Denali National Park Itinerary: How to Spend 5-Days in Denali

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Serene Horseshoe Lake reflection in Denali National Park Alaska

Are you looking to explore one of the world’s largest and most legendary national parks? We explored the depths of this vast national park with endless exploration. Follow our full Denali National Park itinerary to maximize your excursion.

Denali National Park in Alaska is breathtaking and enormous, making trip planning here difficult. With so much to see, having a Denali National Park itinerary before you visit is important to ensure you see all the best spots.

Whether you have one day or several, you can optimize your trip to Denali to see the top sights. Here’s what we recommend.

Before You Go: Learn About Denali National Park

Denali National Park Sign

Before you go, decide what type of experience you want. Are you an experienced hiker? Book a bus into the deep parts of the road and launch from there. Are you a family traveling with kids? Rent a car and stick to the easy trails near the Visitors Center.

The Denali National Park is accessible by a 96-mile road that goes through the park. You can drive a private car on the road up to mile 15 at Savage River, but from there, you need a very rare permit, or you have to join a tour.

If you intend on camping or backpacking, permits are often required. The park requires permits because they educate you on interacting with wildlife – think bears! – before you venture into the wilderness.

It’s important to remember that Denali is huge and truly wild. You can encounter bears, wolves, moose, caribou, and smaller animals like beavers at any time. Being prepared is important. With so many experiences at Denali, you can choose what to do to make your trip memorable.

Packing List for Denali National Park

The best advice for packing for Denali National Park is to be prepared. The weather can change fast, so it’s best to pack light but cover all your bases. Here’s what we packed:

Looking for a full list? Check out our full Denali National Park packing list to ensure you have all the right gear.

Denali National Park Itinerary

Getting to Denali National Park

Alaska Railroad in Denali National Park

Denali is located in the middle of Alaska, which makes it tricky to get to. The nearest (large) airport is Fairbanks, about two hours away by car. We flew into Fairbanks and took this shuttle. It was inexpensive and efficient because it picked us up at our hotel in Fairbanks and dropped us off at our hotel in Denali. 

Another way to get to Denali is by the Alaskan Railroad. This is one of the best experiences you can do in Alaska. The train is a bit pricey, but the views are worth it. 

You can board the train as far south as Seward, go through Anchorage, and up to Denali. The train also runs south from Fairbanks to Denali. The train drops off at Denali National Park station, and most hotel shuttles will pick you up from there. 

Check out our full Alaska Railroad experience from our YouTube channel if you’d love to see more.

Where to Stay in Denali National Park

Denali, Alaska Aerial

Denali has dozens of campsites in and around the park if you want to camp. But there are many great options if you prefer a hotel or resort. We stayed at the McKinley Chalet Resort. If you want to learn more about our stay, read our full review of McKinley Chalet Resort for insights into our experience.

It worked out great because they are only a 7-minute drive from the park entrance, and they had shuttles running every half hour. The resort also had a restaurant open all day and a number of cute shops.

McKinley Chalet Resort

For a full list of places to stay, check out our recent article on the best places to stay in Denali. Here is a quick video summary of several activities that we did during our time at Denali.

See Related: Best Things to Do in Fairbanks, Alaska

Day One: Denali Visitors Center, Horseshoe Lake Trail, and Sled Dogs

On your first day at Denali, it is important to get familiar with the park. Most hotels in the area provide shuttles to the Visitors Center so it is easy to stop and visit.

Hike Horseshoe Lake Trail in Denali National Park

Serene Horseshoe Lake in Denali National Park, Alaska, reflecting spruce forest and mountains.
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

You must put the Horseshoe Lake trail on your Denali National Park Itinerary! No matter how much time you have at the park, this trail is perfect for hikers of all ages and abilities.

Horseshoe Lake Trail is on mile 1 of Denali Road, which makes it the easiest to get to. The trail is about 2 miles round trip (it is a circle trail) and takes about an hour and a half to two hours to hike.

There is one large, steep hill (downhill on the way there, uphill back) other than this hill. The trail is easy. And if you’re not into hills, there is a bench right before it that overlooks the lake, so you can hike to that spot and back pretty quickly and take in all the views!

After descending the hill, you will hike through forestry, mossy grounds around you with tall pines, and eventually hit the lake. You will also pass by the Nenana River.

Horseshoe Lake - Denali National Park

The trail around the lake is cool. Stop and see a huge beaver dam and some beavers! Also, keep an eye out for moose. They are quite common here. This trail is less likely to have bears because it is so popular. The Horseshoe Lake Trail is a great spot to begin your visit to Denali.

The Visitors Center at Denali National Park

Moose and Calf Near Denali Visitors Center
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

The visitors center is home to the park rangers and a number of activities. Depending on your interests, you can spend 5 minutes here or 5 hours! We recommend stopping in and talking to a park ranger about your plans.  When talking to the park rangers, ask all your questions. The rangers are knowledgeable and there to help. 

We were lucky to see a mom and baby moose when we visited the visitors center! They were strolling along the trail next to the visitors center, very close to us, and stopped to chew some sticks.  Moose frequent the visitors-center area because humans are around, meaning fewer bears.

See Related: Things to Do in Anchorage, Alaska

Visit the Denali Sled Dogs

Denali National Park Sled Dogs

Get ready for some furry friends! Sled dogs are an important part of Alaskan culture, and the sled dog team at Denali National Park is open to the public, so you can get your pets in.

The sled dogs are about two miles from the visitors center. Typically, a shuttle runs from a visitors center to the kennels, but you can also walk (or bike) there. The round-trip walk along the roadside trail takes about an hour and a half if you are a fast walker.

