Destination Guides,  National Park Travel

17 Incredible Things to Do in Denali & Denali National Park

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Denali, The Great One, looms over interior Alaska. Rising some 20,310 feet in elevation, many people are drawn to explore its eponymous Denali National Park. And there are so many incredible things to do in Denali, more than you’ve probably imagined as you plan for your Alaska trip.

I’ve visited Denali many times – as a kid growing up in Alaska, and almost every trip I’ve taken back since. I even spent a summer working in Denali for one of the major cruise companies. My job required me to go on many of the incredible tours and excursions available there to help sell them better to customers. So it was this summer that helped me feel like I could really write the ultimate list of things to do in Denali.

Things to Do in Denali Hero

Whether you have just one day, a few days, or are doing your own trip to Alaska and can stay in Denali as long as you want, this post is here to help. Read on for all the best things to do in Denali, including, of course, visiting Denali National Park.

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.

This post was originally published in January 2021, and was updated most recently in January 2024.

1. See Denali

Best National Parks - Denali National Park

Obviously, the number one thing to do in Denali National Park is to see Denali, The Great One.

Denali is only visible about 30% of days each year, so it’s actually not guaranteed to see Denali when you’re in Alaska. That said, you can give yourself better odds of spotting this big beautiful mountain.

First, give yourself time: the longer you can spend in Southcentral Alaska or Interior Alaska, the better chances you’ll have of at least one clear day with a good view.

Second, plan ahead to get yourself to one of the best Denali viewpoints. Obviously Denali National Park has some of the best views in the world, but there are places outside the park to see the mountain too – including on the Alaska Railroad headed south to Anchorage, and from Anchorage itself.

2. Take a National Park Bus Tour

Next up, visiting Denali National Park is obviously a must-do thing in Denali – even if you don’t see the mountain. I’ve written about how to visit Denali before, and in short there are two ways to visit the park:

  1. By private vehicle but only to Mile 15 of the Park Road.
  2. By bus tour, provided by the National Park Service, as far as Mile 62 in summer 2021.

Obviously, getting further into the park is always better, so taking a National Park bus tour is one of the best things to do in Denali. This summer, the NPS is only offering one of their three standard bus tours: the Tundra Wilderness Tour (TWT). This 7-to-8-hour tour goes to Stony Overlook at Mile 62 and back. Along the way, you’ll have epic views and plenty of chances to spot wildlife in the park.

3. Spot Denali’s Big Five

Speaking of spotting wildlife, that’s another one of those top things you just gotta do in Denali. In particular, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for Denali’s own “Big Five” (the Alaskan version of southern Africa’s safari animals):

  1. Moose
  2. Grizzly Bear
  3. Dall Sheep
  4. Wolves
  5. Caribou

It’s really uncommon to see all five on a single tour into Denali; I’ve only ever seen a maximum of four on two TWTs (one with wolves but no caribou, the other with the opposite). Maybe you’ll be luckier than me!

4. Join a Denali Ranger Program

If you want to really discover Denali, join one of the Denali Ranger Programs. The guides know the park as the back of their hands and will unveil the park’s secrets. You can choose among sled dog demonstrations, trail hikes, and field courses. The best of all is that safe for Discovery Hikes, all programs are free and don’t require you to sign up. 

Most ranger programs in Denali are offered in the summer, from mid-May through mid-September; there might be some during winter in Denali, but it’s best to assume you’re on your own if you’re visiting in the “off” season.

5. Flightseeing Tours

After the main things to do in Denali – see the mountain, see the wildilfe – there is still a lot more to do!

First up is the #1 excursion/tour I recommend in Denali, based on all of the ones I did while working there: flightseeing. In particular, flightseeing with a glacier landing in Denali National Park.

There are a number of operators that offer flightseeing operators, but my top recommendation is Fly Denali for their Glacier Landing Tour. It’s pricey but an incredible experience: you’ll spend an hour flying around into the park, with epic views of the mountains around Denali, then land on a glacier on Denali, then fly back in a different route above the park. Seriously, this one is 100% worth the time and the money.

