Denali National Park and Preserve was the first leg in our expedition as the Nation’s Vacation Ambassadors. We are so thrilled to share our journey with you!
Follow in our steps:
We drove our van to Seattle and left it in the self-park Park-N-Fly lot off of International Boulevard. It was $9 a day. They don’t take reservations but we didn’t have a problem finding a spot. We arrived just as a shuttle was departing but another one showed up about ten minutes later. If you find yourself waiting, pick up the phone in the middle of the lot and call the dispatch center to find out how much longer you will have to wait and/or to get them to send a shuttle your way.
We flew Alaskan Air from Seattle to Anchorage and from there, rode with a friend who had secured a rental car. From the airport to Denali Park Village, it was about a 4 hour drive (232 miles). We ended up taking a bit longer to get there because we wanted to tour through downtown Anchorage, stop for photos when we saw something cool and grab lunch in Talkeetna (all of which we would recommend you doing if you have the time!)
Once you make it to Denali Park Village you can pretty much park your car and leave it parked. Denali Park Village offers shuttle bus services that go between the Wilderness Access Center and the Denali Visitor Center/Alaska Railroad Train Depot. Guests just need to show their key card to the driver and show up for the bus about five minutes before departure (the buses leave Denali Park Village every hour on the hour starting at 6am and ending at 6pm). **Be sure to pick up the most recent and accurate schedule from the lodge.
General Info for Denali National Park and Preserve
Denali Visitor Center
Mile 1.5 Denali Park Road
Denali Park, AK 99755
Open every day of the week from 8:00am to 5:00pm during the summer only (May through mid-September). The Denali Visitor Center closes on the third Wednesday after Labor Day each year.
Eielson Visitor Center
Mile 66, Denali Park Road
Denali Park, AK 99755
Like the Denali Visitor Center, this one is also only open during the summer. It opens a little later (June 1) and closes two weeks after Labor Day each year. It’s hours are 9:00am to 5:30pm daily.
(907) 683-8900 Denali Park Village Front Desk
Denali National Park: http://nps.gov/dena
Denali Park Village: denaliparkvillage.com
Best Things to Do in Denali National Park
Tundra Wilderness Tour
This is easily one of the coolest things to do in Denali National Park. In fact, many would call it the quintessential activity to do when visiting. The tour takes place on a tan bus with comfortable seats and big, clean windows. While on the eight hour tour, you’ll hopefully spot all kinds of wildlife. We saw six bears, several caribou and even a couple of sheep. It was an incredible day for animal sightings. We also got a peek at Denali itself, making us part of a small group of people, about 30%, who actually get to view the mountain.
One of our favorite parts about this tour was not only the access to parts of the park that people can’t drive to but all of the learning that took place. Our guide had been driving the route for about 18 years but had been living in Alaska for over 30. He shared stories about everything from biology to geology to history with us. In addition, when we would spot an animal, he would grab his video camera and zoom in on it so that we could see it up close on the monitors above our heads. How cool is that? We snapped so many photos on the Tundra Wilderness Tour and would do it again in a heartbeat.
ProTip: Order a bag lunch from Quigley’s Coffee Cart (more on how to do that below) the night before so that you have ample food for the day. The tour comes with a box of snacks and a water bottle but it may not be enough to keep your energy up for 8 hours.
We were super excited (though admittedly a little nervous!) to go rafting. It turned out to be an amazing experience. The lodge will transport you via bus to Explore Denali. There you’ll meet your guide and will get outfitted in a dry suit and helmet. We thought the outfits were hilarious but they actually kept our clothes dry and more importantly protected our bodies from the shock of the cold water which is about 36 degrees and can quickly lead someone to getting hypothermia, even in the summer, pretty quickly.
After getting dressed, we were given a quick guide on what to do (hold onto the rope, keep our body in the boat) and what not to do (fall out). Then, before we knew it, we were hopping into the boat and our guide, Nick, was leading us down the river! We went through what the guides call a “mild” section of the Yanert Valley but it was a total adrenaline rush for us. Though we screamed and laughed much of the time, we never once felt like we were in danger. It was the most controlled thrill we’ve had in a long time and a great introduction to what rafting is like. Oh and for those of you who love to take pictures, be sure to bring a waterproof camera along as you will get some great shots of the canyon as you run the rapids.
Denali Guided Hike
Hiking is a regular part of our life so we were eager to get out and explore Denali on foot, especially with a local guide. We chose an early morning hike so the light would be soft and good for photos. We left the lodge in a sweet van around 7:30am, drove a little ways down the road to the trailhead and then walked about 1.2 miles along the Three Lakes Trail to Lake No. 1. Along the way our guide, Richard, shared his knowledge of plants, animals, habitat, geology and pretty much anything else we asked him. He was a total treat and really made the trip enjoyable.
Best Place to Stay in Denali National Park and Preserve
When we visited, we stayed in Denali Park Village. The lodge is situated super close to the park, just a little over six miles from the entrance. We found it to be an excellent base camp for adventuring and would stay here again in a heartbeat.
The lodge itself is a great place for meeting new people or hanging out with the ones you’ve arrived with. It’s set up with a comfortable arrangement of tables, chairs, checkers and a fireplace; great for gathering any time of day or night. (We found it to be particularly cozy in the evenings.)
In addition to having a great common area, the lodge is also home to the Lucky Miss Saloon, the Gold Rush Dining Room, and the Summit Gift Shop and Quigley’s Coffee Cart. (Just as an FYI, Quigley’s serves Starbucks.)
We stayed in Room 732 which is a king sized room with a view of the Nenana River. Our building had a laundry room in it, great for those who want to travel with minimal clothes. There was a nice sized porch with a couple of chairs and a table, great for watching the sun rise. There’s also a coffee maker with Alaskan coffee in the room (it was roasted in Juneau!) which we found to be delicious (nice and strong just like we like it).
Surprisingly, there was WiFi and it worked without a hitch in the building where we stayed as well as the lodge and the Miner’s Plaza area. We know some of you love to go “off the grid” when you travel and we don’t blame you. But for those of us who need to work while on the road or stay in touch with family, the WiFi connectivity was a HUGE bonus. In addition, the lodge has a couple of computers set up for guests to use in case they chose to leave their own device at home.
Where to Eat in Denali National Park
Gold Rush Dining Room
If you’ve been following our adventures, you know that food is a big deal for us and we’re often thinking one meal ahead. Alaska was no different. If anything, we worked up an even bigger appetite than normal because we were moving around so much.
This is the place to be pre and post-adventure. They’ve got something for everyone at every meal.
There’s a breakfast buffet that opens at 5:00 am which has an omelet station, granola and yogurt with fresh fruit (the strawberries and raspberries were super fresh and delicious), scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, an assortment of breads, cold cereal and of course freshly brewed coffee and tea.
As for the dinner menu, there are several options to choose from, many of which use local ingredients. The restaurant supports the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program and uses “Best Choice” listed seafood. They also make a point to support local vendors and farmers. That way, you can feel good about the food you are eating.
We enjoyed the pan-seared halibut with roasted tomatoes, brown rice and warm Alaskan crab on top as well as the salmon. The salmon was also fresh and delicious. It was served on top of skin-on mashed potatoes and fresh carrots and asparagus. Both fish were cooked perfectly. In addition to the actual flavors, the ambiance was top notch. Not much beats a healthy, filling meal with a view of the river and mountains in the background.
In addition to the food, we also enjoyed local Alaskan beers on tap. They were cold, refreshing and flavorful.
Cabin Nite Dinner Theater
Entertainment with your meal? In an old-time setting with a story about Alaska? Yes, please! We didn’t really know what to expect when we heard there was a dinner theater on the property but we went with open minds and ended up having a blast. We arrived a few minutes before the doors opened and out came a cast member who gave us a rhyming introduction to the evening followed by an a cappella song from the entire evening’s cast. Shortly thereafter, we were being seated by a cast member at a picnic table and introducing ourselves to our “family” for the evening, others who had decided to enjoy Cabin Nite.
Our server was a really nice and personable guy who also happened to be from North Carolina. We were super impressed with his ability to not only serve our dinner quickly and efficiently but also shift into character after the meal was over and sing and play guitar!
