The tallest mountain in the United States dwarfs those around it, rising to over 20,000 feet while its neighbors raise their heads only to 13,000 feet. Is it any wonder that Denali draws attention from around the state of Alaska? On a clear day, the mountain can be seen from Anchorage, almost 250 miles away.
Viewed up close from within the national park that bears its name, this peak stands sentinel over a wilderness stuffed with wild animals, wild terrain and wild dreams. Here’s a guide to this unforgettable park.
History of Denali National Park
Evidence of hunting camps by indigenous peoples dating back 8,000 years have been found just outside of Denali’s boundaries. The park’s elevation with harsh winters made it less suitable for permanent settlement. However, dinosaur tracks found in the park are signs of their migration through the area from Asia to North America during the Cretaceous Period.
More recently Athabaskans settled in the region about 1,500 years ago, as much of Alaska became their home. Today the Tanana, Dena’ina, and Koyukon peoples are descendants of the park’s inhabitants. In fact, the name “Denali” is Athabaskan for “the high one.”
In 1897, a prospector who entered the region actually named the great mountain in front of him for the US president at that time, and thus began the argument over “Mount McKinley” and “Denali.”
A mere 20 years later, Mount McKinley National Park came into being. By 1978, Jimmy Carter designated a separate parcel as Denali National Monument.
Two years later the national park and the monument were combined to create Denali National Park, but the name of the mountain had never been officially changed. That was rectified in 2015, almost 100 years after the initial park was created!
Why Visit Denali National Park in Your RV?
With almost 5 million acres, Denali National Park is enormous. That leaves a lot of ground to cover on your vacation. Wouldn’t you rather camp inside the park, catching a shuttle bus every morning to a new hiking destination?
Driving outside the park’s boundaries every night to stay at a motel eats up the time needed to explore Denali’s wonders. With your RV in a park campground, you may even get a visit from some of the park’s most popular residents, like moose, marmots, or bears!
Places to Go
For a park with only one road, there certainly is a lot to see! Here are just a few places to visit:
Denali Visitor Center
Open during the summer season, this visitor center is located at the entrance to the park. A movie and exhibits describing the natural and geologic history of Denali are located here, along with ranger-led walks, and back country permits are issued at the center.
Eielson Visitor Center
Also only open during summer, visitors can find this center at Mile 66 of the Denali Park Road. It is accessible by park shuttle or Kantishna Experience tour bus and offers restrooms, ranger programs, and a small art gallery.
Murie Science and Learning Center
Serving as the winter visitor center for Denali, this structure displays research from living laboratories from the national parks in northern Alaska. It is located at Mile 1.4 on the Denali Park Road.
Denali Bus Depot
Purchase bus tickets, make reservations and check in at the Bus Depot, which opens mid-May and closes mid-September each year. This is the main transportation hub for the park.
Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station
Located in the town of Talkeetna, approximately 100 miles southeast of the park, this is the main center for mountaineers wishing to climb Denali. They get orientation here and their permits. The station is open year-round, with limited services in the winter.
Located near the end of the paved portion of Denali Park Road, visitors can take a shuttle to the area and spend a day or a week camping and exploring the back country here. The Savage River Loop Trail is a short hike along the river where it cuts through a canyon. Wildlife is plentiful and a campground is available for those wish to stay longer.
Things to Do
Outdoor activity is what makes Denali such a special place. Here are some ways you can enjoy the outdoors at the park:
In winter, one of the best ways to see the park is from the back of a dog sled. Rangers continue a tradition that began in the 1920s, running dog sled patrols. So, there are many paths already broken for dog teams, or visitors can break their own trail. Denali National Park has designated several places where dog teams can be tied off. If you do not have dogs, but want to experience the park in this fashion, there is one commercial guide service operating in the park.
Bring your snowmachine and explore the vast winter wilderness in Denali. Be sure to check park news releases and maps to see areas that are closed to riders due to weather or because of their designation as federal wilderness locations.
There are six established campgrounds within the park, three of which handle RVs, so they can be accessed via car or RV. The other three are only accessible by shuttle bus.
