Best Things to Do in Denali National Park
Make the most of your Denali National Park Vacation
Just like the endless sunshine that fills the Alaskan summer, there is no shortage of adventure in Denali National Park. My time spent on the outskirts of this vast wilderness as a seasonal employee is marked as one of the greatest times of my life, and that bar was set high to begin with. My stay in Alaska was partly influenced by the musings of Jon Krakauer, specifically his book Into the Wild (more on that in a later post).
My seasonal job as a front desk agent required me to know as much as I could learn about the park and to sell tours based on what suited the specific traveler. Because the majority of tour business came from referrals, front desk agents like myself got free access to these tours on days that were slow.
Since some of these excursions were costly, it was also my job to make recommendations based on budget. Even though I got commission from booked tours, it was easier to make a recommendation for a trail that was free to use because, well, isn’t that the point of the Parks?
The recommendations below are are a mix of free, low-cost, and paid activities that you can experience during your Denali National Park adventure. (Note that prices are not included due the the fluctuation of park fees and tour costs. Click on the links in each section to learn more).
Fun fact: if you’re not bringing a car or taking a bus into Denali National Park, you won’t have to pay an entrance fee. Mt. Healy sits just on the edge of Denali National Park next to the George Parks Highway, so anyone staying in Glitter Gulch can hop off their hotel shuttle pretty much right next to the trailhead.
This hike is intense, but not necessarily unbearable for those who don’t hike often. Even at the lowest outcrops, hikers are afforded a panoramic view of the valley below, painted with the greens and blues of an Alaskan summer. Take your time - the air is thin, but well worth it. (Full Trail Diary coming soon!).
Off-trail Discovery Hikes, or “disco” hikes as we would call them, are a ranger-led program typically available to those staying in Denali National Park for a few days or more. The group is limited to 11 people, so it’s a true opportunity to get to know the park and its history in an intimate setting. Your hike can last anywhere from three to five hours (not including bus travel) and will have you up close and personal with the awesome majesty of the park.
Be prepared: You can be hiking for hours on end through varying landscapes and brush, so it is highly recommended that you wear the appropriate gear. You may be turned away for safety purposes if you come unprepared.
When my then-boyfriend, now-husband and I had a day off together, we’d take the free bus to Savage River as our "date night". This is the only bus loop that is free for visitors, but gives you a generous peak at Denali National Park's gorgeous landscape and access to some trails. Depending on the time of day, we’d either get off to hike the Savage River Loop trail, or stay on the bus to steal a few more moments with one another before the Park closed for the day. The Savage River Trail is easy enough with the opportunity to go off trail and climb up the hills on either side of the river for a bigger challenge. If you decide to stay on the bus, that’s cool too; within the confines of a metal vehicle was my favorite way to see the Park’s grizzly bears.
Sometimes the marked trails aren’t as secluded as you’d like, and that’s totally okay. In Denali, you’re permitted to hop on and off the Park buses as long as you’ve paid your entrance fee for buses driving beyond Savage River. This gives you the opportunity to truly explore the Park off-trail, armed with your typical survival gear and Leave No Trace ethics. Remember to respect all wildlife and to keep your distance both on and off the trail.
Recommended: 11 Ways to Maximize Your National Parks Vacation
Located at mile 64 of the Park Road, Eielson Visitor Center is the last bus stop before the Park “flattens” out slightly and stretches on towards Kantishna. But this stop is way more than a pee break - the Center’s walls are lined with art inspired by the Park, and the views from just outside are stellar. Those wishing to explore a bit more than a building are welcome to hike the Eielson Alpine Trail just north of the Visitor Center.
Although it's by far the most expensive option for visitors, there is no better option to sightsee on a limited time frame than by flight. I’m all about being boots on the ground in terms of discovery, but some things you just can’t witness at eye-level. Let your front desk agent help you choose your Denali flightseeing tour - they’ll let you know which businesses to throw your money at and they’ll get a little extra cash at no cost to you. Plus, oh-my-god-the-pictures-you’ll-get.
Recommended: Fly Denali, Inc. Flightseeing Tours
Watch the Northern Lights
Mother Nature is a giver - but perhaps the best gifts she's bestowed upon Alaska are the writhing dancers we call the Northern Lights. Since summer in Alaska means 24-hour daylight, only those visiting closer to the end of August and early September will get the chance to catch the Northern Lights in Denali National Park. I promise you, though - the Northern Lights alone are enough of a reason to visit Alaska.
No list of things to do is complete without food recommendations. We stayed in Glitter Gulch just outside of Healy and tried almost everything we could. The only places we consistently went back to were:
The 49th State - Pizza and beer, pizza and beer. Oh, and also desserts. But yeah, pizza and beer. Do you get why we loved it so much?
Black Bear Coffee House - Skip the hotel coffee and come here for your caffeine fix. You’ll feel right at home with the friendly baristas, board games, and light pouring in from the summer sun.
Thai Truck - Some called it Denali Thai, others Healy Thai Food, but to us, it was just the Thai Truck. Haters will walk right by this tiny truck for an overpriced meal at their hotel, but not the true adventurers. Cheap, delicious, and warm.
When it comes to things to do in Denali, your options are pretty much limited to your hiking capabilities and the length of your stay. More tours are available to book than most visitors could realistically accomplish in the time they spend in Alaska, so choose your outings wisely. Most of all, find your intention for visiting the Park and let that resonate through every step on every trail. You may find yourself satisfied at simply getting your boots dirty.