Denali National Park
Hiking, Camping, and Photography:
A Comprehensive Guide

mt Denali in September with tundra and boreal forests below and light clouds hovering around mountain

AN INTRODUCTION TO HIKING, CAMPING AND PHOTOGRAPHY IN DENALI NATIONAL PARK

Denali park road leading to mt Denali with Alaska tundra colored in vivid fall colors surrounding road on a clear summer day in Alaska

Denali National Park, the park by which we quantify all others, unrivaled by its current contenders! Visiting this majestic park was a highlight during our time in Alaska. We spent 7 days in Denali, alternating between hiking in the backcountry and camping at the primitive campgrounds offered inside the park.

There are many different experiences that Denali offers depending on your budget and travel style. This Denali National Park travel guide will focus on living what we consider an authentic, DIY experience. This includes information for hiking on and off-trail, camping, and points of interest along Denali Park Road.

It is possible to visit the park in 1-2 days, but Denali deserves time to be properly explored, and trust us, you will want to explore this gem! If you crave adventure and enjoy off-the-beaten-path travel experiences, Denali is sure to have you hooked!

BEST TIME TO VISIT

Although the park is open year round, activities are limited in the winter. If you want to experience hiking and camping in Denali, you will want to visit from early June to mid-September. By June 8th, all campgrounds are open and the park shuttle is in full operation.

man and woman standing in front of Denali national park sign in September
The obligatory Denali National Park trophy photo

We visited Denali during the last week of the season (September 9-15th) and I can’t imagine a better time to visit the park. Crowds and mosquitos were nonexistent; we had our choice of campsites and backcountry permits; the northern lights graced us with their appearance nearly every night; and fall foliage was at its peak. One of our most memorable experiences was riding the very last shuttle out of the park on the final day of the season. The official NPS website is a great resource for deciding when to visit.

PREPARING TO FACE MT. DENALI

Fairbanks is the closest major city to Denali, but it is also very accessible from Anchorage. Stock up on all of your hiking and camping essentials and head to Alaska’s greatest National Park, Denali! If you need to rent gear, there is an REI in Fairbanks and Anchorage that will supply you with all of your needs. Keep in mind that once you arrive in Denali there are limited options for buying supplies.

girl standing in front of snow capped peak of the Alaska range Denali national park with vivid fall foliage illuminating the tundra
Are you ready…?

HOW TO EXPLORE DENALI NATIONAL PARK

The 92-mile long Park Road only allows private vehicles up to mile 15(ish). To see the best of Denali you must purchase a ticket for the Denali Park Shuttle. Keep in mind that you can take the shuttle to the end of the park road and back in one day, but this entails sitting for hours and experiencing the park through a bus window. Instead, opt to camp at the primitive campgrounds inside the park to allow for multiple days of exploring.

Denali park shuttle parked in Denali national park with snow capped peaks of the Alaska range in the background on a sunny Alaska day
The Denali Park shuttle is your ticket to exploring this absurdly beautiful national park.

Be advised that once you purchase a ticket for the Denali Park Shuttle you can hop on and off as many times as you’d like. This means that you have the option of staying multiple days inside the park and only need to purchase one shuttle ticket. However, once you exit you will need to purchase an additional ticket to enter past mile 15.

Denali park road twists and turns road photo
A narrow road of twists and turns passing the most stunning Alaska scenery

Stop by the Wilderness Access Center (WAC), aka Denali Bus Depot, to purchase your bus ticket and make reservations for the backcountry campsites. If your travel dates are inflexible, it is recommended to make reservations in advance. In this case, you will still pick up your bus ticket and camping permits at the WAC.

CAMPING IN DENALI NATIONAL PARK

There are a total of 6 campgrounds located in Denali National Park and only two cannot be reserved in advance- Igloo Creek and Sanctuary River. Riley Creek Campground or Savage River Campground are good starting points for visiting Denali and both can be accessed via personal vehicle. Campground tends to fill up during high season so prior reservations are highly recommended. For a complete list of all the campgrounds available in the park and to make reservations visit the official NPS website.

camping and hiking Denali national park Alaska range tent in wilderness with mountains in background
You can choose to camp at one of the six established campsites or in the backcountry

Our recommendation is to reserve a campsite at more than one campground along Denali Park Road. This will allow for multiple days of hiking and exploring the different areas of this massively beautiful park. The shuttle will pick you up and drop you off directly in front of the campgrounds so packing in supplies is not a burden.

A magical Denali experience: camping at Wonder Lake

Upon doing research for Denali we came across an article about hiking and camping at Wonder Lake. Described as being one of most unique and highly regarded experiences that one can have in Denali, we knew we had to find out for ourselves! Wonder Lake Campground is located near the end of the road and is just about the closest you can get to Mt. Denali. This place is what dreams are made of! If you know your travel dates ahead of time, we highly recommend that you reserve a campsite here. As what happened in our case, cancellations do occur and it is possible to reserve a spot upon arrival to the park.

wonder lake campground Denali national park tent in vivid fall tundra with mount Denali in background on a sunny day in Alaska
Camping at Wonder Lake was one of our most memorable Denali experiences. Imagine waking up to this view!

If you are looking for other fantastic, off-the-beaten-path Alaska adventures, check out our comprehensive guide for driving the Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle. Experience a road trip of a lifetime as you travel Alaska’s northernmost highway, leading through a raw, unforgiving wilderness of unparalleled beauty.

HIGHLIGHTS AND PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES ALONG DENALI PARK ROAD

The best way to explore the park is by hopping on and off the shuttle at various spots along Denali Park Road. Once inside the park, you can disembark the shuttle wherever you choose and flag down a bus from anywhere along the road. Denali’s version of hitchhiking! With the exception of a few areas, the wilderness is at your disposal.

Use this portion of our Denali travel guide for off-trail hiking/backpacking, finding that perfect photo location, or simply discovering the highlights along Denali Park Road.

hiking Denali national park eielson visitors center mount Denali and vivid fall colors illuminating the Alaska tundra on a sunny summer day
Denali Park Road offers unparalleled views of Mt Denali and the entire Alaska Range

Mile 15 (ish) – Savage River

hiking in Denali national park savage river area with fall colors illuminating the landscape train passes through with mountains in the background
The Savage River area is an incredible spot to see fall foliage and a great introduction to Denali

The first 15 miles of Denali Park Road is accessible by private vehicle, or via the free Savage River shuttle that runs frequently throughout the summer months. It is best to explore this area either before or after taking the Denali Park shuttle deeper into the park. If you prefer to hike following an established trail, check out the Savage River Loop. For off-trail hiking options (unit 4), walk down to the Savage River gravel bar and create your own adventure in Denali! This area of the park is known for its incredible display of fall foliage and excellent moose and grizzly bear habitat.

Mile 16 (ish) – Primrose Ridge

Hiking in Denali national park primrose ridge with vivid fall foliage lighting up tundra with snow capped mountains of the Alaska Range in the background on a sunny Alaska day
Autumn colors illuminate the tundra in early September at Primrose Ridge

An expansive area of alpine tundra that is a great place to explore as an off-trail day hike in Denali. This area is especially beautiful in late August/early September when the rich autumn colors illuminate the rolling tundra. We were absolutely blown away by the magnificent autumn tones! Hop off the shuttle and take some time to explore this gorgeous area. Primrose Ridge is a good spot to consider for a backpacking trip (unit 26) if you are considering going into the backcountry, but are opting for something less strenuous. The tundra makes for pleasant walking conditions and the top of the ridge provides good camping opportunities with views of Mt. Denali.

Mile 23 – Sanctuary River

hiking in Denali at sanctuary river campground with boreal forest and snow capped mountains in the background on a clear Alaska day
Stay a night or two at Sanctuary River Campground and spend some time exploring this gorgeous area

The Sanctuary River is a large glacial river that is bordered by a narrow gravel bar with brush on both sides. The river is easily accessible by heading south of Denali Park Road. If you choose to backpack this area of Denali (unit 5), expect to walk through thick brush alongside the river for the majority of the hike. We stayed one night at Sanctuary River Campground and enjoyed the presence of wildlife and a vivid display of the northern lights. Sanctuary River campground makes a good base for a night or two.

Mile 30 (ish) – Teklanika River

Teklanika river with tundra illuminated by fall colors and Alaska range mountain in the background on a sunny day
No matter where you choose to explore you will always find fantastic views

The shuttle buses will automatically stop at the Teklanika rest stop located at mile 30. Take the opportunity to get out and explore. Teklanika River is a vast, open river bar that is regarded as one of the best spots for wildlife viewing in the park. There are considerable options for hiking this area of Denali, which start from the drainages and lead into Cathedral Mountain. Ask your (hopefully) helpful bus driver for recommendations on where to disembark the shuttle to best explore Cathedral Mountain. Check out unit 6 if you are interested in backpacking this area!

