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Denali is the crown jewel of Alaska, and almost every traveler wants to see North America’s tallest 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 2021 – 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 in 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.
This post was originally published for Summer 2020, and was updated in March 2021 for Summer 2021. Please let me know if you see any errors.
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 – like last year – this year is not going to be normal… Here are your options for visiting Denali in summer 2021.
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 made two changes:
- They are only offering the Tundra Wilderness Tour for the Summer 2021 season.
- They are reducing capacity on buses this summer to help with physical distancing.
That means it’s tougher to get reservations in Denali this summer, and I recommend booking as early as you have your datesc onfirmed. If you do secure a spot, you’ll be guaranteed to visit Denali in summer 2021.
Option 2: Teklanika Permits
Like last summer, the National Park Service will be offering a limited number of permits for private vehicles to drive to the Teklanika Rest Area at Mile 30. These permits will be available between May 20th and September 16th, and reservations will be available starting April 20th on Recreation.gov.
If you’re going to try and go for one of these permits, be sure to brush up on the rules for vehicles on Denali Park Road so you understand whether your vehicle will be allowed.
Option 3: The Denali Lottery
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.
The dates for the 2021 lottery have not yet been announced, but it usually occurs on the third week in September.
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 2021 Denali Lottery have also not been announced yet. I’ll update this post as soon as that info is available.
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 4: Other Places to See Denali
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 access, 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
If you are lucky enough to be visiting Alaska in late September and win a Denali Lottery permit 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 x 8′ wide x 12′ high inclusive of mirrors and bumpers).
Step 3: Book A Hotel in Denali
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 2021.
Here’s the best list I’ve been able to create of hotels and other accommodation that’s open in Denali this summer (and when):
- Aurora Denali Lodge – Open Year-Round
- Denali Dome Home B&B – Open Year-Round
- Denali Lakeview Inn – Open Year-Round
- Denali Rainbow Village – Opening May 15
- McKinley Cabins – Opening May 16
- Denali Bluffs – Opening May 17
- Denali Grizzly Bear Resort – Opening May 20th
- Denali Cabins – Opening May 20
- Crow’s Nest Resort – Opening May 21
- Denali Hostel & Cabins – Opening May 27
- Grande Denali Lodge – Opening May 28
- Denali Backcountry Lodge – Opening June 4
I linked directly to each hotel property so you can see any travel advisories or policies on their site. If you prefer to book through another site like Booking.com or Hotels.com for points or loyalty, I think it’s safe to book through any site or third-party service for 2021.
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 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 2021? Let me know in the comments or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook Community!
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