Itineraries

A Perfect Denali National Park Itinerary: 2 or 3 Days in the Alaskan Wilderness

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If there’s one place that everyone wants to visit in Alaska, it’s Denali. There’s something special about this part of the state, where there are no major human developments, and the continent’s tallest mountain rises to tower above the surrounding land. Denali National Park may not be one of the most-visited parks in the country, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable.

While planning your Alaska trip, you might get stuck when it comes time to put together a Denali National Park itinerary. There are some special considerations that you need to keep in mind – how to get to and access the park, other activities, seasonal amenities and accommodations, and so on – that make it a little trickier than the year-round city destinations like Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Denali National Park Itinerary Hero

That’s where I can help. I grew up in Alaska, visiting Denali National Park many times as a kid; I also spent one summer working for a major cruise company at their hotel property on the edge of the park. More recently, I took two Alaska trips in 2021 that included multi-night stays in Denali – giving me the chance to refresh my memory and provide the most up-to-date advice for Denali travel in 2022 and beyond.

In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know to plan your own Denali itinerary. By the end, you’ll know all about the Denali area, visiting Denali National Park, what to do, and where to stay. Read on to get started planning your ultimate Denali National Park itinerary.

In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Tanana and Dënéndeh 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.

Denali vs. Denali Park vs. Denali National Park

Denali National Park Itinerary - Panorama

Before we jump into the details, it’s helpful to define a few geographical terms that you’ll hear thrown around – and often confused – when planning your Denali National Park itinerary.

  • Denali is the mountain, formerly called Mt. McKinley. If someone says “Denali” they usually mean either the mountain specifically (e.g. “Denali is out today!”), or – colloquially – the entire region of Denali (e.g. “I’m going to Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks.”)
  • Denali Park is the census designated area where people live on the eastern border of Denali National Park. It is not a town, but covers a 30-mile stretch of the Parks Highway. Within Denali National Park, the main area that people stay is called the “Nenana Canyon” or “Glitter Gulch.”
  • Denali National Park is the federally protected six-million acre area that includes Denali and parts of the Alaska Range, as well as the Denali Park Road and surrounding area.

In this post, I try to be very specific and use these terms exactly as I’ve defined them, but you’ll pick it up quickly!

Visiting Denali National Park

Denali National Park is the highlight of visiting the Denali Area, and that means there are some specific details to know about the park.

  1. Denali National Park is generally split into two regions: the “Frontcountry” (up to Mile 15 on the Park Road) and the “Backcountry” (Mile 15 to Mile 92).
  2. You can only drive private vehicles to Mile 15 on the Park Road; to go further than that, you’ll need to board an official tour bus.
  3. Denali NP is only open seasonally; it is almost entirely closed during the winter. For most visitors, there is no point planning a stop here on your Alaska itinerary if you’re visiting between late September and mid-May.

As part of the National Park system, Denali National Park operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.

Here are your options:

Of course, the National Park Service has an entire website for Denali with all the info you and up-to-the-day current conditions.

Finally, you might wonder how to reach Denali National Park. You have three options:

  1. The Alaska Railroad – Runs daily (in normal years) both directions between Fairbanks and Anchorage; this is a great option if you have the time and budget; you don’t need a rental car to get around the Denali area thanks to hotel shuttles.
  2. The Park Connection Bus – Runs twice daily in both directions between Denali and Anchorage. This is a budget-friendly option if you don’t want to rent a car.
  3. Rental Car – If you prefer the flexibility, having a rental car will make it easier to get around Denali – but the car will also only get you so far, so it’s not necessary to have a car to enjoy all that Denali has to offer. (I recommend renting from Sixt or Fox Rent-A-Car. They all offer budget rentals and run regular deals and specials. If you’re not sure, consider using a tool like Momondo or TripAdvisor to compare a bunch of options.)

Okay, ready to learn more about what makes Denali such a special area?

Things to Do in the Denali Area

In addition to visiting Denali National Park – which I’m getting to, I promise! – there are lots of other fun activities you can do in the Denali area but which aren’t technically on National Park land.

  1. River Rafting – This is one of the most surprising activities you can do in Denali, but also one of the coolest! On a Denali rafting trip, you’ll float down the Nenana River, passing through the Nenana Canyon and experiencing Class III and IV rapids. There are three companies I recommend for rafting in Denali: Denali Raft Adventures, Raft Denali, and newcomer New Wave Adventures that I’ve heard great things about.
  2. ATV Rides – NPS regulations mean you can’t use ATVs within the park, but there are areas north near Healy that are right on the border but technically outside the park. I’ve never done this one (ATVing isn’t my thing), but three companies to check out are Denali ATV Adventures, Stampede Excursions, and Black Diamond.
  3. Horseback Riding – If you’d rather slow down and connect with nature, horseback riding is also an option near Denali (again, not within the park boundary). I did a horseback riding tour back in 2007 and had a good time – except my horse was named Chinook (the name of one Alaskan wind) and he liked to live up to his name! Denali Horseback Tours, D&S Alaskan Trail Rides, and Equitrekking are all good providers.
  4. Helicopter Tours – If you spend any time in “Glitter Gulch” (the Nenana Canyon area) you’ll hear them: helicopters powering up to take off for flightseeing excursions. While these tours don’t go into Denali National Park, they do stay in the area and give you some great views. Temsco is the main operator – the one with their helipads right on the banks of the Nenana on the edge of town.
  5. Hiking – In addition to trails within the park, there are hiking trails outside Denali National Park in the area. The main one in the Nenana Canyon area is Sugar Loaf Ridge, but there are others a short drive away including Dragon Fly and Bison Gulch. You can also combine hiking with the previous activity – just search “Heli-hiking in Denali” to see how you can go on a guided backcountry hike reached by helicopter.

The 5 Best Things to Do in Denali National Park

I’ve already written an entire article about things to do in Denali (that list mixes activities inside and outside the park), but it helps to narrow down the list when you plan your trip(s) into the park during your Denali National Park itinerary. Here are five things I think everyone should do when visiting – even if you only have 2 days in Denali.

1. Bus Tours

A lot of people get salty with me about this, but I didn’t make the rules: you can only drive private vehicles to Mile 15 (Savage River). If you want to journey further into the park – and you should – you will have to board a bus. This management plan helps preserve the park and I fully support it.

It’s hard to know what this will look like in future years, but broadly speaking, there are two bus operators to choose from: a National Park Service concessioner (Doyon-Aramark, aka the Official bus tour) or a Kantishna lodge operator.

Now, unfortunately, a landslide wiped out part of the park road in late summer 2021, so bus tours can no longer go beyond Mile 42. To be clear, this means buses no longer go to Eielson Visitor Center or Kantishna, no matter who operates them.

Given that access to Kantishna is extremely limited in 2022 and beyond and nobody knows if/when those lodges will re-open, I’m going to stick to my tried and true recommendation and say: book the official Tundra Wilderness Tour (TWT). This 8-hour* tour will take you as far as currently allowed (Mile 42) and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife and the mountain along the way. It’s literally the best way to see Denali National Park, and the only way to be on a vehicle that goes that far into the park.

Seriously, book the TWT. Trust me.

*Due to the shortened mileage, the TWT is coming in more like a 6-hour tour based on my experience. This could be longer if you see a lot of wildlife.

2. Flightseeing

If you have it in your budget, my next must-do for Denali National Park is flightseeing. Specifically, I can’t recommend the Glacier Landing Tour from Fly Denali enough. In fact, I’ve raved about this tour so much that I’m not sure people believe me anymore, so let me pass the mic to three of my readers who flew with them in 2021:

The Fly Denali Glacier Landing Tour was great. While Denali did not show herself, we were able to land on a glacier and throw snowballs. Definitely worth splurging on a flight.

Dan

and

My experience with Fly Denali was even better than I imagined. The experience in the small plane from the views up high to stomping around on Ruth Glacier were the absolute highlight of our time in the state.

Henry

and

The Fly Denali glacier landing and the Major Marine tour were highlights, both providing unique experiences, great value and customer service.

Albert

In short, Fly Denali will take you up in a small aircraft, fly over Denali National Park, and attempt to land on a glacier on Denali. I’ve done this tour twice – in 2007 when I worked in Denali and again in 2021 – and while the ownership of Fly Denali has changed, the experience is unparalleled. It will be the highlight of your Alaska trip, and it’s not just me saying it!

Seriously, this is completely worth the splurge and the best place to do flightseeing in Alaska.

3. Hiking

Most people are surprised to learn that while hiking in Denali National Park is a great activity, there actually aren’t a ton of trails.

The reality is that Denali has an “open backcountry” policy (similar to Badlands National Park, if you’ve been there). This means that you can hike anywhere in the park, and it’s actually less harmful to the tundra and taiga ecosystems than building trails. (It’s also best to hike abreast instead of single file, if you’re hiking in a group.)

That said, there are a few trails I recommend in Denali:

  • Savage River Loop Trail – An easy, short, relatively flat 1.7-mile loop along the Savage River with a bridge at the far end. Popular and highly traversed.
  • Savage River Alpine Trail – A 4-mile one-way trail that connects between the Savage River and Mountain Vista day areas. Serious inclines on half, followed by descent on the other half – no matter which way you hike it.
  • Horseshoe Lake Trail – A moderately easy 2-mile loop trail that descends from the Visitor Center area to Horseshoe Lake and the banks of the Nenana River. Great for scenery and wildlife.
  • Mt. Healy Overlook Trail – A 5.4-mile (total) out-and-back trail with serious inclines. Best for those who love hiking and are up for a challenge.