Mile 37-43 – Sable Pass

hiking in Denali with grizzly bear on a summer day in Alaska
Sable Pass is a great place to see wildlife in Denali National Park

Sable Pass is a wildlife protected zone that is permanently closed to pedestrians; therefore, hiking is not allowed in this area of Denali. You can disembark the bus and walk alongside the road, but you cannot venture into the surrounding landscape. Dedicating a full day to wildlife viewing is a must while visiting Denali National Park. It can be a tedious waiting game but the end result is always worth it! If wildlife viewing/photography is your goal, you should absolutely stop here. Sable Pass is recognized as being one of the best areas in the park to see Grizzlies. Bring binoculars, a telescopic camera lens and your patience as you explore this protected area from a distance.

Mile 46 – Polychrome Outlook

hiking in Denali national park near polychrome outlook vivid fall foliage lights up Alaska tundra with snow capped mountains and a river in the background on a sunny day
Impressive views from Polychrome Outlook

This stunning area was formed by volcanic rock and boasts the most uniquely patterned landscape of rich earthy tones. The stretch of road that surrounds the Polychrome Outlook is made up of narrow twists and turns- it’s definitely the most thrilling (and slightly unnerving) portion of Denali Park Road! The shuttle will stop at the outlook for enough time to snap a few good photos. If you are craving to see more of this area, follow one of the drainages down to the creek bed and begin hiking through this stunning portion of Denali. Another option for exploring the Polychrome area is to exit the shuttle at the East Fork Bridge, which is a few miles before the outlook. Check out Unit 31 for backpacking options in the Polychrome Mountain area.

Mile 53 – Toklat River

Toklat river rest stop bench with antlers Alaska range and tundra in background
You can expect great photo opportunities at the Toklat River rest stop along Denali Park Road

As a scheduled rest stop along the Denali Park Road, this makes for an easy place to get out and explore. Stop by the bookstore located at the rest stop and then head to the expansive river valley for a walk along the river bank. Keep an eye out for wildlife that is commonly seen frolicking in the area. Grab a permit for Unit 32 if you decide to backpack the area around the Toklat River.

Mile 62 – Stony Hill Overlook

stony hill overlook Denali national park Denali park road running straight towards mt Denali on a clear summer day
Stony Hill Overlook is one of the best places in the park to photograph Mt. Denali

The view from here is absolutely phenomenal! This is the spot to capture the iconic image of Denali Park Road. This is one of the most photographed locations in the park and for a good reason. The open tundra, rolling hills and unbeatable views make Stony Hill Overlook one of the best hiking spots in Denali. Score a permit for Unit 33 and spend a couple of days backpacking and exploring.

Mile 66 – Eielson Visitors Center

eielson visitors center Denali national park man stands on trail with mt Denali in background and fall foliage illuminating tundra on a clear summer day in Alaska
Some of the best views of Mt. Denali are from Eielson Visitors Center

This is a place in Denali where you will want to spend a couple of hours hiking and taking photos. There are several options for off and on-trail hiking in this area of Denali. Make your way to the Thorofare Ridge Trail, aka Eielson Alpine Trail, for stunning panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Follow the trails in front of Eielson down to Thorofare River via the Gorge Creek Trail and walk along the riverbank with Mt. Denali as the backdrop. Stop inside the visitors center for informative educational demonstrations about the park. Unit 13 is one of the most sought after backpacking permits in Denali. A popular multi-day trek is to circumnavigate Mount Eielson. This off-trail trek provides magnificent views of Mt. Denali and the entire Alaska Range.

Mile 85 – Wonder Lake

man hiking in Denali national park looking out towards tundra with mount Denali in the background standing over a river on a sunny Alaska day
Spend some time exploring the area around Wonder Lake and don’t miss hiking the McKinley River Bar trail for incredible views of Mt. Denali

If you have the time, exploring the area around Wonder Lake Campground is a must! If you are able to spend a night or two, even better! From Wonder Lake Campground take the short trek to Reflection Pond where you will experience that picturesque reflection of Mt. Denali. In order to get that picture perfect reflection, it is best to visit on a clear day with very little wind (you have to get really lucky)! Another hike that is accessible from the campground is the McKinley River Bar Trail. This hike provides incredible views from start to finish and places you just 25 miles from the base of Denali.

