We spent a lovely few days in Denali National Park and Preserve, probably Alaska’s most popular national park, in the South Central part of Alaska. Certainly it is Alaska’s most visited park if you don’t count the hoards of people who briefly dip their toes into Glacier Bay National Park from their massive cruise ships. Filled with wide open spaces, beautiful mountain ranges and roaming wildlife, we were excited to finally get to Denali, which we’ve heard so much about.
We drove into Denali National Park and Preserve from the Kenai Peninsula, which was quite a long drive, but the beautiful countryside made for a great drive. We headed out of the mountains on the Kenai Peninsula, through Anchorage and into the rolling hills towards the Alaska Range which contains Denali and flanks the National Park. We arrived late at night, too late to check into the park service for our campsite reservations, but we’d had email and phone confirmation so we thought we’d be just fine. Driving into the Park we saw a wolf trot across the road in front of us, which we found out later was quite rare because there are only about 50 wolves left in the National Park. Shocking to hear, right?! I thought there were far more wolves in the Park!
We were lucky enough to get a reservation at Wonder Lake campsite, which is the campground furthest into the Park, near the old little mining village of Talkeetna at the end of the only road in the Park, appropriately named Park Road! The campsites usually book up far in advance, so when I saw an opening for one night in Wonder Lake I jumped on it. We were hoping to get super lucky and have clear skies and sunshine on Denali, which is an extremely rare occurrence, but one can hope right?! Wonder Lake is the location where Ansel Adams took his famous photograph of Denali in 1947:
We got great weather but not quite the jackpot sunny skies so we weren’t able to get a clear shot of Denali with a reflection in Wonder Lake and the reflection pond à la Ansel. C’est la vie! Denali is a unique national park in the U.S. because it is largely inaccessible to private vehicles. There is only the one road into the Park – Park Road – and people are allowed to drive their cars only to the mile marker at Mile 15 before they have to turn around. There are a few larger campsites in the first 15 miles of the Park which are largely filled with huge RVs, and then there is a handful of campgrounds with far fewer sites further into the Park that are only accessible by hiking, biking or riding the camper’s buses. For those non-campers who want to delve deeper into the Park, there are shuttle buses and tour buses that you can ride that will take you to various points along Park Road.
Denali peaks through the clouds at the Eielson Center
Side note: what they don’t tell you when you make campsite reservations is that you have to check in the day before your reservation to get a paper ticket for the bus! We didn’t know this – it doesn’t say anything in the email confirmation or on the websites for the campsite reservations, and the voicemail that was left for me to indicate our departure time didn’t mention it either. We had some issues with a person who worked at the reservation center giving us a hard time about not having the paper ticket (but having a PDF email confirmation of the bus tickets – go figure!), but the driver didn’t mind and let us hop on the bus. So for those of you planning on camping, be sure to check in at the Park the day before so that you don’t have these worries!
View through the Camper Bus along Park Road
We got up SUPER early for our 5am departure on the camper’s bus that would take us out to Wonder Lake campsite. There had been a landslide on the Park Road a few days before we arrived, so the shuttle buses were all a bit screwed up and our departure time got pushed up to 5am, but we were lucky to get on the bus at all. The only buses that were permitted past the Eielson Visitor Center about halfway down Park Road were camper’s buses or the private shuttles taking people out to the very pricey lodges in Talkeetna. It was deemed too dangerous to have the normal barrage of shuttle buses rattling along on the part of the road that was damaged by the landslide, and which the Park Service was in the process of repairing. So all those visitors to the park who weren’t camping weren’t able to go all the way to the end of Park Road, they had to turn around halfway, which would have been such a disappointment.
We hopped on our bus and enjoyed beautiful views of the mountains, forest and wildlife as we drove deeper into the Park. We saw plenty of wildlife both on the way in and the way out of the Park – a few Grizzly Bear mamas with their cubs, Caribou, Moose and Deer. While we weren’t on a tour bus with a regular repertoire of tour information, our drivers were so knowledgeable and friendly and happy to stop when someone pointed out a wildlife sighting.
Mount Denali was partially out of the clouds during our visit, which is just about as good as we could hope for. It’s the tallest peak on North America, at 20,310 feet, and is part of the Alaska Range, which is the tallest mountain range in North America. This means that Denali and its neighbors have their own weather system atop their peaks and Denali is usually hiding in the clouds. We were thrilled with clear, sunny views of the range and about 2/3 of Denali.
We arrived at our campsite in Wonder Lake pretty early in the day since we left so early – the bus ride is about a 4-5 hour ride, depending on how often you stop to see wildlife. We set up the tent in our campsite and then set off for a hike near the campsite.
Denali National Park has very few established hiking trails – there aren’t enough people coming deep into the park to warrant the work that goes into developed trails I suppose, and it’s part of the allure of the Park to keep it wild and undeveloped. There are social trails, though, where lots of hikers have taken the same routes.
We hiked down the McKinley Bar Trail to the McKinley River, walking through beautiful forests and keeping our eyes open for wildlife. We didn’t see any animals on the trail, but saw lots of evidence of wildlife nearby, including some great bear tracks in the mud on the trail.
Unfortunately we could only get a camp reservation for one night, so after a great night’s sleep cozy in our sleeping bags we had to get up super early the next morning to catch the camper bus back out of the Park. Because of the limited shuttle bus availability due to the landslide, we could either get on the 6am bus or wait until 6pm to head back out of the Park. We opted for the early ride and had another lovely drive out of the Park – clear skies and a nice view of the mountains and lots of wildlife.
Moose mama and her babies
We picked up Gelly and headed to the Riley Creek Campground for the night. It’s a nice campground, though much more crowded than Wonder Lake. It’s near the entrance to the park and suitable for RVs and other campers, and is more spacious and private than I would have expected. After a quick regroup and unpacking our backpacking gear, we headed out for a hike around Horseshoe Lake for some great views of the lake and a huge beaver dam! No beavers in sight, but we loved the relatively easy stroll through the woods.
I love that Denali is so wild and undeveloped. And the mountains are incredibly beautiful. It is a special place for unspoiled conservation and preservation of the bears, moose, caribou, deer, wolves and other animals, and we need more of these kinds of conservation efforts. But I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the Park generally – perhaps it has just been so talked up that my expectations were too high. And certainly if we’d been able to take the time for some back country camping deep into the wilderness it would have been a different experience. I’m glad we were able to go far into the park, beyond the beaten path of most visitors, and camp amongst the wilderness at least for a day, but I think next trip we’ll focus on some of the other national parks in Alaska that we enjoyed a bit more. Or perhaps we will be able to take more time to really dig deep into the wilderness in Denali!
Have you been to Denali? What did you think?
LOCATION Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska