Experiencing Denali National Park

Most people don’t need to google, “What to see in Alaska,” to know that Denali National Park is one of the top rated attractions. In the event that you are one of the few people who haven’t realized that yet, I did the leg work for you. Denali is mentioned nine times on the front page of the aforementioned google search, and it was truly the highlight of my sixteen day Alaskan Adventure.

The entrance to Denali National Park

Getting Into Denali

Unfortunately everything I did in Alaska was rushed, and Denali was no exception. I arrived on a Monday and left the following Wednesday. To get there from the campsite in Copper Center I had to leave early in the morning and drive for hours along the Denali Highway. That was one of the most stunning drives I’ve ever been on, and every beautiful mountain I passed made my anticipation grow exponentially.

Denali National Park PanoramaYou see, in 2003 I had visited Alaska with my family when I was a whopping 12 years old. During that trip, I  wanted very badly to see Mt. McKinley. We stayed near the park for three days, and the only time Mt. McKinley appeared was when we were leaving our last day. I was granted barely a glimpse as I was whisked off to the next town on the itinerary. On my most recent trip I wanted so badly to beat the terrible odds and see the mountain’s peak. Although in 2015 Mt. McKinley was renamed Denali, which was the native name for the mountain, the chances of seeing the peak were just as slim.

As evening approached, and the park entrance loomed closer and closer, my goals had shifted. I had only two things on my mind. One was to slam on the breaks whenever I saw wildlife, and the other was to get a hot shower as soon as possible. Lucky for me the showers were at the campsite check in.

Getting To The Campsite

After I got cleaned up, it was time to drive further into the park to the Savage River Campground. Before I could get there however, I was hitting the breaks because there was the best moose sighting of the whole trip! Just to the right of the road was a beautiful moose munching on a tree, as if he was waiting to welcome me into his home.

Proceeding to the campsite, it was time to get some sleep because we had an early bus the next morning. To travel deep into Denali there are only three options. Bus, bike, or walk. The later are largely unrealistic, as it is over 80 miles into the park from the park entrance. You by no means have to travel all the way to Wonder Lake, there is plenty of Denali magic before that, but I’m a completist.

Denali Buses

Enjoying the Denali Buses

My plan was to get on the bus, ride it all the way to Wonder Lake, and then on the way back get off wherever I wanted, and hop on to the next bus when I wanted to get back. That way, with my one full Denali day, I could assess everywhere I could go,  and choose the best places to get off at on the way back. The beauty of that plan is that there is one road through the whole park, so you go back the way you go out.

Denali Road
This is the road through Denali.

So we hopped on the bus, and the first pleasant surprise of the morning was our bus driver Anna. She might have been the brightest ray of sunshine I saw during my entire Alaskan trip. She was so passionate about the Alaskan wilderness, she taught us trail safety, and she made it very clear that she would be disappointed if any of us on the bus ended the day on her bus. She wanted us to embrace Denali’s “hands off” style, to go beyond the trails, to “bounce on the tundra,” and to embrace the wilderness with open arms. I could have spent my whole day listening to what she had to say.

We made a couple stops along the way to Wonder Lake, and at one of them, the Toklat River Contact Station, I picked up my Junior Ranger activity book at Anna’s direction. In between beautiful landscapes, both from the bus and from the lookouts we used to stretch our legs, and wildlife sightings, I drew pictures, solved puzzles, and completed enough activities to earn my Junior Ranger badge.

The Eielson Visitor Center

When we arrived at the Eielson Visitor Center I could not wait to find a park ranger. The one I did find explained some of the puzzles I had done, and how they applied to real life park situations. I think I learned more in that thirty minute bus stop than I had all trip. And then I looked at the time and I realized that we had turned it into an hour long bus stop. Which meant that I missed Anna’s bus. But I got my badge, and I took a short hike around the area, and then watched a short movie about climbing the tallest mountain in the world. That is if you measure from the base all the way to the peak. Everest is the tallest above sea level. I got to see the best view of the mountain of the whole trip. Which wasn’t a very good view. If I were to take the trip again I would have camped at Wonder Lake, because I’ve read that early in the morning is the best way to see the peak.

mountain view Eielson visitors center
Twice a day, every day, guest draw how much of Denali they can see.
Denali outline
Do you see the white lines on the right? That is where the peak of the mountain is. It’s the closest I’ve been to seeing it.

Getting to Wonder Lake

I was able to get on the next bus to Wonder Lake, and it was easily my favorite bus break of the day. I bounced on tundra, ate wild blueberries, and finally felt lost in the Alaskan wilderness. Getting back on the bus was difficult for me, but there was still a lot to look forward to.

wild blueberriesWonder Lake Denali National ParkWonder Lake Denali National Park

Animal Sightings

The best part of Denali National Park, is that there is magnificence all around you. Even from the bus window I was treated to some of the most amazing sights of my adult life. I saw caribou grazing and calmly strolling through the tundra. I also saw a ton of Dall Sheep. They are climbing every hill and mountain. The best part of the sheep, is that they are part of the reason that Denali was opened. Their thriving numbers today prove that the conservation efforts were successful. The true highlight, in my opinion, were the bears. We saw bears a couple different times, but the very first time an adult bear and her two cubs were right next to our bus. The cubs were two years old, so they weren’t super tiny, but they were precious.

As the day drew to a close, the atmosphere on the bus changed. Everyone was looking forward to getting out of their seats, and everyone was certainly tired. And I was no exception. I feel ashamed that I didn’t explore more, but making the in and out trip is both exhausting and a huge time commitment. My advice would be to try to spend more days in the park, or don’t waste your time going further than Eielson. Also, bring snacks with you. There is no food available for purchase on the route, and the couple granola bars I had were not nearly enough to hold me over. I made a giant dinner as soon as I got back, and I feel that if I had taken a later bus my cranky attitude would have been incurable.

Denali Visitor’s Centers

After my second night in the park, I woke up ready to see and learn more. I did have a long drive ahead of me that day, but I had planned everything so that I could have a few extra adventures in the morning. The first place I went was to the Sled Dog Kennel. My tip is to get there early, many of the dogs are out to play with, but a bus that is absolutely filled with people get there around 20 minutes before the presentation. By getting there earlier than that I had the opportunity to have the dogs almost entirely to myself, as well as pick a great seat for the demonstration.

I was exceptionally impressed by the talent of those dogs, they were strong and excited when they got to participate in the demonstration. It is equally impressive that Denali uses the dogs in the winter in favor of traditional vehicles so that they leave a smaller impact on their natural surroundings. If you’re going to be in the area for an extended time, you can volunteer as a dog walker and help the huskies get in shape for their busy season.

I also visited the other visitor centers in the park, starting with the Murie Science and Learning Center, which was mostly targeted at children. There were a lot of interactive things, but unless you have a child who isn’t much older than ten, I wouldn’t waste your time. The next stop was the Denali Visitor Center. It has small displays, similar to a museum, that are very hands on.

My last few hours were spent perusing the book store, and getting lunch at the only restaurant in the park. Overall I’d consider it perfect end to a beautiful forty hours. Be ready to check out my next post where I’ll break down some of the more specific details needed to plan a Denali trip.


10 thoughts on “Experiencing Denali National Park

    1. Yes! You need to go! It’s actually one of the first states I had visited that wasn’t on the East coast, but I went back again because it’s just so magnificent.

  1. I absolutely love National Parks. Denali was never really on my list of must-visits, but it certainly is now!! It certainly sounds like you really enjoyed it!!

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