6. Visit Wonder Lake

Okay, I’ll admit that including Wonder Lake is not a great suggestion if you’re reading this while planning a trip in 2021: I think* the only way to reach Wonder Lake this year is by taking a Transit Bus (not the same as one of the Tour Buses) and backcountry camping there.

Wonder Lake, pictured at the top of this article, gives the best views of Denali by far, especially on clear days. It’s a great place to escape the “crowds” in the park (admittedly, the bus tours do a good job of limiting those) – but beware that mosquitos are known to crowd this far in the park and you should pack accordingly.

Note: The only way to reach Wonder Lake (or other parts of the park beyond the road closure, including Eielson Visitor Center, Toklat River, and Kantishna) – between now and 2026 when the road is scheduled to re-open – is either by hiking into the park or booking a stay at one of the backcountry lodges that provide a flight into that part of the park.

7. Hiking

There are so many hiking trails in and around Denali National Park, it’s easily one of the best things to do in Denali if you have the time.

Some of my favorite hikes include Savage River Loop (1.7 miles round-trip) at mile 15 on the park road, Triple Lakes Trail (a 9.5-mile one-way trail with trailheads near the park entrance, great for those who want something longer), and Mount Healy Overlook (2.7 miles one way to a nice overlook ledge). You can also hike in the surrounding town such as Sugar Loaf Ridge (trailhead near the Grande Denali Lodge) or sign up for a backcountry permit and make your own trail.

I spent a lot of my weekends while living in Denali hiking; it’s a great local experience if your itinerary allows for it.

8. Backcountry Hiking

In a time where glamping has taken over, it takes a lot of courage to fully immerse in nature!

For the adventurous soul, Backcountry Hiking in Denali promises a fascinating escape into untamed landscapes. There’s no need to say that backcountry hiking is one of the most challenging things to do in Denali and you’ll need extra preparation to do it. 

Head over to the Backpacking section on the NPS website to learn about permits and how to plan your journey properly. 

9. Camping

Things to Do in Denali - Camping

There are six campgrounds in Denali National Park, if your idea of a great time is sleeping on the ground and waking up chilly (can you tell how I feel about it?!):

  1. Riley Creek – 0.25 miles into the park, open year-round and the biggest campground by far
  2. Savage River – 14 miles into the park, accessible by private vehicle and a good option if you can snag a reservation
  3. Sanctuary River – 22 miles into the park, accessible by transit bus
  4. Teklanika River – 29 miles into the park, accessible by transit bus, near a huge braided river on the valley floor
  5. Igloo Creek – 35 miles into the park, accessible only by transit bus
  6. Wonder Lake – 85 miles into the park, accessible only by transit bus, the furthest you can go into the park!

The National Park Service hasn’t yet announced the state of campgrounds in Denali National Park this year, so if you have your heart set on it, check back.

10. Helicopter Tours

Another tour I had the chance to do while working in Denali was a helicopter tour (also with a glacier landing). I had never ridden in a helicopter before this tour and it’s definitely an unforgettable experience.

If you’re up for getting your adrenaline pumping, be sure to check out helicopter tours in the area. The company I rode with seems to be out of business now; this one, Temsco Helicopters, seems to be the new version and they offer a 2.25-hour glacier landing tour.

11. White Water Rafting

Denali National Park Itinerary - Rafting

Here’s one you might not expect, which is also good for inducing some adrenaline. Another one is white water rafting! Yep, you read that right – there is some great white water rafting in the heart of Alaska.

There are two main rafting providers in Denali: Denali Raft Adventures and Raft Denali. Both offer a number of different runs, but my favorite is the Canyon whitewater raft run on the Nenana River. No matter who you book with, you’ll enjoy an 11-mile run that includes some solid Class III and IV whitewater – be sure to hold on and paddle!

