What to Do In & Around Denali National Park Alaska
People looking to visit Denali National Park in the summer and stay at EarthSong Lodge have one thing in common with all other park visitors…they want to know what to do, where to go, and how to best experience the park. With the great variety of park visitors, from organized cruise ship tour groups to independent travelers, there is also a variety of answers to that question. But visitors staying at EarthSong Lodge are generally cut from a different cloth than the casual national park tourist, so this short piece will be geared towards them.
Average park visitors stay in the Denali area for 1-2 nights, but at EarthSong it is usually 2-4 nights. Our guests have a greater drive to see more of what the park has to offer. It seems reasonable to give a national park the size of Denali, six million acres, at least two or more nights for your discovery. After living in the area since 1982, I still find things to discover in this amazing place.
Above all, the number one activity at Denali for EarthSong guests is taking a shuttle bus into the park interior. This is the best way to see wildlife and the rugged terrain of the park. Summer tourists have a choice of guided tour buses or shuttles, and for independent travelers and families, along with hikers, the shuttle is by far the best option. All buses travel the same park road, and all stop equally for wildlife. What you get with a shuttle is flexibility to extend your day (get off and go hiking or picnicking) or shorten your day, and not be locked on to a bus for the entire trip. Shuttles are far less expensive, so for groups and families it makes even more sense.
How far into the park on the shuttle you go depends upon what you want to do. An eight hour round trip to Eielson Visitor Center is the minimum recommended length, and to shorten that trip would result in lowering chances of seeing wildlife. An eleven hour trip to Wonder Lake is the longest you need to consider. The best hiking is in the middle of the park, between Igloo Campground and Eielson Visitor Center, so if you are going in specifically to hike, plan your bus accordingly.
Reservations for shuttles are recommended, and you need to be prepared for the trip. Bring appropriate clothing, food and drink, and things to keep young children satisfied. The bus trip is long, but it shouldn’t be dismissed…there is no other alternative to the bus for excellent wildlife viewing. Most people only do the bus for one trip.
A second day of activities is usually made up of a few things found between the park entrance and Mile 15, where the road restrictions begin.
Visitors can do a mixture of day hiking and paid activities. Great day hikes include Savage River Canyon and Mt. Healy Overlook, and a trip up Primrose Ridge can be considered if you want something that will take up the day, and get you close to Dall Sheep. Whitewater and flatwater rafting is offered by many companies for trips down the Nenana River, and is a great run and excellent value. Flightseeing around Denali National Park and Mt. McKinley is one of the best scenic flights anywhere in the world. There is a choice between fixed-wing airplanes and helicopters, and I would strongly recommend the fixed-wing option. You can see much more of the park and actually fly around Mt. McKinley, so save the helicopter flight for another park or Hawaii. The staff at EarthSong are happy to make rafting and flight seeing reservations for our guests, and we can help you a bit by checking weather forecasts before booking.
Longer hikes are available in the park interior, from long day hikes to overnight backpacking trips. Day hikes are relatively easy to arrange, with no permit required. On the other hand, backpacking overnights require permits, bear resistant food containers, and entering into the difficult-to-negotiate Denali National Park Backcountry Quota System. If you are looking to go into the backcountry before and/or after a stay at EarthSong, talk to Jon when you arrive and he can give you more specific tips about places to go and how to deal with the quota system.
Many guests participate in ranger-led activities, such as evening programs and ranger-led hikes. A stop at the park visitor center is an excellent idea, and there you can see what is on the schedule for the upcoming week.
We have a few good activities at EarthSong that would warrant an extra day in the area. At the lodge itself we offer daily sled dog kennel tours, free to our cabin guests, every morning. Evening slide shows at the coffeehouse are a nice way to enjoy dinner or an evening snack. Day hiking on the tundra is difficult if you are looking to make mileage, but excellent if you wish to check out life on the permafrost…a must for all naturalists! Most guests looking to do some hiking in the area will drive to the pullout above 8 Mile Lake, at the end of our road, and go walking down the old mining trail. The pullout there is the best view of the Stampede Valley, and a view of Mt. McKinley when the clouds are thin.
But we cannot forget berry season! Mid-July will find the Cloudberries in season. An historically important berry for natives, our area has some of the greatest concentrations of cloudberries in the Interior. Some natives will set up camps and pick for a week, filling five gallon buckets. Blueberries come out by the middle or end of August, and we usually see a great crop. Low bush cranberries are ripe around Labor Day.
For late-summer and fall visitors, EarthSong has the best location in the park area for viewing Northern Lights. By the end of August, we are starting to see the night sky again, and many of our guests staying for at least a few nights have been rewarded with the Lights after midnight. For most people, seeing them in the fall is a better option than coming back up in January!
Denali National Park has so much to offer, so when planning a trip here you should consider being fair to yourselves and allotting enough time to get a flavor of the park. Karin and I, along with our staff, are committed to helping you get the most from your short visit. Come stay with us and let us show you why we live in the Denali neighborhood.