Alaska Road Trip Part 3: Denali National Park
The rugged wilds of Alaska’s interior are on full display within the vast expanse of Denali National Park.
With over 6 million acres of protected land, Denali National Park and Preserve doesn’t lack for places to explore. But unlike many national parks, accessing those lands requires some extra planning. Denali has very few established trails, and most of those are close to the park entrance. But to truly appreciate the park, one needs to probe into its depths, see first hand its varied terrain and rich landscape, and step off the beaten path.
There is only one road into the park, a 92 mile stretch of asphalt and gravel that travels west to its terminus in the heart of the preserve. Clustered along the road just past the entrance are a campground, a visitor center, and the Wilderness Access Center where backcountry permits and bus passes can be purchased. Visitors may drive to mile mark 15, but beyond that travel is normally restricted to the park buses (with one key exception, which I’ll get to later).
After making some stops to check in, get permits, and purchase last minute supplies, we headed west along the park road to the sled dog kennels near mile 3, home to Denali’s canine rangers. Since 1922, the park has maintained working teams of sled dogs, used primarily in the winter to patrol the wilderness. At the kennels, visitors can interact with the dogs, learn about their life and history in the park, and see a live demonstration of their incredible talents.
From there, we drove deeper into the park, passing mile 15, the typical turn around point for most visitors. We had reservations for Teklanika Campground, located at mile 29, which allows campers to drive the additional 14 miles as long as their vehicle remains at their campsite for the duration of the stay. Teklanika campers can also purchase a bus ticket known as a Tek Pass that allows for use of the buses to points west of the campground, making Tek a great base camp for our group.
Our first night in the park we were treated to a truly amazing sight, the aurora borealis. Huddled around the campfire on our first relatively cloudless night of the trip, we stayed up past midnight hoping for a glimpse of nature’s infamous light show. With the cold setting in, we headed for our sleeping bags moments before a ribbon of green light materialized overhead. We spent the next hour watching the shifting and shimmering display of the northern lights.
I got up early the next morning to catch the first bus heading west into the park. The plan was to spend the day riding, instead of hiking. A round trip ride from the park entrance to the end of the road and back takes around 12 hours, our stay at Tek only shaving off a couple of hours. While riding a bus all day isn’t the most exciting way to experience a national park, the lengthy trip is one of the best ways to experience the multitude of landscapes and spot different kinds of wildlife. We saw Dall sheep, moose, and a several grizzlies over the course of the day. The bus briefly stops to view most wildlife, and makes scheduled stops along the way for photo opportunities, leg stretching, and restrooms.
At the end of the road we got off at Wonder Lake, where a small campground sits just 26 miles from the park’s namesake. Denali rises to 20,310 feet above sea level, making it the highest mountain in North America. Its height is made all the more visually impressive by the fact that the mountain rises over 18,000 feet from its base to its summit, 6,000 feet more than the equivalent measurement of Everest. It’s said that only a third of visitors to the park get to see the mountain when it’s “out,” i.e. not obscured by clouds. I was not one of the lucky few, but we did catch glimpses of the summit peeking through the cloud cover.
After spending the previous day on the bus, we spent our second day hiking off trail near the campground. Since there are so few trails in Denali National Park, off trail hiking is necessary if you want to venture off the road in most areas. About a mile up the road from the campground, we stepped off the gravel and into the dense brush and tundra that dominates the landscape of Denali, with the goal of reaching a nearby ridge.
Hiking along the spongy tundra can slow your pace to a crawl. When possible, we’d follow meandering game trails that more or less headed in our desired direction. We routinely stopped to reassess our path, avoid a marsh, or scan for wildlife. After deciding against our originally planned summit, we swung around to a shorter but more accessible bluff overlooking the area we had just traversed.
Perched on the overlook, scoping out our return route, it was easy to imagine (and quite possible) that we were the only people to have sat on that spot. We had seen no signs of other people on our entire hike so far. The park road was almost completely obscured by the forest, erasing the most obvious sign of civilization. In every direction was Denali’s unmarred wilderness.
On our last full day in the park, we rode the bus to the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66. The visitor center is a popular destination, with excellent views of the mountain and some of the only established trails west of the park entrance area. I started up the Alpine Trail, which winds steeply up Thoro Ridge north of the visitor center, wanting to get a taste of some higher elevations.
After about one mile and 1,000 feet of elevation gain, a sign marks the end of the maintained trail, but several social trails continue to trace the contours of the ridge. I turned right and continued to pick my way along the rocky spine. After another 1.5 miles and several lesser summits, I managed to reach the top of Thoro, where a small weather station is set up. From the summit, I had a 360 degree view of the park stretching to horizon, the road snaking through the pass below, and the snowy peaks of the Alaska Range mingling with the clouds.
As I made the trip back, snow began to fall, a sign that Denali’s brief autumn was coming to a close and winter was right around the corner. Our time in Denali was almost over as well. The next morning we packed up camp and drove out of the park, a small herd of caribou grazing in the tundra giving us a final farewell.
Fees: $10/person, annual passes cover up to 4 people. Bus passes are additional purchases and range from $27 to $51 depending on type and distance. See the park website for more information.
Best Time To Go: Denali is open year round, but the park road is only open June 8 through the second week after Labor Day. Fall is a brief window in early September, when the tundra transforms into shades of orange and red.
Other Attractions: The small town of Talkeetna, south of Denali, is a popular stop along the highway. Airplane and helicopter tours are popular attractions, as well as gift shops, art galleries, and a brewery. Walk down to the banks of the Susitna River for views of the Alaska Range and Denali.