Denali National Park

Denali National Park is a United States National Park that is home to Denali, North America's highest mountain (also known as Mt. McKinley). In addition, the park protects an incredible wilderness area that contains grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves, and numerous other creatures. It is in the state of Alaska, 240 miles (386 km) north of Anchorage and 120 miles (193 km) south of Fairbanks.

Geography

Denali (Mt. McKinley) from Reflection Pond

Denali National Park comprises a massive area of six million acres (over 24,000 km2), slightly more than the entire state of Massachusetts. The park is best known for the 20,320-ft (6,194 m) Denali. The tremendous 18,000-ft (5,486 m) difference from the mountain's lowlands near Wonder Lake up to its peak is a greater vertical relief than that of Mount Everest. The park is bisected from east to west by the Alaska Range and the Park Road is the only vehicle access into the park.

History

The park was established in 1917 as a wildlife refuge. It was originally named Mount McKinley National Park, but in 1980 the park was renamed and expanded in size by four million acres as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). Today the park is managed as three separate units: Denali Wilderness is made up of the original Mount McKinley National Park and is managed to retain the undeveloped wilderness with no hunting allowed. The Denali National Park management area includes some of the 1980 additions and allows subsistence hunting. Denali National Preserve includes two areas of the park within which sport and subsistence hunting are allowed on a permit basis.

Landscape

Denali, the "High One," is the name Athabascan native people gave the massive peak that crowns the 600-mile-long Alaska Range. Permafrost ground underlies many areas of the park, where only a thin layer of topsoil is available to support life. After the continental glaciers retreated from most of the park 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, hundreds of years were required to begin building new soils and re-vegetation. The dynamic glaciated landscape provides large rivers, countless lakes and ponds, and unique landforms which form the foundation of the ecosystems that thrive in Denali.

Flora and fauna

Dall sheep near Savage River

The terrain of Denali includes "tundra" and "taiga" zones. Taiga zones are made up of the stubby evergreen, spruce and aspen trees that are found in areas around the Arctic Circle. The taiga zone within Denali extends to approximately 2700 feet (823 m) above sea level, above which few trees are found. The treeless areas of the park can generally be classified as tundra. Within a tundra zone the plants are often miniaturized, including tiny flowers, extensive mosses, and various shrubs. Be aware of the willow thickets in the tundra zone as they can be a major impediment while hiking.

Congress created the park to protect its abundance of large mammals. Today it is common to see grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and foxes throughout the park. Less common but still regularly seen are the park's many wolves. Black bears are also occasionally seen, and the very lucky visitor might glimpse a wolverine.

Climate

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°F) 11 17 26 39 54 65 67 61 50 32 17 15
Nightly lows (°F) -5 -2 1 16 31 41 45 40 31 14 1 -1
Precipitation (in) 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.4 0.9 2.2 3.2 2.7 1.7 0.8 0.8 0.9

   Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

Weather in Denali is extremely variable, and changes occur without warning. Many rangers tell visitors to expect sun, wind, rain, and clouds, and expect them all on the same day. Average summer temperatures range from 33-75°F (1-24°C). It has been known to snow in July, so prepare by wearing layers of clothing that can be removed or added as needed, and carry a waterproof raincoat or jacket.

Winters can be extremely cold with temperatures ranging from -40°F (-40°C) and below to high 20s (-2°C) on warm days. Specialized cold weather gear is necessary for mountaineering and winter visits. For more information on winter visits contact park headquarters at +1 907 683-2294.

The mountain is at least partially shrouded in cloud during most of the summer. If the mountain is "out" be sure to take advantage, as it may only be fully visible for a few days each month.

Get in

Map of Denali National Park

By plane

The closest major airports to Denali are Anchorage Ted Stevens International Airport (IATA: ANC ) and Fairbanks International Airport (IATA: FAI ). The really closest one is the small Talkeetna Airport (IATA: TKA) in the eponymous town.

By car

Denali National Park is accessible by car from the George Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3), which runs between Fairbanks and Anchorage. The highway is open all year, although the main road through the park may close at any time due to weather conditions. An amazing alternate route is the Denali Highway, the original route to the park, now connecting the Glen Highway to the Parks highway. Be aware that many rental car companies prohibit driving on any gravel roads and specifically the Denali Highway. The "Alaska Mile Post" is an excellent guide to driving the highways in Alaska.

