Encompassing the pristine area of Alaska’s interior, Denali National Park is a place you’ll never forget, and likely something you’ll be talking about for years. With its incredible and diverse range of wildlife, meandering rivers, and massive mountain, the stunning scenery all around will leave you breathless and inspired.
Open year-round, Denali has one main road that bisects the park, making it easily accessible by car or bus in the summer months. But come winter, the ice and snow make mass tourism difficult, and parts of the park are closed. For those adventurers seeking solace, late autumn through late spring holds a lot of promise, as the crowds are virtually gone.
As the highest peak on the North American continent, Denali looms large at 20,310 feet above sea level. It is so large, in fact, that it creates its own weather system. It is not unusual for the mountain to be completely shrouded behind a bank of clouds.
My name is Rob Decker and I’m a photographer and graphic artist with a single great passion for America’s National Parks! I’ve been to 51 of our 63 National Parks, and Denali is the perfect way to experience the vast and untouched wilderness in Alaska’s remote outback. Whether this is your first time to Denali or your tenth, here are the top activities in Denali National Park.
There are endless opportunities for hiking all around the park. Trails that are close to the park entrance are plenty, with many running along the main road and connecting to important attractions and facilities. The McKinley Station Trail is a short, but very interesting hike. However, for hiking that is a little more strenuous, the Mount Healy Overlook is the perfect trail if you don’t want to climb but would like a stunning vantage point. The Triple Lakes Trail is the longest in the park and very beautiful.
Hiking with a Ranger
For an inside look into Denali NP, hiking with a ranger can help you appreciate and understand the great significance of Denali. Most ranger-led hikes take place around summertime from late May through mid-September. These hikes, as well as other ranger talks, are free and there’s no need to sign up in advance.
A photographer’s dream, Denali offers unsurpassed photographic opportunities all through the year. Beginning and amateur photographers have no shortage of subject matter with which to hone their skills. The biggest draw is of course “The Mountain,” which can be seen from as far away as Anchorage on a clear day. Try to catch the best lighting around “golden hour” which is right as the sun is going down.
To truly immerse yourself in the Denali experience, camping is a must. The park has several developed tent and RV campsites that can be booked online at the NPS website, or if you want to backpack and create your own primitive site, be sure to secure a backcountry permit. Most of the campsites are located along rivers, creeks, and lakes, so there really is no bad view from your camp spot!
In Search of Wildlife
Roaming wild and free, there is no guarantee that you will actually see wildlife, but the promise is always there. Iconic species such as moose, black and grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, and the famous Denali sheep are permanent residents here. Other smaller mammals are red squirrels, arctic ground squirrels, marmots and foxes.
Biking on Denali Park Road
Get up close and personal by letting the fresh air whip around you on an epic cycling tour of Denali. A full 92 miles along Park Road is open to cyclists and is a great way to get some exercise while taking in the grandeur of the park. You can start at the park entrance, or at Savage River and ride to your heart’s content. Make it an afternoon, day trip, or multi-day excursion. The choice is yours.
Explore the Savage River
Further out, the Savage River Area is located near Miles 13 – 15 on Denali Park Road. The 2-mile long Savage River Loop is a lovely stroll along the river. For a more strenuous hike, The Savage Alpine Trail at over four miles long never disappoints. This is also a prime place for wildlife and bird viewing.
There is no experience in Denali that can be more dramatic than seeing nature from a bird’s eye view. Regular flight excursions from small aircraft are available to park visitors, and it’s the perfect way to absorb the enormity and diversity of the landscape. Imagine flying over Denali mountain and spying the tiny forms of mountaineers as they make their way to the summit. Flights are available from several local companies outside the park.
Visit the Sled Dogs
From left to right: Troll, Hobbit, Munchkin, Lady, Royal, Throne, and Pika!
If these adorable canine rangers don’t win your respect, they will at least win your affections. The gorgeous huskies of Denali are an essential part of the historical and cultural significance of the park and are the only sled dogs in the U.S. that protect the wilderness and wildlife of the area, and have been doing it since the 1920’s. You can visit them at their kennels, however as they are frequently out in the field doing their job, you will want to inquire beforehand to see if the kennel is open.
With both migratory and permanent-resident birds found throughout Denali year-round, the park is truly a birder’s paradise. Of the 169 species of birds, some commonly seen species are the American Robin, Arctic Warbler, Black-billed Magpie, Blackpoll Warbler, Common Raven, Golden Eagle, Canada Jay, Gyrfalcon, Long-tailed Jaeger, Northern Hawk Owl, Surfbird, Swainson’s Thrush, and Willow Ptarmigan.
Exploring Denali with Kids
Taking your kids to Denali will be an eye-opening and educational experience they will not soon forget. The park offers innumerable programs perfect for kids during the summer months, including summer camps and field trips. At the Visitor’s Center, be sure to pick up the free Denali Discovery Pack and Junior Ranger Activity Guide.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 63 of America's National Parks. He's creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures -- as well as encourage others to get out and explore!