When we started our journey to Alaska, one of our top priorities was to be able to spend some time exploring Denali National Park and hopefully seeing the evasive Denali. Of course, seeing some wildlife wouldn’t hurt, either! We hadn’t done much research on the park beforehand, so we were going in a little blind. It worked out well for us!
A Beautiful Untouched Wilderness in Denali National Park
Denali National Park is different than any other national park that we have been to in so many great ways. With only about 500,000 visitors per year, the park is not very crowded at any point in time. Even while we were there over their busiest weekend of Fourth of July weekend, we never felt like there were too many people. That’s a nice change from most national parks!
The only way to go into Denali National Park past mile marker 15 is by bus. There are tour buses as well as shuttle buses that go into the park. The main difference between a tour bus and a shuttle bus is with the shuttle bus, you can get on and off as you please. A tour bus goes into the park, gives you a full narrative tour, and then takes you back (of course with some stops for breaks, etc). So with a tour bus, you are not able to hike more than just right around the rest stops. On the other hand, shuttle buses allow you to get on and off as you please after you have gotten on at your scheduled time. Just holler “STOP” whenever you want to hop off. When you are ready to get back on the bus, head to the road and waive one of the green shuttles down. If they have room, they’ll pick you up. If not, you just wait for the next one.
Denali National Park is also one of just three national parks participating in the pilot Zero Landfill Initiative, sponsored by Subaru. This initiative implements increased recycling and composting options for guests, as well as increased education to guests regarding what can and cannot be recycled. There are less trash cans in the park and more recycling bins in their places. Even the shuttle buses have recycling bins onboard, making it very easy for guests to be more responsible in their waste disposal. Even with less trash cans around, Denali National Park was the cleanest national park we have visited thus far. It’s amazing what a little bit of education and proactive planning can do to change behaviors!
Finally, the most different thing about Denali National Park as opposed to any other national park that we have been to is that it is a trail-less wilderness. This means that there are very few man-made trails in the national park. Rather than create trails for visitors to hike, Denali National Park encourages visitors to get off the trails and explore on their own. While this seemed counter-intuitive at first, it makes sense to us now.
By encouraging off-trail hiking, Denali’s wilderness remains seemingly untouched by humans. One person walking on the grass in an area doesn’t damage it any more than a caribou walking on that grass. What damages the tundra is when people walk on the same grass over and over, eventually killing it. In fact, Denali even encourages you to spread out while hiking in a group, so as not to develop a social trail. We put this to the test when we explored Stony Point Overlook. After walking for a bit and stepping on willows and flowers, we looked behind us to only discover that we couldn’t even tell where we had stepped! The flowers, willows, moss, and soil all seemed untouched. Denali is onto something here!
With less people, less trash, and less trails, Denali is so much more than your average national park. It’s truly an untouched wilderness, teeming with wildlife and nature. When you visit Denali, you are sure to have a one of a kind experience!
Denali Mountain: Viewing the High One
A quick little history lesson for you: Denali (the mountain) was originally named as such by the natives who lived in the area. Denali means “The High One” in the native tongue of Koyukon. The mountain was unofficially renamed Mt. McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector to commemorate President William McKinley. The name was never official as either Denali or Mt. McKinley, although official documents referred to it as Mt. McKinley. Alaskans, mountaineers, hikers, climbers, and nature lovers everywhere have continued to refer to the mountain as Denali rather than Mt. McKinley out of respect for its original name. In 2015, President Obama officially changed the name of the mountain back to its original name of Denali. Thanks Obama!
Approximately 50% of mountaineers who attempt Denali actually summit. While that’s a pretty good percentage for a very difficult mountain, it is still not an easy feat. Many very experienced mountaineers have died climbing Denali. The weather on Denali is unpredictable and very dangerous. It is considered in the ranks of K2 and Everest as far as mountaineering climbs. To date in 2016, there have been 1016 climbers attempt to climb Denali and just over 60% have successfully summited.
Viewing Denali, even from inside the park, is not guaranteed. The mountain is only visible about 20% of the time due to the weather. While the forecast while we were in Denali was less than spectacular, we lucked out BIG TIME! The first night in our campground, another camper walking past told us that the mountain was visible. Sure enough, we hiked out to a higher point and saw her! We then hopped in the car and drove to a higher point on the road to snap some very evasive Denali pictures. Of course, we also had to do our signature pose, #imPRESSiveAdventures, in front of the mountain!
Getting to see Denali in all her glory was a spectacular experience. The vast landscapes surrounding this massive mountain makes you feel so small. We were awe-inspired to say the least! Since we know that not everyone who goes to Denali gets to see her, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have snapped those photos and sat and enjoyed the views. As the highest peak in North America, she sure is grand! Being able to experience these amazingly awe-inspiring landscapes is exactly why we do this. We want all of our fans and readers to see these places through our eyes and be inspired to get out and experience it for themselves.
Reservations in Denali National Park
We realized while we were in Fairbanks that we were going to be in Denali National Park over Fourth of July weekend and we didn’t have reservations. We just don’t usually do reservations anywhere, as that is not our style. However, we were worried we wouldn’t be able to camp in the park, as the campgrounds fill up fast. There are three campgrounds that are accessible to RVs inside the park. While our first choice would have been Teklanika (or Tek for short), we were not able to get reservations there with only two days’ notice. We were, however, able to get two nights at Savage River Campground due to a cancellation. We lucked out on that!
Our first choice would have been Tek, as it is deeper into the park. In fact, you need a special permit in order to even drive your vehicle that far into the park! The campground we ended up staying at was on the very edge of where you are allowed to drive in the park, at Savage River Campground. Savage River Campground is $28 per night for a rig 35+ feet long, which was totally worth it to us for the two night we were able to snag. There are no hookups, but there are picnic tables and fire rings at the campsites as well as restrooms and water in the center of the campground. The tall trees in the campground were gorgeous for camping but not so great for solar power!
Getting the reservations was just a matter of continually checking the website ReserveDenali.com to see if anything was available. There’s no need to call the park to see if there is anything, because they are just looking at the exact same website linked above. They were not very helpful when we called. But, when you keep checking, you’ll see the moment a spot gets cancelled so you can jump on it! The moral of the story: make reservations if you can, but if you can’t make a specific commitment that far out, just wait and keep checking the reservation website to see if you can get in!
Wildlife Viewing in Denali National Park
There is a plethora of wildlife sightings that can happen in Denali, and you are almost guaranteed to see some form of wildlife. From ground squirrels to doll sheep and caribou to grizzlies, there is a lot of potential to see some wonderful things. The shuttle buses double as tour guides and point out wildlife they see while driving as well as stop for sightings that others point out. When wildlife is spotted, the driver will pull over and allow you to take plenty of pictures before heading down the road. This is part of the reason why the drive out to the Eilson Visitor’s Center takes so long!
On our route, we spotted five grizzlies (3 adult and two cubs), a fox, a moose, some doll sheep (although they were too far off to see more than a white dot), and several caribou. We were very pleased with the wildlife viewings we were able to see and get pictures of along the way! Here are some of the pictures: