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Overlooking the vast landscape, wind whipping through my hair, I was struck by one thought: there is nobody else here. Standing atop a hillside deep in Denali National Park, the only evidence of human presence I could see was a narrow dirt road, winding away until it passed out of sight behind a tundra-covered mountain slope. There is nobody else here.
There are few places in our world where we can escape the evidence of humans who have come before and the crowds we tend to create while traveling. Alaska is one of those places, and there are many destinations in Alaska where you can discover that feeling – perhaps for the first time in your life. Denali National Park is one such place, but I often receive questions asking some variation of is Denali National Park worth it?
Denali is different than other national parks you might have visited before: it’s not easy to access, and there’s no guarantee you’ll see anything you came to see – the mountain Denali herself or the wildlife that call the park home. So is Denali worth it? Or should you skip Denali National Park? In this post, I’ll share my thoughts, from the perspective of an Alaskan who was lived there for 15 years and visits now 1-2 times per year.
Now before you come at me, I still count myself as an Alaskan more than any other place I’ve called home since my family moved away (except perhaps London, to be completely honest). While I don’t live in Alaska, I still embody many of the common values that Alaskan share: respect for the wilderness, appreciation for the beauty of The Last Frontier, and a duplicitous opinion about tourists. (Kidding, I generally love tourists visiting Alaska, especially those that visit with an open mind and heart to all the state has to offer).
So before you take the opinion of people who’ve visited Alaska 1-2 times on what’s worth doing and decide to skip Denali National Park on your Alaska itinerary, let me chime in. As you’ll see, I believe that Denali National Park is worth it – but you need to adjust your expectations to have the most memorable experience.
Short on time? Use the Table of Contents below to jump to the section titled “So… Is Denali National Park Worth It?” for a recap of the points I make in this post.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Tanana people. 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 people who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
History of Denali National Park
It helps to have some context on the history of Denali National Park, which helps explain why the park is what it is today – and whether or not it’s worth it to visit. Let’s start with that quick history lesson, which you’ll see plays into my final opinion.
Since time immemorial, the lands surrounding North America’s largest monument have been part of the territory of the Koyukon, Tanana and Dena’ina peoples within the Dene nation. It was used as a hunting ground thanks to the valleys and mountain passes that animals migrate through each year. While Russian settlers never reached this far inland within Alaska, European-descended explorers first arrived in the mid-19th Century. The first ascent of Denali occurred in 1913, and the area surrounding the mountain was protected as Mt. McKinley National Park in 1917.
Since it’s earliest days, both the logistics of the landscape and a desire to protect the area mean that very little development occurred within the park. The Denali Park Road (not the Denali Highway) was completed in 1938 stretching 92.5 miles across the park to the mining community of Kantishna – and no other roads were built within the park since.
This means that, at a whopping 7,408 square miles, there is just one road. Beyond the Visitor Center area and park headquarters within the first three miles of that road, there is virtually no other evidence of human impact on the land. And it will stay that way indefinitely, due to the mandates of the National Park Service and management plans of Denali National Park.
Accessing Denali National Park
Denali – and all of Alaska’s National Parks – don’t operate like parks in the contiguous United States (the “Lower 48” if you want to use Alaskan lingo…). It is much more heavily controlled and regulated – perhaps contrary to the libertarian values of many Alaskans, but also with the acknowledgement that protecting our natural resources is critical to Alaska’s future.
Here are the basics of visiting Denali National Park:
- You can drive private vehicles – including rental cars – up to Mile 15 of the Denali Park Road (the Savage River Checkpoint.
- After Mile 15, all access along the Denali Park Road is by bus, bike, or two feet.
- Before 2021, most buses offered tours to either Mile 62 or Mile 66 of the 92.5 mile park road.
- As of 2023, the Denali Park Road is closed with a turnaround at Mile 43, due to a landslide near Mile 46.
I’ve received lots of questions and feedback over the years about the bus tours into Denali National Park. To the best of my recollection, all of those comments are made by people who haven’t visited yet, and don’t quite understand why the buses are an incredible way to see Denali National Park and protect it.
I have a complete breakdown of Denali bus tours, updated for 2023 and the continued road closure. (The road is expected to reopen for the 2025 season; most Alaskans are hopeful yet realistic that it may take longer because every road construction project in Alaska takes eternity…)
So… Is Denali National Park Worth It?
Denali National Park is an incredible place where you have the chance to see wildlife, gaze upon the continent’s tallest mountain, admire stunning and virtually untouched scenery, and explore on hiking trails or across the tundra. What makes Denali special is that it is still wilderness – but that wilderness does not guarantee you’ll see said mountain or get close-up encounters with Denali’s Big 5 wildlife.
Denali National Park is worth it as long as you manage your expectations: the wilderness in Alaska is wild and nothing is guaranteed.
This isn’t National Geographic, and it isn’t a national park in the Lower 48 where you have unlimited access. It is a protected and precious natural resource many of us have never experienced – unencumbered wilderness in a near-pristine state.
So commit to visiting Denali without expectations, as you should do any time you travel. You can certainly hope for incredible wildlife experiences and a cloudless sky, but you can simultaneously appreciate the breathtaking natural beauty and company of your fellow Alaskan adventurers.
If all you want is to see the mountain Denali and see wildlife, and you don’t want to risk not seeing them because of Alaska’s true wilderness factor, here’s what I would do instead:
- Take a Denali flightseeing tour from Anchorage (Rust’s Flying Service) or Talkeetna (K2 Aviation)
- Go to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and take a VIP tour.
It’s absolutely possible to “guarantee” these expriences, but it’s a very different kind of trip than one where you set out on an adventure to see what Alaska and Denali National Park have to show you that day.
Park Road Closure – Is Denali Still Worth it?
Before 2021, I hope you’ll agree now that Denali National Park was absolutely worth it – most people took the 8-hour 62-66-mile Tundra Wilderness Tour and had ample opportunities to spot wildlife and The Mountain if the weather was good.
Now that the park road is closed and tours are truncated, is Denali National Park still worth it?
Let me tell a quick story to answer: I was fortunate to visit Denali National Park twice in 2021: August 17-19, and September 5-10. The landsclide which closed the road occurred on August 24. I was among the last people to cross the road that would soon be closed due to the landslide, and one of very few to take the new “short” tour so soon afterward.
So can I compare the 92.5-mile bus ride I took in August to the 43-mile ride I took in September and admit that the shorter one isn’t as impressive? Absolutely. Was the shorter ride still worth it? Absolutely.
While a very scenic portion of the road is no longer accessible (Polychrome Pass to Toklat River), Sable Pass – Mile 37-42 near the current turnaround – is one of the most beautiful parts of the road, with views of Denali and opportunites for wildlife viewing. If those are your goals in visiting Denali National Park, the current, shortened bus tours still give that.
Other Denali Travel Resources
If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of Denali and the national park; it’s my favorite destination in Alaska, with Sitka a close second. I’ve written a lot of resources to help people visit – because I think it’s worth it to do so.
To cover the basics, I have a list of the best things to do in Denali (including and in addition to visiting Denali National Park), suggestions for where to stay in Denali, and a list of my favorite restaurants in the Denali area. I also have a 2-3 day Denali itinerary that pulls it all together. Lastly, if you enjoy history like what I shared above, I have a list of fascinating Denali facts as well as a deep dive into the history of hotels in Denali National Park.
Have any other questions about visiting Denali National Park – or do you have an opinion on why Denali is worth it or not? Let me know in the comments below!
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