And there’s one more trail – McKinley Bar Trail – out at Kantishna that you should put on your someday list for whenever that part of the park is accessible again.

You can learn more about these hikes? Here are all of my favorite Alaska hikes.

4. Visitor Center & Gift Shop

In addition to exploring the wide open spaces, it’s worth making a stop at the Visitor Center (to pay your admission fee and stamp your National Parks passport) and Gift Shop (where you can get some incredible unique Alaska souvenirs).

In 2021, the Visitor Center was closed (as were most across the country) but if you can go inside, I recommend it: there are exhibits about the history of the park, including geology and the culture of Native Alaskan people who lived in the area. In any case, it’s always good to stop and check in with the rangers to learn about wildlife in the park (“are any hiking trails closed due to bears?”) and other info (“when is the next ranger-led hike or sled dog demo?”).

5. Park HQ & Sled Dog Kennels

Speaking of sled dogs, did you know that during the winter, park rangers patrol Denali National Park by dog sledding? The park maintains a year-round population of pups, and you can visit/interact with them on a free tour of the kennels.

The kennels are also located near park headquarters; this area has several historic buildings including administrative buildings and old employee housing. Specifically, there are some great examples of “Rustic style” architecture, sometimes called “Parkitecture” because it’s so distinctive to the National Parks.

How Many Days in Denali National Park?

Now that you’re all inspired about things to do both outside and within Denali National Park, there’s one last question you might have about how many days to spend in Denali.

My short answer is “as many as you can,” but my long answer considers that you are probably limited in terms of how many days you are traveling in Alaska and how much else you want to see.

That said, the ideal number of days to spend in Denali National Park is 2-3 days. With at least two days, you’ll have plenty of time to sample what the Denali area has to offer, and with a third day, you’ll probably get to experience everything you want to.

Assuming you follow my advice and give yourself 2-3 days in Denali, here’s my suggested Denali National Park itinerary to help you finish planning.

A 2- or 3-Day Denali National Park Itinerary

Denali National Park Itinerary - Valerie on a Glacier

Okay, okay, let’s get to the itinerary part of this Denali National Park itinerary, shall we? Below you’ll find an itinerary for 3 days in Denali; if you only have 2 days in Denali, you can do Day 1 and Day 2 and just skip Day 3.

Day 1: Denali National Park Bus Tour & “Glitter Gulch”

I always recommend starting your Denali itinerary with the best activity: the Tundra Wilderness Tour. You won’t know what time your tour is leaving until 48 hours before it starts, so it’s hard to plan anything else on this day. Tours can leave between 6am and 2pm (I think) and last 6-8 hours, as I mentioned.

In any case, don’t plan anything else on this day. Before and/or after your TWT, spend time exploring Glitter Gulch: browse the shops, grab a snack, or sit down for a delicious meal.

For dinner this first night, I strongly recommend Moose-AKa’s. This European-style restaurant is deceiving from the outside – the decor is incredible, the food is delicious, and the service is the best in town.

Day 2: Hiking in Denali & Glacier Landing Flightseeing

Today’s a day for adventure! On the second day of your Denali National Park itinerary, I recommend getting back into the park two ways: on foot and on the wing.

Start your morning with a hike. Mr. V and I caught a Savage River shuttle bus into the park and hiked there for an hour; you can spend even longer if you choose to do the one-way Alpine trail instead of the Loop trail we did. You could also stay closer to the park entrance and hike Horseshoe Lake (easier), Triple Lakes Loop (moderate), or Mt. Healy Overlook (hard). Or do both – we hiked Savage River Loop and Horseshoe Lake in a (long) morning.

Then it’s time to head back to your hotel, freshen up, grab a bite, and get ready to go flightseeing. Fly Denali will pick you up at your hotel and transport you to the airstrip up in Healy (11 miles north). You’ll then board the plane and spend six hours experiencing the most beautiful scenery with an eagle’s eye view. The glacier landing – whether it’s on Ruth Glacier or Kahiltna Glacier (weather depending) – is SO cool.

Return to Denali, grab dinner at your hotel, and call it a night. If you’re staying at the Grande Denali or Denali Bluffs (as I recommend below), both have great restaurants on their properties (Alpenglow Restaurant and Mountaineer Grill & Bar, respectively).

If you’re leaving Denali tomorrow, you can skip the next section of this post.

Day 3: Explore the Denali Area on other Tours or Hikes

If you have a third day in the Denali area, lucky you! Today’s the day I recommend booking another tour or two to explore the rest of the adventure Denali has to offer.

You could start the morning with river rafting – nothing like the frigid, glacially-fed Nenana River splashing in your face to wake you up! Then you can freshen up before the rest of the day and another tour of your choosing (detailed above).

