Making the Most of a Trip to Mt. McKinley
Whenever I’m talking to fellow travelers, the conversation usually gets around to talking about where I’m from. Now for those of you who are nomadic or transient you know there’s no other question that can stump you quite like that simple four word question. Where am I from? Do you mean where was I born; where did I grow up; where do I live now; where did I live last? Such a loaded question. At any rate, one of the answers we give to this perplexing questions is Alaska, as that is the only state in the USA where our family lived together at one time.
The typical response to this news is something like this: “Alaska? I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska!” Once you get us talking about Alaska you better be ready for a ton of information. There is so much to see and do in Alaska that it is impossible to put it all in one blog post, so for now I’ll focus on Denali National Park. For most people, visiting Denali National Park is a once in a lifetime endeavor, but over the eight years we lived in Alaska we visited Denali at least six times. There are few, if any, places on Earth that match Denali for its accessible natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and sheer adventure.
When is the Best Time To Go To Denali?
Unless you are fully equipped for self-sufficient travel, you should really only plan on traveling to Denali in the summer. Which is a great time to visit. Yes, fall and spring are magical and have plenty to offer , but services and amenities are not always available outside of summer so most non-Alaskans won’t really be able to make the most of a visit during those times. In summer, the park is as open as it can be with shuttle buses, tour buses, campgrounds and parts of the park road open to the public. And, naturally, the animals are all active and out doing all those things you would expect of wild animals in their natural habitat. Realize, of course, that this is the peak season, so you will be enjoying the great outdoors with many other outdoors enthusiasts.
If you have been reading our blog for any length of time, you should have picked up on the fact that we like to be as spontaneous as possible; leaving the option open to explore a side road or take a wrong turn just to see where it goes. We like to throw a few things in a bag and hit the road and just go, anywhere. In Alaska it was pretty common for us to call the girls at home as we were getting off work and tell them to load up the camper for a weekend getaway. They knew exactly what needed to get packed: clothing, food, fishing gear, sleeping bags, marshmallows…all of the things that make a good camping trip. Corinne and I would get home as fast as we could, back the truck up under the by-now-fully-loaded camper and away we’d go to a favorite fishing hole or back-country hiking spot.
Planning a Trip to Denali National Park
You can’t do this for Denali. You must plan your trip as far in advance as possible. Camping in the park is limited and reservations open up in December. They fill up quick so you need to nail down your dates and get your campsite reserved as early as you can. There is no other lodging other than camping within the park itself. If you don’t have that option then you’ll be staying in accommodations outside the park which is fine, we’ve set this up for family and friends and they all had a great experience, but the best way to go is to stay in the park itself to maximize your wildlife viewing time. By the way, if I didn’t mention it before, that is one of the number one reasons for visiting Denali. You won’t find many other opportunities outside of a zoo to see moose, caribou, bears, wolves, arctic hares, ptarmigans, owls, marmots, sheep, and maybe even a lynx if you’re really luck! This is a real North American safari.
So how do you see all of these amazing critters? The primary method for most visitors is via the park road. This is a 92 mile long dirt and gravel track that travels east-west through the park. Most of the road is restricted, and you won’t be able to drive yourself past mile 15 at the Savage River trail-head. So for getting into the park and finding the animals you have three options and I recommend using all three. First, plan on taking a bus tour in the park. There are several options for these off-road school bus tours depending on how far down the road you want to go and on how much time you are willing to spend on a bus on a bumpy road. For at least one tour, you should definitely go the distance to the old gold mining outpost in Kantishna. This is a twelve hour narrated tour with time for wildlife viewing and stops at the interpretive centers along the way. If the weather is cooperating, you will get the best views (and photographs) of Mt. McKinley on this tour. Do it! Again, you need to reserve this tour as early as possible or you won’t get on the bus. As with the camp grounds, reservations can be made as early as December 1st.
Taking the Wonder Lake Shuttle Bus
On the day before or after your trip to Kantishna, you should get yourself on a shuttle bus. The shuttle buses also run the length of the park road but without narration or lunch along the way. You’ll need to pack your own food and water. The shuttles don’t provide any “official” narration along the route but the drivers will stop for wildlife spottings and wait patiently for everyone to get a chance to see the wolves sneaking up on the moose calf, or maybe it’s just a clump of dead grass. The drivers spend countless hours on the road and they know where the wildlife are most likely to be found. They also have some great stories to tell along the way. The other benefit to the shuttles over the tour, besides being cheaper, is that you can get off a shuttle anywhere along the road and then hop on a later shuttle going in either direction. This will let you spend some time hiking or picnicking inside the park. You can reserve shuttle buses, but more importantly, you can book a shuttle after you arrive. Buy your tickets two days in advance at the visitors center just inside the park. This is the same visitors center you’ll be visiting to check in upon your arrival.
Self Drive in Denali National Park
The third option for spotting the predators and the prey is to drive yourself. Privately owned vehicles are allowed to drive to mile 15. Driving along this paved road offers some views of McKinley and some of the best wildlife viewing. We’ve seen all of the animals except a lynx along this stretch of tarmac. What’s the secret? Drive very slowly, don’t be afraid of the other drivers zooming along and giving you dirty looks, they should be slowing down too. Why else would you be there anyway? So, drive slow! Pull over to let people pass and while you’re pulled over look closely for animals. They are out there. Next tip, go very early in the morning and late at night. The animals are most active during these times, and remember this is Alaska in the summer time. It never gets dark. Finally, take the time to just stop, turn off the engine, and sit and watch. Enjoy the peaceful beauty that surrounds you. Even if you don’t see a lynx you’ll be able to feel the energy and glory of Denali permeate your soul.
Getting to Denali by car– It’s not hard at all if you are driving. There is only one highway and it’s called, appropriately enough, the Parks highway (named after George Parks not the National Park). If you flew into Fairbanks you’ll be heading south. From Anchorage you’re driving north. You can rent an RV or camper in either city and you’ll find this a comfortable and rewarding way to visit. If you’re still in the planning stages of your trip to Alaska why not drive your car up using the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system?
By train – I recommend that as well. Time moves at a different pace on a train and the chance to watch the world go by just outside the window or from the dome of the observatory car will enchant you.
Going through the park – There are many ways to see the park, but the best way is to take one of the Denali National Park tours like we did. Remember, reservations can be made for camping and tour buses as early as December 1st before the summer of your visit. Make the reservation as soon as you know your travel dates and be flexible just in case your first date isn’t available.
What to bring? Food, water, emergency supplies, firewood, matches, camping gear, bear bells, hiking boots, warm clothing that can be layered, mosquito repellent, mosquito hoods, mosquito gloves, mosquito swatter (by the way, there ARE mosquitoes here and they WILL suck your blood), binoculars for everyone in your party (I guarantee you won’t want to share when your glassing a beautiful grizzly cub frolicking on the mountainside with its mother), camera, more storage cards than you think you could ever need, the highest powered zoom lenses you can afford (we shot with our canon 400mm), tripod, lens cleaner, hat, gloves, long underwear, patience, the list goes on and on but if you bring these things you’ll be fine. Just remember, you won’t be running out to the Walmart for anything you forgot, so don’t forget anything critical to life and sanity.
Denali Lodging – Don’t worry, there is a plethora of places to stay from camping to luxury. Camping is the obvious choice. Visit the National Park Service Website for more information. However, for a unique experience, we also recommend staying in a cabin. McKinley Creekside Cabins are a great choice.
Have you traveled in Alaska? Have you been to Denali National Park?
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