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Covering 6 million acres (2.4 million ha) of Alaska’s interior wilderness, Denali National Park is a haven of nature and home to North America’s highest peak. Sitting roughly 4 hours to the north of Anchorage, the park draws visitors from near and far for its mountains, gorges, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, and forests. The park is home to a wide variety of wildlife including caribou and sheep, while the nearby towns of McKinley Park and Talkeetna offer rustic lodges, casual eateries, and old-timey taverns. Whether you want to hike magnificent Denali, soar over glaciers on a sightseeing flight, or join a ranger for a wilderness walk, Denali is an oasis of adventure for lovers of the outdoors.
Denali National Park — First established in 1917, Denali National Park—formerly Mount McKinley National Park—is a vast expanse of wilderness bisected by a single 92-mile (148-km) road. The landscape varies from low-elevation forest to high alpine tundra, eventually culminating in the park’s namesake peak. For the truly daring, you can put your outdoor skills to the test by scaling the mountain to a height of over 20,000 feet (6,190 m). However, for those not interested in climbing, the park offers other recreational activities as well. Hike a range of trails for various skill levels, cycle the road to a selection of lookouts, or wander the forest in search of wildlife such as bears, caribou, wolves, and sheep. In the summer, the Denali Visitor Center offers dogsled demonstrations, ranger-led walks, and amphitheater programs, while the winter is the ideal time to visit if you want to snowmobile or snowshoe. From the entrance at the park’s northeast border, you can board a shuttle for Denali, join a narrated bus tour, or learn more about the wildlife at the science center. Within the park itself are lodging options including campgrounds, secluded lodges, and backcountry cabins.
Denali State Park — Situated between the Talkeetna Mountains to the east and the Alaska Range to the west, Denali State Park lies directly to the southeast of the much larger national park. Sitting in the shadow of Denali and her neighboring mountains, the park provides visitors with recreational opportunities from roadside camping to wilderness exploration. Dominating the diverse terrain are the Curry and K’esugi ridges, a 35-mile-long (56-km) north-to-south strip that serves as the backbone of the park.
McKinley Park — Lining the northeast edge of Denali National Park, McKinley Park is a census-designated place with homey lodges, creekside cabins, and tour companies running ATV and river-rafting adventures. Just north of the park’s main entrance, find dining options that include a pizzeria, steakhouse, salmon bake, and sandwich shop. After exploring the park by day, the Princess Wilderness Lodge and McKinley Chalet Resort both offer evening entertainment like dinner theater and live music.
Talkeetna — Lying roughly an hour south of the park, Talkeetna is a former gold-mining town that maintains much of its early Alaskan personality. Log cabins and cottages line its quiet dirt roads, while Downtown on Main Street are roadhouses, souvenir shops, and a selection of rustic restaurants. On the east side of town, find a handful of companies offering tours that range from jet boat adventures to sightseeing flights. In the warm weather months, the west side is where locals and visitors alike go to soak up the sun and relax on the Susitna River.
Scope out the most majestic views of Denali National Park on a sightseeing flight over its mountainous landscape. Board an 8-seater plane and grab a spot near the window as your pilot gets ready for takeoff. Once in the air, marvel at the sights as you fly over the winding rivers of the Susitna Valley and into the craggy elevations of the Alaska Range. With your pilot providing commentary on the region’s stunning natural features, gaze down upon ancient glaciers, granite gorges, frozen waterfalls, and snow-blanketed slopes. Admire breathtaking views of Denali’s sister peaks—Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker—and then fly further into the alpine tundra on the north side of the park. Bask in bird’s-eye views of the cliffs and couloirs of the Wickersham Wall before touching back down on ground.
There’s no end to the outdoor adventure to be found in Denali National Park. On a tour from the Visitor Center, embark on a wilderness walk led by a ranger, or hop on a bus for a full-day tour to the old gold town of Kantishna. As you drive, keep your camera handy to snap photos of scenic sites like Reflection Pond, with snow-capped Denali glistening in the distance.
If you prefer to explore on your own, the park has many recommended trails with different lengths and difficulty levels. On the moderate Rock Creek Trail, you can hike from the Visitor Center to the kennels to watch a sled dog demonstration, or take the shuttle to the start of the Savage River Loop for an easy trek to the bridge that crosses over the creek. For one of the most challenging hikes in the park, begin back at the Visitor Center for a trek that takes you 1,700 feet (518 m) up the face Mount Healy.
Of course, the ultimate expedition is a climb up to the summit of Denali. Grab a group of fellow mountaineers for a strenuous hike that covers an elevation change of up to 13,000 feet (4,000 m). Hikes with an expert guide can also take place through 1 of 6 authorized services, including the Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna.