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Top 10 Things to Do in Denali National Park

If a trip to Alaska is a dream come true for you, then a visit to Denali National Park should certainly be on your “Must See” list.  Most visitors are not prepared for the park’s vastness and the variety of topography, wildlife, and activities they will find near North America’s tallest peak.  But don’t let that deter you from an amazing encounter with this celebrated region. There are plenty of ways to explore all Denali has to offer, and we’re sharing the top 10 with you in this article.

What You Need To Know About Visiting Denali National Park

Upon entering Denali, be prepared to have your definition of “large” expand by leaps and bounds.  Physical distance here feels almost immeasurable, and the tendency to see yourself from God’s vantage point – as a speck upon the landscape – will become 2nd nature in a matter of minutes.  This 6 million-acre park has room for everyone to get lost in their own rendition of outer space

Top 10 Things to Do in Denali National Park: 

Because Denali is so large, there are just too many activities to do all in one trip. But the following activities will at least get you started. Here are the top 10 things to do in Denali National Park based on our own experience!

1. Take a Bus Tour of Denali National Park

You can drive to Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, but once inside the park, the only vehicles that can take you to the interior are buses (or your bicycle!).  So pick a bus tour and hop aboard! There are three types of bus tours available: free, non-narrated, and narrated.

Free bus tours operate on the publicly drivable portion of Park Road (first 15 miles), linking campgrounds and facilities for visitors who don’t want to use their car.  Free bus tours are (surprisingly) free!

Non-narrated buses allow you to get on and off at various stops, experiencing the park at your own pace and without a tour guide.  Priced reasonably, the tours stop for wildlife viewing, restroom breaks, and scenic overlooks.

Narrated buses have a tour guide to give riders an overview of the history, geology, and wildlife habitats of Denali. They stop at predetermined points, as well as for spontaneous viewing. These tours also include lunch.  The park offers three narrated tours, including: 

  1. Denali Natural History Tour – this 4-½ hour tour will introduce you to Denali’s natural and cultural history but is not geared toward wildlife viewing.
  2. Tundra Wilderness Tour – this 8-hour tour with a park naturalist will provide you with a detailed history of the region, and much of the time will be spent searching for wildlife and photography opportunities.
  3. Kantishna Experience Tour – with pickup and drop off at local hotels outside the park, this tour lasts about 12 hours. It travels the entire length of Park Road (92 miles one way) to explore the gold town of Kantishna.  An interpretive guide and a park ranger join travelers and delve more into interior Alaska.  Included are lunch, drinks, and snacks.

2. Take to the Skies on a Flightseeing Trip

One of the very best ways to see the park is from the air.  Flightseeing trips vary widely in time and experiences, from overviews of the mountain and surrounding glaciers to landing on said glacier for exploration of the backcountry by foot.  Most tours originate in the quirky town of Talkeetna.

3. Take a Hike!

There are three ways to see Denali National Park on the ground:  by bus, bicycle, or on foot. Hiking is, by far, the easiest way to view the countryside up close and personal. Of course, you can hike almost anywhere within the park boundaries too.  Lengths of hikes can stretch from hours to days, depending on your goal. If you want to hang out in a remote section, be sure to apply for a camping/backcountry permit.  There are numerous short hiking trails. However, many people escape to this wilderness to forge their own trails with maps and GPS tools.

4. Visit the Sled Dog Kennels

The Park Service hosts its own kennels for sled dogs, using the teams to patrol sections of Denali.  During the summer, the kennels are usually filled with dogs, but winter may find the canines out touring the park with their ranger supervisor.  If you are contemplating a dog sled tour, take advantage of several private tour operators outside the parks’ boundaries.

5. Explore the Visitor Centers

Denali has three main Visitor Centers where you can gather information about the park.

  1. Start your adventure in the park with a stop at Denali Visitor Center, where you’ll get a good overview of all that is offered here.  With an informational video, ranger station, gift shop, and several exhibits, you will be well-prepared for your outdoor experience.  (Open only in Summer.) 
  2. Murie Science and Learning Center caters to research and discovery sciences concerning the Arctic. Additionally, it acts as the park’s main visitor center during Fall, Winter, and Spring.
  3. Eielson Visitor Center is located at mile 66 of the Park Road and is open only in Summer.  It has ranger-led programs and hosts a gallery of art inspired by The Mountain. 

6. Bike Denali Park Road

Bicycles are allowed all along Park Road and are a great way to see wildlife and capture amazing views of the landscape.  Riders are welcome to ride one-way, then hitch a ride for themselves and their bikes back on one of the transit buses.

7. View the Northern Lights

Although usually only visible during Fall and Winter, Aurora Borealis is one of the most magical sights seen at this latitude.  Starting in late August or early September, the lights can be quite spectacular, dancing on the evening and early morning horizons when solar flares and stronger magnetic fields occur.  There is nothing quite like watching the Northern Lights form curtains of green, white, purple, and red in the skies around Denali!

8. Search for Wildlife

Of course, you won’t have to search very far for wildlife in the national park, as grizzly, moose, caribou, wolves, and Dall sheep call Denali home.  They roam free, and for those visitors accustomed to seeing these animals in zoos, the sight of a moose grazing a few dozen feet away from the road will have you raising your camera time and time again. 

In addition, bus drivers, pilots, and tour guides are familiar with their habitats and will help you discover a whole world of animals as nature intended.

9. Take an Off-Road ATV Adventure Tour

You can also book an ATV tour with any one of the private tour operators located just outside of the park.  Their guides will help you explore trails that have been opened for ATV traffic without disturbing land within the preserve.

10. Go Whitewater Rafting in the Upper Nenana Scenic Wilderness

Enjoy Class II and Class III rapids in the Nenana River, where the water comes directly from glaciers melting at the base of Denali.  Several private companies offer rafting during the summer months. It’s also not unusual to combine this sport with wildlife viewing, as many animals indigenous to the area can be spotted from the river.  Trips can run from 2 hours long to 2 weeks, as desired.

Denali Highway & Denali National Park| Go North Ep.10

These Things to Do in Denali National Park Make for An Epic Adventure

With the list above, you should have a good start on exploring Denali National Park and Preserve.  There are tremendous opportunities to not only view the park’s namesake as it towers over the landscape but to enjoy exhilarating outdoor activities, as well as peaceful respites away from life’s daily grind.  Whatever you choose, one thing is for sure:  you are definitely guaranteed the adventure of a lifetime!

Alaska has 9 other national parks that are definitely worth a visit, too! Learn more about them here: The Complete List of Alaska National Parks

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