As you may know, I am a huge fan of the outdoors and feel so fortunate to live in the United States, where we created the idea of national parks. Although I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to visiting national parks (I think I have been to 16 of 58 and several of those were as a child), I hope to see them all in my lifetime. I love spending time in nature. I feel centered, rejuvenated, and connected with the world around me after a vacation in the wilderness.
When Alex and I took an Alaskan cruise this summer with my parents, we all agreed that we had to visit Denali National Park after the cruise. My brother picked us up from the ship in Seward for the six-hour drive to Denali National Park. Although it was a long drive and took most of the day with stops, it felt like it went by quickly because the scenery was unbelievable! We first stopped after about 20 minutes at Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park and hiked the 2.4 mile round-trip trail to the glacier and back. The trail is moderately strenuous due to elevation changes, and is also available as a ranger-led hike at 10 am and 1, 2, and 4 pm daily (read more about it at the end of my last post). Next, we stopped in Anchorage for a delicious pizza lunch at Moose’s Tooth and to stock up on groceries at Fred Meyer for the weekend (around the corner from Moose’s Tooth). Finally, we stopped at both Mt. Denali viewpoints (North and South) before reaching our destination in Healy, Alaska. But let’s back up for a second.
If you spend any time in Anchorage, Moose’s Tooth is a must. Gourmet pizza (think Mellow Mushroom, but not a chain) and craft beer always seem appropriate in Alaska’s largest city. With unique toppings like pesto, spicy Thai chicken, Greek gyro, and chipotle steak, the options seem endless. The restaurant seems to be packed at all times, even off-peak hours, but we were seated almost immediately (no one wanted the table in the sun outside!) and served quickly.
After lunch and grocery shopping, we continued our drive to Denali. Along the Parks Highway (not to be confused with Denali Park Road, which is in the park), there are two viewpoints. We didn’t expect to see anything since few people have the opportunity to see Mt. Denali on a clear day. Why? Well, North America’s tallest peak is a massive 20,320 feet. Because of its size, the mountain makes its own weather and is surrounded by clouds most of the time. Fortunately for us, the Great One came into our sight just as we were approaching the Denali Viewpoint South and the peak was completely visible. It was unbelievable travel luck and we lingered for a while, enjoying the view. We also stopped at the Denali Viewpoint North, but the harsh sun caused the mountain to appear merely as a silhouette from that vantage point.
By the time we arrived to our Airbnb in Healy, about 13 miles outside of the park, it was getting late in the evening and we were exhausted (and unfortunately, all sick after the cruise). We dropped off our luggage and groceries, but since the sun wasn’t setting for several more hours, we rallied and drove the first 15 miles into the park on Denali Park Road. Just when we were leaving and had given up hope of any wildlife sightings, we spotted a mother moose and two of her calves grazing by some employee housing. The regal animals graciously allowed us to take their photo (from inside the car and a safe distance away) before running off into the woods.
Since we only had one full day in the park, the next morning, we arranged for a shuttle bus to take us into the park. Before I go into what we did, let me explain how the bus system works in Denali because it’s a bit confusing.
- Buses are the only way to enter the park beyond the first 15 miles.
- There are three types of buses:
- Nature buses are narrated tours that include a light lunch and beverages and do not allow for any stops to hike. There are three offered- Natural History (4.5 hrs), Tundra Wilderness (8 hrs), and Kantishna Experience (12 hrs). They are by far the most expensive option ($77.25, $130.25, and $194, respectively). Children under 15 may ride at a reduced cost.
- Shuttle buses do not offer food or provide narration, although some drivers choose to narrate anyway, and passengers may get on and off the bus to day hike. Shuttle buses range in cost depending on how far into the park you want to go. For example, a round-trip ticket to Toklat River at mile 53 is $26.50 and a round-trip ticket to Kantishna (the farthest point of the park) at mile 92 is $51. Obviously, the length of bus ride varies by distance. Children under 15 ride free.
- Camper buses do not provide narration and are only available for passengers camping or backpacking in the park. A round-trip ticket will run you $34 and must be reserved in advance.
- Make reservations in advance. We thought we could buy bus tickets the day of and almost everything was sold out. Fortunately, the drivers usually save room for a few extra passengers so we were able to make it work as standby passengers, but it would have saved us some stress to make advanced reservations. Also, if you have a large group, you’ll definitely want to reserve in advance.
- Buses make stops for restroom and snack breaks. At Eielson Visitor Center, buses even allow enough time for a short hike (or you can always jump on a later bus if you are taking a shuttle bus).
- Some shuttle bus drivers provide narration. Our driver on the way into the park was fantastic. I wish I could remember his name! He shared amazing stories with us about his time in Denali and provided information about the park and wildlife. Our driver on the way back barely said a word.
