Since its discovery over a century ago, Denali has seen many hopeful explorers braving its hard terrain. From the early miners who dug through tough rock to gold seekers during the Gold Rush and mountaineers who cherish the thrill of conquering a peak, Denali National Park has long been a goal of visitors from all over.
To really comprehend the area’s remarkable history and amazing physical features, stop by the Denali Visitor Center and watch the 20-minute film, “Heartbeats of Denali,” introducing visitors to the national park. “Denali” is thought to be the native Athabaskan word for ‘high peak’ or ‘shy mountain’ — we’ve seen both translations referring to towering Mount Denali (also known as Mount McKinley) which stands proud above all others but can rarely be seen because of the frequent cloud cover.
Unless they’re professional adventurers, most families will take a guided tour to get the most out of their visit. Next to the Visitors Center sits the Alaska Railroad depot, from where your family can board one of five trains for a fun and incredibly scenic excursion around the area. Perhaps the most popular is the Denali Star, which offers two trains that run south from Fairbanks to Anchorage and north vice-versa. The Star, along with the Coastal Classic, Glacier Discovery, Hurricane Turn and Aurora Winter generally operate continuously in the summer months and on weekends during winter months.
Deep into the Heart of Denali
The 92-mile-long Denali Park Road is the only road in the park and whips through the park’s deep valleys and tall mountain ranges. During the summer months, private vehicles are permitted to drive the first 15 miles of this road to a place called Savage River, but may not proceed beyond this point.
To venture deeper into Denali, guests can arrange a bus trip at the Wilderness Access Center, located at mile 1 on the Park Road. Visitors can choose from several options. The park shuttles allow passengers to disembark and re-board anywhere along the road. Tour buses will travel between various facilities, campgrounds and day-use areas. The free courtesy buses are a safe bet because they require no reservations.
Famous Mount Denali can be seen from the road and measures — from the 2,000-foot lowlands to its lofty summit — an astounding 20,320 feet. The highest mountain on the North American continent, Mt. McKinley is still growing today at a rate of about 1 millimeter per year, thanks to ever-active plate tectonics. The mountain can be seen as early as mile 9.
As equally eye-catching as the park’s snow-clad peaks are its hundreds of glaciers, 40 of which are named. Formations such as the Kahiltna Glacier spans 44 miles in length and is the longest glacier in the park as well as the entire Alaska Range. Other notable glaciers blanket the mountainsides like sleeping giants and include the Muldrow, Ruth and Peters Glaciers.
Soft Adventure & Learning Activities at Denali for All Ages
The park has plenty of activities for families and amateur explorers. These range from early summer evening program discussions at several of the area’s campgrounds to sled dog demonstrations with the park kennel’s fierce and beautiful Alaskan huskies.
Daily walks are also offered from both the Denali and Eielson visitor centers. On these short, moderate treks, hikers might get the chance to spot some of the area’s indigenous animals like the grizzly bear, caribou, moose, Dall’s sheep or the golden eagle. Trails are mostly centered on the Denali Visitor Center, assuring parents that novice hikers will still be able to find their way.
Denali is Alive in Winter
Nearby, the Murie Science & Learning Center serves as the park’s winter visitor center and offers similar exhibits inside.
At the Talkeetna Ranger Station, located about 100 miles south of the park entrance, serious climbers who decide to take the intrepid journey up Mt. McKinley can acquire a climbing permit and receive mountain orientation before ascending the epic mountain.
The park is booming even in the winter months, offering several snow sport activities, such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing, among others. Denali National Park even celebrates an annual Winterfest which generally takes place in February and features festive events like snow sculpting competitions.
On arrival, be sure to stop by the Visitors Center to pay for a seven-day park entrance fee, it costs $10 per person and kids aged 15 or younger are free. Visit the National Park Service’s page for Denali National Park for additional information.
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