Denali is not like any other National Park in America. First, it is America’s most remote park and second the park is just massive. Most of the park has very limited access with few roads or even marked trails. There are no campgrounds or hotels inside this park and no scenic roads that people can drive.
Most visitors come to visit Denali as part of a bus tour or a combination Alaska Cruise/Land Tour. Unless you are planning an extended Alaska driving vacation those are probably your best options. If you’re thinking about a do-it-yourself car tour it’s important that you make reservations first. Denali is not your typical National Park. Access for the general public is mostly restricted to taking the parks bus excursions. While these are really good tours the problem is you need to make reservations significantly in advance – weeks or even months before your planned trip date. One of the additional advantages of going on a bus or cruise/land tour is your park access reservations are provided by your tour company.
Besides booking park tour reservations, traveling on your own usually means you will need reservations for accommodations too. Most visitors will select hotels within Denali Village with the major hotels being Denali Park Village, Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, Grande Denali Lodge and McKinley Chalet Resort most within walking distance of restaurants and shops within the village. Most organized tours will also normally include one of these hotels as well.
Visiting Denali as part of a cruise-land package is a great way to see parts of Alaska along with Denali National Park. Cruise land excursions travel overland by Wilderness Express train and/or bus from the port of Seward. The train portion is by observation cars featuring a dining room underneath. These packages include the option of either cruising first and taking the land tour second or in the reverse. Our recommendation would be to book the package flying into Fairbanks and taking the land tour and save the cruise for last with the cruise ending in Vancouver Canada. After a hectic week on buses and trains, relaxing on a cruise is the perfect ending.
The nearest city to Denali is Fairbanks where most flights are booked. Additional cities visited usually include Girdwood with the resort Hotel Aleyska, Anchorage, Talkeetna and of course Seward.
The Denali landscapes are vast and rugged and includes North America’s tallest mountain, Denali (previously Mt. McKinley) which stands above everything. The one problem is that it is shrouded in clouds most of the year, but, even if you miss the “Great One,” the Alaska Range is an awesome sight.
Most visitors to Denali will take the tundra wilderness tour, sponsored by the Park Service, with approximately 8 hours on a bus dedicated to enjoying the scenery and wildlife and learning the park’s history and it includes a “bag lunch”.
For perspective you need to understand that the scenery is inspiring but so is the very desolate and wild character of the park. Many of the mountain tops are above the tree line exposing huge expanses of meadows. The major focus of tours is the wildlife but that also needs some explaining. Area wise, Denali is our largest national park. It encompasses about 9,492 square miles (larger than the state of New Hampshire) and most of it is without roads or even trails. The animal populations are much smaller than most people would expect.
There are only 70 grizzly bears per 1,000 square miles in Denali. Other census numbers per 1,000 square miles show 131 Black bears, wolves less than 8, and the estimate for the total Denali Caribou Herd was about 2,230 animals. Dall Sheep totals in the park are less than 1,900. Based on these numbers it’s easy to understand that looking for wildlife is the major focus of the tour.
Staying at Denali Village offers a choice of a number of accommodations, some restaurants and gift shops and it is home to a popular helicopter tour. Some visitors want to see the “Into The Wild Bus” from the movie based on a true story. But because of concerns for public safety the bus was removed from the wilderness area. It seemed that over the years trekkers never stopped coming to see the bus, and a number of them died along the way. It was the last home of Chris McCandless, who detailed in a journal the tragic final moments of starvation in 1992 after he was trapped by the swollen, icy waters of the Teklanika River. McCandless had taken shelter in an abandoned bus for 114 days.
This part of Alaska should be on everyones bucket list and if you’re exploring an Alaska cruise check out the Denali land tour option.
America’s largest and most remote National Park, Denali is larger than the state of New Hampshire and offers very few roads or even hiking trails.