If you find yourself in Alaska either by cruise or destination vacation, do not miss out on Denali National Park and Preserve. It is absolutely breath taking and worth the extra few days before or after the cruise.
We went on an Alaskan cruise back in June 2017 and stayed in Anchorage for 3 nights and boarding our ship on the 4th day. We spent a full day in Denali Park and wished we would have planned for more time. It is recommended by the Denali Visitor’s Center to stay 2 nights and 3 days to get a general overview. This way you can get in a full day and partial other days due to long drives to the park. The park is over 6 Million Acres large though, and personally I’d recommend a minimum of 3-4 nights if you want a quality visit and even longer if you want to experience it all. We only had time to do 1 trail and 1 tour during our 1 day visit when there were so many different options to choose from.
Entrance fees are $15 per adult and children under age 15 are free. These passes are good for 7 days. But if you have at least 3 people you have to pay for, it’s worth it to buy the annual pass for the equivalent price of $45 and it’s good for up to 4 people for the price of 3 and you get access for a full year. This is ideal if you want to save some money on 4 people and/or have flexibility for a year to visit this incredible park.
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Mistakes to Avoid
Our first mistake was not staying close to Denali Park. Since it is a wilderness park, it can take hours from any airport to get to. We drove 4 hours each way to spend a day there. We left at 8am and arrived at noon, had a quick lunch, hiked for 4 hours, and then did a 2 hour back roads tour on 4 wheelers. We arrived back to Anchorage super late but it was so worth it.
Our second mistake was not staying long enough to enjoy the 6 Million Acres of preserved terrain. Although it was a full day of adventure, there was much more to do and see that I know we missed. The Visitor Center recommends a minimum of 2 nights stay so you get in one full day and parts of the other.
Mount Healy Trail Photo Journey
Since we only had a day to enjoy, we asked the Visitor Center Rep. to recommend which trail we should do for the amount of time we had. She said her favorite trail was Mount Healy Trail for the views and to begin the hike going up and end going down. She advised us where to park and begin the trail.
The trail is not a loop and at the end of the trail we just hopped on one of their free shuttles to get back to our car.
Here is our photo journey of our 4 hour hike. The terrains change every mile and the elevation gets really steep. It is recommended you are in fairly decent shape to take this hike as it can get strenuous. We were lucky that it did not rain. When we first arrived there was overcast, but the sun came out eventually and never fully rained.
Denali ATV Backcountry Tour
After our hike, we had dinner on our way to go on a Denali Backcountry Safari in a rugged 4×4, not on an ATV. When we reached the tour operator’s office, we were informed we missed our pick up by 15 minutes!! I’m not sure how that happened, but I must have mixed up the times. The ticket said 5:30pm, we arrived at 5pm. Apparently, our pickup time was 4:45pm and I overlooked it. Yet another mistake to avoid, READ the fine print of your tour tickets very carefully.
At first they weren’t going to do anything about it. I asked them to please understand we travelled super far and drove for hours to see Denali and that it’s our bucket list dream come true to be here. I pleaded for them to do something, even if we needed to drive and meet the group at a different point.
The operator was taken by our plea and said even though he couldn’t make the Safari happen, he could reach out to some of his contacts to see if we can get an ATV tour. All of their own ATV tours were already booked up, but he reached out to some other tour operators and was able to book us a 6pm Denali ATV Backcountry Tour with Black Diamond Tours. We were so grateful and excited. Honestly, I think it turned out even better because we got to drive our own ATV’s!
If you’re ever in Denali and want to work with a great tour operator, visit Stampede Excursions. We will never forget their kindness and how they helped us get a tour with one of their competitor’s. They offer many kinds of tours from ATVs to helicopters. I have no affiliations with them other than an unforgettable debacle they generously helped us with.
The ATV Tour
After our tickets were confirmed with Black Diamond, we quickly drove to their site to do a quick training guide and Q&A on how to drive an ATV. Of course, also sign a liability waiver. ATV stands for All Terrain Vehicle and can have 3 or 4 wheels. The ones in Denali are all 4 wheelers because of the rugged terrain.
The tour itself was about 2.5 hours not counting the training session. Tours run from 7:15am to as late as 10:00pm. They provide a helmet, safety goggles, gloves, and rain gear if you would like it. You can also opt for a side by side or be a passenger if you don’t want to drive.
Cost is $120 per adult and $50 per child. With Black Diamond you can book in advance and save 10% for advance bookings of more than 7 days.
I was a little nervous at first, but then I got the hang of it. The fastest you go on these things is about 30 miles an hour. It’s a great way to zip around to cover a lot of ground in Denali. You just need to know how to turn the vehicles and be careful not to flip it. It can go trough a variety of harsh terrains and large water puddles with ease.
We were able to see the back roads of Denali and some Moose! I wanted to see bears and Moose while in Alaska. On this tour we got to see a moose and her 2 calves. Someone in our group spotted them at the end of our tour. We all turned around to see them. The tour guide kept us at a safe distance as the male could be not far from the moose family. I couldn’t believe how large these animals are.
Coal Trails and Spills
We saw old coal mining trails and spills and walked along the Creek River Bed where Athabascan Indian artifacts have been found in archaeological digs. We were aloud to pick up and keep any rocks and arrowhead we found.
There were plenty of photo worthy sites and we stopped at quite a few. Although the day was intermittently overcast, it never fully rained but there was some mist. We got to see a beautiful rainbow during the tour.
We had a blast and would recommend getting a tour or two by some vehicle to cover the vast terrains of Denali. There are tons of hiking trails that are wonderful on foot, but some areas are best experienced by vehicle. You’ll cover more of the 6 million acre grounds of Denali this way too.
Our only regret for visiting Denali Park was not planning ahead to stay long enough. It is a special place and beautifully preserved. We will return one day to give it a proper visit.
- Plan ahead when visiting Denali Park. It’s not close to any airport and can take many hours to get there. 4 hours one way from Anchorage.
- Stay close to or onsite Denali Park. They have lodges available and several hotels/motels in its surrounding area.
- It’s recommended by the Visitor’s Center to stay 2 nights and 3 days. I’d recommend 3 to 4 nights for a quality experience. There’s way too much to see and do.
- Dress appropriately for a strenuous hike. Hiking shoes highly recommended for all various terrains.
- Bring layers if it’s chilly or could rain.
- Bring water and snacks. You’re hiking the wilderness, we did not see any bathrooms or any vending machines on this hike.
- Use bathrooms before the hike, there may not be any during your hike.
- Book with Stampede Excursions for a variety of Denali Tours from ATV’s to Helicopters. They will treat you right. Read our debacle above.
- Black Diamond Tours specialize in ATV tours and Horse Drawn Wagon tours. Get 10% off tours for advanced booking of 7 days or more.
- Get annual pass online to Denali Park for $45 if you have 3 or more people 15 years of age and up. It’s the same price for $15 per person but you get access up to 4 people for the price of 3 and its an annual pass instead of 7 days per ticket.
- Check out government website for Denali National Park & Preserves for local updates.