Located between Anchorage and Fairbanks is Denali National Park, one of the most popular attractions in Alaska. Approximately 400,000 people visit the six-million acre park each year. Although the park is open year-round, the prime season is between May and September. The harsh winter weather can make the park inhospitable during the rest of the year.
The park is bisected by one 91-mile road. The first 15 miles are open to private vehicles. After that, you must take one of the park or concession buses.
There are a myriad of things to see and do in Denali National Park. If you’re headed to the park this season, below are the seven things you don’t want to miss:
1. Gaze at Mt. McKinley. The tallest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley is the centerpiece of Denali National Park. Although the 20,320-foot-tall mountain is a favorite of serious climbers, mere mortals can view it from various points along the Park Road, from the Mt. Healy Overlook Trail (see below) or by taking one of the several flightseeing tours.
2. View wildlife. The object for many visitors to Denali National Park is to spot the “big five” game animals–grizzly bears, dall sheep, wolves, caribou and moose–and the park offers ample opportunity. Since hunting has never been allowed in the park, the wildlife here tends to be less skittish than in other parts of Alaska. The Park Road was designed for maximum wildlife viewing and is located on a ridge with frequent overlooks where the buses stop for viewing opportunities.
3. Explore the Denali Visitors Center. Located towards the end of the Park Road, the Visitors Center offers a variety of exhibits and facilities, including a 20-minute film about the park, a large bookstore, a restaurant and changing exhibits about the animals and plants who call Denali home.
4. See the dog sled demonstrations. Located near the Visitors Center are the Denali Park Kennels, home to the park’s sled dogs. Park rangers give free 30-minute tours of the facility. You can walk the 1.5 miles from the Visitors Center or take one of the free shuttle buses.
5. Hike the Mt. Healy Overlook Trail. This strenuous 2.2-mile trail climbs 1,700 feet, sometimes at grades of 25 degrees or more. However, hikers who make the trek are rewarded with views of Mt. McKinley and the Nenana Valley.
For a less strenuous hike, try the 1.5 mile Horseshoe Lake Trail that circles Horseshoe Lake and winds through Aspen and pine forests.
6. Stop at the Murie Science and Learning Center. Also located near the Denali Visitors Center, this interactive museum features exhibits about Alaska’s eight arctic and sub-arctic regions. Also on display is the fossilized footprint of a three-toed Cretaceous Theropod dinosaur, which was discovered in Denali in 2005. Admission is free.
7. Participate in one of the free ranger programs. Denali Park hosts a year-round schedule of free ranger-led programs throughout the park. These include hikes, theater programs and lectures.
Visiting Denali National Park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Make the most of your visit by taking in as many of the park’s highlights as possible.