At 6 million acres, it’s not the largest of the National Parks, but it is 3rd, behind Wrangell-St. Elias and Gates of the Arctic, both in Alaska. (In fact, 7 of the 10 largest National Parks are in Alaska.)

Denali is one of the northernmost National Parks and this proximity to the Arctic Circle has a major influence on the park. Glaciers cover about 1/6 of the park’s surface. These largest of these glaciers are 20, 30, and even 32 miles long and up to 3,800 feet thick! The park receives between 70 and 120 inches of snow per year, depending on where in the park you are.

Another defining feature of Denali? Very limited access. In an effort to maintain the wildness of the land, there’s only one road in and one road out, stretching 91 miles from the entrance to Kantishna deep inside the park. But that’s not all. Registered campers at the interior campgrounds can drive as far as mile 29. If you’re at Riley Creek or Savage River Campgrounds (or not camping), mile 15 is the end of the line for you.

Beyond that, you have to get on a bus and take a long tour to see what Denali has to offer. Depending on which tour you choose, it can last up to 12 hours and cost up to $159. You can take the Shuttle Bus instead of the Tour Bus, though, for far less cash (only $50 to Kantishna).

Visitor’s Center

A great first stop is the Visitor’s Center just a few miles inside the park. At the Visitor’s Center, you can watch the free film “Heartbeats of Denali” (amazing photography!), talk to Rangers, buy bus tickets, and find out about Ranger-led hikes and other activities. The nearby bookstore has plenty more information on Alaska and the Park.

Murie Science & Learning Center

Another nearby freebie is the Murie Science & Learning Center. Inside, you can learn a good bit about Alaska’s eight National Parks, check out some self-guided slide shows on several computers, and take part in education programs. Like the Visitor’s Center, it’s a great way to add to your Denali National Park experience.

Hiking

The best way to experience the vast wilderness of Denali National Park is on foot. You can take a bus tour, but you’ll still only see what can be seen from the road. So you need to lace up your hiking boots and set out on a trail or into the backcountry.

Unfortunately, if you have a dog, you’re out of luck. Like at Glacier National Park, dogs aren’t allowed on trails or off of the road in the backcountry. So leave Fido at home if you really want to see Denali National Park. As you can expect, we’re adding this one to our list of places to return without Knox.

Hiking Trails – There are a handful of easy to moderate hiking trails near the Denali Visitor Center, along with a 2-mile loop along Rock Creek at mile 15. This is a nice, easy loop trail along both sides of the creek that has nice opportunities to potentially see Dall sheep.

Ranger-Led Hikes – Several Ranger-led hikes depart from the Visitor’s Center. These aren’t strenuous hikes through tough terrain. They are all-ages hikes with stops for the Rangers to fill you in on information about the local flora and fauna.

We started one day with the Horseshoe Lake hike where we learned that there are only 8 species of trees in the entire park, most of which are Spruce and Quaking Aspen. Our Ranger told us about a white spruce stand on Mount McKinley called the Drunken Forest. Why? The freeze-thaw cycle of the permafrost creates a group of trees that are leaning in odd directions as the soil shifts.

And we learned about the local berries, such as blueberries, crowberries, and low bush cranberries. Another edible berry is called the soapberry, which we were told is a favorite of bears. They can have them because they have the name “soapberry” for a reason!

Road hiking – For dog-owners like us, the only choice was a road “hike”. Early in the morning, we drove to mile 15 which was as far as we could take our vehicle, then walked along the dirt road for about 6 miles while the sun rose behind us.

While it wasn’t a true Denali hiking experience, it did give us the opportunity to see the beautiful and vast landscape at sunrise. We stood on the road and watched a rainstorm pass through the tundra a few miles away. We didn’t glimpse any wildlife, unfortunately, but the silence and the peacefulness of the park were incredible at that early hour before anyone else was out.

Backcountry hiking – The real way to see Denali is by backcountry hiking. Basically, Denali only has a few hiking trails in the first 15 miles of the park. Beyond mile 15, it’s all backcountry hiking. You just pick a direction and start walking.

You do have to check in with the Park Office to get a backcountry pass and there are a few regulations, but basically, you’re off on your own with your group and whatever fits on your back. One thing that fits on your back should be a can or two of bear spray just in case you come across one of the park’s many resident grizzlies.

Camping

There’s plenty of camping in Denali National Park. In fact, there’s nearly 6 million acres of available camping. If an established campground is what you’re looking for, you can choose from:

  • Riley Creek Campground at park entrance
  • Savage River Campground at mile 12
  • Sanctuary River Campground at mile 23
  • Teklanika River Campground at mile 29
  • Igloo Creek Campground at mile 34
  • Wonder Lake Campground at mile 85

For once, we didn’t do our homework before we went to a National Park. We stayed at the Riley Creek Campground, not realizing that we could have driven the truck back to Sanctuary River or Teklanika River Campgrounds.

