Denali National Park is one of the most gigantic, wild, and remote national parks in the United States. There is so much to see and do in and around Denali and never enough time. This guide highlights the best of Denali National Park to help you plan the perfect trip.
The Best of Denali National Park –
I have spent LOTS of time in and around Denali National Park. Chad and I lived and worked near the entrance to the park for three summers while we were in college. We have gone back to visit a handful of times since then. Eli has been to Alaska several times but hadn’t visited Denali until last summer. It was so much fun to bring him to a place that is so special to both of us.
I’ve created this insider’s guide to the best of Denali to help you decide what to see and do when visiting this incredible national park. Planning a trip to Denali can seem daunting. Because there is so much to see and do in the state of Alaska, most visitors are only in Denali for a few days. Follow this guide to make the most of your time there.
Table Of Contents
- Best Time To Visit
- Best Way To Get To Denali
- Best Denali Budget Lodging
- Best High-End Lodging in Denali
- Best Easy Hike In Denali
- Best Moderate Hike In Denali
- Best Strenuous Hike In Denali
- Restaurant With The Best View
- Best Driveable Spot To See Denali
- Denali Sled Dog Kennels
- Best Campground Outside The Park Entrance
- Best Campground Inside Denali National Park
- Denali Junior Ranger Program
- Best Tour Activity In Denali
- Best Casual Restaurant Near Denali
Best Time Of Year To Visit Denali National Park
The absolute best time of year to visit Denali is the month of July. It is the warmest month of the year, the fireweed is in full bloom, and the days are long.
The second best time to visit Denali is in late August. Fall comes early that far north and the ground cover turns brilliant shades of orange, yellow, and red. It starts to get dark at night so there is a possibility of seeing the northern lights (but you have to be up really late or early).
Although the National Park is open in the winter for limited access, all of the hotels, restaurants, and shops near the entrance of the park are only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Best Way To Get To Denali National Park
There are four different ways to get to Denali National Park- drive, bus, train, and fly.
I think the best way to get to Denali National Park is to drive a rental car (or camper) from Anchorage or Fairbanks. Shuttle busses are available to take you around the hotels, hiking trails, and the visitor center. But, it is much more convenient to have your own car.
Private cars are allowed on the first fifteen miles into the National Park on Denali Park Road. I’ve had the best luck seeing animals late at night and early in the morning along those first fifteen miles. It doesn’t get dark at night in the summer but the crowds are gone so it is a great time to drive into the park. If you rely on the shuttle busses you don’t have the freedom to drive into the park at all hours of the day.
I love road-tripping in the beautiful state of Alaska! Read – The Ultimate Alaska Road Trip – 10 Day Itinerary
Best Budget Lodging In Denali National Park
We stayed at the Denali Hostel and Cabins on our most recent visit to Denali and absolutely loved it! We had stayed there years ago and were a little hesitant to stay in a hostel with Eli but it ended up being a great experience. The hostel is very kid-friendly. In fact, there were several other families with kids staying there while we were there.
The Denali Hostel and Cabins have several different lodging options – a bed in the lodge, tent camping, and private cabins. We chose the cabin and it was absolutely perfect. The beds were comfortable, the cabin was clean, and there was heat and power (something that was necessary because it was cold at night when we were there).
The shared bathrooms and showers were clean as well as the shared kitchen.
*The grocery shopping options are limited around Denali National Park so make sure to stop at a grocery store in Anchorage or Fairbanks before you drive to Denali.
We brought a cooler to bring home the halibut and salmon we caught at the end of our trip. It was great to have a cooler to transport groceries to Denali. Read –Why a Wheeled Cooler Makes A Great Checked Bag
Most Worth-It Lodging To Splurge On
The McKinley Chalet Resort is expensive (even for Alaska standards) but is well worth the splurge. The rooms are clean and modern with incredible views of the Nenana River and surrounding mountains. McKinley Chalet Resort is in the perfect location within two miles of the National Park entrance and walking distance to many restaurants and shops.
Listening to the sound of the rushing Nenana River while sitting around the campfire in the common area is the perfect way to end an adventurous day in Denali National Park.
Best Easy Hike In Denali National Park
The best easy hike in Denali National Park is the Savage River Loop Trail. The trail is two miles long round-trip but is an easy hike because of the minimal elevation gain. The sheer cliffs along the river and ample wildflowers make the trail incredibly scenic.
To get there – drive fifteen miles into the park. This is as far as you can drive your own personal car into the National Park. Before you get to the entrance station, you will see the Savage River Parking lot on the right. If you don’t have a car you can take the free Savage River Shuttle to the trailhead.
Best Moderate Hike In Denali National Park
My favorite hike in Denali National Park is the 9 mile Triple Lakes Trail. I have hiked the entire Triple Lakes Trail a handful of times. But, have hiked the trail from the trailhead on Highway 3 to the lakes more times than I could count. The trailhead was within walking distance from where I lived and worked.
Triple Lakes Trail is the longest established trail in Denali National Park. What makes this trail so amazing is the diverse scenery you see along the nine miles. The only wolf I saw the entire time I was in Denali was on the Triple Lakes Trail.
Best Strenuous Hike In Denali National Park
Mount Healy Overlook Trail is the best strenuous hike in Denali National Park. The scenic views of the park entrance and surrounding mountains from Mount Healy Overlook are breathtaking.
