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Alaska - Denali Tours Tips & Photos

Updated on July 6, 2016

Denali National Park: A Must See Family Vacation

Don't miss visiting Denali National Park when you tour Alaska! If you take one of the popular Alaskan Cruises, the land portion is an add-on, but it is the best part! I have taken the cruise but exploring the inland areas of Alaska is unforgettable. I was so fortunate to work at the McKinley Princess Lodge for two summers and able to see Denali in all seasons. I just want to share some of the amazing photography opportunities I had with you. Even if you can't get there this summer, you can do some armchair traveling today. Welcome to my happy place -- Alaska!

Mt Denali - Northside View from Denali Park

On a clear day. Take the bus tour into the National Park.  Go as far as possible for views of the Mountain, called McKinley and now officially Denali.
On a clear day. Take the bus tour into the National Park. Go as far as possible for views of the Mountain, called McKinley and now officially Denali. | Source

Where is Denali?

The entrance to Denali is on Alaska Highway 3 (also called the Parks Highway) about 240 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks. Many locations in Alaska use a highway mile marker to denote their physical address. Denali's entrance is at Mile 237, Highway 3. Denali Park is easy to find, there is only one highway to get there and only one road into Denali National Park.

If you come from Anchorage you will want to stop and see the small town of Talkeetna. It is about 100 miles north of Anchorage and 140 miles south of the park entrance, you'll find Denali's mountaineering headquarters there at the ranger station. Be sure to see the short video on mountain climbing.

You can also get there on Alaska's award winning railroad that connects Anchorage to Fairbanks. It runs right through Denali station where you get off. For more visit the Alaska Railroad.

Tip: The food on the train is first class. I recommend the fruit pie for dessert!

A Bus is the Only Way to Tour the Park


Which Tour to Take

There are 3 choices for bus tours into Denali Park. These school type buses travel mostly on dirt roads that are steep, dusty or muddy depending on the weather. It is an adventure!

The Natural History Tour is not far enough into the park to see much in the way of animals or get to see the mountain. Take one that is longer, the Tundra Wilderness Tour or take the longest one, the Kantishna Experience Tour to see the most in Denali National Park.

Although this is a great family vacation for older children and family reunions, it is really hard on the small children. There are just too many hours on buses and trains with too much time sitting for them to be happy.

You will most likely see Caribou, they are sometimes called reindeer but that is not technically true. Both sexes grow antlers, though sometimes during pregnancy the females don't grow antlers. Males have larger antlers and they grow new ones each year.

Often you will see the Grizzly Bears though everyone needs to look closely to spot them on the hillsides. The bears are busy searching for food, mostly berries. They are smaller in Denali than in places where Salmon are their main source of food. They are brown to blond in color.

Tip: Bring an warm all-weather jacket because the windows are open on the buses in order to see and photograph the animals.

Caribou Sleeping in the Heat of Summer

| Source

Ptarmigan - State Bird of Alaska

Sometimes called the snow chicken,
Sometimes called the snow chicken, | Source

Tundra Wilderness Tour is the Minimum

At the very least take the Tundra Wilderness Tour offered May 20 to mid-September. It is a 7-8 hour school bus excursion into the park with a driver-naturalist. It goes to at least Toklat River (mile 53). The tour provides information about the history of the park, while in search of wildlife and photography opportunities. (It is where I photographed the bears)

In spring and fall, a shortened version of this tour is offered, called the Teklanika Tundra Wilderness Tour. It travels 30 miles into the park to the Teklanika River rest stop. This option is only available when the full-length Tundra Wilderness Tour is not running.

Tip: A box lunch and beverages are provided, but I would recommend bringing more snacks and drinks to supplement it. It is a long day!

Teklanika River in Fall

View from the first rest-stop of the river and bridge.
View from the first rest-stop of the river and bridge. | Source

Young Grizzly Bears at Toklat River

It was so thrilling to see these two bears playing along the Toklat River. We stopped at mile 53 for a rest-stop!
It was so thrilling to see these two bears playing along the Toklat River. We stopped at mile 53 for a rest-stop! | Source

Have you ever been on the Denali National Park Tour?

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Eielson Visitor Center - Take Kantishna Experience Bus Tour

Eielson Visitor Center has 2 trails this one is the short loop.
Eielson Visitor Center has 2 trails this one is the short loop. | Source

Kantishna Experience Tour

Located at Mile 66 on the Denali Park Road, you can reach Eielson Visitor Center with the Kantishna Experience tour bus. Two trails exist at Eielson, one a short loop and the other a strenuous path up Thorofare Ridge. The Mountain looks so close here.

Wonder Lake Campground is at mile 85 on the Denali Park Road. It offers 28 camping sites, which are all tent-only. Cloudy skies can obscure views, and mosquitoes can be fierce, but Wonder Lake on a clear day offers views that will last a lifetime. Wonder Lake is accessible by the green camper bus.

Tip: To locate and see the wildlife along the way bring some binoculars.

Go All the Way to Wonder Lake

Wonder Lake. Clouds moving in and wind ruffles the water.
Wonder Lake. Clouds moving in and wind ruffles the water. | Source

Manage Your Expectations for Denali - It Rains

Spring Colors in June


Once In a Lifetime Trip

Which season is the best? The weather is unpredictable in Alaska, especially around Mt. Denali. It creates rainy cloudy weather in a few hours. So to have the best odds of seeing the mountain and the wildlife; stay as long as possible, come to Denali National Park often and take the longest tour bus ride you can stand or ride the camper buses into the park.

While conditions are sometimes perfect there are many days of bad weather. I added the video of the bus tour to show that often the weather is not great. Sometimes you can't see the mountain and the bears are far away. So realize weather is a factor and don't get your hopes up too much. Try to do on a day that the weather is good and there is predicted sunshine if possible.

Tip: Bring a good DSL camera with a zoom lens to photograph the animals.

The camping areas that allow RV campers would make an amazing family vacation for those who love the outdoors. Make your reservations early! There are a few campsites where you can tent camp at Wonder Lake. I have done that and it was incredible with a view of the mountain that will last a lifetime. The camper bus has regular stops and you can get out and explore then catch the camper bus later.

Alaska is like no other place on earth! The climate is changing and the animals may move out of the area so vacation there as soon as your schedule permits. It is an experience that you do not want to miss. Denali National Park belongs on your bucket list. I have spent three summers there and every summer I cannot go, I am homesick for Alaska!

Winter Comes in Mid-September

Broad Pass on the Parks Highway.
Broad Pass on the Parks Highway. | Source

Sunrise on the Road to Denali



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