The highest mountain peak in North America, abundant wildlife and family-friendly activities make this an essential stop on your Alaska itinerary.
With over 360,000 visitors a year, Denali National Park and Preserve is one of Alaska’s top attractions. Don’t let that number scare you off, though: Thanks to careful park controls and management, your family can still have an exciting, personal wilderness experience at Denali.
Getting there is the start of your adventure. Driving takes about four hours from Anchorage and two hours from Fairbanks. If you drive, you’ll have the option of foregoing “Glitter Gulch,” the strip of lodging and restaurants at the park entrance. Instead, stay either south of the park or north near the town of Healy. Camping by tent or motor home is another popular option, with RV rentals available in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Be sure to call ahead for reservations at one of the park’s campgrounds.
Riding the family-friendly, scenery-rich Alaska Railroad takes about twice as long as driving, but it’s relaxing and great fun. Whether you ride the rails or drive, hopefully you’ll catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley, or Denali, along the Anchorage-Denali route. The first time you round a corner and all 20,320 feet of mountain fills your frame of vision, a soul-tingling sense of awe grabs you and holds on tight. However, the mountain is so tall that it makes its own weather, so don’t be surprised if it’s covered in clouds.
Fortunately, the mountain is not all there is to see. The park’s six-million acres of wilderness is teeming with wildlife. Dall sheep perched on rocky mountaintops, wolf pups romping in the grass, bear cubs wrestling in the road, fox slinking across the tundra, swans gliding across a glassy lake, caribou lounging in a patch of snow—these sights and more are among the wonders my family has seen at Denali.
Limited road access keeps the “wild” in this wilderness. During the regular summer season, you can drive only the first 15 miles into the park on the 91-mile Denali Park Road. From there, you’ll have to leave your car and (unless you want to walk or ride a bicycle) board a shuttle bus, an interpretive bus tour or a camper bus. The drivers act as tour guides, making sure you get a good look at critters along the way.
Since a five-hour ride is the shortest option, getting on a bus will take a good chunk of your day. If you have little ones that won’t tolerate sitting for five hours, you can skip the bus and fill the day with activities close to the park entrance. The Denali Visitor Center offers great interpretive displays and a powerful film, Heartbeats of Denali.
Three times daily, you can catch a free shuttle to Denali’s working kennels for a fascinating 30-minute demonstration of how sled dogs help rangers patrol the park. Or try a guided nature walk with a park ranger, 45 minutes to two hours in length.
If you do venture into the park by bus, you’ll need to choose from either an interpretive tour or a regular shuttle.
The Denali Natural History Tour (4½ to 5 hours) and the Tundra Wilderness Tour (6 to 8 hours) offer in-depth narration, interpretive stops and a snack or boxed lunch. Park shuttles, from five to 13 hours long, are less formal and offer more flexibility. You can hop off one shuttle, explore on your own, and then flag down another bus for the ride back, provided seats are available.
Park shuttles run about half the price of tours, and kids under 14 are free. As with everything else in the park, it’s best to make reservations well in advance, though a limited number of seats are set aside for walk-in reservations.
If you’re taking children on the bus, be sure to bring everything you’ll need to keep them comfortable. You won’t be able to buy snacks or drinks or diapers along the way. Some kids aren’t excited about spending hours in what is basically a school bus, so suggest they join the Junior Ranger Program and pick up a Discovery Pack at the visitor center. Designed for ages 6 to 12, Discovery Packs include binoculars, a magnifying glass, a thermometer, a compass, art supplies, and suggestions for fun activities such as sound mapping and casting tracks.
To fully experience Denali, spend two or three days at the park; that way you can take in some of the educational programs at the Murie Science Center or, with older children, join a ranger-guided Discovery Hike combining a three- to eight-hour bus ride with a three- to five-hour hike. Hikers should be prepared for moderate to strenuous activity that may include getting wet and muddy.
By staying a few days, you can also enjoy activities offered by park vendors, including flightseeing around the mountain, whitewater rafting on the Nenana River, jeep riding along the Stampede Trail north of the park, or taking in the Denali Dinner Theater at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.
If your family is up for it, tack on some extra days and go backcountry camping. You can camp at a designated site like Wonder Lake, or you can plan your own off-road adventure with the help of the park service rangers. Campers ride special buses that make flag stops along the park road. Make reservations in advance, be prepared for weather extremes, practice bear-safe cooking and food storage, and don’t venture out without good bug protection, including a head net. The bugs can be ferocious, but they’re an important part of the food chain, and it’s all part of the Denali adventure.
Schedules and rates for service between Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Denali. Tel. 907-265-2494, 800-544-0552; www.alaskarailroad.com
Camp Denali and North Face Lodge
All-inclusive packages on private property at the end of the park road. Tel. 907-683-2290; www.campdenali.com
Denali Jeep Backcountry Safari
Four-wheeling on the Stampede Trail north of the park. Tel. 800-323-5757; www.bestofalaskatravel.com
Denali Park Reservations
Reservations for buses, tours, camping and Aramark hotels. Tel. 907-272-7275, 800-622-7275; www.reservedenali.com
Denali Park Headquarters
Information about ranger-led programs and back-country camping. Tel. 907-683-2294; www.nps.gov/dena
Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge
Accommodations with restaurants and dinner theater in “Glitter Gulch,” near the park entrance. Tel. 800-426-0500; www.princesslodges.com
Denali Raft Adventures
Whitewater rafting near the park entrance. Tel. 907-683-2234, 888-683-2234; www.denaliraft.com
Hand-built lodge near Healty, 17 miles north of the park entrance. Tel. 907-683-2863; www.earthsonglodge.com
Kantishna Air Taxi
Exclusive concessionaire for flight-seeing within the park. Tel. 907-683-1223; www.katair.com
McKinley Creekside Cabins and Café
Located 13 miles south of the park entrance, 30 units and great food. Tel. 907-683-2277, 888-533-6254; www.mckinleycabins.com
Altitude is not everything: the vertical relief of the mountain is 18000 feet (5500 meters), and its latitude, just a few hundreds miles below the artic circle can bring some of the coldest weather anywhere, especially during the fierce Alaskan storms, when winds rage over 100mph and temperatures drop -40. For those reason, climbing Mt McKinley combines the challenges of a high-altitude climb with those of a polar expedition. Each year, about a thousand climbers seek to reach the summit, the vast majority of them through the technically easy West Buttress route, and about half of them succeed. In the spring of 1993, I set out to traverse the summit solo by ascending the technical West Rib. Thanks to favorable weather conditions, I was able to reach my goal in a total of 18 days. See pictures of the expedition. I returned to the Park in 2000 to admire the summit from the tundra. The access is made easier by a shuttle system which let you reach the heart of the Park, while eliminating private automobile trafic.