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How to Visit Denali in Summer 2021

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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:

  1. They are only offering the Tundra Wilderness Tour for the Summer 2021 season.
  2. 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

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.

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

Best Places to View Denali Hero

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

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 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

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 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):

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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48 Comments

  • John Gridley

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

    • Valerie

      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!)

    • Dana Steinhoff

      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?

      • Valerie

        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!

  • Noreen LaBelle

    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

    • Valerie

      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.

  • Jeff A.

    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!!!

    • Valerie

      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!

  • Kelli

    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!

  • Kathy

    We have a rescheduled from 2020 sea/land cruise coming up end of May/ beginning of June2021. Any thoughts on testing and Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour for us cruise passengers ?

    • Valerie

      Kathy, when you say you rescheduled, are you doing a cruise again this year? Who are you cruising with? I don’t predict that the big cruise companies will be operating in May/June 2021. Or, are you doing a land tour?

  • Amy

    if we plan to visit by but how many days will be ok to spend in Denali we are planning to do a week vacation in Alaska

  • Stuart Forster

    Alaska is on my bucket list and visiting Denali would be a dream come true. I have looked into Alaska from the Yukon and driven on the Alaska Highway, so look forward to returning to the region.

  • Brad

    Thanks for your tips and advice. We were able to book a place in Denali and get tickets for the TWT. We also plan on going to Girdwood and Seward. Any thoughts on visiting Homer and things to do?

    • Valerie

      Sounds like you’re off to a good start planning your trip, Brad. I’d only go to Homer if you have at least 2 days to do it. There are some fun activities in Homer but it does take a bit to get there and most people try and rush it too much and end up not enjoying it. Hope that helps!

  • Brad

    Thank you so much for the quick reply! We may look for a longer stay in Seward after 1 or 2 nights in Girdwood for Heli/Dogsleding and the Wildlife Center.

  • Carol M Zirkle

    We are arriving on June 27. I heard that we no longer need a negative covid test – is that true? We have been vaccinated – does that make a difference? Thank you Carol

    • Valerie

      Carol, it’s correct you no longer need a negative test for most things, though some specific activities might still require them. Being vaccinated doesn’t make a difference at this point, but they still recommend masking up and distancing.

  • Alyssa

    Hi! Great info. Thanks to you, we just scored the timed entry permit that allows us to drive to mile 30 (mid-June). Yay! Now what? Should we park at the Taklanika rest area and hike around for the day? I haven’t found any specific hikes online that are in between mile 15-30. Any suggestions are much appreciated!

    • Valerie

      Congrats, Alyssa! So Denali is a backcountry park – there are no trails once you get past mile 15. Pick a direction, pack proper supplies, and just explore 🙂

  • Amy Wenke

    Hi Valerie!
    Thanks for such great info. We are planning to take the train from Anchorage to Denali and back, so we won’t have a car in Denali area. Which of the hotels listed above are the best for folks without a car/closest to everything one needs to be near?
    Thanks!
    Amy

    • Valerie

      Thanks for reading, Amy! I’d take a look at a map (like Google or on a hotel booking site) – you want to stay north of the park entrance in the Nenana Canyon area (but not so far as Healy)

  • Stephanie Szary

    Hi,
    My fiancé and I are visiting Denali from July 27-29 but the non-narrated transit bus tickets are already sold out for those days. I called the company that handles reservations and the woman I spoke to said some of the buses only had 15 ppl on them but it was supposed to be half capacity. She wasn’t sure if they would open up more seats later on the buses or what the reason for this was. Any insight? Also I watched one of your YouTube videos recently about visiting Denali this summer and you said you might have some have some transit bus connections?? If so, please let me know!

  • Merry

    Thank you for all your great tips! We are staying at the Denali Cabins and I’m pretty sure we will take the train in (I checked all those times). I don’t think we need the scenic trip back to the airport, so I wanted to ask since we are not planning on renting a car, what do you think is the best way back to the Fairbanks airport for a flight that leaves at 8:40pm? I’ve seen a lot of transit websites, but I’m not sure which one is a good option.

    • Valerie

      Merry, I’m not sure what you’ve seen, but as far as I’ve been able to find doing research, the only option from Denali to Fairbanks is the train if you don’t have a car rental.

  • Misha

    Hi Valerie, First – THANK YOU so much for your valuable posts. We have booked our Alaska tickets for June 2021 and so far your posts have been so helpful! Though we could get a booking in McKinley Chalet Resort, we missed the bookings of Tundra Wilderness Tour and there isn’t any availability for any bus tour on 25-26 June (when we’ll be there). There are other tours like this one (https://www.alaskacollection.com/day-tours/denali-backcountry-adventure/) but I’m hesitant to go on a 13-hour trip, esp. because I get motion sickness. Question/request for you: PLEEEASE suggest an alternative if we do not manage to get the official NPS bus tour (I will keep checking the reservedanali website in case someone cancels) – how can we get a taste of the national park in the worst case scenario of not securing a bus tour? Please help! Your advice is much appreciated and has already helped us a lot! Thank you, Misha (from California)

    • Susan

      @Valerie, Hi there – I’m in the same exact position as the poster Misha here (almost for the same days too!) Could you please also send me what you sent them?

      • Valerie

        Susan, absolutely – here’s what I sent:

        Thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, there is no other option this summer, and you are not alone in not being able to get tickets (I’d say 75% of people I talk with right now can’t get tickets all the way into August). I haven’t been on the 13-hour tour (I’ll actually be doing it late this summer as part of a work trip) so I can’t speak to that experience. I can say that the road is narrow, winding, and unpaved, so it’s probably best to skip it if you get motion sick.

        I do have this post about things to do in Denali: https://www.valisemag.com/things-to-do-denali/ but beyond that I’m sorry I don’t have a better solution for the park bus tour itself..

  • David Hammer

    Valerie,

    I have two Denali reservations, and wanted your opinion. Its for four people, we have a rental SUV we will be in Denali with.

    I have the Tundra Wilderness tour booked for $560, BUT thanks to your video, I was able to get the Denali Drive in pass that was only $70!!! Is the bus tour really worth $500 more to go a little deeper into the park? I’d prefer driving in with just my family in the SUV?

    • Valerie

      David – if you got a Teklanika Road Permit *and* your rental is permitted for the drive (you should call the rental agency and confirm), I’d use that rather than the bus tour. I will say you won’t have any narration so you’ll get less out of it and might not spot wildlife that’s further off (since the bus drivers are *really* good at spotting wildlife), but the permit is a good option at a good price if you’re allowed to take your car on it.

  • K

    I’m planning a week of camping in Denali, and I’m splitting my time between the entrance area and Wonder, with 2-3 nights at Wonder Lake. I know Wonder Lake is a super scenic campground, but what is there to do while I’m there? I do a lot of day hikes on my camping trips, but the only trail there is super short. I know people just hike on the tundra, but that seems a bit intimidating (I’ll be solo). So what do people do all day from Wonder Lake?

  • K

    Following up on my last post, I’m thinking of this Denali trip for 2022, I assume Wonder Lake will be open in a year.

  • Krista

    We have a truck rental and a cabin in Healy. Adventurous family with 3 teenagers. All buses are full. No shuttles. What can I plan for my family to see or do at Denali? The restrictions are so sad. Please advise. I’m grateful.

  • James Pappas

    Thank you for all your updates. We are going to make the best out of it. We just booked a 9AM transit bus to Eilsen on Sept 15th. Are there any particular points we should hop off for some short hikes? I need to look at the National Parks app to see the trails. Any good apps for better hiking info? 9AM was the earliest we could get and I didn’t really want the restrictions of the Tour bus.

    • Valerie

      Thanks for reading, James! Once you’re in the park, there are no trails – it’s a backcountry park. You can check out the National Park Service app though, as that’ll give you the most important park info.

    • James Pappas

      @Valerie, will do! Thanks so much….

      Also, since I’ve got you. Any opinions on how to spend a couple days over in Wrangell-St Elias? We have a cabin for 2 nights in McCarthy, but since we were coming down from Fairbanks, we were wondering if it was worth it to see the north side, near Slana?

  • Freonie Hingley

    Hello Valerie,
    Just been to Alaska. Denali park road closed to the bus tour, to the End of the Road, from mile marker 30 or 40 I believe. They just had a landslide . Sorry!

    • Valerie

      Freonie, hi! You’re right, the park road is closed at Mile 42. I haven’t had a chance to update this post since it only happened a few weeks ago, and anyway, the Summer 2021 season is over!

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