AN INTRODUCTION TO HIKING, CAMPING AND PHOTOGRAPHY IN DENALI NATIONAL PARK
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mile 15 (ish) – Savage River
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Triple Lakes Trail
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
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
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
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
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!
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!
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.