Denali Park Road (McKinley Park to Kantishna)

Denali Park Road Flyover  (5:12)

You’re sitting on the bus, binoculars in hand, heading into the heart of Denali National Park. You’re about to see a place where life continues as it has for thousands of years, without interference by man. It is not a zoo, and wild animals who live here set their own schedule. But if everyone on the bus keeps their eyes peeled, chances are excellent that it will pay off with wildlife sightings. Remember, there is no guarantee. But even if the only wildlife you see is a ground squirrel, the scenery alone is worth the trip.

It’s 92 miles and about 5 hours from the park entrance to Kantishna, the end of the Park Road. Private vehicles aren’t permitted after Mile 15, so you’ll need to take either the hop-on, hop-off park shuttle bus or one of the tour buses. The summer bus tours begin as early as May 20th, and a 7-hour half-day tour will take you for the first 53 miles of the road. Full-day 13-hour bus tours covering the entire 92 miles of Denali Park Road begin June 8th.

Bus trips into the park generally start at the Denali Bus Depot. Once you leave the bulk of development behind – the Alaska Railroad Depot, the new Murie Science and Learning Center – you’ll climb Government Hill. Look off to your left and you’ll see an expansive view that includes part of the Yanert Valley, which stretches through the Alaska Range. A tall railroad bridge spans Riley Creek. This is an often-photographed scene in August and September, when bright yellow and blue Alaska Railroad engines pull a line of railroad cars across that bridge, surrounded by gold foliage of Fall.

At 6 million acres, Denali National Park is the third largest park in the United States. Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park is a tad bigger and Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest.

Denali National Park can be divided into three sections:

  1. One third of the park is comprised of rock and ice, in high elevations, mainly to the south of the park road. There are few animals in that area.
  2. The second third of the park is boggy in low elevations, more to the north and west. There are a few species who make that area their home.
  3. The final third is high mountain passes and broad river valleys. This is where you are most likely to see wild animals. The park road goes right through this area.

The park road runs generally east and west, over four high mountain passes, all just under 4000 feet elevation, between Igloo at Mile 33 and Eielson at Mile 66. That might not seem very high, but at Denali treeline is at about 3000 feet. (In Colorado, dry tundra and alpine plants and animals begin at about 14,000 feet).

The road also takes you through the major vegetation zones of the park – taiga, moist tundra and dry tundra.

Enjoy the trip!

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Driving Guide Points

Riley Creek Camp­ground is a 147 site camp­ground locat­ed just inside the entrance to the park. 

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 1 mile

If you’re head­ed to the dog demon­stra­tion at the ken­nels, or if you just want to stretch your legs, try walk­ing this wide, com­fort­able trail through the for­est, up to head­quar­ters from the Vis­i­tor Access Cen­ter. It basi­cal­ly fol­lows the road, occa­sion­al­ly wan­der­ing out of sight of the traf­fic. Length: 1.8 miles Ele­va­tion: 300 ft. Time: 45 – 1 hr. one way 

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 6 miles

The first mile of this trail, which begins near the new Murie Sci­ence and Learn­ing Cen­ter, is mod­er­ate­ly steep, hik­ing through the for­est. The for­est even­tu­al­ly gives way to tun­dra. Trees turn to shrubs, and the land­scape opens wide. The last 1.5 miles are even steep­er. Your reward, how­ev­er, is sweep­ing views of the Denali Nation­al Park entrance area, the Nenana Riv­er Val­ley, Healy Ridge, and near­by alpine ridges. Those who want to climb to the  ...more

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 1 mile

This pop­u­lar trail attracts lots of folks, so don’t expect to be the only hik­er. It’s still worth the trip. The trail begins at Mile 0.9 on the park road near the rail­road tracks. You’ll walk on a devel­oped trail down to the lake. After you reach the Over­look, the trail drops steeply. Along the way, espe­cial­ly at the over­look bench, you’ll have a panoram­ic view of the Nenana Riv­er, the devel­op­ment called Glit­ter Gulch” right out­side the park,  ...more

In Sum­mer (mid-May to mid-Sep­tem­ber), The Denali Star Train ser­vices Anchor­age, Wasil­la, Tal­keet­na, Denali and Fair­banks. Depot closed in winter.

