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Denali Backcountry Adventure Review: Experience the Denali Highway

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It never feels like my trip to Alaska is complete without a visit to Denali, and it never feels like my Denali visit is complete without taking a bus tour into the National Park.

But it’s been a crazy year in Denali National Park, due to a road closure caused by a major landslide. The various options for bus tours into Denali have changed a lot and many people have been confused by the options. One point of confusion has been the Denali Backcountry Adventure, a bus tour that used to operate in Denali National Park, but currently takes visitors to a different part of the Denali area.

Denali Backcountry Adventure Review Hero

In an effort to demystify the differences between the previous route of the Denali Backcountry Adventure, the current route, and the other Denali bus tours, I went on the new/current Denali Backcountry Adventure during my August 2022 visit to Alaska. I discovered the differences between this new tour and other options, and explored a new-to-me part of Alaska in the process (the Denali Highway).

Ready to read my Denali Backcountry Adventure review and decide if this tour makes sense in your Alaska itinerary? Read on for all the details plus plenty of photos to show what my experience was really like during my August 2022 ride!

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Ahtna Nenn’ and Tanana peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Logistics of the Denali Backcountry Adventure

Before jumping into my experience, it helps to understand how the new Denali Backcountry Adventure works. Here’s the most important thing to understand: just like the old route of the tour, the entire tour takes place on a school bus-style vehicle. This is something you need to be prepared for, as it’s not a luxury coach or small vehicle. (It’s also just like other Denali bus tours, so you’re not getting a worse/different experience).

The Denali Backcountry Adventure departs from Denali Cabins, and if you’re staying there, it’s super easy to meet the bus right in front of reception. If you’re staying at any of the other hotels in the Denali area, you’ll have a transfer from your accommodation to Denali Cabins; if you’re staying at an Airbnb or VRBO, you’ll need to drive to Denali Cabins yourself (there’s free parking).

Once you arrive, you’ll check in and get a seat on the bus; it’s first-come, first-seated, so arrive early if you want a spot near the front. Some front seats may be blocked for people with mobility issues, but I recommend sitting as close to the front as you can – it’s just a better view and experience.

The bus ride itself is about 8 hours, depending on the weather and how much wildlife you see. If you have a clear day, the road might be faster to drive – but you might also stop for more wildlife and mountain viewing. Generally though, the Denali Backcountry Adventure departs at 8:30am and returns between 4:30-5:00pm.

Once you arrive back at the Denali Cabins, the tour is over, so you’ll either have a transfer back to your accommodation or can drive yourself. (Pro-tip: If you’re driving yourself, consider making a dinner reservation at 229 Parks if it’s open; it’s one of the best restaurants in Denali and one of my personal faves.)

A Day on the Denali Highway

Now let’s go through my experience on the Denali Backcountry Adventure, and what you can generally expect when you book this tour.

First, I need to cover a very important detail: the Denali Backcountry Adventure does not take place in Denali National Park. (As of 2022-2023; I will update when that changes!)

This is because Pursuit, the operator of the Denali Backcountry Adventure, is not a National Park Concessioner. They were previously allowed to run the tour in Denali National Park because they own property – the Denali Backcountry Lodge – in Kantishna; the Denali Park Road is the only way to reach that property. However, due to the Pretty Rocks Landslide, the Park Road is closed and Pursuit is not allowed to operate in the park. In any case, it’s important to understand that you will not visit Denali National Park on the Denali Backcountry Adventure.

Instead, you’ll explore the Denali Highway, a historic Alaskan thoroughfare that played a role in gold rushes, building the infrastructure of The Last Frontier, and connecting people to Denali National Park during its early days. I don’t want to spoil it all though – you’ll learn the history of the Denali Highway when you take the tour!

Once you depart Denali Cabins, it’s a 25-minute ride to Cantwell, one end of the Denali Highway. You’ll then turn down the road and drive 65 miles to the turn-around point of the tour. Along the way, the tour makes several stops, which I’ve detailed below.

Nenana River Overlook

Denali Backcountry Adventure - Nenana Overlook

In addition to just enjoying the scenery around you, looking for wildlife, and listening to your driver-guide narrate the tour and experience, there are several stops along the Denali Backcountry Adventure route (Pursuit has mapped them here). The first is at the Nenana River Overlook, a pull-out along the highway.

After climbing for several miles, you’ll have expansive views of the Nenana River; this flows from a nearby glacier in the Alaska Range to meet the Tanana River near the town of Nenana, then into the Yukon River, and finally to the Toksook Bay/Bering Sea. What’s fascinating about the Nenana is that it flows west – when the rest of the rivers along the Denali Highway flow east; there’s a continental divide along this route! (Again, your driver will explain it in more detail.)

Alaska Range & Glacier Views

The next stop for the Denali Backcountry Adventure along the Denali Highway is at a special pull-out that Pursuit has created for guests. Unlike in the National Park, there are no facilities along the Denali Highway, so Pursuit has paid to put several portable toilets at a pull-out where buses can spend 10-15 minutes stretching their legs and taking a “bio break.” (The bus also stops here on the return trip.)

There are also a few small hills in the area where you can climb up for a better view of the surrounding mountains; it’s the Talkeetna Mountains to the south and Alaska Range to the north. If the day is clear, you can also spot several glaciers from this point – most notably the Nenana Glacier (which feeds the Nenana River).

While walking around here, I spotted lots of animal evidence – social trails, moose nuggets – as well as berries coming into season in early August 2022. While I don’t recommend eating a berry you’re unsure of, here’s a helpful video I made to help you at least find blueberries.

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    Crossing the Susitna River

    After another hour+ on the Denali Highway, the next notable point on the Denali Backcountry Adventure is crossing the Susitna River. While this isn’t a stop on the route, it is a very scenic point to grab photos along the way.

    You’ll start by crossing west to east and return east to west, later in the day. Since most people sit in the same seat for both routes, you’ll see both sides of the river. There are also scenic spots approaching the bridge from both directions, so be sure to have your camera ready.

    Lunch at Alpine Creek Lodge

    A few miles beyond the Susitna River crossing, you’ll reach the turn-around point for the Denali Backcountry Adventure: Alpine Creek Lodge.

    Honestly, this was my favorite part of the tour, and I heard many other guests saying the same. Much like the previous itinerary of the Denali Backcountry Adventure which spent lunch and time at the Denali Backcountry Lodge, this itinerary of the tour gives you a few hours to enjoy lunch (included) and activities at Alpine Creek Lodge.

    Alpine Creek Lodge is a family-run property located roughly halfway between Cantwell and Paxson, the two towns at either end of the Denali Highway. It has been around since the mid-20th Century – a long time by Alaska standards!

    Personally, I spent about half my time at the Grizzly Bar; this is a historic building that was the original lodge along the Denali Highway and is today a local watering hole. Be sure to inquire about the Grizzled Grizzly shot – it’s an experience you can only have at this bar! (It’s quite similar to the Duck Fart, to give you a hint about it!)

    You can also hike on the property – there’s an alpine trail and a lookout – as well as try your hand at gold panning and meet the sled dog team that lives on the property. All of these activities are included during your visit to Alpine Creek Lodge and show off different aspects of life in Alaska.

    As I mentioned, most people were raving about this part of the trip as we boarded back onto the bus. I love that this stop at Alpine Creek Lodge is much like the Denali Backcountry Lodge, even though they’re literally hundreds of miles apart. While there are certainly “touristy” aspects of both places, they also show how different life is when you’re well off the main roads in Alaska, and what it takes to survive in the wild out here.

    Returning to Denali Cabins

    Denali Backcountry Adventure

    The final part of the Denali Backcountry Adventure is returning to Denali Cabins; this route on the Denali Highway is an out-and-back tour, just like the route on the Denali Park Road. This means you’ll return along the same route as you drove in the morning, but you’ll probably see a completely different view (assuming you sit in the same seat/on the same side of the bus). Literally, everyone on our bus did this – myself included, and the ride was just as interesting on the return ride as it was going out.

    The bus will make a few stops along the way, including at the “facilities” around the midway point. You’ll also stop for any wildlife spotted by your driver or fellow passengers; if Denali is out, there are a few great viewpoints to stop and take photos too.

    Overall: Denali Backcountry Adventure Review

    So what did I think overall about the Denali Backcountry Adventure? No review would be complete without a recap, right?

    1. This is a great substitute for the previous route of the Denali Backcountry Adventure. Since this tour literally can’t operate until the Denali Park Road re-opens (maybe in 2024?), it’s a great option for those who want to explore the Denali area more but don’t have a vehicle to do so.
    2. Wildlife can be tougher to spot on this tour. If you’re super keen on seeing wildlife like moose, caribou, and bears, I can’t really say what your odds are on the Denali Highway. Theoretically, this is a much better habitat for those animals (more alpine tundra and taiga forest, which those three species love), but we literally didn’t see any animals on our tour*. I’ve never been skunked in Denali National Park – but I’ve also done that tour a lot more often so this could have just been a one-off situation where there was no wildlife near the road on the day we visited.
    3. The view of Denali is better on this tour. While we also didn’t see the mountain during our tour (double skunked!), I know for certain that the view of Denali the mountain is actually better on the Denali Highway than along the Denali Park Road. So on a clear day, you’ll have a more picturesque view!
    4. Don’t trade the Tundra Wilderness Tour for this one. I thought a lot about whether the Denali Backcountry Adventure (along its current route) is a substitute for the TWT; the short answer is no. I think you should still do the official TWT park tour to spend time in Denali National Park, but you could also do this tour to see a different part of the area and – as mentioned – spot wildlife and the mountain from a different view. In an ideal world, you’d do the TWT on your first full day in Denali, then do this tour on Day 2 or Day 3 of your Denali itinerary (depending on how much time you have).

    *It was caribou hunting season when I took this tour in August 2022; I recommend checking the Alaska hunting seasons during your planned visit, as the presence of hunters seemed to explain the complete lack of wildlife we saw on our tour.

    Overall, I really enjoyed the Denali Backcountry Adventure and think it has a ton of potential for visitors to have an amazing experience during their time visiting Denali. I hope that Pursuit continues this tour even after the Denali Park Road re-opens (maybe as the “Denali Highway Adventure”) because it’s definitely a different experience that shows you more of my favorite area and the wondrous wilderness of Denali.

    Have any questions about the Denali Backcountry Adventure, booking your tour, or other parts of the experience? Let me know in the comments!

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    My Denali Backcountry Adventure was hosted by Pursuit Alaska; this post was produced in partnership with them, but they did not have editorial control over the final post.

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    I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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