One of the things that makes Denali National Park so incredible is the seclusion you feel when you’re inside the park. There aren’t very many signs of human life, but to preserve the natural beauty, there are a lot of rules about how you can enter the park.
How to Get Around
They strictly regulate who is allowed to go where, and the first way of doing so is by limiting transportation options. There are exceptions, but if you plan on going further than Savage River, you generally need to take a bus. The buses available for the casual traveler are either the shuttle bus or the tour bus. I opted for the shuttle bus because I could get off wherever I wanted, and get on the next bus I saw. As long as its final destination wasn’t farther away than my ticket.
The tour buses offer a narrated tour of the park, and you stay on the bus for the entire day. Both buses stop at the same locations, but if you take the narrated bus you will not be able to linger anywhere. Conversely, the shuttle bus drivers do not have to narrate their trip. I experienced two drivers during my time in Denali. One was extremely informative, the other hardly talked at all. Regardless, both types of buses will stop for animal sightings. Please note that Denali has strict rules regarding children and safety seats for them. Please do your research, because it will severely limit your ability to get out into the park.
Places to Camp
if you’re traveling with your own vehicle, and you’re camping in the park, there are three sites that allow you to bring your car. Riley Creek is the first site that permits cars, Savage River is the second, and Teklanika River the final. There are a handful of other sites within the park, but vehicles are not permitted, and you can also go backcountry camping but it requires training sessions.
I chose the Savage River Campground because it put me deeper into the park, but because I was only staying onsite for two nights I couldn’t stay at Teklanika. Being closer to the entrance of the park means being closer to more amenities. There is a general store, and showers, as well as a book store and a counter service restaurant. Also in the front of the park there are multiple locations for further education as well as activity opportunities. However, the real magnificence of Denali National Park lays within 15 to 90 miles into the grounds. As I only had one day to really discover Denali, I opted for less bus time. But that meant settling for a more primitive campground.
Things to Do
Once you’re past the Denali Visitor Center, there are no opportunities to get food, and only a handful of places to get water. Plan accordingly, as your days are guaranteed to be long. I wouldn’t recommend going with less than a full lunch and multiple snacks.
This trip was my first experience as a Junior Ranger, and I recommend the program for anyone. It is designed for children, but the activities in the book are fun, and you get a nifty little pin if you finish it. Also, I learned about the National Parks Passport during this trip. It’s a simple book, outlining all the national parks, but each park has their own stamp so you can collect them all. Each Visitor Center in Denali has their own stamp, and I was able to visit each of them.
The first one is the Murie Science and Learning Center. This area is designed mostly for kids, with hands on learning opportunities. One part I really enjoyed was a huge quilt that was made by multiple artists to represent Denali.
The second is the Denali Visitor Center, which is like a miniature museum. They have displays to explain the complexities of the ecosystem in the park, as well as displays that narrate the history of Denali. Neither of these places require much time, but if you want to indulge in them, extra time would help.
The Denali Kennel is the next stop on the road. I wrote about it in much more detail here, but I definitely recommend stoping by, even if you aren’t a dog lover. The amazing thing to me is that these dogs are helping the park, as well as the park rangers. They participate in projects in the winter, even going as far as Gates of the Arctic National Park. Also, they leave very little impact on the park, while being able to haul heavy loads, and bring people further in without the use of gasoline.
The Eielson Visitor Center is the last one in the park, and it is also my favorite. Not only because I got sort of stuck there. Inside Eielson is a huge interactive map of Denali Mountain, explaining all the different routes to the summit. There is an informative movie also on climbing Denali. Finally, if you are lucky enough for some clarity, there are picturesque views of the mountain both inside and outside the center.
Freedom of Denali
Easily my favorite part of this park is the freedom they offer. You can yell out, “please stop,” and hop off the shuttle bus wherever you’d like. Once you’re there, feel free to hike anywhere, trail or not. Denali also offers ranger led hikes you’re interested. The more extreme of an activity you take part in, the more informative sessions you’ll have to partake in. If you’re willing to, and have the time, you can climb Denali, or go backcountry hiking and camping. Or you can take it easy and ride a shuttle out to Wonder Lake where you are encouraged to eat blueberries and bounce on tundra. I had never in my life been so encouraged to forgo the trails and explore on my own.
With all the aforementioned freedoms comes a lot of responsibility. The wildlife is permitted to travel anywhere, and that could put you face to face with a grizzly bear. One of our bus drivers taught us basic wildlife safety, but I don’t think they are required to, so if you’re planning on going off the beaten trail it’s best to educate yourself.
Simply scrolling through the Denali press releases brings up multiple lost hikers, dead bodies, and bear attacks. While I never once felt unsafe while within the park, it is best to be prepared. Which is really the take home part of this whole post. Do your research ahead of time, and plan your day according to your needs. That way, when the time comes, you can just relax and see where Denali takes you.