Adventures in Alaska: Denali National Park & Preserve
Last summer my Dad and I took the Father/Daughter trip of a lifetime. We spent five weeks exploring the great state of Alaska in order to visit the eight US National Parks in the Last Frontier. You can scope out our five week itinerary here. This is the first in a series to recap our experiences in each park.
We landed in Anchorage, picked up our rental car, and drove to the Sockeye Inn. Yes, our epic trip in the great outdoors kicked off with a night in a budget hotel. Not to worry, soon enough we'd have plenty of nights spent crammed in a two-person tent. On our way to Denali we stopped in the historic village of Talkeetna and even found the Geocache my Couchsurfing host placed to commemorate my June 2015 Alaska trip. If you're traveling from Anchorage to Denali via Highway 3, Denali Viewpoint South is a must-stop as it very well could be your first view of North America's highest peak if it's a clear day!
Now that you've snapped some pictures at the Park Entrance, here are
Six Things To Do in Denali National Park & Preserve:
1. Visit the Sled Dog Kennels - One of the more low-key activities in the park (and the perfect introduction) is a visit to the Sled Dog Kennels, home of Denali's Alaskan huskies. While visitors can explore the kennels daily from 9:30am-4:00pm, there are also 30-minute programs during which Park Rangers and the huskies demonstrate a traditional mode of Alaskan travel. Watching the demonstration as a Ranger rode around a track and discussed the historic and modern uses of Alaskan huskies in the park and visiting with the sled dogs afterwards was particularly special for me. It didn't take me long to recognize some of the names and realized a couple of the dogs were puppies during my first visit to Alaska - a time in which I had the opportunity to visit the kennels after-hours thanks to my Park Ranger Couchsurfing host!
2. Explore Denali Park Road - Many people don't realize there is only one road in Denali. This one road leads to Polychrome Overlook, Toklat River, the Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake Campground, and Kantishna (plus so many other great places). While Denali Park Road might be 92-miles long, during the summer months, visitors can only drive private vehicles on the first 15-miles. After that, the paved road turns into mostly gravel and only transportation via park concessionaire (Doyon/ARAMARK) bus is permitted. There are a number of bus options available to visitors - some free, some not, some narrated, and some not-narrated. Although it's a bit disappointing you can't drive yourself to the end of the road at Mile 92, take pleasure in knowing you're helping to reduce traffic congestion and protect the natural resources of the park by hopping aboard the bus. Plus, you're more likely to spot wildlife if you have 30+ pairs of eyes looking for it.
3. Spend the Night - There are a number of options to spend the night in Denali National Park and Preserve. If you possess navigation and outdoor skills, you might try backcountry camping. Since I wanted to survive long enough to actually visit all the parks in Alaska, we opted to tent camp in established campgrounds. While there are six established campgrounds in the park, we spent our first and last night at Riley Creek Campground, one of the largest and most popular campgrounds in the park. Located just inside the park entrance, Riley Creek offers a number of amenities including a general store, showers, and laundry which definitely comes in handy when you spend three days without. We also spent a couple of nights at Wonder Lake Campground, the closest campground to Denali located at Mile 85 of the Denali Park Road. Although the campground and mountain are separated by nearly 26 miles, I'll never forget how the High One looms over the campground. Sure, we got our fair share of bug bites and had to eat in designated areas but we were also able to hike the McKinley River Bar Trail, relax at Reflection Pond, and explore the end of road and Kantishna. It turns out there are a handful of privately owned and operated lodges near Kantishna. If you're willing to spend what most people would consider a small fortune, check out the private lodges for an experience in "glamping."
4. Attend a Ranger Program - Now that you've bought some time in the park by spending a night (or five), it's time to really immerse yourself through learning and exploring. If I remember correctly, we attended four different Ranger Programs in the handful of days we were in Denali. One of my favorite programs to date is Ranger Frank's talk at Wonder Lake Campground as he shared the history of the old mining community of Kantishna. While at Wonder Lake Ranger Station, I became a Junior Ranger, an opportunity I rarely pass up. Whether at a Visitor Center, in a campground, or out on the trails in the wilderness, there are a variety of Ranger Programs at Denali for adults and kids alike.
5. Take a Hike - Denali is home to six million acres of land. Turns out there are only a handful of marked trails within those six million acres. Most people hike the marked trails near the park entrance. Some hike the established trails further out, like the trails near Savage River, Eielson Visitor Center, and Wonder Lake. Personally, I've hiked the strenuous Thorofare Ridge Trail near the Eielson Visitor Center (1,000 feet in a little less than one mile, one-way) and the McKinley River Bar Trail, traveling through a spruce forest, in the Wonder Lake area of the park. If you're familiar with using a map and compass and subsequently have navigation skills, Denali is the size of the State of Massachusetts meaning there is plenty cross-country/off-trail hiking to explore. If you prefer a guided hike, check out the Ranger-Led Trail Hikes or Off-Trail Discovery Hikes in the park. Personally, I'm hoping to visit Denali again someday armed with some bear spray to finally camp out in the backcountry.
6. Photograph & Enjoy the Wildlife - Luckily for you, if you do the five things already mentioned on this list, you're pretty much guaranteed to see and enjoy the wildlife in Denali. In fact, Congress actually created the park in 1917 in order to protect the wildlife! It was only after the park tripled in size that the park started protecting Denali! The first time I ever saw a bear, I was on a bus going down the Denali Park Road and it was truly a magical moment. Denali is also home to moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, foxes, ground squirrels, and many more mammals. Not to mention, there are 169 species of birds and I've never wished I was a birder more than I did when I was in Denali. The more time you spend in the park, the more likely you are to see wildlife roaming in the undeveloped, unfenced lands.
So, whether its North America's tallest peak - the 20,000+ foot Mt. Denali - the animals, the wild land, or something in between, the vast wilderness and its tranquility await you.
Think there's something I forgot in my list of Six Things to do in Denali National Park and Preserve? Something you agree with? Have a question about what I did mention? Have you explored the park already? I'd love to hear it all, please leave a comment!