At more than six million acres, Denali National Park and Preserve in south central Alaska is a wilderness three times as large as Yellowstone and home to glaciers, boreal forests and the highest peak in North America – formerly known as Mt. McKinley and now called Denali.
Meaning “the great one” in the native Alaskan dialect, Mount Denali towers 20,300 feet above the Alaska range. It’s so massive it makes its own weather. If you’re lucky enough to view the entire mountain, you can say you’re a member of the 30% club, owing to the fact the peak is typically shrouded in clouds 70% of the time.
For easiest access, your best bet is to stay within the park itself, although buses venture in regularly during the season, June through August. You can drive the one road into the park in your own car, but only for the first 15 of its 92 miles. Then you must switch to a park bus to go further, either with a guide or without. Opt for a guide, who will describe Denali’s history and help spot wildlife, such as moose, wolves, bears (brown and grizzly), Dall sheep and caribou.
Visitors can strike out on their own on any of the dozens of hiking trails that traverse the park. Rangers are available for guided hikes, which begin at the welcome center and can be as advanced or as easy as you wish. Whitewater rafting is great fun on the park’s wild and woolly rivers, or choose a gentle float. Another option is to go flight seeing for plane’s-eye views of Denali’s stunning peaks.
Selecting accommodations is a challenge – there’s a handful of lodges within the park located at mile 92 at the end of the park road, but as of this writing, road construction at mile 43 is making access difficult. Check for updates at alaska.org.
Kantishna Roadhouse is owned and run by descendants of the native Athabaskan Indians and offers handcrafted furniture in either duplex or fourplex cabins. Skyline Lodge, a cozy little solar-powered enclave of five guest rooms, overlooks Moose Creek. The 42 cedar cabins at Denali Backcountry Lodge come with a spa/wellness center. And Camp Denali’s log cabins feature hand-sewn quilts.
Properties outside the park include McKinley Chalet Resort, located just two miles from the park’s entrance on the Nenana River. Casual and fine dining leans toward fresh Alaskan seafood, and the wine list is extensive. The chalet’s roadhouse-style dinner theater tells the story of the first ascent of Denali.
Also near the park’s entrance is the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, a luxurious inn made of local timber and dominated by 40-foot windows and a two-story rock fireplace.
The Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923, just six years after Denali National Park was established, and for many years the rails were the only way to get into the park. Today, the Denali Star still makes the run in style with dining cars and lounges, connecting the park with Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Surprisingly, you can play golf near Denali. The nine-hole Black Diamond Golf Course is guarded by a serene mountain lake and built right on the tundra without benefit of a great deal of topsoil. Hazards include marshes and moose hoof prints.
Head to Denali Square at McKinley Chalet Resort for shops such as the Old Sourdough Studio, restaurants like the Karstens Public House, live music, scenic views and fire pits.
Zero light pollution means optimum viewing of the blues, pinks, greens and violets of the Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, best seen in the fall, winter and early spring when it stays dark longer.