Denali National Park was first established as a National Park in 1917, under the name of Mount McKinley National Park. It wasn’t until 1980 when its name was then changed to Denali National Park and Preserve. Standing at 20,310 feet tall, the highest peak in North America, Denali is a wondrous sight to see. Unfortunately, it is estimated only about 30% of visitors are able to view the mountain on their trip to the park. The mountain is so tall that it creates its own climate and cloud coverage, making it disappear quite often, thus becoming a special treat to locals and tourists alike when its “out.”
There is only one road in and out of the park, the Denali Park Road. The road is 92 miles long, however only the first 15 miles are paved and accessible by tourists. If you’re wanting to explore more than the first 15 miles, you’ll need to plan somewhat ahead and book a bus tour either through the park or private company. The paved portion of the road ends at Savage River, which is a very popular hiking area. Ironically, even though Denali encompasses more than 6 million acres, it has very few designated trails, making it a fan-favorite for the backcountry enthusiast.
The drive from Anchorage to Healy is about 4 hours, give or take half an hour. Our first day in the park was spent driving the first 15 miles of the road back and forth, multiple times, trolling for bears. Unfortunately, we struck out on bear sightings, but did see a few moose and Mount Denali breaking through the clouds. Our best view of Denali though was on our drive in at the South Viewpoint in Denali State Park. The mountain blew us away, and we were excited to officially be part of the “30% club!” Later that afternoon we headed to our dry cabin in Healy, where we would be staying for the next few nights. In simple terms, “dry cabin” means no running water and an outhouse. This was really no problem for us, plus the cabin was way cute and far away enough from tourist traffic, but not too far away from the park.
Our second day in the park was the day of our bus tour. If you choose to do a bus tour through the National Park service, you have a few options. You can pick between a narrated tour bus or a transit bus, which is not narrated. Each bus offers options to turn around at different destinations, allowing the opportunity to travel all the way to the end of the road, mile 92, if desired. If you travel all the way to the end of the road, it would be around a 12-hour round-trip day. For us, the best option was a transit bus, taking us to mile-marker 66, the Eielson Visitor’s Center. Even though it wasn’t technically a “narrated” bus tour, our driver was still very educational, so it felt like we had a narrated tour, but with more freedom to get on/off if we desired. The duration of our trip was 8 hours, which had us starting at 8:00 am and returning at 4:00 pm. The bus took several 15-minute rest breaks at different points of interest. We always got back on the same bus, however if we had wanted to stay longer at a certain stop, we could have, and would have still been allowed to get on another transit bus later. Unfortunately, the day of our tour was very overcast and rainy, so we didn’t feel like exploring past the 15 minutes at each stop. We saw several moose, caribou, and Dall sheep throughout the day as well as one brown bear from a far distance with binoculars. Our bus driver said if you see all 5 animals (bear, wolf, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep), it’s called a “Grand Slam.” Since we saw 4 out of the 5 animals (all besides a wolf), we had a “Home Run.”
That evening we ate dinner at 49th State Brewing Company, which I would highly recommend if you’re ever in the area. The vibe was awesome, along with the food and drinks. It’s located a few miles outside of the park, but doesn’t have too much of a “touristy” feel.
The next day we drove into the park one last time, before traveling on to our next destination. The clouds and rain had cleared from the previous day, allowing us to see Denali again and become part of the 30% club x2! Our best view of the mountain was from that same South Viewpoint from our drive in, which is technically outside of the national park, but still a part of the preserve. If you find yourself at this viewpoint, do yourself a favor and hike the short trail that goes above the main viewpoint for an even more spectacular view!