Denali National Park
Alaska’s most famous tourist attraction, Denali National Park (907/683-2294, www.nps.gov/dena) draws over 400,000 visitors during its brief summer season. Most travelers come to see Mt. McKinley, highest peak in North America (20,320 feet), which towers above the surrounding lowlands and 14,000– 17,000-foot peaks. Although it’s visible only one day in three, and often shrouded for a week or more at a time, those who get lucky and see the mountain experience a thrill equivalent to its majesty and grandeur.
Those who don’t are usually consoled by lower snowcapped mountains and attending glaciers, high passes and adrenaline-pumping drops off the road, tundra vistas and “drunken forests,” and an incredible abundance of wildlife, including caribou, moose, sheep, and bears.
But even if the mountain is socked in, the grizzlies are hiding, and the shuttle-bus windows are fogged up, you’re still smack in the middle of some of the most spectacular and accessible wilderness in the world. It was the call of the wild that brought you out here in the first place; all you have to do is step outside and answer.
Denali National Park is open year-round, though most facilities only operate mid-May–mid-September. Plowing of the Park Road generally starts in early May, but only the first 30 miles are open before late May, when the shuttle buses begin running. Those who arrive before this date will not be able to reach the best vantage points for Mt. McKinley.
The wildflowers peak around summer solstice—as do the mosquitoes. The berries, rose hips, and mushrooms are best in mid-August—as are the no-see-ums. The fall colors on the tundra are gorgeous around Labor Day weekend, when the crowds start to thin out and the northern lights start to appear, but it can get very cold. A skeleton winter Park Service crew patrols the park by dogsled. After the first heavy snowfall, the Park Road is plowed only to headquarters.
Admission to Denali National Park is $10 per person or $20 per vehicle, or buy a National Park Pass—good for all national parks—for $80 per year. A Senior Pass for all national parks is available to anyone over age 62 for a one-time fee of $10, and people with disabilities can get a free Access Pass that covers all the parks. Get additional park information at 907/683-2294, www.nps.gov/dena.
Getting to Denali National Park
The Alaska Railroad’s (907/265-2494 or 800/544-0552, www.alaskarailroad.com) Denali Star train leaves Fairbanks at 8:15 a.m. and arrives at Denali at noon ($64 each way); it departs Anchorage at 8:15 a.m., arriving at Denali at 3:45 p.m. ($146).
Several companies have van transportation to Denali, with one-way rates to the park at around $75 from Anchorage, $60 from Talkeetna, and $60 from Fairbanks. Alaska Park Connection (907/245-0200 or 800/266-8625, www.alaskacoach.com) provides summertime service connecting Denali with Talkeetna, Anchorage, and Seward. Denali Overland Transportation (907/733-2384 or 800/651-5221, www.denalioverland.com) has charter service from Anchorage to Talkeetna and Denali, and often has space for individual travelers. Alaska/Yukon Trails (907/479-2277 or 888/770-7275, www.alaskashuttle.com) connects Denali with Anchorage or Fairbanks. Van service is daily in the summer only; for $99 one-way you can stop anytime and get a later bus.
Local air taxis include Denali Air (907/683-2261, www.denaliair.com), which operates from Mile 229 of the Parks Highway, and Kantishna Air Taxi (907/683-1223, www.katair.com) from Kantishna. Era Helicopters (907/683-2574 or 800/843-1947, www.eraflightseeing.com) is based next to the river in Denali Park.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition