When you're getting away from everyday life, you can't go any further than Denali National Park. The park is 6 million acres of pure, untamed wilderness... and if you're actually able to wrap your brain around that fact, consider that a whopping 16% of those 6 million acres are covered in glaciers! It's definitely not the easiest park to visit: its remote location in Alaska, combined with the often-harsh weather conditions and single, mostly unpaved road through the heart of the reserve make it quite a trek to reach, but don't rule Denali out! It's unlike any other park in the country, and here are the top reasons why it's so unique and worth a visit!
Some tips for visiting Denali National Park:
-Northern Lights are stunning when viewed from Denali! The best time to see them is between 10pm and 2am during the fall, winter, and early spring. In the summer, the sun sets much later in the night than it does in the lower 48, meaning it stays light much, much later.
-Set realistic expectations. The Denali Mountain is almost always hidden behind clouds, and even though you'll probably see some wildlife, it'll probably be from a distance. Also, the areas outside Denali (known as Glitter Gulch) are pretty developed, thanks to the tourism industry, but the resorts and restaurants might not have all the amenities you'd find at places in the lower 48-- this is the remote wilderness, after all.
-The best way to get around Denali is the park bus. It's nothing fancy, but it goes between the visitor centers in the park. Reserve a spot on the shuttle in advance online! They offer narrated and non-narrated options.
-There's only one road through the park, and only 15 or so miles of it is paved. It's only accessible to private vehicles in the summer, so if you want to go any further into the park, you'll need to get on the shuttle.
Welcome to Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. At 20,000 feet tall, it's an impressive peak that looms over the park-- in fact, the park was named for the mountain. Previously known as Mt. McKinley, the word Denali comes from the native Koyukon word for "high". It's not an easy mountain to summit (about half of those who attempt to climb it turn back) and, in fact, it's hard to even get a good look at it; because it's so tall, it's often obscured by clouds.
Willow, Alaska is everything you think of when you envision an Alaskan wilderness town. There are plenty of hiking trails throughout the area and it's very popular for sled dog racing and dog mushers in general. Willow is gorgeous, rustic, and very, very cold. But that didn't deter one mysterious homeowner from building a massive house that's been dubbed the "Dr. Seuss House". No one knows exactly what the original owner was thinking, or how he came up with the peculiar design of the house, but regardless it's now one of America's architectural wonders. And you can see why...
It's a massive 12-story building that's every bit as weird and quirky and eccentric as a Dr. Seuss book. The original owner worked on it extensively for 10 years before he died. Then it sat abandoned for 10 years until a new owner purchased it and has started renovations. If you plan on visiting, keep in mind that although the house is virtually abandoned it's still privately owned and thus is on private property. A great way to see it is by driving past it, on a train, or take a ride with an Alaskan bush pilot, which in general is a great way to see the Alaskan countryside.
Right on the border of Denali National Park is Denali State Park, home to Denali Viewpoint North campground. RVs and tents are welcome to set up camp in the Alaskan wilderness and enjoy the fresh air and rugged beauty. The transitioning landscape here is part tundra, part alpine forest, so the views are totally unique and totally stunning. Plus, the location between Anchorage and Fairbanks makes it a nice place to stay when traveling between the cities.
Wonder Lake is home to another campground, the closest to the mountain of Denali-- it's about 26 miles due south of the lake, but feels closer due to its size. Take the camper shuttle bus to this lush corner of the park, and relax in the peace and quiet of the Alaskan wilderness. Remember to pack in food and a camp stove (fires aren't permitted here)... and enjoy the potable water available here.
If you've ever read the book or watched the movie, the bus from Into the Wild might be something worth adding to your itinerary... with caution, of course. They both tell the real-life story of Chris McCandless, a college graduate who donated all his money and hitchhiked around the country on a "spiritual pilgrimage" that taught him a lot... but ultimately cost him his life. His story ends in Alaska.
He spends some time in Denali National Park, living in an abandoned bus that he calls his "Magic Bus", but begins to realize that he needs to return back to civilization as his supplies run out. However, when he tries to go back, he finds the river impassable, since the spring thaw flooded it and he had been weakened by hunger. He gathers roots and berries, but is unable to survive after eating something poisonous (the exact cause of his death is still somewhat disputed). He writes a farewell letter, and crawls into his sleeping bag, where moose hunters found his body weeks later.
The production crew built an exact replica of the bus (the bus pictured directly above is the replica, accurate down to the rust spots) for the film in a less remote area of Alaska (it's now located at 49th State Brewing Company) but you can still visit the actual bus where the real-life Chris McCandless's body was discovered. As you can expect, it's not an easy journey, since it requires a 20 mile hike into the untamed wilderness of Alaska. I can't imagine how surreal it would be to actually visit, but if you have any doubts, it'll certainly show you that happiness is truly only real when shared.
If you'd rather take a guided tour of Denali (a good idea for first-timers and the less wilderness savvy), the Kantishna Experience Tour is a great option. The whole thing lasts 11-12 hours, because it takes you all the way to the end of the 92-mile-long Denali Park Road, to Kantishna, an old gold-mining town within the park. It's the only tour that goes this far into the park, and with a stop at the Kantishna Lodge for food, gold panning, and other fun activities, it's absolutely worth the long journey. Plus, the guides are fantastic!
One of the coolest things about Denali is that it's the only National Park that has puppies! Several teams of dogs help patrol the park on sled: they check the trails, clear debris, carry supplies for ongoing studies, and more. You can visit the kennels to meet some of the dogs and learn more about what they do as sled dogs and how they're trained. You can hop on a shuttle bus or hike 1.5 miles from the Denali Visitors Center to the kennels to see sled dog demonstrations and learn about the history of using sled dogs in Alaskan culture!
Latitude 62 Lodge is a local gem where you can warm up after a long day of exploring the wilderness. They're known for their prime rib special, massive Alaskan king crab legs, and delicious blueberry pie. The hotel is a nice little stay, as well... you'll find clean, comfy beds, hot water, and friendly service, all pretty close to the park!
Located in a funky, cozy purple building, Mountain High Pizza Pie is another grab place to fill up before an adventure out into Denali. The salads and pasta are a great way to mix things up, but their pizzas are the main attraction. The signature Mountain High Pizza Pie has over 30 toppings ("everything but the mosquitos" as they say), and that's just the beginning. If it's nice out, grab a table outside and enjoy the rustic vibes of the town of Talkeetna.
Instead of Walmart, the town of Trapper Creek right outside Denali has Wal Mikes. Like Walmart, it's got a little bit of everything, from drugstore supplies to bizarre antiques, like whale bones and bear traps and moose antlers. If you're willing to shell out for a truly unique souvenir from your trip to Denali, or you just need camping supplies, stop by.
The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge is right at the edge of Denali, and is one of the swankier places to stay. Rooms have decks with views into the park and cable TV, plus an espresso bar, restaurants, laundry, and more onsite, it's as close as you can get to home while still enjoying the beauty of rural Alaska.
Picking the right time to visit Denali is crucial. May is when some shuttles start to run, with the park's services starting to really open up around early June. July and August bring a lot of rain, and mosquitos along with it. Also, the sun sets much later in the night in Alaska during the summer. Fall is an especially pretty season, when the tundra is at its most colorful, and you have a better chance of catching the Northern Lights. Winter is a very cold and very snowy time to visit, so do plenty of research, bring the appropriate gear, and take all necessary precautions before planning a visit then.