By train

During the summer the Alaska Railroad provides daily service to the park. Trains depart from both Anchorage and Fairbanks at 8:15AM, arriving at noon from Fairbanks and at 3:45PM from Anchorage. Trains departing from the park arrive at 8:15PM in both Anchorage and Fairbanks. Fares vary throughout the season, with rates between $43 and $54 for a one-way ticket from Fairbanks to Denali, and between $103 and $129 from Anchorage to Denali. Rail tickets can be booked through Alaska Railroad.

By bus

Consult with a travel agent in either Fairbanks or Anchorage about traveling to the park by bus. Several tour operators provide service during the summer.

Fees/Permits

Individuals entering the park must pay a $10 fee, good for seven days. A vehicle entrance fee is $20, also good for seven days.

There are several passes that allow free entry for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes are valid at all national parks including Denali National Park:

In 2016 the National Park Service will offer several days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 16-24 (National Park Week), August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).

Fees can be confusing for this park. First of all, there is no park entrance station. As you begin to drive the Park Road, you are greeted by a gigantic sign that says "Denali National Park," but you will not be stopped until the staffed gate at mile 15 which is the limit people can drive with their private vehicle. If you drive up to that gate, you will simply be asked to turn around.

Fees within the first 15 miles of the park, while required, are done pretty much on the honor system. If you stop in the visitor center and ask, "Do I need to pay an entrance fee?" The answer is, "Yes." However, if you had kept driving, nobody will check to see if you've paid.

"How then," you may ask, "does the park collect its entrance fees?" Well, if you buy a bus ticket (the only way to get on the park road past mile 15), or if you stay in a campground, you will automatically be charged an entrance fee. And, since more than 90% of the visitors who enter Denali take a bus at one point or another, the situation is all gravy.

Get around

By car

The main road through the park is open to automobile traffic only as far as Savage River (mile 14). Travel beyond this point is allowed only on the park shuttle buses, on foot, or on a bicycle.

For people camping at Teklanika campground, one automobile per a campsite is allowed to drive in to it.

For those visiting Denali in mid-September the park service opens the road completely for four days after the shuttle buses stop running. Only 400 vehicles per day are admitted, and each vehicle requires a special permit. To potentially obtain one of these permits contact the park and inquire about the Denali Road Lottery. The park service will ask you to mail your address, preference of dates, and a fee during the month of July. In mid-August you will be contacted if you have been selected. If snow has not yet closed the road, once the four-day lottery is complete the road will be opened to private vehicles for travel as far as Teklanika Campground (mile 29) until weather closes it for the season. It is also important to note that the road may close during the road lottery if inclement weather shows up - much to the chagrin of all those people who won a permit only to have it canceled.

By shuttle bus

Shuttle buses are allowed past Savage River (mile 15) on the park road, as far as Kantishna (the end of the road). Passengers may disembark from the buses at any point west of mile 20, and then re-board any bus on a space-available basis. Anyone disembarking should be aware of the bus schedule, and plan for at least a one hour wait for a bus with seats available to arrive.

A very common question people have about the buses is, "So what's the difference between a shuttle bus and a tour bus." Simply put, most of the people on tour buses are on packaged trips with the local hotels, and they get a dedicated naturalist on their bus that is required to give commentary throughout the tour. Buying tickets for tours can be more difficult because the vast majority of the tickets are reserved when people book their packaged vacations. However, they are not necessarily "better" than a shuttle bus. Two important facts to note are that all the buses drive the same road (duh, there's only one road inside the park!), and that all the buses have similar destinations. By similar destinations I mean that there's a tour bus to Eilson Visitor Center and there is also a shuttle bus to Eilson Visitor Center. So, if you ask, "Which bus is better for seeing wildlife?" The answer is that they are about the same since they are on the same road going to the same place. Your experience on the shuttle bus happens to vary quite a bit depending on the driver you get. Some of the shuttle bus drivers will talk just as much as a tour bus driver, however, they are not required to. Some of the shuttle bus drivers won't say much of anything unless somebody asks them a question. It's important to note that a pretty large majority of the bus drivers will give some form of commentary as they drive, because they want to share their love of the park just as much as all the other employees. Oftentimes, a deciding factor for people on whether to take a shuttle or a tour to Eilson is, "Do I want to pay about $30 for a shuttle bus or about $95 for a tour bus?" You be the judge.

