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Denali is the crown jewel of Alaska, and almost every traveler wants to see North America’s largest mountain. This usually includes a visit to Denali National Park, but like most national parks, Denali has changed in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. If you’re uncertain how to visit Denali in summer 2020 – or if you even can –, I’m here to help.

I spent a summer working for a hospitality company in Denali National Park, so I know how Denali works on a normal year. This year there are lots of policy changes and reductions in what’s available – including hotels and tours into the park. There are also new options to help visitors explore one of my favorite national parks.

I wrote this post to try and help you decipher it all. Stick with me, and if you’re lucky and have good timing, you’ll end up with unforgettable Denali memories during this unforgettable chapter in history.

Step 1: Arrange Access to Denali National Park

Normally, this is easy – there’s really only one way to enter Denali National Park, and that’s on a Denali Park Bus Tour! But this year is not normal… Here are your options for visiting Denali in summer 2020.

Option 1: A Denali Park Bus Tour

If you’ve seen any of my other Alaska articles, you know that historically this is the only way I suggest you visit Denali. In a normal year, there are a number of bus tours every day, and hundreds of people take them to enter the park. The three main Denali National Park bus tour offerings are:

  • Denali Natural History Tour: 4.5-5 hours in the park to Mile 27 (Teklanika River)
  • Tundra Wilderness Tour: 7-8 hours in the park to either Mile 53 (Toklat River) or Mile 62 (Stony Overlook).
  • Kantishna Experience: 11-12 hours in the park to Mile 92 (Kantishna)

Due to health concerns, the National Park Service has reduced capacity on buses this summer – and that means it’s a lot harder to get reservations. It’s possible if you have flexible dates, but I recommend trying to make a reservation ASAP if you want to do the bus tour. If you do secure a spot, you’ll be guaranteed to visit Denali in summer 2020.

Option 2: The Denali Lottery

Denali National Park - Moose

The other way I sometimes mention that people can visit Denali is by winning a permit in the Denali Lottery. This is an annual lottery that allows a set number of private vehicles to enter the park on each of four days in September.

For summer 2020, the Denali Lottery dates are Friday, September 18 to Monday, September 22.

If you win a lottery permit, you’ll be given a specific day your vehicle can enter Denali National Park. You’ll only be able to visit on that day, though I’ve heard rumors of people swapping permits among winners.

To enter to win a lottery permit, you have to enter on Recreation.gov. The entry dates for the Denali Lottery are June 1-30, 2020. If you miss this window, you won’t be able to enter the lottery later.

Option 3: Special Denali Driving Permits

There’s a new option to try and visit Denali in summer 2020: timed entry permits.

Due to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, the National Park Service is encouraging locals and visitors to explore the region with two special types of permits that they’ve never offered before.

The Teklanika Road Permit

The first permit, the Teklanika Road Permit, is only available from June 12 to June 30 and allows private vehicles to drive to Mile 30, the Teklanika Rest Area.

These ermits are available 14 days before each day at 10am AKDT (so the June 12 permits were available on May 29, June 13 permits were available on May 30, etc.). The second wave of permits for each date is available two days prior (so additional June 12 permits are available on June 10, more June 13 permits are available on June 11, etc.).

(This is a lot like the Washington State Ferry reservation system, for those who have experienced that!)

You can try to get one of these permits here on Recreation.gov.

The Eielson Road Permit

The second permit, the Eielson Road Permit, works a little differently from a sign-up perspective. Starting July 1, 2020, you can try to get a permit for one of five weekends:

  • July 10–12
  • July 24–26
  • August 7–9
  • August 21–23
  • September 4–7

Like the Tek Road Permits, Eielson Road Permits will be available 14 days before each date window. (So the July 24 permits will be available July 10, the August 7 permits will be available July 24, etc.)

You’ll receive a permit with a set date and time that you have to be at the Savage River Ranger Station to enter the park. If you miss that window or can’t make the date, you won’t be allowed to enter.

The Eielson Road Permit allows you to drive to Mile 66 on the Denali Park Road, the Eielson Visitor Center. You can try to get one of these permits here on Recreation.gov.

Though I didn’t plan on it, I’ll be applying to try and get an Eielson Road Permit this year!

Option 4: Flightseeing

One of the other ways I strongly advise people to enjoy Denali is on a flightseeing tour. My favorite flightseeing tour is the Glacier Landing Tour from Fly Denali, but there are other companies that offer Denali flightseeing tours too:

I cannot guarantee days of operation or availability, but if you can’t get access to the park any other way, I recommend trying each of these companies to see what they offer.

Option 5: Other Places to See Denali

View of Denali from Broad Pass

Lastly, and I know this sucks, but you just might not be able to enter Denali National Park this year. Like I said at the beginning: everyone wants to visit Denali. Since the park has limited bus tours and limited permits, some people just might not get to do it.

Instead, consider planning an Alaska road trip that includes stopping at some of these great Denali viewpoints outside the park. There are some insanely epic views of The Great One outside Denali National Park.

Step 2: Renting a Car to Visit Denali If Needed

Alaska in Autumn - Valerie in Denali
Me in Denali, with my tiny car in the lower left part of the picture.

If you are lucky enough to get one of the special private vehicle permits and are visiting from Out-of-State, you’ll need to rent the right car – most car rental companies do not offer cars that are allowed on the Denali Park Road with this summer’s permits!

There are two companies that are known for offering ‘gravel road use’ vehicles:

  • Alaska 4×4 Rentals – They offer Jeeps, trucks, and SUVs in both Anchorage and Fairbanks.
  • Alaska Auto Rentals – They offer Gravel Highway Vehicles from locations in Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Denali. (These Denali vehicles are limited and sell out quickly!)

In addition to renting a vehicle that the agency will allow you to drive in Denali, be sure that it’s compliant with the size restrictions for vehicles in Denali (22′ long ? 8′ wide ? 12′ high inclusive of mirrors and bumpers).

Step 3: Book A Hotel in Denali

Denali National Park - Hostel

Whether you’re taking a bus tour or driving your vehicle into Denali, you’ll want a place to get a good night’s rest before and recover after. Denali normally has limited hotel and accommodation options – even more so if you’re trying to visit Denali in summer 2020.

As of publishing, here are the hotels taking reservations this summer near the Denali National Park entrance road:

South of the park, Denali Cabins is also open. Tonglen Lake Lodge and Denali Grizzly Bear Resort may also be open; you need to call to confirm.

I linked directly to each hotel property so you can see any travel advisories or policies on their site. I also recommend making reservations directly on their individual sites or by phone directly with the property to ensure you’re actually able to stay with them.

Step 4: Make Sure You Have a Covid Testing Plan

Last but not least: start planning now for your Covid testing plan. Proving a negative Covid test result is a requirement to visit Alaska this summer! Learn more on the State of Alaska Traveler Information Page.

There are three options:

  • You can arrive with a negative test result from within the last 72 hours
  • You can be tested on arrival – but must self-quarantine until your results are available. This can take anywhere from several hours to several days, and there are few details about where you have to wait or how much this costs.
  • You can choose to extend your Alaska trip by two weeks and spend 14 days in self-quarantine upon arrival.

I strongly recommend planning now to get tested before you depart on your Alaska trip. As I’m planning my own trip to Alaska in September, this is what I’ll be doing. I want to wait on my test results in the comfort of my home, and know I’m good to go when I arrive.

There are a lot of questions about all of these new changes – and they only apply for this summer. Have other questions about visiting Denali in summer 2020? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!

10 comments

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We are thinking of going just to Anchorage and Seward. We would skip Denali. Is that a good idea? Should we skip it?

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John, this summer, I’d actually say yeah, Denali is skippable. You can definitely see Denali from other parts of the state, but getting into the National Park is a doozy. (You can always go back in another year and do Denali & Fairbanks!)

Reply

We are in the same situation. Trip has been paid for since February. VBROs booked. Plane ticket booked. I had to go back and rebook VBROs with kitchens. Didn’t plan on cooking in Seward, but will. I really wanted to eat some delicious seafood, but I will just be happy to buy it and cook it myself. Does the docks allow you to buy seafood from them or is there a type of wharf to visit? Like Seattle or San Francisco?

The closest we get is a 3 nights in Talkeetna to get close to Denali. My husband is a huge fisherman so he is geeked about all the streams nearby.

Valarie are any of the trains running? Talkeetna to Denali or Denali to Fairbanks?

Reply

Dana, thanks for reading. Here are your answers:
1. In Seward, there are no wharves like that. You can walk along the waterfront but there aren’t any seafood sellers right there.
2. Again, as far as I know, trains are running – but I would book ASAP as they’re operating at 50% capacity to help with social distancing – also they require masks and other details can be found here: https://www.alaskarailroad.com/passenger-information
I hope this all helps!

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Hi, We have rebooked our trip to Alaska from May to now Aug 3-13. The plan is to go to Anchorage, Seward, Girdwood, then Denali. I just had my AirBnB cancel in Girdwood. When I contacted Denali they said only one bus was running and that was only to mile 32. Any news on the bus tours opening up? I have not booked yet cause I am hoping they open something else up. Really want to do the Kantishna Experience, and go to Wonder Lake. I have 4 days in Denali, but now not sure what to do if the bus tours are not running. I also heard that you have to be retested 7-14 days after arrival for Covid on top of the initial test upon arrival How does one do that? How is that enforced?? So far our hotel and boat tour in Seward has not cancelled but missing most of Denali will be such a bummer. Any news on the park would be appreciated. Thanks

Reply

Thanks for reaching out, Doreen. Unfortunately, you’re asking questions I don’t have all the answers to – you’ll need to contact someone within the State of Alaska directly to learn more about the testing requirements and procedures beyond what’s on this page: https://covid19.alaska.gov/travelers/

Wonder Lake/Kantishna will not be open this summer, and there have been no announcements of that changing based on the bus tours that the NPS is currently offering (https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/conditions.htm#bus); I do not think that will change at this point – they have the staffing and resources they will plan to have.

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Hi can you touch on the camping options in Denali? we had campsites reserved for Wonderlake with corresponding camp bus tickets for 8/22 and 8/23. Are the camp shuttles still operating to the parks’ other campgrounds? With wonder lake closed do you recommend even bothering trying to secure sites (tent) at one of the other campgrounds within the park or bagging the Denali portion of the trip entirely? We have 10 days and after arriving in Anchorage we’re planning a 1 day sea plane trip to fish Clear Lake prior to Driving to Denali and spending 3 nights camping in Denali area. then the plan was to head to KP and hike Harding Ice Field and explore/camp Lost Lake Area- after that we were going to head to Homer area and hike/fish near Kachemak State Park… if we eliminated the 3 days allotted for Denali what are your suggestions for replacement destinations? Valdez/Chugash National Park perhaps? Or spend it all in the Kenai Peninsula? Any other thoughts?
Thanks so much for your help and entertaining this long question!!!

Reply

So many questions, Jeff 🙂

1. Check out campground details here: https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/conditions.htm (There’s a whole section on them.) That’s the official source to get the most up-to-date info.

2. If you still want to go to Denali it does look like other campgrounds are open; I would switch to reservations for the Tek River campground if you can!

3. If you decide to scrap Denali, look at heading out past Palmer to Matanuska Glacier/Hatcher Pass. It’s a cool area that doesn’t get as crowded and still gives you some cool Alaskan experience.

I hope this helps!

Reply

It looks like the transit buses are still running (at least one of the routes) during the summer. Is this true? and if so, do you need a reservation for those or is it first come first served?

Thanks!

Reply

They are still running but they are by reservation and I’ve heard they are totally sold out. Sorry!

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