So you’re coming to Alaska, and you have “visit Denali National Park” on your list. But, where do you start?
Glad you asked. Here are my suggestions for making the most out of this amazing piece of Alaska. What to see, where to eat, where to stay and where NOT to stay when visiting Denali National Park, as well as how to space out your time so that you don’t end up like I did where you find yourself sitting in a car for four straight days wondering if you’ll ever regain feeling in your butt ever again.
STARTING IN ANCHORAGE
First things first, drive to Talkeetna, (pronounced TALL-Keet-na). Don’t go all the way to Denali.
We stayed at Talkeetna Camper Park off the main road into Talkeetna because we had a motor-home — it’s ok because of its walking distance to downtown and the fact that Latitude 62 is next door, but not as woodsy as we’d have liked. The showers were clean, and even though it was near the railroad, it never bothered us.
Other lodging ideas:
- Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge — for those looking for a luxurious stay in Talkeetna. Shuttles to downtown and you can book everything from Denali fly in trips, to river rafting, to fly fishing.
- Talkeetna River Park Campgrounds — right at the end of Main Street you are walking distance from food, beer and shopping, but you’ve also got a lovely wooded campsite, PLUS you’re right on the river. On a clear day you’ll be only steps away from stealing glimpses of Denali herself. Tent only, $10 a night.
- See a full list of lodging options at Talkeetna’s official website.
Places to eat in Talkeetna: Be sure to head to the Wildflower Cafe for dinner, be sure to get a beer at the Denali Brewery, and stop in at the Fairview Inn to grad a drink with the locals. Keep a hand over your glass, you don’t exactly want the bear fur from the pelt above you falling in your drink. Grab breakfast at the Talkeetna Roadhouse which has served patrons since the early gold rush days!
On the weekend there is live music in the park, you can walk to the end of Main Street to check out the Big Su river and try to sneak a peek at Denali herself, and if you’ve got the coin and the stomach for it there are plenty of places in town that you can sign up for a flight tour to Denali. The quickest and easiest way to checkout the mountain without the tourists!
Word To The Wise: DO NOT book a tour with South Denali River Guides — and be WARY of any Groupon offering you a “float”. Floating is just what you think it is. Floating. No excitement, no drama. Just floating. For 19 miles. One bonus is they will give you these bad ass blue plastic suits. You will laugh at each other.
In July when the salmon are running you might be more likely to see a bear or two and enjoy the salmon jumping and heading up river, but if they’re not running, you’re just sitting there, cold. Now, this would be better for the older, unadventurous types. If you’re looking for a true whitewater trip save your pennies and book with Denali Alaska Whitewater Adventures once you head north to Denali. Now they have the rapids you’re looking for.
My recommendations for staying in Talkeena are 2-3 nights. More than that you’ll run out of things to see. Your main stop is Denali anyway, so pack up and head north!
ON YOUR WAY
Stop at Marry Carey’s McKinley View Lodge for pie, a sandwich and a view. AMAZING views if the weather is cooperating. This is where we actually saw Denali (see above!), and this viewpoint will get you a closer angle to the mountain than once you are actually in the park. Weird right?
So stop, see the mountain, get a bite to eat, and snap your photos if she’s out. Because odds are she wont be once you’re in Denali National Park.
Want to prolong your trip? Camp at the unappreciated, but stunningly gorgeous Byers Lake Campground. If you have kayaks be sure to book yourself one of three kayak or hike in cabins around the lake. How can you not love that?
DENALI NATIONAL PARK
If you do you’ll end up like I did where after spending 8+ hours on bus you arrive at your campsite to find standing water, the scariest bathroom you’ve ever seen in your life, people clearly running meth labs out of their campgrounds, and other fun things like school buses with no wheels people are clearly living in. GOOD TIMES!
There are two ways to camp while staying in Denali that will not terrify you and force you to spend the entire night sitting in your camper with the shades drawn waiting for daylight.
If you have an RV and don’t need full hookups for a night, or you’re tent camping, I recommend staying at the Riley Creek Campground. This campground is right at the entrance of the park and has great sites that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the forest. These sites do not have showers though, be aware. For tent campers or RV campers willing to go without hookups for a night, I HIGHLY suggest you also have one night where you reserve a spot inside the park itself. Next time I go I am spending at least one night at the Teklanika River Campground, 35 miles into the park. From this spot you can hike, hop on and off the Denali shuttle, and explore the park in smaller pieces than the one long 8-11 hour day one must endure on the shuttle.
If you’re RV camping and looking for full hookups, head to the Denali Rainbow Village. I originally stayed away from this place because of their close proximity to what is called the “Denali Mall” which is a collection of restaurants, coffee shops and stores. BUT, seeing as we decided to stay somewhere ten miles north that made us worry about our safety, I would have much rather been in a full hookup site near the mall where I could have walked to get a coffee, a beer, or a lanyard if I choose. Another option for RV’s, cabins or small Alaskan motel, Denali Grizzly Bear Resort. Or for the high rollers in the room, book the Grand Denali Lodge — I mean, just look at where it sits! This is for those not wishing to rough it.
ACTUALLY GOING INSIDE DENALI NATIONAL PARK
Some might be surprised to hear that one cannot just go to Denali National Park and drive around and explore. To keep traffic, exposure and wildlife safe and protected there are two kinds of bus tours you can book to head into Denali.
The first option is to take a “Denali Tour” ranging 8-12 hours long where a guide helps you learn more about Denali National Park. I know that sounds long, but with frequent stops and a lot of information, this is a great option for first time visitors. These tours book FAST, so be sure to reserve the minute you know you’re headed to Denali.
The second option is the “Denali Shuttle” which is a hop-on-hop off shuttle service taking you to the end of the park road and back. The shuttle bus is used mainly for animal viewing, and get-on-get-off hiking and wilderness opportunities. This is also the option anyone looking to backpack in the park will use. The interesting thing about Denali National Park is that at any point in your shuttle you can hop off and wander into the wilderness. Denali National Park does not have many traditional hiking trails, so you are able to wander into the wilderness and then return to the shuttle drop off if you’d like a ride in deeper to the park, or back to the center.
The main thing with the tours and the shuttle is that they are LONG. 8-11 hours long if you stay on from start to finish. This is why you’ll need to plan your Denali trip accordingly. If you drive from Talkeetna to Denali you’re looking at a 3 hour drive. DO NOT DRIVE FROM TALKEETNA AND THEN PLAN TO JUMP RIGHT ON A DENALI SHUTTLE. That’s simply too much sitting and watching for one day. Make sure the day you ride the Denali shuttle this is your only activity. Get on early, enjoy yourself, bring LOTS of water, snacks and big lunches, make sure you have your camera charged, and enjoy. I highly recommend trying to go as far as you can, and try to take some time to get out and explore the area if you’re on a shuttle. It’s amazing once that bus pulls away to be in this wild wilderness all alone.
ON YOUR WAY BACK (MAYBE ON YOUR WAY THERE)
Be sure to stop at the Iditarod Headquarters on your way back to Anchorage or heading north to Denali. Hold some husky puppies, take a ride on the sled, watch the half hour informational video, and check out the history of the “Last Great Race.” On your way out of town stop at Gelato Kudrino to enjoy a little Italy, in Alaska.
If you follow my advice I think you’ll have a GREAT time seeing Denali National Park! Sure there’s still an option to take the train, thereby missing most of my camping info, but I didn’t do this, so how can I advise you on such a purchase? Plus, I hear that’s where the tourists hang out.
So go. Visit Denali National Park. Camp in better places than I. Eat good food. See many bears and realize how small you are.
Then, tell me about it.