Alaska Road Trip: One-Day Guide to Denali National Park

Denali National Park | Introduction

Denali National Park is arguably the most famous attraction in Alaska. Covering over 24,000 square kilometers, it retains a largely undeveloped and pristine ecosystem where rare wildlife can be frequently seen. The park is home to North America's highest peak, Denali, though it was still officially referred to as Mt. McKinley when I visited.

The best seasons to visit Denali National Park are summer and fall, as other times of the year have unsuitable weather. Because fall weather can be highly unpredictable and it can snow early in the season, most visitors choose summer.

Despite its fame, the park doesn’t see as many visitors due to its remote location. There is only one road leading into the park, and driving from Anchorage takes about five hours each way. We stayed two nights near the park, but with driving time, we only had one full day to explore. Despite the long travel time, visiting Denali National Park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and absolutely worth it.

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Denali National Park | Transportation

Although we drove to the park, personal vehicles are only allowed to drive about 15 miles into the park during the summer. To explore further, you need to take the official park buses.

There are two types of buses, one is the cheaper shuttle bus, and the other is the tour bus. Tour buses include explanations, while shuttles do not. No matter which type of bus you choose, there are different fares for different destinations. There are four stops on the route, from near to far are Toklat River, Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake and Kantishna, please see the detailed route. the official website.

Since we only had one day, we chose to go to Eielson Visitor Center. Although it’s a midpoint stop, the round trip still took eight hours. The final stop, Kantishna, would have taken eight hours one way. For those wanting to explore Kantishna, camping in the park for at least two days is recommended.

The shuttle buses are green and easy to recognize. With a valid ticket, you can hop on and off at any stop within your ticket's range. Most people suggest taking an early bus straight to your final stop and then stopping at intermediate points on the return trip to avoid full buses later in the day. We woke up at 5 AM to catch the earliest Denali Shuttle bus. Even though shuttle bus drivers don’t always provide narration, our driver shared quite a bit of information.

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It’s important to register your return bus time upon arrival at your destination. We only discovered this on our return trip and ended up waiting for about forty minutes, missing three buses. We saw two cyclists waiting even longer because not all buses can accommodate bicycles.

Denali National Park | Accommodation

There are no lodges inside Denali National Park; camping is the only option within the park. The nearest accommodations are outside the park, about a 15-minute drive from the entrance. There are many lodging options in this area, so just ensure that the hotel you choose has convenient access. We stayed at the Denali Park Hotel, which had convenient transportation and was close to nearby restaurants.

Find a stay in Denali National Park:

Denali National Park | Attractions

Denali Park Road

Taking the bus into Denali Park Road offers fantastic scenery throughout the journey, with the driver allowing stops for photos. As rumored, our shuttle bus driver also provided frequent commentary, especially at key scenic points, slowing down to give everyone the best photo angles.

Entering deeper into the park, it’s clear why private vehicles aren’t allowed. The only road is narrow and winding, especially challenging for those used to wide roads. Melting snow creates uneven surfaces, making some turns nerve-wracking. But the challenging environment offers expansive, breathtaking views.

Besides enjoying the scenery, spotting wildlife is a major highlight. The driver advised us to keep our eyes peeled and shout for a stop if we saw animals since the driver must focus on the road. Spotting wildlife is a shared responsibility among all passengers.

We saw many antelope and a few bears, and on the return trip, we had a close encounter with a fox walking in front of the bus. We also saw a big-horned buck and an eagle under a bridge. The driver mentioned that the eagle’s nest had been there for days, but it was his first time seeing the bird at home.

Most wildlife sightings were distant, requiring binoculars for a good view. We didn’t bring binoculars, but a kind passenger behind us frequently lent us theirs, which we greatly appreciated.

Polychrome pass

Summer in Denali is pleasantly cool, with sunny days feeling refreshing, neither hot nor cold. Although the bus drove to the final stop, there were one or two rest stops along the way for about ten minutes each. Polychrome Pass was one such stop. Here, we found a short trail leading up a small hill, offering beautiful views of the snowy mountains opposite. The year-round snow caps and vast plains below are typical of summer in Denali.

Eielson Visitor Center

Four hours later, we reached our destination, Eielson Visitor Center. Most visitors brought sandwiches for lunch, taking a break here to eat before exploring. There are many trails nearby, and ranger-led tours in the afternoon, allowing visitors to choose according to their preferences. The visitor center offers a clear view of the spectacular Mt. McKinley.

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Hiking Trail | Eielson Alpine

Behind the visitor center is the Eielson Alpine Hiking trail (now apparently called Thorofare Ridge Trail), considered difficult and not on the official recommended trails list. After chatting with a ranger, we were encouraged to try it as it was said to be manageable for young people and very scenic. Feeling confident and inspired, we embarked on what we thought was a simple hike but turned out to be a three-hour strenuous trek. Our legs were sore afterward, and later we learned that the trail is indeed difficult.

Despite the challenge, the trail was incredibly beautiful, offering expansive mountain views and a unique sense of achievement. From the peak, we could gaze at the majestic Mt. McKinley. Though the weather was cloudy, we were lucky to catch a brief glimpse of the peak when the clouds parted.

Hiking Trail | Tundra Loop

In front of the visitor center, two shorter trails, Tundra Trail and Tundra Spur Trail, collectively called Tundra Loop, cover about 1/3 mile. Despite our tired legs from the previous hike, we decided to tackle this easier trail, offering similar views of Mt. McKinley from a slightly closer and different angle.

Entrance Area | Horseshoe Lake Trail

Near the Denali National Park Visitor Center, several trails are accessible without needing the shuttle, as this area is relatively small. After dinner at 8 PM, with daylight still bright (it’s summer in Alaska, after all), we set off to hike the Horseshoe Lake Trail.

Starting from the visitor center, we followed the Taiga Trail, connecting to the Horseshoe Lake Trail. The trail is quite long, with the initial part being easy, but descending to Horseshoe Lake involves a steeper section. Hiking here in the evening, we saw many animal tracks, with deer often emerging for dinner. Although we followed fresh moose tracks for a while, we didn’t see any moose. After reaching Horseshoe Lake, we turned back. Though the photos suggest broad daylight, it was nearly 11 PM. In Alaska's summer, the challenge isn't darkness but maintaining the energy to keep exploring.

Denali National Park | Dining | Prospectors Historic Pizza

For meals, visitors need to go to nearby towns, where summer tourism means crowded restaurants. Opposite our hotel, Prospectors Historic Pizza is probably the best-rated restaurant around. The pizza is excellent, and they offer free WiFi. We dined there both nights, finding it busy even past 11 PM. The first night, we ordered an Elk Crossing pizza. The second night, with more time, we enjoyed Hard Apple Ale, Alaskan White Ale, Calamari, Buffalo Wings, and a special salmon pizza.

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Elk Crossing

Further reading

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