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Top 10 Things to Do In and Around Denali National Park

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Posted by George Rogers on

Denali National Park – adventure capital of interior Alaska – really is a must-visit, bucket-list stop on any Alaska itinerary. There really is SO much to do. Before committing to just a day or two in Denali National Park, consider the list below. Many travelers wish that they had spent more time in this amazingly beautiful area. So here are ten great ways – in no particular order – to spend time in the Denali Area.

1. Go to the Dogs!

Summer Dog Mushing in Alaska
Summer Dog Mushing in Alaska

Consistently ranked by visitors as their favorite park experience, a visit to the Denali Sled Dog Kennels for a mushing demonstration shouldn't be missed. These furry athletes really are a marvel, and they're still used by rangers to patrol the park backcountry in winter. Be sure to visit. The kennels are open year-round and are found at mile 3 of the Denali Park road. Closed due to the pandemic in 2020, here's hoping that the kennels are open in 2021! Note that parking is very limited. During the summer, you'll want to take a shuttle from the visitor center.

If you're looking for an actual dog sled ride (yes, even in the summer) check out Wildthingz Dog Mushing in nearby Cantwell. Husband and wife duo Richie Beattie and Emily Rosenblatt will welcome you and introduce you to their team of professional racing dogs. Richie has experience running two of the longest sled dog races in the world, as he is a Yukon Quest and Iditarod finisher. Prepare to be amazed at the strength and enthusiasm of these four-legged dynamos as they pull you in a wheeled sled.

Denali Sled Dog Kennels

2. Bus it to Eielson

Dall Sheep in the Alaska Range
Dall Sheep in the Alaska Range

On clear days, the Eielson Visitor Center provides jaw dropping views of Denali and the Alaska Range, and is located at mile 66 of the park road. Your journey to the visitor's center is as special as the destination, because to get there you'll traverse a remarkably scenic section of park while scanning for wildlife. You have an excellent chance to see moose, caribou, dall sheep, grizzlies and – if you're lucky – wolves. To get there, take either a transit bus (As of 2021 $60 for adults 16 years and older; Free for kids under 16 ) or the Kantishna Experience Tour Bus (As of 2021 approx $285 for adults; $135 for children under 16.) Once there, take a hike on one of the center's three trails or enjoy a Ranger-led program.

Check out Reviews of the Kantishna Experience Tour Bus

3. Catch an Arctic Grayling!

Beautiful Alaskan Arctic Grayling
Beautiful Alaskan Arctic Grayling

Try your hand at fishing in & around Denali National Park…A short drive south of the park, in the little town of Cantwell, you'll find a fantastic, crowd-free fishery. Regarded by many as one of the world's most beautiful fish, Arctic Grayling are the perfect fish for fly anglers, as they readily take dry flies. What's more, the country around Cantwell is drop dead gorgeous, as it's surrounded by mountains and crisscrossed with grayling-filled creeks and rivers, with healthy populations of moose to boot. Whether you're an experienced fly fisher, or you'd like to learn, try reaching out to Denali Angler, as they offer guided day trips, including all rods, reels, flies, instruction, and wading gear. They welcome beginners and experts alike. They offer half-day (4.5 hr), day (6 hr), and extra-full day (8.5 hr) trips.

Check out the Denali Angler Guided Fishing for Arctic Grayling

4. Take a hike!

View of the Nenana River Valley from Mount Healy Trail
View of the Nenana River Valley from Mount Healy Trail

Hiking in Denali is a fantastic, free option that offers a guaranteed payout of beautiful vistas and the chance to see wildlife. Consider these three trails that range from easy to moderately strenuous: the Triple Lakes Trail, Horseshoe Lake Trail, and Mount Healy Overlook Trail.

Here's a quick look at each:

The Triple Lakes Trail is the longest of the three at 9.5 miles. Hikers take about 4-5 hours and there's a modest 1000 feet of elevation change. To reach the Northern end of this trail, take the McKinley Station Trail from the Denali Visitor Center. From the south: Start at the parking lot on the west side of the Parks Highway, just north of the Nenana River Bridge.

Something shorter? The Horseshoe Lake Trail is an easy 2 mile round trip jaunt to Horseshoe Lake. You'll find the trailhead, with limited parking, at mile 1 of the Denali Park Road.

Want big views? Try the Mount Healy Overlook Trail, a 2.7 mile 2 hour hike that gains 1,700 feet of elevation. Clear days provide serious views. From the visitor center, take the Taiga Trail for half a mile to connect with the Mount Healy Trail.

Check out the Best Denali Hiking Trails on AllTrails
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5. Raft the Nenana!

Rafting the Nenana River with New Wave Adventures
Rafting the Nenana River with New Wave Adventures

If you enjoy adrenaline, why not try a whitewater run through the Nenana River Canyon? Class IV rapids not your thing? You'll find mellower options from local rafting outfitters. Either way, these trips are very popular, offering visitors a great mix of scenery and excitement on the edge of Denali Park. Try New Wave Adventures…they offer a nice range of trips, from mellow to intensely splashy, with floats ranging from 11 miles (3-3.5 hrs) to 22 miles (5-5.5 hrs).

