Denali National Park includes the Alaskan Mountain Range and the surrounding tundra and wilderness. There are many impressive mountains in this range, but the most famous is Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America. Native Alaskans have called the mountain Denali (which means “the high one”) for centuries. It was named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector after William McKinley, who never even visited Alaska. The state of Alaska had been trying to change the name since at least 1975, (and it was still commonly called Denali within Alaska) and in 2015 the name was changed back to Denali, officially.
At 20,310 feet above sea level, Denali is so tall that it makes its own weather. It is often shrouded in clouds, so much that they say that only 30% of visitors to the park see the mountain. I tried to prepare myself for the possibility of not even seeing the tallest mountain. We had such clear weather when we visited though, that we saw the mountain from miles away, though we rarely saw the very top! Even clear blue sky days can be cloudy on the mountain.
We couldn’t believe how great the weather was during our visit. In early September it was cool and crisp and sunny most of the days we were there. The trees and grasses and mosses had changed into fall colors and everything was red, yellow, and orange.
Denali became a national park in 1917, but there were no roads to the entrance until 1957 when a road was built from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The park is vast, (9,492 square miles!) and most of it is wilderness. The lower elevations of the park, like the area near the visitor center, are boreal forest, full of coniferous trees. Much of the rest of the park is tundra, and instead of trees there are mosses and shrubs. There is a 92 mile road that goes into the park, from east to west. The road runs parallel to the Alaskan mountain range and alternates between running alongside the rivers in the valley, and hugging the cliffside treacherously high above the valley floor. The views from the road go for miles.
Cars are only allowed to drive the first 15 miles of it, to Savage River. Beyond that, the park can be explored by bus. The road is generally restricted to cars to protect the wildlife, which is very important in a National Park, and also because it is a one lane dirt road, and a lot more maintenance and better roads would be needed if cars were able to drive on them every day.
There are tour buses and transit buses and it can be confusing. The tour buses are narrated and stop for wildlife sightings, and the transit buses are intended to be hop-on/hop-off buses that allow visitors to explore different areas of the park. Most people have learned by now that the (much cheaper) transit buses provide some narration and stop for wildlife too, so they are used as an alternative to the tour buses and there aren’t many available seats for hopping on/off.
There are two exceptions to the ‘no cars past mile 15’ rule, and we took advantage of both of them. There is a campground at mile 29 called Teklanika and if you camp there you can drive to and from it, one time. There is a three night minimum, and no hookups or services available in the park. Once you get there, you can take the bus into the park, but can’t go back to the park entrance. We booked a five night stay at Teklanika.
The other exception is that for five days a year, at the very end of the season, they allow cars to drive on the road. They hold a “Road Lottery” in May, and people apply to win a road lottery permit. It’s $15 to enter, and winners pay $25 for the permit. The odds of winning are about 1 in 7. Brian and I each applied in May, and I won a permit for the first day of the Road Lottery, September 14!
We camped for a few days at Denali RV Park, 10 miles north of the park entrance, to explore the front of the park. We went to the visitor center, and picked up our permit for the road lottery, and then went to the Wilderness Access Center (the bus depot), to check in to the campground and pick up our bus tickets.
The next day we took the bus from the entrance visitor center to the Sled Dog Kennels for a demonstration. There were few month old puppies sleeping in their puppy house, and the other dogs were hanging out on top of or next to their dog houses. One dog was available for us to meet and pet.
When it was time for the demonstration, the rangers ran alongside the cages and the dogs got all excited! They all wanted to be picked to pull the sled! They picked the dogs and got them harnessed and they ran along the outside of a circle and stopped in front of the stands. The dogs love running, and they should’ve let them run longer!
Rather than taking the bus back to the visitor center, we hiked back on the Rock Creek Trail. It’s about 2 miles, and climbs up to a beautiful view where we could see the yellow trees. We stopped along the way to admire the mushroom variety. At the end, when we were just about back to the visitor center there were two moose (a cow and calf) on the trail.
After a couple days outside of the park, we moved to Teklanika Campground. We enjoyed driving to mile 29 to set up camp. The campground has a length limit of 40 feet, and first come/first serve campsites of all different sizes, so we were a little nervous about getting a site big enough for us. When we arrived there were about 10 sites available, many of which would’ve fit us, and we picked out a nice one.