Mile 92- Kantishna

Denali park road wildlife walking on road with snow capped mountain and fall foliage in the background
Kantishna is at the very end of Denali Park Road where you will see far more locals (wildlife) than tourists

A historic settlement at the end of Denali Park Road. Few visitors venture this far into the park, most stopping at Wonder Lake or before. Explore the hills surrounding Kantishna or obtain a backpacking permit for unit 64. If you really want to get off the beaten path, look for an old mining road, Skyline Drive, right before you reach the end of Denali Park Road. Skyline Drive ventures through the Kantishna Hills, providing access to Quigley Ridge and the Wickersham Dome. From here you have an abundance of some of the best hiking routes in Denali. If your budget is flexible and you prefer backcountry lodging options as opposed to camping, check out Camp Denali/North Face Lodge and Kantishna Roadhouse.

HIKING IN DENALI NATIONAL PARK

Although the majority of hiking in Denali is off-trail, there are still several options for hikes that follow an established trail. Here is a list of our favorites.

woman hiking through tundra Denali national park with mt Denali in background on a sunny Alaska day in summer
Hiking near Wonder Lake with Mt. Denali as the backdrop

Triple Lakes Trail

Alaska tundra illuminated with fall foliage and grizzly bear and cub walking through tundra on a sunny Alaska day
Grizzly bears and other wildlife are commonly spotted while hiking in Denali

Start at the Denali Visitors Center and plan for a full day of hiking to complete this 19 mile trail. The highlights of this hike are 3 gorgeous lakes, interestingly named Lake 1, Lake 2, and Lake 3. If you don’t want to complete the full hike, we recommend to start at the south end of the trail near Denali Park Village, opposite to the visitors center on the north side. By starting from the south you will pass all 3 lakes within a few miles of hiking. Be sure to take the side trails that lead down to each lake.

Savage River Loop Trail

savage river in the fall with the Alaska range in the background and yellow leaves on the trees on a sunny Alaska day
The Savage River loop trail is a great starting point for exploring Denali

Located at mile 15 of the Denali Park Road. Look for the Savage River Loop Trail parking area; this is where the trail begins. This is an easy 2 mile trek that offers a lot of reward for little effort. The hike provides an excellent opportunity for viewing wildlife and fall foliage. The trail runs along the Savage River and is surrounded by towering canyon walls. Hiking this trail makes for a nice introduction to Denali National Park.

Savage Alpine Trail

Alaska range snow capped peaks with tundra below
Astonishing views of the Alaska Range

A more strenuous day hike option in the Savage River area. Start at Mountain Vista Trailhead, located at mile 13 right before you reach Savage River Campground. This trail is approximately 8 miles round trip with a 1500 feet gain in elevation. Hiking this trail provides excellent views of Mt Denali and the surrounding valley, weather permitting.

Thorofare Ridge Trail, aka Eielson Alpine Trail

Alaska range snow capped mountain peaks and vivid fall foliage lighting up the tundra
Dedicate time for exploring the area around Eielson Visitors Center and hike to Thorofare Ridge for panoramic views of the landscape

The trailhead is located across from the Eielson Visitor Center a mile 66 along the Denali Park Road. Hiking this trail is a must while visiting Denali National Park. At approximately 1.6 miles round trip, the end result offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, including Mt Denali. The ascent is pretty steep, but the trail is made up of well groomed switchbacks. The view from the top is breathtaking!

McKinley River Bar Trail

Mount Denali in background with river flowing and fall foliage lighting up Alaska tundra on a sunny Alaska day in summer
A leisurely hike that provides fantastic views around every turn

This was our favorite day hike in Denali National Park. The trail is short and sweet offering incredible views from start to finish. The trailhead is easily accessed from Wonder Lake Campground at mile 85 of Denali Park Road. At approximately 5 miles round trip with little elevation gain, this hike is doable for most. On a clear day, there are numerous spots along the trail to see Mt Denali and great opportunities for wildlife viewing. The trail passes through tundra, meadows and forest until it reaches McKinley River where you have the most incredible view of Mt. Denali. This hike is especially beautiful in the fall when the brilliant tones illuminate the landscape. This hike is a must!

IN SUMMARY

It is hard to express in words the love we have for Denali National Park. We hope that this guide is helpful in planning your Denali adventure, whatever that may be! Please feel free to voice any questions you have in the comments sections and as always, may you find those enriching experiences that make your soul smile!

Alaska forest and tundra with fall foliage illuminating the landscape
Fall foliage illuminates the tundra in early September, a sight that can’t be missed!

Have you traveled to Denali National Park? If so, we would love to hear about your favorite experiences in the comments section. Looking for more Alaska adventures? Check out our Kenai Peninsula travel guide for the ultimate DIY travel experience in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.

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