Interested? Check out New Wave Adventures

6. Explore the Backcountry

Denali Backcountry

Does the thought of being out there – really out there in true wilderness excite you? Does the idea of melting into a 6 million acre landscape appeal to your inner explorer? If so, take a backpacking trip into Denali's backcountry. Denali Park is divided into 87 units, which means each unit is tens of thousands of acres in size. You'll need to reserve your permit for one of these units in person at the Denali Visitor Center's Backcountry Desk no more than one day in advance. With your permit in hand, you'll then board a bus for the interior of the park. Rangers can advise you on possible itineraries, but ultimately, you'll be on your own out there. You'll be happy to know that Bear Resistant Food Containers are issued free of charge with all backcountry permits, although if you want bear spray, you'll have to buy your own.

Learn More About Backpacking & Exploring the Backcountry in Denali

7. Fly to the Mountain

Aerial View of the Nenana River at the boundary of Denali National Park
Aerial View of the Nenana River at the boundary of Denali National Park

Denali is fickle. There's no doubt about that. After all, the mountain reveals itself to only about 30% of visitors. So why wait for the mountain to come to you, when you could go to the mountain? Take a flight tour and increase your odds of seeing what is one of North America's most amazing sights: ragged peaks and glaciers and expansive wilderness with the mountain rising up from it all – all 20,310 feet of it. You'll see why the Koyukon people named it Deenaalee, “the high one". There are a number of experienced flight tour operators outside the park that fly both fixed wings and helicopters.

View the Top Rated Air Tours in Denali National Park

8. Overnight in Kantishna

Bus full of visitors on it's Way to the Kantishna Roadhouse
Bus full of visitors on it's Way to the Kantishna Roadhouse

Kantishna is quite literally at the end of the road. To get there takes effort and time. That's because, with few exceptions, private vehicles aren't allowed beyond mile 15 of the Denali Park Road. So to get there, your choices are to take the 92.5 mile trip in by bus, or hire an air taxi. Either choice is a great one, as they both provide stellar scenery. The bus ride in also gives you an excellent chance to see some of Denali's Big 5: moose, dall sheep, caribou, grizzly bears, and wolves. The best way to experience this historic gold mining area is to stay there a few days, giving you a chance to enjoy the solitude and explore the backcountry of Denali. There are three small lodges to choose from: The Kantishna Roadhouse, the Denali Backcountry Lodge, and Camp Denali/North Face Lodge.

View the Kantishna Roadhouse - Backcountry Resort
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9. Drive the Denali Highway

The Denali Highway
The Denali Highway

Not to be confused with the road into Denali Park, the Denali Highway really is an epic drive. Named by National Geographic as one of the world's Top 10 Drivers' Drives, this 135 mile long mostly gravel road was at one time the only route to Denali National Park. Many Alaskans feel as if the scenery along this road is even more beautiful than the road into Denali Park itself. The Denali Highway really is that impressive. Cutting through a huge swath of wilderness with few signs of human habitation, this stretch of “highway” is well worth the detour south from the National Park. Although the Denali Highway doesn't have the same density of game as the national park, it's well worth the drive for so many other reasons. Short on time? Consider driving the first 25 or 30 miles out of Cantwell. Note that some rental car companies don't allow their vehicles on it. If you're planning to drive the entire road, drive slowly and be prepared to change a tire. The road is not forgiving.

Read Reviews of Experiencing & Driving the Denali Highway

10. Learn from a Ranger

A Denali Ranger Giving a Sled Dog Demonstration
A Denali Ranger Giving a Sled Dog Demonstration

Denali Park offers a number of daily programs from May to September, such as the dog sled demonstrations, evening campfire programs, interpretive talks, and ranger led hikes. All of these programs are free and most don't require you to sign up beforehand – the exception being the Discovery Hikes. Campground talks are a great evening activity for the family and those programs begin at 7:30. They last 30-45 minutes. Weekly topics vary from glaciers to grizzlies and are posted on campground visitor boards. Note to travelers with children: consider signing your kids up for the popular Junior Ranger Program! Stop at the visitor center and ask for a Junior Ranger activity guide. When finished with the activities, show your completed work at the visitor center, take the Junior Ranger Pledge, and receive a Junior Ranger badge!

Learn More About Denali Park Ranger Programs

Of course there's lots more to do in the Denali area than just these ten activities, but this list should have something for everyone. Denali is truly a special place. It's an area like no other. So take the time to really enjoy it. Try something new. Be sure to soak it all in – the mountains, the wildlife, the people – because who knows when you'll get back here?

About the Author: George Rogers

Owner & Guide with Denali Angler which offers guided fly fishing for Arctic Grayling in the Denali National Park area.
I’m George Rogers, owner of Denali Angler, and I’m looking forward to fly fishing with you. I’m an Alaska registered fishing guide and I’ve fly fished the Denali area since first moving to Alaska in 1992. For much of the year, I’m a science teacher, but my summers are spent fly fishing, hiking, rafting and picking blueberries with my wife and two sons in the little town of Cantwell. If you’re new to fly fishing, I’m a patient, encouraging teacher with years of fly fishing and teaching experience. If you’re a hardcore angler who wants to push hard all day long, I can take you as far as you want to go. Either way, I’ll show you some beautiful country and take you to places that I love to fish myself.

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