- Riley Campground – Located at the entrance, Riley is open year-round and allows and tents and RVs no longer than 40 ft.
- Savage River Campground – Located at Mile 14, the campground is open mid-May to mid-September and can handle RVs and tents.
- Sanctuary River Campground – Located at Mile 22, Sanctuary only allows tents and is accessible by bus. It is open from mid-May to mid-September.
- Teklinika Campground – Located at Mile 29, this campground accepts RVs and tents and is open from mid-May to mid-September.
- Igloo Creek Campground – Located at Mile 35, Igloo is open mid-May to mid- September for tent camping.
- Wonder Lake Campground – Located at Mile 85, this campground is open June 8 to mid-September for tents only.
None of the campgrounds have hookups or showers. Reservations are suggested, as the campgrounds fill up quickly in the summer.
There are two ways to day hike in Denali National Park, on-trail or off-trail. Most marked trails lie near the entrance, and are centered around the visitor center (distances listed are one-way):
- Bike Path – 1.7 miles
- Horseshoe Lake Trail – 1 mile
- McKinley Station Trail – 1.6 miles
- Roadside Trail – 1.8 miles
- Rock Creek Trail – 2.4 miles
- Tiaga Trail – .9 miles
- Triple Lakes Trail – 9.5 miles
There are a few marked trails further into the park, but many enjoy hiking off trail and creating their own paths. It’s not as difficult as you might think, because hikers can start from Denali Park Road, where a shuttle will drop you off.
Hike away from the road and make your way back to it when the hike is complete–just make sure you know the shuttle schedule! If hiking in groups, spread out so as not to permanently trample fragile tundra, and to avoid bears, make some noise. Always hike with a map and compass.
Backpacking in Denali is an adventure discovering your own terrain. There are no established trails or backcountry campsites. Because of the vastness of the park, backpackers are required to get a permit and go through some orientation before they take off.
Here is a planning guide that will help backpackers in preparation for the orientation and their trip.
Since most visitors to Denali take a shuttle bus along Denali Park Road, many eyes looking in many directions usually spy several animals like moose, grizzly and black bears, Dall’s sheep, caribou, marmots, wolves, and foxes.
Here is a list of areas along the road where wildlife tends to venture.
When to Visit Denali National Park
Denali is open year-round with two totally different experiences based on the season. Summer brings a higher number of tourists to view wildlife and explore the backcountry.
Mountaineers plan their ascents during this time, too. Winter has its own charms, attracting outdoor enthusiasts with snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and winter camping. So, come when the spirit moves you to explore this fascinating park.
Where RVers Can Stay
Denali National Park has six campgrounds, three of which allow RVs of less than 40 ft. in length. The campgrounds are right along Denali Park Road but do not have hookups or showers. If you would prefer electricity and water at your RV, there are several private campgrounds just outside the park.
Here are a few:
- Denali RV Park and Motel – This campground has back-in and pull-thru sites, showers, and a gift shop.
- Denali Rainbow Village RV Park – This popular park has 54 full hookup sites with showers and laundry available.
Getting To and Around Denali National Park
Getting to the park is easy. Travel the Parks Highway (Alaska 3) north from Anchorage approximately 240 miles or south from Fairbanks 120 miles to the entrance of the national park.
Denali is a massive park, about the size of New Hampshire. However, there is only one road within its boundaries. Denali Park Road takes visitors from the park entrance about 92 miles into the interior, crossing open valleys and mountain passes.
Most people travel the road via shuttles buses, but cars and RVs are allowed to drive to the end of the paved portion to access campgrounds and the Eielson Visitor Center.
Many have ventured into Denali National Park hoping to find solitude in an unchanged wilderness. All are humbled by the magnitude of the park’s grandeur and the close proximity of its wildlife, and yet, all leave changed, knowing that they have experienced the wonders of nature on her most innocent and vulnerable level.
The park service is tasked with the daunting duty of protecting that innocence for coming generations.
Have you ever been to Denali National Park? What were your experiences there?