Things to do in Denali National Park in 24 hours

Raw, wild and packed with amazing scenery and wildlife, Denali National Park covers an incredible 6 million acres made up of mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes, forest and tundra. Dominating the scenery is the majestic Denali – rising to 20,310 ft this is North America’s highest mountain peak.

The park has just one road which weaves and winds through its stunning whole for 92 miles and any journey along this mainly gravel stretch will offer an experience of a lifetime. Denali is home to bear, moose, caribou, wolf, Dall sheep and many more species of animal and bird while its landscape is filled with a kaleidoscope of color in summer with carpets and swathes of wildflowers.

Denali – the land where dinosaurs once walked and their footprints still remain – is an incredible destination for all those seeking wilderness, out-of-this-world wildlife encounters or simply the opportunity to commune with nature in all its untamed magnificence.

The Alaska Railroad Domed Train Ride

While Denali is an unbeatable destination it could easily be said that the journey there is every bit as impressive if you have the opportunity to ride by domed train. Luxurious and stylish, this Alaska Railroad journey is no ordinary train ride but an incredible experience in itself. With large curving picture-windows, your entire view no matter which way you look is filled with the magnificent scenery passing by outside. The upper part of the dome is the seating section which gives access to an outdoor viewing platform so you can breathe in the fresh Alaskan air while soaking up the beauty of your surroundings on an even more enhanced and intimate level. The lower level of each domed car features the dining room whose window design also maximizes your view.

The innovative design and the elevated position means wildlife spotting is typically all part of the experience. Keep your eyes peeled for bears, moose, wolves and Dall sheep – all are often sighted during the journey.

Besides the wildlife viewing opportunities the ever-changing scenery is enough in itself to keep you spellbound. Soon after leaving Anchorage passengers will begin to get glimpses of Denali – the mighty peak which marks the Alaska Range’s highest point. As the train progresses the views of this mountain – the highest in North America – become ever more spectacular. Soon after leaving Talkeetna the train heads into backcountry, dotted about with isolated cabins and bisected by the Indian River; the major highlights along the Talkeetna to Denali stretch include the Hurricane Gulch Trestle where the creek is a heady 296 feet below and Broad Pass – the railroad’s highest point at more than 2,000ft. At the best vantage points the train slows allowing everyone on board to get that perfect shot.

Denali National Park

Sensational scenery made up of soaring snowcloaked mountains, the mighty ice ribbons of glaciers, carpets of wildflowers and glistening lakes along with spectacular wildlife this in short is Denali National Park. Spread over six million acres with the awe-inspiring mountain of Denali as its focus, this park is a true wilderness area inhabited by a diverse range of wildlife which includes bears, moose, caribou, wolves and much more.

Raw, untamed and totally unfenced, just one road can be found in Denali National Park, running for 92 miles from one side of the park to the other. Journeys by bus and tour along this road mostly travel on dirt or gravel and are highly scenic, passing as they do through forest, mountain passes and tundra with the soaring Denali an evercloser looming presence.

The Wildlife of Denali

If there could be one single thing said to be the focus of any visit here then it would have to be the wildlife of this Alaskan wonderland. Those animals that the park’s visitors most want to see are known as the ‘Big Five’ – bear, moose, caribou, Dall sheep and wolf. The park is home to two species of bear – black and grizzly – while it is generally accepted that few places in the world offer such high chances of seeing wolf in the wild as Denali. Moose – North America’s tallest mammal and here with antlers alone which may weigh 80 pounds– are often seen as they frequent many of the places with human activity such as the park entrance and the visitor center. The caribou viewings can be especially enjoyable as these animals tend to roam in groups and sometimes even in herds made up of 100+ individuals.

The highest chance of spotting wildlife of any kind is during a bus tour and there are several reasons why. Primarily the elevated viewing position allows you to not just see the road and roadsides but also over any vegetation and beyond. Additionally, the many pairs of eyes on a bus all looking in different places at the same time mean any wildlife in the vicinity can be quickly spotted. The route you will take also passes points where the trees are below you and offer views which can stretch for long distances. These are often the places from which animals – either alone or in groups – can be seen. Your driver’s expertise will also play a part. The park has certain animal activity hotspots or known routes through which certain species pass such as the open Teklanika River area where bears forage for food, the cliffs of Polychrome Pass where Dall sheep roam and the Savage River stretch of road for wandering moose. Your driver will be highly familiar with such places, raising your chances again of having the best wildlife viewing. Seeing animals right on the road is far from rare especially in areas bordered by thick vegetation like Igloo Forest where the animals such as bear and moose come out into the open.

While the Big Five – the largest mammals here – are typically top of the list for most people there are all kinds of other smaller animals and birds you may get to see too. In total Denali is home to 39 species of mammal which include marmot, fox, hare, porcupine, squirrel and beaver. It also has 160 species of bird which include the impressive raptors such as golden eagle and bald eagle.