But, the trail is strenuous. It is approximately five miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 1,700 feet! So, pretty much straight up and then back down. If you don’t have the time to do the entire hike (or get tired along the way) the views are great from the halfway point.
This was the first trail I hiked with my sister when we first moved to Denali. It was early in the season and we were the only people on the trail. We walked around a switchback and saw and heard a grizzly bear digging in the rocks about 15 feet from us! Luckily, the bear didn’t even look up and see us and we backed away and went back down the trail with our hearts racing.
To get there – Park at the Denali Visitor Center and hike for half of a mile on the Taiga Trail to get to the trailhead.
Denali National Park – Restaurant With The Best Views
The Overlook at the Crow’s Nest Resort is the restaurant with the best views near Denali National Park. Located up on a hill, the expansive views into the National Park are fabulous. The food and service are also great.
To get to The Overlook, look for the sign on the east side of the highway between the Salmon Bake and the grocery, across from Princess Lodge. There is plenty of parking in the lot below the restaurant.
Best Driveable Spot To See Denali (if you are lucky)
At mile 13 on Denali Park Road, you will get your first distant view of Denali from the Mountain Vista Trail. Denali is often covered in clouds and from the Mountain Vista Trail, the great mountain is 80 miles away. So, consider yourself incredibly lucky if you get to see Denali at all on your visit. Only 30 percent of the people who visit Denali National Park get a clear view of the mountain!
If the weather cooperates, you can see Denali from the parking lot but it is worth it to get out and walk the short loop trail.
The picture above was taken after 10:00 pm. It had rained all day and then started to clear up in the evening so we drove into the park and were lucky to get a great view of the mountain.
Denali Sled Dog Kennels – A Must See In Denali National Park
You don’t want to miss a visit to the Denali Sled Dog Kennels! It is so interesting to learn about the sled dogs, watch the sled dog demonstration, and actually walk through the kennel.
Rangers have been using sled dogs in Denali since 1922. They first used the sled dogs to patrol the perimeter of the park for poachers. Now they are used for making trails into the park for winter recreation.
The Kennels are located a mile and a half from the Visitor Center. There is a trail you can walk from the Visitor Center or you can take a shuttle bus or drive.
Best Campground Near Denali National Park
I absolutely love the Grizzly Bear Campground! The campground is seven miles from the entrance to Denali National Park so it is away from the hustle and bustle of Glitter Gulch (the nickname for the area right outside the park packed with hotels, shops, and restaurants). The campground is right on the Nenana River with easy access to the Tripple Lakes and Oxbow Loop Trailheads.
Even if you don’t have a camper or tent, you can still get the camping experience by renting one of the dry cabins at Grizzly Bear Campground. The campground is equipped with a small grocery and liquor store, and laundry facilities.
Best Campground Inside Denali National Park
Camping at Teklanika River Campground is a unique way to experience Denali National Park deep inside the park, away from the busy park entrance. Cars are only allowed to mile 15 on the park road. But, if you have a reservation at Teklanika, you can drive all the way to the campground at mile 29.
There are several rules specific to camping at Teklanika River Campground. If you are camping in an RV, you need to stay at least 3 nights (tent campers don’t have to follow this rule). Once you get to the campground, you can’t drive your car around the park. Instead, you can buy a shuttle bus pass and use the bus to explore deeper into the National Park.
Visit the Denali National Park website for more information and to make camping reservations.
Junior Ranger Program – A Must-Do If You Have Kids
Ever since we first discovered the Junior Ranger Program when Eli was three years old, it has been what Eli looks forward to the most when visiting a new National Park. The Junior Ranger Program in Denali was one of the best one’s he’s done so far.
Stop by the Visitor Center and pick up a Junior Ranger book before heading into the park. Your kids will learn so much about Denali by filling out the Junior Ranger book. Don’t forget to stop by the Visitor Center again to talk to a Ranger and get your child’s Junior Ranger Badge.
Best Tour Activity – Rafting The Nenana
I must admit that we didn’t have time to raft the Nenana or our latest trip to Denali. But, when we lived there we would go rafting every summer. Rafting the Nenana is such a unique, fun, and adventurous way to see the National Park.
Nenana Raft Adventures offers several rafting options from scenic to adventurous. If you are traveling with kids (five and up), the upper Nenana scenic wilderness run is a great option. It is 11 miles but only takes 3-4 hours. If you are looking for a more adventurous rafting trip, the Nenana Gorge Whitewater trip is a great option for ages ten and up. The whitewater trip also takes about 3-4 hours. We have done the full day that combines the two trips but it was a LONG day. I would recommend just picking one or the other.
Best Casual Restaurant Near Denali National Park
The 49th State Brewpub is hands-down the best casual restaurant near Denali National Park. It is located 11 miles north of the park in the small town of Healy.
Not only does the brewpub have awesome food and beer, but it is reasonably priced and the atmosphere is great. The lawn games, darts, and bus from the movie “Into The Wild” make the brewery a great place to hang out for an entire evening.
We’d heard about The 49th State Brewpub but hadn’t been there until our latest trip to Denali. It was well worth the short drive to Healy.
Denali is such an incredible National Park. I feel like I could keep writing about what to do and see there. But, if you are planning a trip to Denali, you will have an amazing visit if you just include a handful of activities from my best-of list.
Have a great trip!
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