For many travelers, a trip to Alaska wouldn’t be complete without a visit to world famous Denali National Park and Preserve. But this Traveling Mom has been there twice. She says there are better ways to see Alaska, especially if you’re traveling with kids. This list lays out the pros and cons of a visit to Denali National Park. What would you choose to do?
The Wonders of Denali National Park
Encompassing more than 6 million acres, it is the 3rd largest park in the US. Denali is most famous for the mountain bearing the same name, which is Athabascan for “the high one.” Up until two months ago, the mountain was known as Mount McKinley in honor of the US President at the time the mountain was discovered by a gold prospector in 1897.
My husband and I visited Denali 15 years ago and again this summer with our two little ones (ages 4 and 8). Based on our two trips, here are some thoughts on whether making the trip to Denali is worth the effort:
Pros of a Visit to Denali National Park
- Lots of Wildlife. Denali is home to all the primary land mammals of Alaska, including bear, moose and caribou (wild reindeer) and during the bus tours of the park, you have the chance of viewing any of these animals during your visit. We met many other travelers who had just disembarked from an Alaskan cruise and loved seeing Denali – the scenery, moose and even the bears and Dall sheep dotting the hillsides way in the distance made their visit worthwhile.
- Beautiful Vistas. When visible, the Denali mountain, the highest peak in the US, is an extremely impressive sight, with its ever present snow-capped peak. There are several specific locations throughout the park, including Wonder Lake and Eielson Visitor Center, where you have the best chance of viewing this spectacular mountain (both locations are more than 50 miles into the park). Airplane tours are also available; they can give you a good feel for its size and how glaciers formed its topography.
- Freedom to Explore. Denali provides an unusual opportunity for adventurous backpackers. There are no trails, designated routes or backcountry campsites, so hikers can choose their own paths to follow and tent sites (with ranger assistance). We met a party of young adults from Australia who had been backpacking in Denali for several days. They loved the freedom to wander at will, enjoying the scenery and wildlife sightings.
Cons of a Visit to Denali National Park
- Limited Visibility. Denali peak is, unfortunately, is hard to see. It’s partially visible less than 30% of the time, and chances of seeing the summit are much less than that. During our visit 15 years ago, we only saw part of the base of the mountain. Despite taking the longest shuttle bus tour for this trip (12 hours in total, all the way to mile marker 92, the end of the main road in Denali), we were unable to get one glimpse of the mountain itself – a huge disappointment .
- Restrictive Tour Bus Rules. We found both the Denali tour buses and shuttle buses (the only two options to visit the park) to be restricting with small children. That’s because you are only able to disembark every 1.5 hours, and only for a short time. The tour buses have a driver who also acts as a narrator, providing history and details on the park and the animals that call it home. The tour includes a boxed lunch, but it costs more than 3x the price of the shuttle bus ($165/adult versus $52.50/adult). So we opted for the shuttle bus. It drove along the same road and children rode for free (we brought along our own food and a guidebook to give us some history of the park). We would have much preferred to use our own car, enabling us to stop for scenery or wildlife whenever we wanted.
- No Way to Get Close to the Animals. Given the huge size of the park, there is no guarantee of wildlife sightings, particularly anything up close. Both little ones became restless after the first hour (especially as the closest animal we saw was a moose, which we had already enjoyed seeing along the Kenai Peninsula in southern part of Alaska). The bears, caribou and particularly the Dall sheep were so far away that not even our high-powered binoculars made them feel close.
- It’s a Long Drive to Get There. Denali National Park is hundreds of miles from the closest major city (Anchorage or Fairbanks). That means it takes the good part of one day just to reach the park (either via the Alaska Railroad or by car). For all the effort we expended getting there, we felt that the wildlife viewing and scenery wasn’t worth the trip. But then, we had been lucky enough to have just visited the Kenai Peninsula, where we saw bears up close. (That’s where this photo was taken–not in Denali!)
In summary, if you are on a tour (as most visitors to Denali are) and Denali is included in the land portion of your itinerary, then you will enjoy seeing the park and the opportunity to see wildlife and hopefully spot the snow-peaked summit of the Denali. If, however, you are planning your own trip and are comfortable driving on your own in Alaska, then I recommend spending a few days driving along the beautiful Kenai Peninsula and admiring both the scenery and wildlife from a much closer vantage point along with other recreational activities such as fishing for salmon.
Adding Denali to your travels, with the extra expense of the round-trip transportation to and from the park, and the fact that you can only view the park from a bus, may not make it worthwhile. Should we ever return to Alaska, we would opt to skip Denali and spend more time enjoying the other spectacular sites that Alaska has to offer.