One of the benefits of staying at Teklanika is the Tek Pass. It’s a bus pass that’s good for the duration of the camping reservation, with one bus with a reserved seat, and after that it’s hop on/hop off on a space available basis. It’s a good deal at $40 per person, since that’s the price of the cheapest transit one-day bus ticket otherwise, and going all the way to Kantishna (the end of the road) is $60 otherwise. We scheduled our ‘reserved seats’ for the bus to Kantishna the day after we arrived at Teklanika.
Another benefit of staying at Teklanika is that we were already at mile 29, so we cut off about 2.5 hours from the round-trip to Kantishna. If we had gotten on at the front of the park, it would have been a 12 hour bus ride! As it was, it was a long day of riding on a bumpy dirt road on a dusty schoolbus. Though we had guaranteed seats on the bus to Kantishna, we didn’t have any seats in particular reserved, and when we got on at Teklanika, every seat had at least one person in it. No one wanted to give up a window seat so we could sit together. A group of three girls who were traveling together were taking up three separate seats rather than sitting together. One of them eventually moved to sit with her friend when she realized that Brian wasn’t going to spring up for her to move to the other side of the bus whenever she felt like it.
Denali attracts hard core wildlife viewers and the buses have the feeling of a safari. Visitors want to see Denali’s big five: Moose, Wolf, Caribou, Dall Sheep, and Grizzly Bears. Along with the moose that we saw in the front of the park, we technically saw all of the big five, but most of the wildlife is so far away! We joked about seeing bear-shaped dots and sheep-shaped dots. Denali is a place where we were glad to have binoculars.
The bus stopped at several rest areas and viewpoints for 10 or 15 minutes at a time so people could use the bathroom or take pictures.
At mile 46 is Polychrome Overlook, which is a beautiful view of the braided rivers in the valley below.
At mile 53 there is a bookstore (in a big tent) and bathrooms at the Toklat River rest stop.
At mile 62 is Stony Hill Overlook, which may be the most beautiful and popular view of Denali.
At mile 66 is the Eielson Visitor Center, we stopped here for about an hour and we ate the lunches we packed.
Mile 85 is Wonder Lake, and mile 92.5 is the end of the road, at Kantishna.
We took the bus all the way to the end, because we wanted to see the whole park, but were surprised to find that it isn’t as pretty after Wonder Lake. The road isn’t as elevated so the views aren’t as good. Kantishna was an old mining settlement, and now has an air landing strip and a few private lodges.
Though the transit buses are technically hop on/hop off, no one got off our bus. Very few buses go all the way to the end of the road, so if anyone got off, they wouldn’t be able to see the whole park. A few hikers and campers did hop on for a ride back to the front of the park, and all the seats were filled on the way back, and several people weren’t able to get on that wanted to.
The next day, we hung out at camp and rested. It was cloudy and rain was forecasted, and honestly after 10 hours on a school bus we were beat. Just before our Teklanika reservation began our furnace stopped working. It got cold at night, nearly freezing! We didn’t want to change any of our plans though, so we used an extra blanket and dealt with it. One morning when we woke up it was 38 degrees in the trailer! We had our solar panel out, but even with blue skies we still probably wouldn’t have been able to run the furnace all night using our battery, so I guess it’s better that we weren’t tempted. We made a fire and cooked steaks to keep warm.
The day after, we hopped on a nearly full bus to the Eielson Visitor Center. We got seats in the front rows, near a couple that had been to Denali every year for the past 27 years! They come for the wildlife, and told us stories of some of the best sightings they’d had in their years of visiting, like watching a wolf take down a caribou, and then get chased off the meal by bears! They were fun to talk to, and certainly had the run of the park. They made friends with the bus drivers, and kept up on the best places to see animals. We saw three wolves for just a couple seconds as they walked on the road and disappeared into the trees.
At the visitor center we ate our packed lunch and watched the dated but interesting video on climbing Denali. That is a brutal climb. This year 1,114 people attempted to climb Denali, and only 45% were successful. The cold temperatures and unpredictable weather are the biggest obstacles. Eielson Visitor Center also has an amazing quilt on display, a work of art by Ree Nancarrow, using hand dyed fabrics to illustrate the view of Denali from the visitor center windows.
We hiked the Gorge Creek Trail, which dropped 600 feet in a mile to Gorge Creek. It was fun to get close to one of the beautiful braided rivers that are all over the park. The fall colors on this hike were incredible. We couldn’t believe our luck with the weather.
Sometimes we felt silly taking so many pictures of Denali, since there is so much more to the park than just the mountain… but it really is so beautiful that it was hard to stop ourselves.
