Denali National Park, there is a reason this park is so iconic. The Northern Lights, dog-sled teams, and Mt. McKinley will draw more people annually than any other park in Alaska. No matter how long you spend here, I am convinced there is always something new and exciting to experience.
We last left off in Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, much more remote and rugged in comparison with Denali. Fortunately, Denali is much more accessible than those parks and no bush-planes or boats are required for entry. We were able to drive from Anchorage to Denali in about 4 hours.
Camping is the best way to save money and make the most of your time in the parks. Summer is the most crowded time in the parks, so at times it can be challenging to find an available site. It’s best to check in advance if you can make a reservation, but many places don’t accept reservations. It can be a hassle to get a spot in a first-come-first-serve campground during the summer and spring. Waiting for campers to leave their site in the morning and then swooping into their spot usually works but sometimes it gets so busy, even this fails. Be ready to get up early and wait in line to purchase a spot if you come at the very busiest of times with no reservation. We stayed at Riley Creek campground and were able to get a spot with no reservations, but we arrived at the end of the busy season so there was less competition. There were showers close-by and a small store with WiFi.
We use the website freecampsites.net to keep our travel budget low. Usually, inside the parks they do not allow camping in non-designated areas without a permit, but while we are on the road outside the park we use this site almost every night. It is quick and easy, providing locations and reviews of free camping areas around the world. This site is mostly just for car or trailer camping, but if you are a permanent vagabond like us, this site is an absolute life (and money) saver.
We took this photo on the Savage Alpine Trail which has an amazing view of Mt McKinley. The trail is 4 miles each way and fairly steep, but definitely worth the hike for the view and for the chance to see animals. There are plenty of easier hikes, especially for anyone trying to see as much as they can during a short trip. Most start around the visitors center. A relatively short hike of 1.5 miles leads to see the sled dog kennels, one of my favorite parts of the park. If you are really pinched for time, consider reserving a float trip, you can move a lot faster and see a lot more, especially wildlife.
The National Parks get a lot of traffic in the summer. It can be hard to find parking at trailheads and the places you came to see. To avoid the headache and the wasted time there are buses that tour the park you can reserve in advance. There is also a free shuttle run by the Parks Service that goes to all the trailheads. We used the shuttle for all of our hikes, it saved us a lot of time and it was fun to spend the day exploring and hiking without worrying about our car.
Summer is the best time to visit the parks for more reasons than just the weather. It is a fantastic time to view wildlife. When we made our trip in early September, baby moose were a pretty regular siting. We caught this shot of these brother moose enjoying their lunch while we were driving on the main road. Denali is also in no shortage of bears, elk, ptarmigans, hawks, and all of the amazing Alaskan animals we loved seeing on our trip. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready in the early morning and late afternoon, when they come out to find food. Most animals avoid the hottest parts of the day, so that will be your best chance.
One of the greatest moments of the entire trip was getting to witness the Northern Lights. There is a website that predicts the probability of seeing them, like a weather forecast. We used this site and bundled up in blankets at 2:00 A.M. three nights in a row waiting with our camera for the lights to appear so we could get this shot. Even though it took us a couple of tries to finally see them, the wait was worth getting the rare opportunity to see the lights. This is one of the only parks far enough north to have a good chance of seeing them.
On the occasions that we find ourselves in areas that allows drones, the results are amazing. National Parks don’t allow any drones, so this photo was taken outside the park. The lakes here are the bluest I’ve ever seen. The clean water and white sand contrast each other to create the most pristine looking lakes I have ever seen.
We had the good fortune of also visiting right as the leaves began to change color, in early September. It was really beautiful to see the leaves change, but try to plan your trip before Labor Day. After Labor Day, most restaurants and stores in the area close and it will be harder and more expensive to find food, lodging, and essentials.
This crazy journey through Alaska has certainly had its ups and downs, but it has really been the experience of a lifetime. Next time we will be going to Glacier Bay National Park. The last stop in our Epic Alaskan Adventure! Have a great week everybody and thank you for sharing our adventure with us!