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.
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.
1. See Denali
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:
- By private vehicle but only to Mile 15 of the Park Road.
- 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):
- Grizzly Bear
- Dall Sheep
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. 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.
5. 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.
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.
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?!):
- Riley Creek – 0.25 miles into the park, open year-round and the biggest campground by far
- Savage River – 14 miles into the park, accessible by private vehicle and a good option if you can snag a reservation
- Sanctuary River – 22 miles into the park, accessible by transit bus
- Teklanika River – 29 miles into the park, accessible by transit bus, near a huge braided river on the valley floor
- Igloo Creek – 35 miles into the park, accessible only by transit bus
- 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.
8. 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.
9. White Water 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!
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.
11. 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!
12. 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.
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.”
14. 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.
15. Photography. Everywhere!
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
As I mentioned early 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, but nobody has said whether they will be operating in 2022 due to inacessibility along the park road.
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)
In any case, here are the three best places to stay in Denali, based on my experience.
Grande Denali Lodge
You can’t miss the Grande Denali Lodge. Perched high on the slopes of Sugar Loaf Mountain, this property overlooks the entire Nenana Canyon and out toward Denali National Park. They have standard or deluxe rooms, with double queen or king beds – but the real pro-tip is to book one of six private cabins on the property. We stayed in one and it was honestly the most delightful and quintessential place to stay in Denali.
Additionally, the Grande Denali Lodge is home to Alpenglow Restaurant, which has the best view – and some of the best food – in town. Even if you don’t end up staying here, I recommend trying to enjoy dinner and drinks from their restaurant.
Honestly, the only thing that I didn’t love here is the drive up to the property; it takes about 10 minutes on a bumpy unpaved road with five hairpin turns. However, they offer a free shuttle that runs down to town, the Park Visitor Center, and the Denali Bluffs Hotel, so you don’t need to hike or drive it yourself.
P.S. We saw the aurora on our night at the Grande Denali because we visited in September. Learn more about seeing the northern lights in Alaska.
Denali Bluffs Hotel
The Denali Bluffs Hotel is a sister property to the Grande Denali, so it’s a great option if the Grande is fully booked (or you want to stay closer to town). They offer Hillside rooms (standard) and RiverView rooms (premium); both classes of rooms are gorgeous and decorated in a rustic style with modern touches. Our cozy room had vaulted ceilings, two queen beds, and a cute little balcony where we ate breakfast and shot photos (of course!).
Their property is built into the hillside, so you may encounter some slopes when walking around, but they’ve modified all walkways to provide traction even when it’s rainy or (in early/late season) frosty. There’s also the Perky Moose Cafe (great for breakfast) and Mountaineer Grill & Bar (best salmon chowder I had on the whole trip!) to keep you fueled for adventure.
As mentioned above, there’s a free shuttle that takes you to town and the Park Visitor Center (as well as the Grande).
Denali Backcountry Lodge
I was uncertain about whether to include the Backcountry Lodge in this post, as I’m 90% sure they won’t open in 2022 – but I want to include them since they are one of the places I recommend if they open and if you can get there (likely by Air Taxi).
Situated deep in the Backcountry at Kantishna, Denali Backcountry Lodge offers guests individual cabins (Traditional, Superior, or Creekside), all situated together on the bank of Moose Creek, along with fire pits and two barrel saunas. The main lodge serves meals throughout the day (included with your stay) and offers happy hour drinks each afternoon (at an additional cost). It’s like the coolest summer camp for adults!
Additionally they offer guided walks and hikes in the area, bikes to rent, and your stay (typically) includes the 6-hour bus transfer through Denali National Park to/from the property. (Again, not sure what’s happening for 2022…)
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 or join me in my Alaska Travel Tips Facebook Community!
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