We walked the trail from the visitors center to the sled dogs because the shuttle wasn’t running. When visiting the sled dogs, you get to walk through their kennel area and gently introduce yourself to them. The dogs will come up to you for pets when they are ready.

The park’s “canine rangers” will tell you about the dogs and help you safely meet them. And they teach you about mushing! If you plan, you can see a demonstration. Check the sled dog website to see what time demonstrations are happening.

See Related: Best Winter Travel Clothes

Day Two: Go Deep into Denali

Wonder Lake, Denali National Park
Credit: National Park Service

For day two of our Denali National Park itinerary, we recommend going far into Denali.  The most accessible way to get deep into Denali is through a tour. You can opt for fully guided tours or take a bus that drops you off and hike from there. Some spots are our Teklanika, Tolkat River, Thorofare Pass, Eielson Visitors Center, and Wonder Lake.

We hear that the best spot is Wonder Lake, which is at mile 85 — yes, that means 85 miles from the entrance! Wonder Lake was closed when we visited, but if you can, find a tour to take you there. 

Some tours allow you free time at different road stops to hike, while others are fully guided. Decide which one is best for you, and enjoy the ride!

If you do not want a tour and instead prefer being dropped off, there are a number of different buses that will take you to various campsites on the road. You can get dropped off here and hike from there. Just make sure that you have a permit if it is required. 

See Related: Best Places to Visit in Alaska

Day Three: Take a Helicopter Ride to the Glaciers, Enjoy Local Restaurants

Alaska is gorgeous from the ground but even more breathtaking from the air. One of the best ways to see the Alaskan Range is by taking a helicopter ride. 

Yanert Glacier Landing with Temsco

Helicopter tour passengers over Denali National Park, Alaska
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

We took Temsco Tours from Denali Park and landed on the Yanert Glacier. The helicopter ride took just under 3 hours roundtrip, including spending time on the glacier.

The tour takes off from Denali Park Village, a street lined with fun restaurants and souvenir shops. Your captain will explain all the details before you take off. You see many different terrains in the air, including rocky cliffs, snow-capped mountains, and everything in between. If you’re lucky, you can see wildlife too.

The most amazing part is landing on the Yanert Glacier. Temsco provided glacier shoes so you can walk on the glacier and even drink some water from the source! The glacier landing is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and definitely worth the cost.

Explore Local Restaurants and Shops

Magic Bus at 49th State Brewing
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

When you return from your helicopter flight, you will still have most of the day available. Now is the perfect time to explore local shops and restaurants.

If you have a car, drive up to 49th State Brewing in Healy, AK. Their beers are phenomenal. You absolutely must try the Smōk beer. I dream about this beer a month after our visit.

49th State Brewing also has the “magic bus” used in the Into the Wild film on site. You can go into the bus and snap some photos. Closer to Denali, there are a number of great spots to try. Our top two recommendations are Prospector’s Pizza and Moose-AKa’s.

We frequented Prospector’s Pizza, which has 49 beers on tap and great pizza and bar food. The bartenders are great to talk to while you watch the bear cam from the NPS.

Moose-AKa’s is a small, family-run restaurant specializing in Serbian food and imported wines. We were impressed with their staff, menu, and quality of the dinners. The atmosphere was also welcoming and cozy.

MooseAKAs - Denali, Alaska
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

You will also find souvenir shops along the Denali Park Village street, a popcorn and ice cream shop, Chinese food, and bodegas to get everything you need. After riding on a helicopter, you will definitely enjoy a tasty beverage and a good meal here!

See Related: Things to Do in Juneau, Alaska

Day Four: Denali Highway

Jeep on Denali Highway

Of course, you could spend every day in a different part of Denali National Park, but there is also a lot to see outside the park. One day, we rented a Jeep through Jeep Excursions.

The guy who ran it told us to take the Jeep on Denali Highway in Cantwell, about 30 minutes from the park entrance, and it was one of our favorite experiences.

The road – which is mostly gravel – goes on for hours and hours. It was the original access point to Denali National Park in the mid-1900s. Now, it is the road less traveled, which is perfect for nature lovers.

We recommend coming here early in the morning with all your supplies. It is a very remote road and often without cell service. You could easily spend three days driving, stopping, and camping, so be prepared to stop often!

We were on a time crunch and only made it about 30 miles in, but it was breathtaking. Our favorite part was this lake, where swans were floating. The Denali Highway is the perfect spot to connect with nature while having the comforts of your car nearby.

See Related: Best Breweries in Fairbanks

Day Five: Get Back into Denali National Park

Denali National Park Aerial
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

It’s time to return to the park for this Denali National Park Itinerary. Since you have spent time at the village shops, on a helicopter, and driving down the gravel Denali Highway, it’s the perfect time to return to the park for more hiking and sightseeing.

Start the day hiking the Triple Lakes Trail. This is the longest trail in Denali at 9.5 miles, and it takes about 4 to 5 hours. But it begins near the visitor’s center, so getting started is easy. In the afternoon, join a ranger-led discovery hike or do more hiking trails around Savage River.

The ranger-led discovery hikes are a great option for families and those with less hiking experience. The ranger will teach you about the park and guide you through the wild Denali terrain.

Ranger-led adventures vary from moderate to strenuous and can even include large river crossings. Signing up in advance for a ranger-led hike that meets your experience is important.

Hiking around Savage River is also a popular way to spend a few hours. You can hike the Savage River Loop Trail, which is 1.7 miles long and takes under an hour to complete. This is a nice, easy hike after the longer Triple Lakes Trail.

Related Resources

Kyle Kroeger
WRITTEN BY

Kyle Kroeger

Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He's a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he'd heard.

Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he's learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.

He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time. Read more about his portfolio of work.

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