Or you could go for another hike – in the park, or outside it. I love the Sugar Loaf Ridge hike that starts in the Grande Denali Lodge parking lot; this moderate-strenuous hike gives you incredible views of the surrounding area.

Whatever you choose, I recommend booking or planning no more than two activities today. Most tours take 2-3 hours, and hiking can take longer. If you try to squeeze too much in, you’ll just end up exhausted rather than enjoying your final day in Denali!

For your final evening, head to the Denali Salmon Bake. This area institution is a bit rougher around the edges and popular with the seasonal workers who spend their summers in Denali – but it’s a slice of Alaska life. Be sure to order the McKinley Margarita, a towering heap of blended blue cocktail to rival the mountain.

Where to Stay in Denali

Denali National Park Itinerary - Panorama

As I mentioned early in this post, Denali National Park is generally broken up into the Frontcountry and Backcountry. Most of the hotels – seven in total, by my count – are near the Frontcountry, and are located in Nenana Canyon/Glitter Gulch. There are two more properties located 6 miles south along the Parks Highway. There are also three resort properties located in Kantishna in the Backcountry, but nobody has said whether they will be operating in 2022 due to inacessibility along the park road.

In any case, your options are limited, and it’s not overwhelming. For 2-3 days in Denali, I recommend choosing one of the following.

  • Staying in the Frontcountry the entire time (3-4 nights) (← this works best for my suggested itinerary above)
  • Staying in the the Backcountry the entire time (3-4 nights)
  • Staying 1 night in the Frontcountry, 2 nights in the Backcountry, and 1 final night in the Frontcountry (only if you have a full three days in Denali)

In any case, here are the three best places to stay in Denali, based on my experience.

Grande Denali Lodge

You can’t miss the Grande Denali Lodge. Perched high on the slopes of Sugar Loaf Mountain, this property overlooks the entire Nenana Canyon and out toward Denali National Park. They have standard or deluxe rooms, with double queen or king beds – but the real pro-tip is to book one of six private cabins on the property. We stayed in one and it was honestly the most delightful and quintessential place to stay in Denali.

Additionally, the Grande Denali Lodge is home to Alpenglow Restaurant, which has the best view – and some of the best food – in town. Even if you don’t end up staying here, I recommend trying to enjoy dinner and drinks from their restaurant.

Honestly, the only thing that I didn’t love here is the drive up to the property; it takes about 10 minutes on a bumpy unpaved road with five hairpin turns. However, they offer a free shuttle that runs down to town, the Park Visitor Center, and the Denali Bluffs Hotel, so you don’t need to hike or drive it yourself.

Book on Booking.com, Hotels.com, or directly on their website.

P.S. We saw the aurora on our night at the Grande Denali because we visited in September. Learn more about seeing the northern lights in Alaska.

Denali Bluffs Hotel

The Denali Bluffs Hotel is a sister property to the Grande Denali, so it’s a great option if the Grande is fully booked (or you want to stay closer to town). They offer Hillside rooms (standard) and RiverView rooms (premium); both classes of rooms are gorgeous and decorated in a rustic style with modern touches. Our cozy room had vaulted ceilings, two queen beds, and a cute little balcony where we ate breakfast and shot photos (of course!).

Their property is built into the hillside, so you may encounter some slopes when walking around, but they’ve modified all walkways to provide traction even when it’s rainy or (in early/late season) frosty. There’s also the Perky Moose Cafe (great for breakfast) and Mountaineer Grill & Bar (best salmon chowder I had on the whole trip!) to keep you fueled for adventure.

As mentioned above, there’s a free shuttle that takes you to town and the Park Visitor Center (as well as the Grande).

Book on Booking.com, Hotels.com, or directly on their website.

Denali Backcountry Lodge

I was uncertain about whether to include the Backcountry Lodge in this post, as I’m 90% sure they won’t open in 2022 – but I want to include them since they are one of the places I recommend if they open and if you can get there (likely by Air Taxi).

Situated deep in the Backcountry at Kantishna, Denali Backcountry Lodge offers guests individual cabins (Traditional, Superior, or Creekside), all situated together on the bank of Moose Creek, along with fire pits and two barrel saunas. The main lodge serves meals throughout the day (included with your stay) and offers happy hour drinks each afternoon (at an additional cost). It’s like the coolest summer camp for adults!

Additionally they offer guided walks and hikes in the area, bikes to rent, and your stay (typically) includes the 6-hour bus transfer through Denali National Park to/from the property. (Again, not sure what’s happening for 2022…)

Book on Hotels.com or directly on their website.

Okay, that was a lot of information. Do you have any other questions about planning your Denali National Park itinerary? Let me know in the comments!

This post was sponsored in part by Fly Denali, the Grande Denali Lodge, and the Denali Bluffs Hotel.

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