Plan the Best Summer Vacation in Dynamic Denali National Park

Is Alaska on your bucket list? Go to Denali National Park! Summer in Denali has almost 24 hours of sunlight which gives you plenty of time to enjoy the beauty and wildlife of this great state.


We lived in Alaska for eight wonderful years, and each year we tried to get to Denali National Park, because it is such an amazing and beautiful place. Full of wildlife, gorgeous views, and great outdoor experiences, it quickly became our favorite national park.

In this article, we’ll answer the following questions about planning a summer trip to Denali National Park:

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A view from Polychrome Overlook.
This view is from Polychrome Overlook, a shuttle stop.

Where is Denali National Park?

Located a little over two hours from Fairbanks and four from Anchorage, Denali National Park is located in some prime back country of Alaska. Part of the Alaska range, the highest peak in North America is the park’s shining star, Denali. Denali means “the Great One” in local Athabaskan language.

Making the Most of a Trip to Denali

For most people, visiting Denali is a once in a lifetime endeavor, but over the eight years we lived in Alaska we visited this amazing place at least ten times. There are few, if any, places on Earth that match Denali for its accessible natural beauty, abundant wildlife, and sheer adventure.

Even though you may drive to Denali, once you get there, you must leave your car parked and take a bus into most of the park. No one is allowed to drive past Savage River during the summer, so you can either take a tour or a transit bus, of which tickets cost $50-$60. These buses are not tours, but you can see plenty of wildlife as you drive through the park.

A bull moose with velvet antlers.
A bull moose with velvet antlers looks at us through the grass. Moose look docile, but they can be extremely dangerous.

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, Denali tour buses, campgrounds and parts of the park road open to the public. 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.

Two grizzly cubs climb an embankment in Denali National Park.
Two grizzly cubs climb an embankment in Denali National Park.

What to Pack for an Alaskan Summer

Remember, it’s all about the cocooning, layering your clothing so that you can either put more on or take more off as the day’s temperature changes. Even though the sun is up pretty much for 22 hours per day, it still can get quite chilly. Here are a few products we recommend:

A ptarmigan walks on the Denali Road.
A ptarmigan walks on the Denali Road. It still has a few white feathers from its winter plumage.

Planning a Trip to Denali National Park and Reserve

You can’t be too spontaneous when planning a trip to Denali. You must plan your trip as far in advance as possible. Camping in Denali park is limited and reservations open up in December of the year before. They fill up quick so you need to nail down your dates and get your campsite reserved as early as you can.

There is only camping in the park. If you don’t have that option then you’ll be staying in accommodations outside the park which is fine as 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 lucky! This is a real North American safari.

A wary red fox keeps his eye on us.
A wary red fox keeps his eye on us.

What Animals Can You See in Denali?

  • Bear – brown and black
  • Moose
  • Ptarmigan
  • Arctic Hare
  • Wolf
  • Coyote
  • Hawks
  • Caribou

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.  

Caribou can usually be seen all around Denali National Park.
Caribou can usually be seen all around Denali National Park.

Tips for Spotting Wildlife

  • Take a tour – the guides are experts at finding animals
  • Take a Denali Shuttle Bus – the bus driver is not a guide, but has plenty of practice
  • Self Drive – you can take your time

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 Denali tour bus that will drive you through 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 Denali on this tour.

Waiting to board the Wonder Lake Shuttle, an 11 hour bus ride through Denali National Park.
Waiting to board the Wonder Lake Shuttle, an 11 hour bus ride through Denali National Park.

Taking the Eielsen or 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 is 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 a minimum two days in advance at the Denali National Park Visitors Center just inside the park. This is the same visitors center you’ll be visiting to check in upon your arrival.

Note: The entry into Denali National Park if $15.00, and this is paid separate from any shuttle or tour bus tickets.

A beaver dam.
An old beaver dam, covered with fireweed reflects in the pond.

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 into the park, but only 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.

Power Tip: Get up and go very early in the morning and later 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.

Brother and sister moose hanging out near the Denali Visitor's Center come up behind the car, and we spot them in our rear-view mirror.
Brother and sister moose hanging out near the Denali Visitor’s Center come up behind the car, and we spot them in our rear-view mirror.

How to Get to Denali National Park

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 (read this Best Things to do in 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 bus 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.

Conclusion

Summer in Denali National Park is a dream vacation. There is plenty to see, especially the amazing wildlife. We recommend camping in the park and maximizing your time.

Have you traveled in Alaska?  Have you been to Denali National Park and Reserve?

Pin Summer in Denali for later!
Denali National Park, the number one place to visit on your trip to Alaska!
Planning a trip to Alaska? No trip is complete without a visit to Denali National Park and Reserve!
Planning a trip to Alaska? No trip is complete without a visit to Denali National Park and Reserve!

51 thoughts on “Plan the Best Summer Vacation in Dynamic Denali National Park”

  1. This post is really great! I work in Denali and it’s amazing, you’ve written about it so well. Your photos are fantastic!