Shuttle bus reservations can be made either by following the instructions at the park concessionaire web site or in person at the reservation desk in the visitor center. Be aware that buses may fill several days in advance, especially during the height of the summer visitor season.

2008 Shuttle Bus Prices (including reservation fee):

Youth prices (half the regular price) are for individuals age 15 to 17. There is no charge on any of the shuttle buses for children age 14 and under.

By foot

There are few trails within the park, but visitors are allowed (and often encouraged) to choose their own paths across the tundra. The less-adventurous may choose to simply amble along the park road after Savage River; keep an eye out for buses and wildlife when traveling on the road. Be aware that Denali hosts a large, robust population of brown bears and that they can be anywhere and sow bears are extremely fierce when they feel their cubs are threatened in any way. Always travel in groups and don't go into the backcountry without someone, preferably the park itself, knowing your plans. No one will come looking for you if they don't know you are lost, and Denali is not a place you want to be lost and alone.

By bike

A mountain bike is a great option for traveling on the park road. Sometimes bikers arrange backcountry permits at the Backcountry Information Center that allow them to spend a few days traveling out to Wonder Lake and back. This can, however, be logistically tricky - you will need to either spend the night in an established campground or be near enough to one that you can stash your bike (and food if you are not carrying a Bear Resistant Food Canister) overnight. The only areas where this is possible are: Wonder Lake; Toklat River (you can't sleep there, but you can use the food lockers at the temporary ranger contact station); Igloo Campground (again, you can't stay there, but you can utilize the food lockers if need be); Teklanika Campground; and Savage Campground.

If planning a trip by bike along the park road be prepared for travel on a dirt road with several major mountain passes and few guard rails.

One fun option is to take a bike out to Wonder Lake on a camper bus. You need to tell the person who you buy the ticket from that you plan to take a bike since only two bikes are allowed per bus. Once you get to Wonder Lake, you bike back out of the park. This trip can be done in approximately 10 hours if you keep a good pace. It is especially enjoyable if you plan this bike trip around the same time as summer solstice. You can take the last bus going out to Wonder Lake so that you can bike the entire trip back with no buses on the road, all while getting to experience an awe-inspiring bike ride in the land of the midnight sun.

By plane

The glaciated heart of the Park is best accessed by one of the air taxi services located in Talkeetna, south of the Park. Landing by ski plane on a glacier is a truly memorable experience. Most air taxis offer glacier landing flights which allow visitors to walk around for a short while on the snow alongside the safe zones of the established airstrips. K2 Aviation, a pioneering air taxi, also has a lake landing option. Visitors wanting to venture away from the safety of the airstrips should be well versed in the technical aspects of glacier travel and crevasse rescue or should hire a guide. Camping on the glacier with huge, glaciated peaks towering above gives a great taste of the immensity of the Alaska Range. The National Park allows only a few outfitters to operate within its boundaries.

See

The park is enormous, and the vast majority of it is accessible only on foot or (in winter) by dog sled. The first fifteen miles of the park road are open to vehicle travel, and park buses are available to take visitors farther. At a minimum, visitors should try to catch a bus to at least Eilson Visitor Center for the incredible views of the mountain (when it's out). Slightly more adventurous visitors should plan to spend a few nights camping at the Wonder Lake campground. For the serious outdoorsmen, several days backpacking in the backcountry is far and away the best way to enjoy the Denali experience.

Do

Caribou near Savage River

The park is an outdoor paradise, and offers activities for visitors of all ages and experience levels.

Buy

Meals, gas, camping supplies, and a ridiculous variety of souvenirs can be purchased just outside of the park entrance on the Parks Highway, in an area called "the Canyon," located about one mile north of the park entrance. Within the park, the Riley Creek Mercantile (mile 0.3) sells basic supplies, including such things as white gas for cook stoves, bug repellent, and other necessities. Please be a courteous visitor and do not take park signage, including the "bear danger" signs you may see around. Removing them could endanger another traveler's life. Replica signs may be purchased in the park gift shop for just a few dollars.