If you’re thinking, ah, I don’t want to suffer through some cheesy cabin nite, try to put that thought on the back burner and give it a shot. We genuinely laughed out loud several times during the evening when the cast got the audience involved. They seemed to have a knack for selecting people out of the crowd who would play into their surprise roles. In addition to the laughter, we were really impressed with how talented they were.
As for the meal, it’s served family style and is all you can eat. We filled up on salad with ranch dressing, BBQ ribs, corn, wild Alaskan salmon, baked beans, mashed red potatoes, biscuits and berry cobbler (okay maybe we had seconds of the cobbler.) There’s also a bar in the cabin serving beer and wine.
The smells coming out of Miner’s Plaza are so alluring that you might just find yourself wandering towards The Shack without quite knowing why. Don’t be surprised, if, when you get there, you’re pulled inside The Shack and find yourself ordering a burger. They’re juicy and made fresh daily. There’s a little bar for eating inside The Shack as well as one outside. There’s also additional seating in a building next to the Outdoor Stage. This place is the perfect place to satisfy a burger craving or get a bite between meals. (They also serve Alaskan salmon burgers, turkey burgers and chipotle black bean burgers as well as beer and wine.)
If your nose doesn’t lead you to The Shack, follow the signs to Miner’s Plaza. There you’ll find fresh-made donuts, ice cream and several other little shops filled with sweet treats.
Quigley’s Coffee Cart
Located just inside The Lodge, Quigley’s serves Starbucks coffee as well as ice cream and fresh baked goods. It’s also the place to submit your box lunch order for the Tundra Wilderness Bus Tour. If you need a caffeine pick me up to get your day started or to keep you going, be sure to stop by here. They’re open from 5am to 9pm.
As mentioned above, Quigley’s Coffee Cart is the place to submit your box lunch order. What will you need a box lunch for? Probably the most common reason for requesting a box lunch is the Tundra Wilderness Tour. You’ll be out on an adventure for most of the day and though the bus offers snacks, your energy might get low if you don’t order a box lunch. If you want one, be sure to fill out an order slip by 8pm the night before and take it to Quigley’s. It’ll be waiting for you the next morning with your name on it.
Lucky Miss Saloon
This is the bar located within The Lodge. It’s technically part of the Gold Rush Dining Room but if you’d like to sit at the bar it can offer you a bit of a different experience. Guests can still order Gold Rush Dining Room food from the bar. FYI: There are TV’s at the bar. Keep this in mind if you’re trying to avoid the TV or you are wanting to check in with the news, sports, etc.
Tips for Visiting Denali National Park
They say that location is everything. This is so true at Denali. We highly recommend staying at Denali Park Village so that you are within close proximity to the park and can maximize your time in the outdoors. In addition, they have food and places to get ice cream and a nice, cold draft beer which means you don’t have to get in your car to get a bite to eat. If that’s not enough to convince you, the staff is friendly, the rooms are super clean and there are a ton of activities for you to do, all of which are just steps from your room.
Check the weather before you visit and pack accordingly. Though it was late August when we visited, we mostly wore pants, flannel shirts and down jackets while in Denali. Comfortable hiking shoes are also a necessity as you will most likely be doing more walking than normal.
Pack a camera, there are some incredible photo opportunities in the park!
There is an ATM in the lodge in case you run out of cash but everywhere we went took credit cards.
If you are driving, fuel up sooner rather than later! We happened upon one guy at a rest stop at 5:00 am who had run out of fuel and didn’t have a cell phone signal. This isn’t like the rest of the USA where gas stations and cell service are a given. Top off before it’s too late.
This is bear country. Be sure to be bear aware and carry bear spray if you will be hiking in the backcountry. (Guided hikes mean your guide will have bear spray with them.) To learn more about bear safety click HERE.
Denali National Park and Preserve Recap
We had a blast in Denali National Park and are eager to return. If you get the chance to go, we highly recommend it!
Up next? Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve!
Erin McGrady and Caroline Whatley are writing as Ambassadors for the Nations Vacation. To follow along on their expedition, check out @NationsVacation on Instagram as well as their own social media handles.