  2. Thanks for the tip about booking as early as December for the following summer. I’m sure that I would otherwise wait until March or April to start looking into it. That’s good advice about the binoculars, too. I wouldn’t want to give up my pair if there was something particularly exciting to look at. We didn’t make it to Alaska this summer as we’d originally planned, so I’m pinning this for when we finally do get around to it. #WkendTravelInspiration

  3. Beautiful photos! Loved the ones of the moose and fox! It was great hearing too about your travel ‘philosophy’. I’m more of a structured traveller – I like to plan out where I’m going but I can imagine leaving things open would be quite exciting!

    1. Thanks Bryna, we do like to keep some time open for things we discover along the way. But there’s something to be said for structure, to be sure!

  4. i like to say you can do any destination with kids. But i have been waiting for a bit to do Alaska with mine because I wanted her to be able deal with the long travel distances and do the more adventurous outdoor things. Now could be about the right time. looks amazing. she’d love all the animals.

  5. It reminds me of Baxter State park in Maine- dirt roads, some rules and no stores. I love it! I’d love to hike Denali and go to the park. Frank is obsessed with moose so he would love this. I’m sure lynx are pretty hard to spot- how many times have you seen them?

  6. you lived in Alaska for 8 years!! Wow! Can’t even image how crazily amazing that must have been? Was it isolating? have so many more questions I want to ask about that :-) It is our dream to make it to Alaska (soonish) – good to know how we have to plan our Denali National Park trip. We are just planning our USA road trip for next summer 2017 over 3 months and just somehow have to make this happen on that trip!

  7. I am so happy to see so many posts about National Parks. It’s really nice to see how many people are interested in getting outdoors, myself included!

  8. I had to laugh at your opening statement – the question that stumps me all the time! But some great wild life shots – and always good to know when planning in advance is essential – I’ve become a spontaneous traveler and it can back fire..

    1. Keri, That’s what happens when you are a true nomad at heart, isn’t it? Alaska is amazing, but it’s so large, there’s not a whole lot of spontaneity.

  9. What fabulous, wide landscape! And what amazing photos, the one with the moose is incredible – he/she is most definitely trying to decide what to make of your presence there :-)

  10. Alaska looks wonderful one of those real untouched wildernesses. Always reminds me of the movie “Into the Wild”. Love the moose picture

  11. I’d love to visit Denali, camping out there in the middle of the Alaskan nature. I love those photos of the elands, amazing how close you got. Must have been an awesome time!

  12. You were lucky to see so much wildlife in Denali. We’ve been there for a couple of days in August and didn’t see any. I guess we might have been very unlucky. Isn’t Denali fantastic? I loved it there.

  13. Britta, the train ride to Denali is spectacular! It travels slowly and lets you experience a part of Alaska that can only be seen on the train.

  14. This post is full of amazing information and photos (love all the wildlife). For me, a trip to Alaska would be a dream come true. I think a lot of people see the state as a remote, wild and hard to reach place. It can be remote and wild but it is easy to get there (at least from the West Coast).

  15. Phoebe @ Lou Messugo

    Oh this makes me want to go to Alaska even more than I did before. I’m so impressed that you can see wolves as well as all the other animals. Somehow wolves always seem so shy/secretive. I can’t imagine getting to this National park in the near future but it’s certainly going on my bucket list (as much as I hate that term!!)

  16. In our former lives before we became long term travelers we had many career moves in different states and can also identify with the difficulty the question “Where are you from?” poses. And now that we’ve lived in several different countries and have no home base it’s even more complicated! Our answer usually depends on how long we want our conversation to last… Enjoyed your photos of Denali National Park – another place we have yet to visit!

  17. I feel sometimes that Alaska is a bit of a underrated destination. Not sure if that’s correct or not, but Alaska is not the first destination people come up with when they talk about nature-focused trips. Most people instead mention New-Zealand, Canada or Norway for example. While watching the movie Into the Wild when it first came out, I realized that Alaska was a place I needed to look out for (in the positive sense of the word). This movie really was my first introduction to the country. Now, I’ve read and watched a bit more about it, and I feel more and more motivated to travel there one day. Thanks for showing me these beautiful photos and giving this clear explanation of one of the NP in Alaska! :)

    1. Maaike, I think you’re right. After living in Alaska for eight years we moved overseas and were surprised by the number of fellow Americans that had new Zealand higher on their list than Alaska. We loved New Zealand, mind you, but I guess once Alaska gets under your skin you can’t shake it!

  18. That Moose looks so friendly, love the Falcon on top of the fur tree (looks like a falcon?). Danali looks wonderful and is on my bucket list. the photo’s are wonderful and some good tips there to remember when packing. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Hi Corinne, This post has given me a kick in the pants. A firm reminder that we have yet to visit Alaska. We have friends in Vancouver and we fully intend returning there and launching ourselves from there to Alaska. Thanks for the inspiration.

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