The Alas­ka Rail­road was respon­si­ble for open­ing this nation­al park to the pub­lic since it pro­vid­ed the only access to the park for many years. The Rail­road owned and oper­at­ed the McKin­ley Park Hotel from its ear­ly begin­nings and even­tu­al­ly turned over to the Nation­al Park Ser­vice for oper­a­tions. After a fire destroyed the hotel, rail sleep­er cars pro­vid­ed a nov­el lodg­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty for visitors.

The Denali Nation­al Park Vis­i­tors Cen­ter is actu­al­ly more of a cam­pus. The cen­ter itself is the main Nation­al Park Ser­vice wel­come and infor­ma­tion cen­ter and it is sur­round­ed by oth­er facil­i­ties that include a restau­rant, bookstore/​giftshop, bag check, bus stop and the Alas­ka Rail­road depot. 

It isn’t until you actu­al­ly dri­ve past the head­quar­ters area that you will begin to enter the wilder­ness for which you have real­ly come. Dur­ing the win­ter months, the road is closed at this point. Only non-motor­ized trav­el­ers, such as mush­ers and skiers can go fur­ther. This is taiga for­est, filled with white spruce and black spruce, inter­spersed here and there with quak­ing aspen, paper birch, bal­sam poplar and tama­rack. This is moose habitat…  ...more

Rock Creek is the first of many water­ways that the Denali Park Road cross­es. In con­strast to many glacial fed rivers, Rock Creek is con­tained in a defined chan­nel at this point. Just upstream of the bridge is C Camp, a main­te­nance site for the area that has had ongo­ing clean-up efforts to con­tain and dis­pose of con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil. 

Although most view­points along the Park Road can only be accessed by pri­vate tour bus­es or park shut­tle bus­es, you can dri­ve to this view­point (the first 15 miles are open to pri­vate vehi­cles). The dense spruce for­est opens up here, giv­ing you the first view of Denali, as it is called in the native Athabaskan lan­guage (for­mer­ly Mt. McKin­ley). The moun­tain is rough­ly 72 miles away and you’re only see­ing the top 8,000 feet or so. Still, it’s a  ...more

Both peaks of Denali (Mt. McKin­ley) are vis­i­ble to south­west, framed by Dou­ble Moun­tain and Sable Moun­tain. At this point on the dri­ve, taiga dis­ap­pears into tun­dra and waist-high thick­ets of wil­low and birch. That in turn stretch­es into alpine tun­dra that includes lichens and mosses. 

Difficulty: Easy

Orig­i­nal­ly con­struct­ed by the Alas­ka Road Com­mis­sion in 1924 – 1925, the Sav­age cab­in and inter­pre­tive trails are now used as part of liv­ing his­to­ry pre­sen­ta­tions in the sum­mer months. Dur­ing the win­ter the cab­in become strict­ly util­i­tar­i­an by pro­vid­ing shel­ter for patrols.

The Sav­age Riv­er was carved out by glac­i­ers, and as a con­se­quence it is a per­fect exam­ple of a braid­ed riv­er. The flat grav­el bars of the riv­er offer a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for an easy hike, and min­i­mize the chance of sur­pris­ing a bear or oth­er wildlife.

The Sav­age Riv­er camp­ground is laid out in a patch of trees that are just below the tree­line. Weath­er depen­dant, you can see Denali (Mt. McKin­ley) far off in the distance. 

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 2 miles

Either dri­ve your own car or take the free shut­tle 15 miles out the park road to the Sav­age Riv­er check sta­tion. This is a pop­u­lar hik­ing trail, and you won’t be alone, but at least you’re away from the entrance area and enter­ing the true wilder­ness of Denali Nation­al Park. This is a tun­dra walk on a devel­oped trail that fol­lows the riv­er. Good hike for kids, with pos­si­bil­i­ty of see­ing Dall sheep, mar­mots, and cari­bou. You can do a loop walk,  ...more

Difficulty: Moderate

This infor­mal hik­ing area begins at the Prim­rose rest area and heads up a gen­tle ridge until you reach the bench, which pro­vides panoram­ic views of the park. Wild­flow­ers are abun­dant in this area and usu­al­ly peak between July 20 and August 10.

Sanc­tu­ary Camp­ground is a 7 site camp­ground locat­ed at Mile 23 on the Park Road. It is open only to tent campers. 

