National Park Number: 16 of 59
10 Things We Loved
1. The idea behind the shuttle system
Denali has one road that leads 92 miles into the heart of the park; only the first 15 miles are open to private vehicles. If you want to go farther, you must take a tour or a shuttle bus. This means there’s not a lot of vehicular traffic and the interior of the park has been able to remain wilderness.
2. Wonder Lake Campground
On our first day, we took the camper bus in 85 miles to the Wonder Lake Campground, which is the closest you can get to the mountain without some serious backcountry hiking. (We lucked out getting a spot here during peak season; some road friends recommended the campground and when we checked a few weeks before we got there, there was a cancellation. If you’re planning ahead, book a site way in advance!)
3. The mountain
On our ride into the park, the top bit of Denali was covered in clouds; because the Alaska range sits at the confluence of weather from the interior and the coast, Denali is only visible about 30% of the time, so our view coming in was very standard. Around sunset that evening, the clouds started to clear away and we had beautiful twilight views that stayed until midday the next day.
We brought our bikes to Wonder Lake with us on the camper bus (most every bus can carry two bikes on a front rack just like the one we have on Buster.) Biking the road is a great way to get around waiting for buses; we were able to cover much more ground than we could have on foot and because there are so few vehicles, the biking is super pleasant.
After striking camp at Wonder Lake, we rode our bikes around for a while and ended up at Blueberry Hill, on the way to Kantishna. 2017 wasn’t a great year for blueberries, but this hill was covered with ripe ones; we plopped down and ate until we were almost bursting. It was incredibly pleasant.
One of the fun things about riding the Denali buses is that you have dozens of eyes scanning the landscape looking for wildlife; the bus drivers are also excellent spotters. Whenever someone saw an animal, they’d yell out the name and we’d pull over to get a better look. We saw loads of caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and moose, some of them very close to the road. Since we’d come from Katmai so recently, we were possibly a little jaded and didn’t go after wildlife photos too diligently. It was actually really nice just to watch without worrying about lens changes or camera settings or anything!
Beyond seeing Denali itself, we really loved the scenery of the park. Most of the land is subalpine or alpine tundra, covered in low-lying scrub, berry bushes, and grasses. We were there in early-mid-August and some of the leaves were already changing to yellow. There is barely any development in the park, and we loved looking out on totally untrammeled wild.
Denali National Park still uses sled dogs for most of its winter patrols, and they do tours and programs at the Sled Dog Center where the dogs live and train. We went for a demonstration one morning where we learned a bunch about mushing and watched the dogs race around a loop pulling a wheeled cart. These dogs are incredibly strong and athletic, and we loved watching them in action.
Denali has totally open hiking, which means you don’t need to follow any trails (though they do have a few trails.) Because of the Car Seat Issue (which I’ll mention below), we weren’t able to get too ambitious here, but we did explore some of the area around Wonder Lake and we also hiked the Savage River Loop Trail, and once we reached the turning point of the loop, we explored the surrounding hills a bit more off-trail. Because the ground is covered in scrub and bushes, trail-less walking is a bit trickier than it looks from a distance, so it was a little tough for Graham. If you’re going without kids, though, spending some time away from the road, hiking and exploring, sounds like perfection.
10. The Junior Ranger Program
Eternally one of our favorite things about every park. I can’t get over what a great program this is. The booklets are engaging and informative and Graham feels like a rockstar every time he gets a badge. Denali was no exception to the excellent quality we’ve found throughout the parks system.
Now for the one thing we didn’t like so much about Denali:
The shuttle buses hold to the same car seat laws as the rest of the state, which is very unusual for public transit, including school buses and other NPS shuttles we’ve used. We’re all about keeping our kids safe, but requiring car seats in this case means families are restricted from participating is almost everything the park has to offer aside from riding the bus straight out and back in a single day. We got around this by camping (we could stow our car seats in the bear cache at the campground) and biking (so we could cover a lot of ground while leaving our car seats in one spot), but it was a bummer not to be able to participate in ranger-led hikes or go anywhere other than the two places (Wonder Lake and Eielson Visitor Center) we were told could stash our seats. We’d love to see Denali shift their rules to something more closely matching the shuttle systems in other parks so that families seeking a little more adventure can actually access the park.
All in all, Denali is a serious star and we loved our time here. Two thumbs way up over here.