We also gawked plenty at the braided rivers that run throughout the park and fill the valleys. The shallow rivers are fed by glaciers and are constantly changing course on the wide gravel floodplain.
On our bus ride back to camp (2.5 hours!) we saw a mama bear and two cubs pretty near to the road, eating all the berries they could find to fatten up for winter.
The final day of our stay in Teklanika was the first day of the Road Lottery, and the day we had a permit for! They opened the road at 6 am, and let people leave from Teklanika at 7. We were in line to leave about 6:45, and were about the 8th car. We had all day in the park but we wanted to get in early to see the park in the morning light. Our first glimpse of Denali, it was all pink.
As we drove into the park we saw the light come into the valley.
After two days in the park on the buses, I wasn’t sure if the road lottery would be as magical as I had built it up in my head to be, but it was really nice to be able to drive through the park at our own pace, with all our stuff with us, and be able to stop wherever we wanted to.
We decided not to drive all the way to the end of the road, since it wasn’t that interesting past Wonder Lake. Just past Wonder Lake we pulled off at a pull out and hiked up a social trail to the top of a hill. A ranger had told us about this trail, it was steep and overgrown with waist-high bushes. It was mid-day by now, and the lighting on Denali and Wonder Lake wasn’t the best for photographs, but the view at the top was incredible.
On the way back we stopped at a beautiful pond rimmed with yellow grass and got out to take photos. The ground was squishy, and it was like walking in a bounce house.
We noticed wild blueberries growing all over, and started to pick handfuls. We had previously checked with a ranger that this was okay to do, and there are no poisonous berries growing here that are blue. There are some poisonous red ones though (baneberries). Another couple saw us and pulled over. We told them we were picking blueberries, and they joined us and gave us a paper bowl, which was a real help. We had brought store-bought blueberries with us, so we had a taste test. The store bought kind are way bigger and sweeter, but less flavorful. The wild blueberries have more flavor, but it isn’t always consistent, so it tasted best to eat 4 or 5 at a time. Later when we had eaten all our berries, we stopped near another pond and picked more! This was one of our favorite parts of road lottery day.
We saw a few far-away bears and Dall sheep, but our favorite wildlife sightings were the animals we saw close up. The first one we came across was a red fox.
We also saw arctic ground squirrels near the road, getting ready to hibernate for winter.
We saw a Snowshoe Hare, changing its colors for the winter season. It stayed around and posed for me on the road. Later, when it was getting dark, there were hares everywhere, darting away from cars and running across the road.
We saw six or seven ptarmigan, which are an arctic bird similar to a grouse that doesn’t migrate. They turn completely white in winter, and grow long feathers on their legs to keep warm. The ones we saw looked like they were losing their summer camouflage plumage.
We had made it back to about mile 45 by 6ish, and weren’t ready to be done, so we turned around and headed back into the park. Brian made some enemies at this point, because there is a stretch of the road on the edge of a cliff, that is just barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Many people were heading out of the park, and they had to pass us on the outside. This was the only point in the road that was a bit sketchy. Brian wasn’t concerned, because he’s done a lot of driving by now and is pretty bold, but I can understand other people being apprehensive about this part of the drive. Everyone took it slow and there weren’t any problems.
We got back to the Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66) around 8, and the sun was setting. We stayed as long as we could, until rangers told us we had to head back. They start sweeping people from the west end of the park so that everyone is back to Teklanika by 11, or the park entrance by midnight. We were surprised they wouldn’t let us stay until the sun was done setting, because seeing the sun set on Denali is rare due to the timing of the bus schedules.
After the sun set, there wasn’t much to see, so we went straight back to camp and got there about 10 pm. We stayed out as long as possible, because we didn’t want to miss anything!
We loved our road lottery day, and it definitely felt like a special privilege to be turned loose in the vast park. Sunrise and sunset in the park were beautiful. There were 400 cars on the road, but it never really felt crowded. Most of the other permit holders were Alaskans, many of whom apply every year. We felt lucky to have won a permit the first time we applied.
We also couldn’t have had better weather during our visit. It was in the 50s and 60s during the day, and clear blue skies most days. The fall colors were on display everywhere, and we were told they were a little late this year, many years everything is brown by the Road Lottery, and some years the whole road isn’t open because of snow.
Denali isn’t an easy park to navigate, but it’s worth figuring it out. I think the combination of camping at the entrance, using the bus system and camping at Teklanika, and winning the road lottery was the perfect way to explore this beautiful park.
Day 716 | Mile 72,953