Denali National Park is always a favorite place to visit for travelers to Alaska. Mt. Denali, also called McKinley (its former name), is over 20,000 feet in elevation. At Denali National Park, bear, wolf, moose, caribou, eagle and many other critters make the wildlife preserve their home. But make plans early for visiting Denali National Park. Visitors start making reservations far in advance for the limited lodging available around the park. Alaska TourSaver offers some 2-for-1 deals at two lodges that offer great views and access.
You can access the park from the entrance, or by air from Talkeetna, which is "base camp" for climbers from all over the world. Some choose to take the bus tour from the park entrance. Others want to take a flightseeing tour from Talkeetna. Some Denali Park tours like flightseeing, even include a glacier landing! Since access to the 85-mile road through the park is restricted to buses or campers' shuttles, plan on an early start if you want to take the bus.
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Most of the bus tours of Denali National Park start between 5:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Using the exclusive 2-for-1 coupons available in the Alaska TourSaver, you'll enjoy exclusive savings for lodging, flightseeing tours and other Denali tours. Don't wait: get your Alaska TourSaver® and start saving on your trip to Denali National Park today! There are so many coupons for Alaska tours included in TourSaver that using just one of the offers covers the $99.95 price.
Photo: Scott McMurren
Just like the rest of Alaska, Denali Park is huge. Really big. Not small. It's not just the mountain, either. Of course, Mt. McKinley is big. But the mountain itself is just one aspect of the national park.
Talk to anyone who works in Denali Park as a guide, a ranger, a naturalist or support staff and they will tell you that the wildlife is as much a part of the show as the mountain. But face it–it's hard to get past that HUGE chunk of rock towering more than 20,000 feet in the air! It's hard to get a bird's-eye view of Mt. Denali. After all, Mount Denali stands 20,320 feet above sea level–dwarfing the tall mountains around it. Mount McKinley is so big that it has its own weather system. Truthfully, it can be sunny in Anchorage and Fairbanks at the same time the mountain is socked in by clouds.
There are lots of big facts about Mount Denali. Some of the glaciers on Mount Denali are well-known. For example, the Ruth Glacier is where bush pilot Don Sheldon built a cabin. The "Mountain House" still hosts visitors from around the world. The glacier is a favorite landing spot for travelers who want a brief glacier landing as part of an air tour. Kahiltna Glacier hosts "Base Camp" for those who are climbing to the top of the mountain. However, there are dozens of other glaciers around the mountain. On an air tour, you can see many orange cones, many of which denote a glacier landing strip staked out earlier by pilots.
There are many larger-than-life Alaska pioneers that spent years on or around Mount Denali. Bradford Washburn and his wife, Barbara, mapped out Mount Denali in the 1950s. Today, their calculations and technical data still figure prominently in any geographic analysis of the mountain and its surroundings. Washburn helped produce a great book on Mount Denali: "Mount McKinley: The Conquest of Denali". It's an incredible essay with stunning photographs of the mountain by Washburn. The book is out of print, but go to the "Alaskacam" home page on the link above, to find the book from private parties.
The Washburns depended on Bush Pilots like Bob Reeve, Lowell Thomas, Jr. and Don Sheldon to ferry supplies up and down Mount McKinley. While much of the business for air taxis was hauling freight, the same pilots often were called on to rescue injured climbers. Don Sheldon was regarded as one of the "super airmen" of the mountain. His story is recounted in a popular Alaska book, "Wager with the Wind".
Photo: Ron Niebrugge
Since access to the 85-mile road through the park is restricted to buses or campers' shuttles, plan on an early start if you want to take the bus.
Photo: Ron Niebrugge
Since Mount Denali is inside the Denali National Park and Preserve, all climbers need to register with the Park Service. Climbers must register with the Park Service at least 60 days prior to their climb, then pay a $200 fee (plus park entrance fee). The Park Service's ranger station in Talkeetna is the nerve center for monitoring climbers on the mountain. Even if you're not planning on climbing Mount Denali, a stop at the ranger station in downtown Talkeetna offers an interesting look at the mountain, its special properties and obstacles.
The best way to get up close and personal to Mount Denali is to take an air tour. Two companies offer great air tours from differing perspectives.Talkeetna Aero Services offers a "Summit" tour of Denali in a pressurized, twin-engine aircraft, departing Talkeetna. Era Helicopters offers a heli-hiking flightseeing tour. Tour includes approximately 3.5 hours of guided hiking and a 15 minute helicopter flight.
In fact, there are three approaches to Denali Park. Each one offers its own highlights that shouldn't be missed.
The first approach to Denali National Park is the park entrance itself. Situated at the northeast corner of the park, it's located 230 miles north of Anchorage and about 125 miles south of Fairbanks on the George Parks Highway along Alaska's "railbelt". You can drive there from either city, or take the Alaska Railroad, which offers daily service during the summer.
There are several excellent resources for information on Denali Park, including the Denali Foundation. Another online resource is the National Park Service's own web page on Denali National Park. Here, you can learn about the wildlife in the park, options for access, including the park service shuttle and camping/RV facilities.
At the park entrance, there are many options for activities and accommodations. Denali Park Resorts has a host of hotels for visitors. Choose from flightseeing, rafting, horseback riding–even a visit to Iditarod Champion Jeff King's dog kennel (that's a favorite with the kids).
If you choose to explore Denali National Park from this vantage point (at the park entrance) and you only have a day or two, be sure and take one of the bus tours offered by Denali Park Resorts. Choose the "Tundra Wilderness Tour". It leaves early, but that's the best time to see the wildlife!
Another great option to see Denali National Park is by air from Talkeetna. Companies like K2 Aviation offer daily flights around the mountain. Talkeetna Aero Services offers twin-engine aircraft wtih oversized windows that give travelers a wonderful view of the mountain. On some tours, you can even fly over the mountain! Talkeetna Air Taxi will land you on a glacier so you can walk around ON THE ICE. This is really fun!
At the end of the 90-mile road through Denali Park is the old gold-mining community of Kantishna. Because there are three lodges back at the end of the road, it represents a more exclusive approach to exploring Denali National Park. That means it's expensive. But it's worth it if you want to see a piece of the park accessible to less than five percent of the visitors. You can save some money on tours around Mt. Mckinley as well by using the Alaska TourSaver.
These lodges, including the Kantishna Roadhouse and Camp Denali, sit near the shores of beautiful Wonder Lake. A small stream runs past the lodges–visitors can fish the stream for Arctic Grayling. There are interpretive programs each evening and nature hikes during the day. You can go flightseeing with Kantishna Air Service–it's just spectacular!
To access this corner of the Park, you typically must come to the park entrance and spend the night at one of the hotels. Then, the next day, you take one of the lodges' private buses through the park. It's a long drive–but a great opportunity to see part of the park that most folks just never visit. Whichever approach you take to Denali National Park, be sure and take your camera and a thirst for adventure!