12. Ziplining

For another activity you might not expect in Denali, you can also go ziplining. This is actually an activity I haven’t done as it wasn’t offered when I worked my summer in Denali. Denali Park Zipline is the place to do it; the three-hour tour includes 7 zip lines, 6 sky bridges, and a dual zip line racer run for the grand finale.

After ziplining for the first time in Ohio’s Hocking Hills and again in Wisconsin’s Door County, you can bet this is on my list for my next trip.

13. Husky Homestead

If part of your Alaska travel plans include interacting with huskies, Denali is a great place to do it! In fact, Jeff King’s Husky Homestead was always one of our most popular options.

During this tour, you’ll have the chance to learn about and interact with Alaska’s most famous dogs and the work they do as part of Alaska culture. Jeff King is a four-time Iditarod winner, and his team does a great job to introduce you to the dogs – and the dogs benefit too because they need socialization.

Pro-tip: If you’re visiting in the early summer, you may have the chance to meet husky pups even as young as a few days old!

14. ATV Tours

Here’s another one I’ve never done, but it was popular with some of the travelers who I helped visit Denali while working there: ATV tours in the backcountry near Denali.

Denali ATV is the main company that offers these tours, and they offer three different options that allow you to journey through the Boreal forest, ascend mountains to ride along ridges, and splash through creeks for a little extra fun.

15. Golfing

Okay one last thing to do in Denali that I’ve never done – last one, I promise! I haven’t done this mostly because I’ve got no patience for golf… But if you love golfing, I highly recommend playing a round of golf at Black Diamond. This nine-hole course is famous for being one of the few places in the U.S. that you can “golf under the midnight sun.”

16. Horseback Riding

For being a healthy bit afraid of horses, I’ve done an astonishing number of horseback riding tours through my travels. One such was in Denali, north of Denali National Park. The ride takes you through the low Boreal forest and out onto the tundra; it’s a great way to get an intimate experience of the landscape.

On my ride, I was atop Chinook, the name for one of the warm strong winds that come each winter in Alaska. As you can see, he was free-spirited and I definitely had to work to keep my place in the line of horses.

You can book this one through Denali Horseback Tours.

17. Photography. Everywhere!

Alaska Bucket List - Denali Flightseeing

Last, but certainly not least, photography is obviously one of the best things to do in Denali. In fact, you’ll probably be doing it during your whole visit anyway, without any formal plan.

Some shots you definitely don’t want to miss include:

  • Denali, obviously, if you see her
  • Any of the Big Five (Moose, Bear, Dall Sheep, Wolf, or Caribou) if you see them
  • Scenic views on the Tundra Wilderness Tour, like Polychrome Pass and the Teklanika River
  • Photos of you and your travel group having a great time!

If you want to book a photography tour to ensure you get the absolute best shots, Denali Photo Guides is your best bet.

Where to Stay in Denali

Denali National Park Itinerary - Panorama

As I mentioned earlier 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, some of which are open despite the road closure (and flying guests in), and some of which are not.

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)

I’ve got an entire article about where to stay in Denali including all of my top recommendations for both hotels and vacation rentals in the area.

Okay, there you have it: the best things to do in Denali and Denali National Park. Which one do you most want to do? Or maybe all of them?! Have any other questions? Let me know in the comments below!


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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

6 Comments

    • Valerie

      Thanks, Sheila – I’m aware of New Wave and actually met two of your colleagues at a conference last year (they never returned my follow up emails). I’ll add your company when I next update this post.

  • Sheila Concannon

    Sorry to hear they never followed up with you. You list a company that is no longer in business so I figured why not update it and add current information. You have some great recommendations. If you ever make it back up to Denali we look forward to rafting with you.
    Thanks

    • Valerie

      Thanks, Sheila. I’ll update this post for 2024 at some point to remove that business that’s no longer operating.

      Actually, my goal in reaching out was to promote your company to my audience – but as your founders ignored my emails, I’ll assume that’s not a priority to your company.

    • Valerie

      There is no better time beyond what works in your itinerary; the weather around the mountain is too variable to predict on any given day!

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