Spindly spruce trees lean this way and that, look­ing as if they’re drunk. The actu­al cause of this odd align­ment has to do with their shal­low root sys­tems, which get read­just­ed by the near­ly con­tin­u­ous expan­sion and con­trac­tion of per­mafrost under the tun­dra sur­face. Per­mafrost is a lay­er of frozen ground, some­times more than 6 feet thick, that nev­er thaws. With­out it, much of the tun­dra would be com­plete­ly impassable. 

Teklani­ka (aka Tek”) Riv­er Camp­ground is can be found at mile 29 on the Denali Park Road. It is the sec­ond largest camp­ground in the park, offer­ing 53 sites for RVs and tents. 

Difficulty: Easy

Head either direc­tion on the Teklani­ka Riverbed. The riv­er bar is real­ly wide in this area so the going is gen­er­al­ly easy, even though you’re still below tree-line. Choose to go as far afield as you like. There are numer­ous route options.

This sec­tioned bridge sits at an ele­va­tion of 2,655 feet. Park at the rest stop a few hun­dred meters before the east edge of the bridge for great views of the struc­ture and the sur­round­ing area.

Igloo Creek is one of three tent-only camp­grounds in the park. Sit­u­at­ed right next to the creek, it is a great place to relax and enjoy the wilder­ness and the area around the camp­ground offers great hik­ing opportunities.

A great place to catch a glimpse of Dall Sheep, Igloo Moun­tain is also where the first dinosaur tracks in the park were dis­cov­ered. You can see them your­self, if you go on one of the many easy day hikes that start here.

Tat­tler Creek is named for the Wan­der­ing Tat­tler, a large shore­bird that you may be lucky enough to spot. The first Wan­der­ing Tat­tler nest known to sci­ence was found at Denali Nation­al Park. The first nests of the Arc­tic War­bler and Surf­bird were also found here.

Difficulty: Moderate

Pick up the trail right after you cross over Tat­ter Creek. Fol­low Tat­tler Creek upstream for 14 mile to a steep ravine that comes in from the left. Fol­low this ravine up until you reach a ridge that over­looks the Sable Pass restrict­ed area. If you only plan to spend time on the ridge with­out going far­ther afield you may want to stock up on water in the ravine because there are no sources on the ridge­line. From the ridge you can choose to…  ...more

Sable Pass on the Denali Park Road is a wildlife hotspot. The area is des­ig­nat­ed as crit­i­cal griz­zly bear coun­try in Denali Nation­al Park, so it is per­ma­nent­ly closed in order to pro­tect wildlife. 

Mile 43 Denali Park Rd, small cab­in is vis­i­ble down the embank­ment on the south side of the road

Poly­chrome Pass gets it’s name from the col­or­ful vol­canic rocks that you can see from the over­look, but the name could also be applied to the col­or­ful veg­e­ta­tion, streams, moun­tains and glac­i­ers that make this spot unique. This high over­look is a great spot to watch bears, moose and cari­bou from far enough away that you won’t risk dis­turb­ing them.

Denali Nation­al Park is full of rivers, with many of them orig­i­nat­ing from glac­i­ers. What makes these rivers spe­cial? Why are they braid­ed and what keeps them from just straight­en­ing out?

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 9 miles Elevation Gain: 3200 feet

This hike does not require cross­ing any glac­i­ers or dan­ger­ous streams, which makes for a good overnight hike for those who car­ry an overnight camp­ing permit.

Veg­e­ta­tion cov­er in Denali is always chang­ing. Find out why the forests around the Tok­lat Riv­er are chang­ing, and how the Park Ser­vice uses his­toric pho­tos to doc­u­ment these changes. Audio tour by Camp Denali Wilder­ness Lodge.

Not far from the Tok­lat Riv­er Bridge you’ll find your­self at the top of High­way Pass, the high­est point on the park road at 3,980 feet. The vis­tas are expan­sive and wildlife view­ing can be great. 

Cari­bou trails weave back and forth across the alpine slopes above Stony Hill. These trails are evi­dence of the sea­son­al migra­tion pat­terns of Denali’s cari­bou. Find out why cari­bou under­take this migra­tion, and where you can expect to find them depend­ing on the sea­son. Audio tour by Camp Denali Wilder­ness Lodge.