- Wildlife sightings from the bus become a fun, communal event, especially if you are lucky enough to have a person on board with an eye for spotting wildlife. If you call out an animal, the driver will stop to determine what it is and give everyone time to view the animal and take photos. As the day goes on, you’ll likely stop less often for frequent sightings like elk, but still stop for the most exciting and sometimes elusive sightings like grizzlies, wolves, and bighorn sheep.
For our visit, my family decided to buy shuttle bus tickets to Eielson Visitor Center (8 hours), which is the second main stop after Toklat (6.5 hours). Toklat has restroom facilities and a nice bookstore. Our thought was that an 8 hour round trip bus trip was plenty of time to see the park and wildlife, but would still leave us time to get off the bus and hike. If we had more time in the park, I would definitely have wanted to take the bus to Wonder Lake (11 hours) or Kantishna (13 hours) so as to see the entirety of the park from the road. Note: Wonder Lake is supposedly swarmed with mosquitoes in the summer and I read that Kantishna doesn’t have as much to see.
The Eielson Visitor Center is beautiful. It has been recently renovated, is LEED certified, and was build using sustainable materials and building methods. It is a low-profile building that blends into the landscape. You can best understand this by viewing it from the Park Road There are several interactive displays and rangers available to provide information.
There are also two marked trails near Eielson Visitor Center. The Tundra Loop can be accessed from the Visitor Center and is a short 1/3 mile loop with a 1/2 mile spur trail through alpine country. The Eielson Alpine Trail, which was my favorite hike of our time in the park, is only about a mile up, but extremely steep. At the top, you can see incredible views of Denali from Thorofare Ridge. It was a tough hike, especially because I was sick at the time, but it was completely worth it.
My parents skipped the hike and returned on our original bus because they enjoyed our driver’s narration so much, but Alex, my brother, and I wanted to hike. After boarding another bus to start heading back, we decided to get off at a random spot to do some backcountry hiking. Here’s the thing about backcountry hiking in Denali: it can be both amazing and terrifying. While it is thrilling to feel completely alone on unknown terrain with not a soul in sight for miles (and honestly, I would estimate that 99% of Denali visitors never hike off-trail) in a park the size of Massachusetts, that can understandably cause some anxiety as well. It’s hard to know exactly where to go and there is definitely some vulnerability in knowing that grizzlies could be lurking around the corner, particularly when you see signs stating that grizzlies have been seen in the area and you are not carrying bear spray. Since we weren’t sure where to start, we just picked a lake in the distance and decided to hike there and back. In hindsight, we probably didn’t get dropped off at the best location, but it was still fun to take a short hike through shrub and brush and feel like we may have been the first humans to ever step foot on that particular ground.
Once we finished our hike, we flagged down a shuttle bus just in time to miss a torrential downpour and rode back to the Wilderness Access Center to meet my parents. Time flies in Alaska and even though we were in broad daylight, it was already 10 pm so we grabbed a quick dinner and went to bed, dreaming of the wildlife we saw throughout the day!
The next morning, we attended the 10 am sled dog demonstration. We had to arrive at the Denali Visitor Center around 9 to wait for the 9:20 shuttle to get to the kennel. I’m glad we got the first shuttle because not only were we able to secure prime seats for the demonstration, but we were also able to spend more time playing with the beautiful Alaskan huskies. The demonstrations are free and do not require reservations. During peak season (June 1-September 1), they are offered at 10 am, 2 pm, and 4 pm. You can also visit the dogs at the kennels from 8-5 without attending a demonstration.
After the sled dog demonstration, my brother and I hiked back to the Denali Visitor Center on the Rock Creek Trail (2.4 miles one way) while my parents and Alex, who were still feeling sick, took the bus back. Once at the Visitor Center, we all spent some time viewing the displays and watching the short film. The Visitor Center is excellent and I highly recommend reserving 30 minutes to an hour to walk through it. For our last few hours in Denali, we decided to take a family hike along the Horseshoe Lake Trail (3.2 miles round trip). This was a beautiful hike and we saw beaver dams and even a beaver! We imagined that he was clocking out from his day of work at the dam and swimming home to his beaver family.
I was sad to leave Denali so soon and hope to return for a longer trip. I would definitely recommend spending several days there, especially if you plan to camp or hike. After the four-hour drive back to Anchorage, we picked up dinner at Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse and checked into another Airbnb for our last night in Alaska. Humpy’s seemed like a fun place to hang out with live music, an outdoor patio, and a full bar, but we were all exhausted and agreed to order take out salmon burgers and fish and chips. Everything was delicious, especially with the local beer provided by our Airbnb hosts!
Writing about Alaska has only made me miss it more. It is truly one of the most incredibly beautiful places I have ever seen and I am convinced that one day, Alex and I will summer there (I’m not sure I could handle the 24 hour darkness of the winter). Thanks for reading this week and hope you are inspired to explore The Last Frontier!