Backcountry Camping – Like hiking though, most of the camping in Denali National Park is backcountry camping. You can show up at the park and get a backcountry permit the day before your trip, then set off hiking through the pristine wilderness.

Dog Kennels

Denali National Park is the only National Park with a dog kennel. This is a hallmark of the thousands of years of dog sled use in and around the park. In fact, dog sleds are the only method of winter transport in the Denali Wilderness, an area of the Park & Preserve set aside specifically as wilderness.

You can visit the dog kennels for three daily dog sled demonstrations or just to say hi and pet the Huskies. This particular breed of Husky, the Alaskan Husky, isn’t technically an AKC-recognized breed. The type of Husky that Denali National Park goes for is typically bigger and built more for hauling than for speed, as compared to the Iditarod dogs. In snow with a rider and heavy load (~50lbs per dog), a dog sled team will pull at about 8-10 miles per hour.

The demo was super cool. It’s been going on since 1939. The way it works is a Park Ranger comes out and tells you about the dogs, the park, and the kennels. Then they get ready to leash up the chosen few from the kennel of about 30 dogs. You can tell that these dogs want to be pulling that sled. As soon as the Rangers started running over, they were all at the gate, barking and jumping.

The ones that were picked to pull the sled nearly pulled the Rangers over in their haste to get to their spot on the sled. Then they release the brake and these dogs tear off around the gravel circle (on a sled with wheels) at breakneck speed. Since they’re pulling an unladen sled, they move fast; the driver has to hold on tight when they launch.

These dogs work for 8-9 years, until they begin to slow down due to old age, then they are retired to good homes. You can sign up to get one of the few retirees free of charge, but there’s quite a list of requirements, one of which is that you live in northern climates. To replenish the kennel, there are new pups yearly. When we were there, we got to see the three new pups, all incredibly cute and adorable. You can watch them on camera here.

Lucor, one of the full grown dogs at the kennel, isn’t a fan of men, particularly men with beards. It was rather funny that every time Scott came within 10 feet of him, Lucor ran to his doghouse, jumped on top, and barked his head off until Scott turned to walk away. In fact, that picture above of the dog on top of his doghouse barking is Lucor barking at Scott.

Wildlife

As you’d expect in a park the size of Vermont, there is tons and tons of wildlife. Over 200 different species of amphibians, mammals, birds, and fish call Denali home. The Big Five are what most people want to see though. These are:

  • Moose
  • Caribou
  • Dall sheep
  • Wolf
  • Grizzly bear

If you’re in a very small, but lucky group (which we weren’t), you might see a wolverine or a lynx. We were actually only lucky enough to see a moose and a caribou.

Denali (Mount McKinley)

At 20,320 feet tall, Denali (aka Mount McKinley) is imposing. It’s so big that on clear days, it can be seen from both Fairbanks and Anchorage, some 350 miles apart. By total vertical relief, it’s actually the tallest mountain on land, but by total elevation, it doesn’t even crack the top 100.

It’s humbling to stare at this huge peak off in the distance, towering over everything you can see, then to realize that hundreds of peaks tower over it, including Mount Everest at a height of 29,029 feet. The Himalayas alone have more than 100 peaks taller than our tallest mountain. Humbling, for sure!

So more about the name. Is it Denali? Is it McKinley? Denali is actually the Athabascan name for Mount McKinley, meaning “The High One” and, according to the State of Alaska, the name is Denali. According to the US Board on Geographic Names, the name is McKinley. Why the confusion? P-O-L-I-T-I-C-S. Here’s how Wikipedia explains it:

The Koyukon Athabaskan people who inhabit the area around the mountain referred to the peak as Dinale or Denali (the high one or the great one).
….
In the late 1890s, a gold prospector named it McKinley as political support for then-president William McKinley. The Alaska Board of Geographic Names changed the name of the mountain to Denali, which is how it is referred to locally. However, a 1975 request by the Alaska state legislature to the United States Board on Geographic Names to do the same was blocked by Ohio congressman Ralph Regula, whose district includes McKinley’s hometown. Members of the Ohio congressional delegation continue to protect the McKinley name, blocking attempts by the Alaska congressional delegation to get the Board of Geographic Names to change it to Denali. Thus, Denali is correct according to the Alaska state board, while McKinley is correct according to the national board.

So yeah…there it is. Unfortunately for visitors to the park, Mount McKinley isn’t visible everyday or even all day on days it is visible. Mountain peaks this tall make their own weather, and cloud cover is the norm. In fact, it’s estimated that McKinley is visible about one out of every three days on average. We never saw it in fully unshrouded glory, but we did manage to see about 90% of it with the tip covered in a cotton ball of clouds.

Pictures, Pictures, Pictures!

If you want to see Denali’s beautiful Huskies, we have the pictures. If you want to see the landscapes, we have those too. The place is unreal and we can’t wait to go back.