This is the most pho­tographed view of Denali (Mt. McKin­ley) from the road. You’re up high, at the edge of a moun­tain pass, and there’s alpine tun­dra all around, with the road snaking towards the moun­tain in the fore­ground. And this is the first spot where you can see the whole moun­tain from base to sum­mit. On clear days, Tun­dra Wilder­ness Tours will extend their trip sev­er­al miles just to reach this spot. Stony Hill is also a great place to…  ...more

The griz­zly bears of Denali can be found feed­ing in almost every cor­ner of Denali Nation­al Park. Ear­ly to mid sum­mer, these bears can be often observed from Tho­ro­fare Pass. What draws these adapt­able and per­sis­tent omni­vores to this high alpine envi­ron­ment? Audio tour by Camp Denali Wilder­ness Lodge.

Difficulty: Easy

Only 33 miles from the sum­mit of Denali, and at an ele­va­tion of 3300’, Eiel­son offers some of the most spec­tac­u­lar views of Denali (for­mer­ly Mt McKin­ley). There are many activ­i­ties you can do here, includ­ing ranger-guid­ed hikes up to near­by Tho­ro­fare Pass and self-guid­ed expi­ra­tion of the high-alpine tun­dra environment.

The fall moose rut is an unfor­get­table part of the inte­ri­or Alas­ka fall. In Denali, the Eiel­son vis­i­tor cen­ter gives vis­i­tors a year round win­dow into this dra­mat­ic event through the dis­play of two sets of inter­locked moose antlers. How did these antlers become locked, and what like­ly hap­pened to the two unlucky bull moose? Audio tour by Camp Denali Wilder­ness Lodge.   ...more

On a clear day, this stretch of the park road offers unpar­al­leled views of Denali and the oth­er high granitic peaks of the cen­tral Alas­ka Range. What role do glac­i­ers play in carv­ing out the ever grow­ing shape of this moun­tain range? Audio tour by Camp Denali Wilder­ness Lodge.

The 20 miles before Kan­tish­na offers views of hun­dreds of small ket­tle lakes. These lakes pro­vide crit­i­cal habi­tat for moose, birds, and beavers. What are these ani­mals after and how do the lakes pro­vide? Audio tour by Camp Denali Wilder­ness Lodge.

Only a few miles from the end of the Denali Park Road (85 miles in, about 5 hours by bus), this is the clas­sic Denali view from the north side, made famous by Ansel Adams’ pho­tographs. 25 sites.

Won­der Lake is a some­what unlike­ly lake. Learn how the lake was formed, and what makes it so unique.

An iron bridge cross­es Moose Creek here. If you take a moment to observe the creek you’ll notice that the rush­ing waters are clear and full of grayling, quite the oppo­site of glacial fed water­ways that appear milky due to the high sed­i­ment content.

Season: May 31 to Sep 9 $640/night all-inclusive packages

At Camp Denali, you’ll immerse your­self in a remote back­coun­try, but with a cozy bed to set­tle into each night. Take in the qui­et of the sur­round­ing wilder­ness and enjoy the sim­ple, sus­tain­able ameni­ties for around 38 guests. Here, the bal­ance of light touch on the land” and pro­vid­ing a com­fort­able stay is per­fect­ed. Refined rus­tic guest cab­ins, each of which claims a unique view of Denali, sleep from two to six people.

$560+ all-inclusive packages

Kan­tish­na is a his­toric gold­min­ing dis­trict in the back­coun­try of Denali Nation­al Park. Among the most remote areas of the park, you can stay in a cozy cab­in and spend your days play­ing, explor­ing and relax­ing in the wilder­ness. Kan­tish­na Road­house is the only lodge in the area with a full-ser­vice saloon.

Difficulty: Moderate

If you’ve ven­tured this far into the park, why stop here? In this area of the park you are encour­aged to use old min­ing roads and estab­lished trails to get around. Sky­line Dri­ve takes you up into the Kan­tish­na Hills, pro­vid­ing access to Quigley Ridge and the Wick­er­sham Dome. You will be pass­ing through chunks of pri­vate prop­er­ty that were grand­fa­thered into the park so it is best if you don’t leave the road until you are on the ridge. Once you…  ...more

There is gold in the hills above the his­toric set­tle­ment of Kan­tish­na. A com­par­a­tive­ly small gold rush in this part of Alas­ka indi­rect­ly fore­tells the estab­lish­ment of the orig­i­nal Mt. McKin­ley Nation­al Park. How did min­ing activ­i­ty near­ly push wildlife pop­u­la­tions to the brink? Audio tour by Camp Denali Wilder­ness Lodge.

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