Visitors have been coming to Denali National Park for nearly 100 years. In 1923 the park welcomed its first visitors and they paid $25 per day for lodging and three meals. While staying and exploring this park is a little more expensive today, it’s still an amazing place to visit and a huge draw to the state of Alaska.
For me, visiting Denali National Park was by far the highlight of my entire Alaska vacation. My wife and I hiked on our own and took a park-sponsored tour, and the tour is definitely the way to see much more of the park. After all, it’s difficult to see much of a 6 million acre park by foot.
The big draw of the Denali National Park is Mount Denali, of course. It towers at an amazing 20,310 feet and is so tall that it makes its own weather, which is why it’s usually covered in clouds. Out of the 105 day summer season in Alaska, the elusive mountain only shows itself an average of 67 days.
To extract the most enjoyment from the park it is recommended to spend 2-3 days touring. In addition to experiencing many of the park’s activities, this amount of time also provides a better chance of actually seeing Mount Denali.
Unfortunately, on my limited amount of vacation time, I could only spend just less than 2 days in the park. For this reason, I chose to hike the first partial day and take a park-led tour the full second day.
The only way to go deeper than 15 miles into the park is on a park sponsored vehicle. The park sponsors shuttles that transport passengers from point A to point B as well as tours that provide quality narration throughout the drive. The tours will also stop for unlimited amounts of time to watch the wildlife. (The tours sell out quickly, so they should be booked well in advance.)
I signed up for the Kantishna Experience tour, which takes 12 hours, but goes all the way to the end of the 92.5 mile Denali National Park Road. While it’s also the most expensive tour, it also provided the most time to see Mount Denali and all of the wildlife I traveled so far to see. My tour also included lunch, and a ranger-led hike.
I chose the earliest departure time of 6:15am because Mount Denali is known to provide the best views in the morning. Also, we would also be the first in the park, so my thinking was that we’d get to see the most undisturbed wildlife because it was a goal of ours, like most people, to see the big 5 while in the park: Dall sheep, grizzly bear, caribou, moose, and wolves.
The departure times for the tours are not confirmed until a week before the tour, so I stopped at the Wilderness Access Center while hiking on the day before my tour to confirm the departure time. It is recommended to arrive 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time, so it would make for an extremely early morning the next day.
While on the tour there is beautiful scenery all over, but if you want unobstructed views of Mount Denali in the morning, the left hand side of the bus is best. From our experience, the wildlife seemed evenly distributed on both sides of the bus.
While on the tour we received excellent commentary about the park, its history, and inhabitants. We received plenty of food and stops to take photos, stretch our legs, use the restrooms, and explore the visitor centers. Whenever we saw an animal the driver would stop until we were finished observing and preserving our memories with dozens of photos.
Our ranger-led hike was also a great experience. Ranger Andy boarded our bus near Mirror Lake and accompanied us all the way to the end of the road and back. We were taught all about the flora and fauna of the park, picked ripe berries straight from the bushes, and even got to go inside Fannie Quigley’s house. Fannie was a pioneer who came to Alaska in search of gold in 1906. She made a life for herself by living off the land in Denali National Park until her death in 1944 at the age of 74.
In all, I would say we had a very successful and enjoyable trip. Mount Denali did show all but the tip of its peak while we were there, so we got some amazing photos and memories. Also, we got to see all of the big 5 animals except for the wolves, and since only about 4% of visitors see all of the big 5 animals, we consider ourselves extremely lucky.
The amount of information presented, the opportunity to go as far into the park as possible, as well as the ranger-led hike made this tour well worth its price. The 12 hour day made for a long bus ride back, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
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