Looking to explore one of the largest and most legendary national parks in the world? We explored the depths of this vast national park with endless exploration. Follow our full Denali National Park itinerary to make the most of your excursion.
Denali National Park in Alaska is breathtaking and enormous, which can make planning a trip here difficult.
With so much to see it is important to have a Denali National Park itinerary before you visit to make sure you see all the best spots.
Whether you have one day or several, you can optimize your trip to Denali to see top sights. Here’s what we recommend.
Table of Contents
Before You Go: Learn About Denali National Park
Before you go, decide what type of experience you want. Are you an experienced hiker?
Make sure to 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 close 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 how to interact 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 get to pick and 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 have all your bases covered.
Here’s what we packed:
- Travel insurance (the best option for National Parks and adventures is by far World Nomads)
- Waterproof hiking boots (best women’s options, best men’s options)
- Smartwool hiking socks
- Base layer top (for men, for women)
- Warm sweater (for men, for women)
- Base layer pant (for men, for women)
- Switchblade (for the more serious hikers)
- Sunscreen (very important!)
- Bear spray
- Protein bars and snacks
Getting to Denali National Park
Denali is located in the middle of Alaska which makes it kind of 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 directly 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 so 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.
Where to Stay in Denali National Park
If you are looking to camp, Denali has dozens of campsites in and around the park. But if you prefer a hotel or resort there are a ton of great options.
We stayed at the McKinley Chalet Resort. 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.
For a full list of places to stay check out our recent article on the best places to stay in Denali here.
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 off and visit.
Hike Horseshoe Lake Trail in Denali National Park
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 the 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) but 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 quick and take in all the views!
After descending down the hill, you will hike a bit through forestry, mossy grounds around you with tall pines, and eventually hit the lake.
You will also pass by the Nenana River.
The trail around the lake is really 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
The visitors center is home to the park rangers and a number of activities. You can spend 5 minutes here or 5 hours depending on your interests! We recommend stopping in and talking to a park ranger about your plans.
When talking to the park rangers make sure to ask all your questions. The rangers are knowledgeable and there to help.
When we visited the visitors center we were lucky enough to see a mom and baby moose! 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 there are humans around which means less bears.
Visit the Denali 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 takes about an hour and a half if you are fast walkers along the roadside trail.
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 the dogs. The dogs will come up to you for pets when they are ready.
The park’s “canine rangers” will tell you all about the dogs and help you safely meet them. And they teach you about mushing! If you plan ahead, 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
For day two of our Denali National Park itinerary we recommend going really 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 you can hike from there.
Some spots to try and visit are Teklanika, Tolkat River, Thorofare Pass, Eielson visitors center and Wonder Lake.
We hear that the best spot is Wonder Lake that is at mile 85 — yes that means 85 miles from the entrance! Wonder Lake was closed when we visited but if you have the chance, find a tour that will take you there.
Some tours allow you free time at different stops along the road so that you can 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 camp sites 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
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.
In the air you see so many different terrains including rocky cliffs and 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 glacier water right from the source!
The glacier landing is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and definitely worth the cost.
Explore Local Restaurants and Shops
When you get back 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 – they have 49 beers on tap and really 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.
Along the Denali Park Village street you will also find souvenir shops, 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: 10 Best Things to do in Juneau, Alaska
Day Four: Denali Highway
Of course, you could spend every single day in a different part of Denali National Park, but there is also a lot to see just outside of 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 if 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.
Our second favorite part was this overlook:
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, Alaska
Day Five: Get Back into Denali National Park
Its time to go back into 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, its the perfect time to go back into 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 it is easy to get started.
In the afternoon, either join a ranger-led discovery hike or do some 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. It is important to sign up in advance for a ranger-led hike that meets your experience.
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 and takes under an hour to complete. This is a nice easy hike after the longer, Triple Lakes Trail.