Eat

There are several bars and restaurants clustered outside of the park entrance in the Canyon, 1 mile north of the park entrance. Within the park the Riley Creek Mercantile (mile 0.3) offers small food items and supplies. The Morino Grill, located 1.5 miles from the park entrance, is open during the summer and offers prepared meals.

Drink

Sleep

Lodging

Numerous hotels cluster just outside of the park entrance, and a handful of wilderness lodges can be found at the end of the park road in Kantishna or scattered in remote areas just outside of the park's borders. The list below is by no means exhaustive. Refer to the Denali Borough Chamber of Commerce for more contact information on various lodgings, services and activities in the area.

Inside the Park

Outside the Park

Camping

For those not quite ready for the backcountry experience, the park offers several campgrounds. Be aware that reservations are highly recommended during the summer months as campgrounds fill quickly (see the park concessionaire website to make online reservations or call the toll free number +1-800-622-7275 to make phone reservations).

Backcountry

For backcountry camping in Denali, a permit as well as experience in backcountry camping is required. If you get into trouble there will not be anyone within miles to go to for help, and rangers will not come looking for you unless you are reported missing by a contact. For this reason, you are strongly encouraged to arrange a "will call when out" plan with a friend or family member, so that if they do not hear from you they can contact the park.

To arrange a backcountry trip, first visit the Backcountry Information Center (mile 0.6 - adjacent to the Wilderness Access Center). Here, you will be required to provide some information about yourself, your gear and your backpacking experience and watch a safety video. After doing this, you'll have an opportunity to work out the details of your trip with one of the backcountry rangers. Rangers are here to give advice, but they are not tour directors - you should provide them with some ideas of what kind of sights or trip you are interested in, what kind of terrain you'll feel most comfortable in, how long you want to stay out, etc. Then they can help you pick a unit or units to suit your desires. After that, they'll check a Bear Resistant Food Canister (BRFC) out to you, and help send you on your way.

You will encounter large animals and vicious swarms of bugs, you will probably have to deal with weather that can change from sun to freezing rain in short periods of time, and you will most likely have to ford freezing streams and navigate dense willow thickets. With that warning, Denali is a magnificent place for experienced campers to go backpacking, and the nature experience is truly awe-inspiring.

Stay safe

Be prepared for massive hordes of blood-thirsty, man-eating, baby-snatching insects that will do their best to drive you from the park. Depending on winds and the time of year you may be lucky enough to avoid the bugs, but when they are out, the mosquitoes and black flies will do their utmost to test your sanity. Bug repellent is not sufficient; even if they don't land and bite, they will still buzz into your ears and eyes. Buy a mosquito-netting headcovering, and wear clothing that is capable of covering every millimeter of exposed skin.

The most advertised danger within the park are the bears. Grizzly bears are large, unpredictable, and can be dangerous, especially if they are with young. However, the same can be said of moose, caribou, wolves, and several other park animals. Keep a safe distance from all animals, make some noise while hiking to allow animals to identify you and avoid surprise encounters, and properly store all food, toiletries, and garbage to avoid attracting wildlife.

There are few trails within the park, so be aware of where you are when hiking. The tundra is fairly open, so in general it is not easy to get lost. If you have to ford a stream be very careful, as the water will be very cold and the currents are almost always stronger than they look. If you are pulled under there is a great danger of spraining or breaking bones, and hypothermia can set in if you can't quickly get out of wet clothes and into dry ones. Be aware also that streams and rivers are frequented by thirsty wildlife and if there are rapids the chance of surprising them is heightened. You don't want to surprise a bear, a pack of wolves, or a moose so make noise as you approach any noisy streams or rivers.

Should problems be encountered, there is a small medical center located in the "Canyon," about 1 mile north of the Park Entrance. Another small center is 13 miles (21 km) north of the park entrance in Healy. Fairbanks, located 120 miles (193 km) north of the park entrance, is the nearest large hospital facility. Rangers can respond to emergency situations and can be contacted using the 911 emergency service.

Go next

Routes through Denali National Park

END Fairbanks  N  S  Wasilla Anchorage (via )


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