Denali’s Flora

While everyone comes to Denali hoping to catch glimpses of its wildlife its flora also offers some spectacular scenes and, as with its wildlife, wildflowers are abundant in the park. In summer these plants transform certain parts of the park into carpets of color while other species are tiny, delicate and more hidden away. Fireweed is one of Denali’s most abundant species. Used for centuries by native people as a nutrient-rich food source, this showy vibrantly-pink flower is still harvested today to make a spicy honey and syrup which you may encounter on sale in various Alaskan stores and gift shops. While entire meadow areas or stream-banks might be colonized by this plant and make for an incredible display in summer fireweed also grows in seemingly endless swathes along the park road, inflaming the verges with a sea of pink and making for a beautiful sight.

Otherwise Denali is home to about 1500 species of wild flower and plant which range from the blues and purples of lupine, forget-me-not and wild iris to the vibrant yellow of goldenrod and Alaska poppy which you will see in kaleidoscope swathes and stretches as you pass through the park.

Hiking Denali National Park

While a bus tour provides your best chances of seeing the park’s birds and animals there are also plentiful opportunities for hiking which may also reward you with wildlife sightings. Hiking is popular in the park and truly offers something for everyone. It has a collection of marked trails which range from the short and scenic stroll to challenging climbs which take many hours but additionally it offers a vast wilderness area in which to go off-trail and seek ultimate adventure.

Many of the best shorter trail-marked hikes are accessed from either the main visitor center or the Eielson Visitor Center. These either offer utilitarian trails like those linking points such as the Wilderness Access Centre (the bus depot) and the sled dog kennels or those which take you away from the areas of activity and instantly immerse you in solitude and tranquility.

Overall options are highly varied, covering different terrain types and with the levels of difficulty and time commitment needed varying considerably. Among the shorter walks are the 0.9 mile section of the Taiga Trail which takes you through forest to Horseshoe Lake where moose are frequently found at the water’s edge, the 0.6 mile Mountain Vista Trail, the 0.8 mile Thorofare Ridge Trail with its stunning Denali views or the 2 mile Savage River Loop which is a mellow riverside stroll in an area known for abundant wildlife.

Many who visit Denali guide themselves but there is also ample opportunity to join a ranger led nature or discovery walk. These are an excellent choice for those who either feel more confident in the company of a knowledgeable guide or want to learn more about the history and eco-systems of the park.

Denali National Park Highlights

The best way to take in as many of the Denali highlights as possible is on a bus tour. Depending on your tour length the following are some of the major sights and stops you may have along the way besides the wildlife:

Savage Cabin

Denali is not just a wildlife and outdoor lover’s paradise but is also full of interest for the history and culture enthusiast with many inclusions on the National Register of Historic Places. Numbering around 180, the significant historical sites within the park boundaries include those related to prehistoric history, the Athabascan native people, mining history and places which date back to the park’s very beginnings in the early 1900s. One of these latter is the Savage Cabin dating from 1924 and once home to Denali’s original ranger.

Braided Rivers and Lakes

Denali has more than 12,000 lakes and almost 19,000 miles of rivers which means they will play a major part in your journey, frequently occurring in the scenery before you as you tour the park. The braided rivers – a common feature in glacier areas – are especially picturesque, forming as they do intricately weaving patterns of channels separated by thousands of tiny islands. Examples of this can be seen in many places including Savage River, the Polychrome Overlook and at Teklanika. Of the park’s lakes Reflection Pond is one of its most beautiful, so named for the incredible reflections of Denali found here which make for incredible photographs on clear and calm days.

Polychrome Overlook

Located at a height of 3,695 ft with mountains forming a backdrop and a braided river in the valley below you where bear, moose and caribou often wander, this lookout is a stunning spot. However, just to make it even more spectacular, Mother Nature has also painted the rocks here in multi-colored stripes.

Primrose Ridge

Situated at high alpine level, this spot is often frequented by Dall sheep and is a great place to see delicate-looking alpine wildflowers in spring and summer.

The Denali Visitor Center

Serving as the park’s main visitor center, this information-rich facility offers cultural, historical and natural history insight into the park’s story through interactive exhibits and on-site rangers. During your visit you will have the opportunity to watch the 20 minute ‘Heartbeats of Denali’ screening with its fantastic cinematography of season changes, wildlife and landscapes set to a musical sound track.

The center also hosts an artist-in-residence program with a variety of talented writers, composers or artists bringing their own distinctive brand of creativity to the park for ten days at a time. The program’s aim is to allow visitors to explore and experience Denali in different ways. As such, previous exhibitions have included, for example, beautiful eco-art pieces sculpted from trash and where anybody could bring a piece of discarded trash they found in the park to make their own artistic creation.

The Eielson Visitor Center

Smaller than the main center, this building is literally built into the hillside which, along with its tundra roof, makes it blend into its surroundings. Highlights here include the interlocked moose antlers, a 3D model of the park and a small art gallery. Located at high elevation and just 33 miles from Denali, the Eielson Visitor Center offers some of the most spectacular views of the mountain giant which can be found anywhere in the park.

