Are you planning a trip to Denali National Park in Alaska? Before you go, read this park guide for our tips on the best ways to travel to and experience Denali.
by Jesse Smith
Have you been dreaming of going to one of America’s greatest national parks?
If you’re like me, you’ve had the desire to visit Alaska for a long time, and you especially want to see this iconic park.
If the highest peaks, raging rivers, gorgeous wildflowers, abundant grizzlies, foxes basking in the sun, and reindeer eyeing you from the ridges all sound like an adventure to you-- then this park is something you must experience!
Planning a backpacking trip? Shop for the best gear, learn more about Backpacking in Denali National Park, and then check out our guides for Denali backcountry units 12 + 13 and backcountry units 31 + 32.
2022 update: Due to a gradually worsening landslide, the Denali Park Road is closed after mile 43. Although backcountry hiking and camping are still open, access points beyond mile 43 are not reachable. Check out our top 10 things to do while the road is closed!
Can I Drive to Denali?
Yes, but-- are you already packing your bags?
Before you pack your car and hit the road, there are a few things you really need to know!
For instance, just the drive from Seattle, Washington to Denali National Park and Preserve is a little over 2,250 miles (3,621.02 km)!
Granted, that may be one epic road trip, but for most people, the long drive is not going to be an option.
Want help picking out camping gear? Check out my recommended gear for Denali National Park!
How Can I Fly To Denali?
For most travelers, I recommend flying.
Flying into Anchorage, Alaska is the most popular choice. Just keep in mind that once you land in Anchorage, it’s still a 4-hour car ride to Denali!
Another option is to fly to Fairbanks, Alaska and drive two hours to Denali.
Getting from Anchorage to Denali National Park
Yes, Alaska is a huge and remote state, but once you land in Anchorage, there are actually several ways to get to Denali National Park.
I don’t recommend the last option, but we saw our fair share of hitchhikers on the road.
Keep in mind that some of these options are quite expensive (especially the chartered flight!).
We found that most car rentals were around $100 dollars a day.
Fortunately for us, we had a friend who let us borrow their mom’s van.
And mom’s van was epic!
Planning a Trip to Denali National Park
Now that you have a basic idea of how to get to the park, what do you do when you get there?
First, you need to decide what you want from this park.
Are you an avid backpacker or do you take a more casual approach to camping?
This first big thing to know about Denali is that it is a trail-less park. Yes, that's right, it's a wild and rugged trail-less park with the exception of a couple of nature trails near the visitor centers.
Denali National Park and Preserve’s focus-- aside from Denali, the highest mountain in North America-- is preservation.
Part of preserving the park means limiting how the park will be impacted by visitors.
And that means limiting our footprints.
Trails mean footprints. Lots and lots of footprints.
The park and preserve encompass 6,045,153 acres.
That’s larger than the state of New Hampshire.
Denali's landscape is an epic mix of forest at the lower elevations and tundra and glaciers, snow, and exposed rock at the higher elevations (even during the summer).
So how do you plan a trip to a park of this caliber?
With LOTS of research.
Do I Need a Park Map?
Order a good map (or even several maps). We used this National Geographic map of Denali.
For a park this size having a good map is absolutely essential. You will need it in front of you both to start planning your trip and once you are in the park.
Travel by Bus in Denali National Park
Denali works differently from a lot of other national parks in the United States.
The park is only accessible by car for the first few miles.
This is where you'll find the park amenities such as the visitor information center, train/bus stations, a campground, and even a storage facility for luggage.
The main park road is 92 miles (148.06 km) long with only the first 15 paved and accessible by car.
From there, to get further into the park, you have to buy a transit bus pass. This bus takes you down the only road that runs the length park and back.
The bus ride may be very long but, in reality, is the best way to see the park. We saw most of our animal sightings from our window.
On the bus, when someone saw a bear or any other animal, they would shout out to the driver, who would then stop for a few minutes so that everyone could take a look.
Make sure to bring travel-sized binoculars. You will regret it if you don’t!
Denali Travel Tip: The transit buses (and a lot of other park amenities) are only available in the summer from May 20 to mid-September.
This bus will drop you off wherever you please for you to begin your adventure. Or you can simply ride it the length of the road and back.
Now that you have a basic idea of what to expect, it's time to plan your trip!
Remember, it’s a wild park, so stay safe out there!
About Jesse Smith
Jesse Smith was born in St Louis, MO and is a traveler, nomad, and creator. He has a mustache. Jesse is married to the most wonderful woman on the planet. They are learning Chinese and living the best life ever. Follow Jesse at @TheJesseSmithShow.