Dinosaur Tracks

Back in 2005 the first dinosaur track was found in Denali near Igloo Creek – a 9 inch three-toed footprint made 70 million years ago. Since then hundreds more tracks have been discovered in various areas of the park, some of them so clear they show traces of claw and skin impressions. The Cabin Peak track site is considered one of the greatest examples of dinosaur tracks found anywhere on Earth and shows that these duck-billed dinosaurs traveled in family groups. In 2018 a woolly mammoth tusk was also uncovered at Denali – the first ever found here.

Glaciers

Around 1 million acres of Denali is covered by the creeping ice rivers known as glaciers. Much of the Denali landscape has been carved out by these ice giants as they carry rocks and debris along with them, scooping out valleys as they advance. While many are remote and can only be experienced through wilderness hiking or flightseeing tours there are others which can be glimpsed from the park road.

Sled Dogs

Any major highlight of a visit to Denali (and not just for animal lovers) is the sled dogs. Far from being simply a tourist attraction, Denali’s huskies are rangers themselves, protecting wildlife and providing a crucial means of getting around in winter to maintain the park in conditions that would otherwise make many places inaccessible.

Throughout the summer free 30 minute demonstrations are staged three times a day to show park visitors how the dog and human teams function together. Once the displays are over you are welcome to come and meet the dogs and even tour the park kennels. This latter is not just restricted to demonstration times but open from 9am to 4.30pm and also where you can view live web cams of this year’s puppy litters.

Ranger Talks

During the summer informal ranger talks are held in an open-air amphitheater at the McKinley Chalet Resort at least once a day. Quite what the subject of a talk may be will depend on the day of your visit but range from general themes covering park life for rangers, wildlife and landscape to more specific talks such as an in-depth look at glaciers or bears.

Beyond Denali – Talkeetna and Fairbanks

While Denali is beyond doubt one of the state’s most precious jewels, outside of the park there is also much in store for those looking for Alaskan experiences and adventure. Two of these destinations serve as gateways to Denali – Fairbanks from the north and pretty little Talkeetna from the south.

Talkeetna

Charming in the extreme and representing what is perhaps most people’s quintessential image of an Alaskan town, Talkeetna is small in size but big on character and charisma. Founded on a gold-mining past and more significantly the railroads, Talkeetna offers something highly picturesque or scenic no matter where you look. Soaring Denali dominates the panoramic backdrop while the town itself is a series of historic and highly photogenic cabins, stores and inns, many of which date back to Talkeetna’s very beginnings in the early 1900s.

Among the tiny town’s most important buildings are the flower-draped Nagley’s store which has been serving customers since 1921, the Roadhouse which was built as a private home in 1917 and became a travelers’ inn in the 1940s and the old school house which now houses a museum.

Talkeetna is home to an incredibly large number of artists and craftspeople whose exquisite creations can be found in a wonderful selection of shops and galleries as well as the artisan market which is set up daily in summer. Talkeetna is a great destination if you are on the hunt for souvenirs, gifts or something one-of-a-kind to display in your home.

As well as being known for its art Talkeetna is also something of a destination for those to whom no travel is complete without the inclusion of great food. Restaurant and cafe choices range from cozy cabins to fine dining establishments and offer everything from hearty pub fare to high quality seafood and gourmet dishes. With its own brewery and distillery too you will have plenty of choice for locally sourced liquid refreshment.

Quite what you spend your time doing here will depend on how much energy you want to commit but there is a wide choice of wonderful ways to fill your day. Possibilities include scenic hikes, a self-guided walking tour of the historic buildings, jet boating on the rivers, dog sledding, flightseeing and zooming down ziplines in the forest.

Fairbanks

At the opposite end of the scale to quiet little Talkeetna is Fairbanks – second in size only to Anchorage in Alaska and the state’s only interior city. Fairbanks grew from the hordes which arrived during the early 20th century gold rush and leftovers from these days can be found everywhere – from rusting mining relics to historical cabins and buildings.

A decided mix of old and modern, Fairbanks is home to several excellent museums including the award-winning University of Alaska Museum of the North with its million+ exhibits and the vast Pioneer Park which was opened in the 1960s to mark the centenary of Alaska being sold by the Russians to the United States. Between them these museums offer the visitor a journey through history encompassing the early native people, natural history, the gold mining era and much more.

Fairbanks offers a diverse menu of things to see and do including historical tours, wildlife viewing, hiking with reindeers and dog sledding.

One of the most popular activities in Fairbanks is touring its river – the Chena – which weaves its way right through town. Around 100 miles in length, this river has played a significant role in the city’s history and forms an essential part of its culture. Guided cruises along the river allow you to learn something of the area’s absorbing history while also offering the opportunity to spot some of the area’s wildlife such as fox and moose. Some of the boat cruises also make stop-offs on route to visit such places as dog-sled kennels, villages and points of historical significance.

If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Denali National Park in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!

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