Updated on September 2, 2020
Denali National Park is more than mountains. It’s pure wilderness. We were in many places and national parks before, but Denali is unique. We decided to stay in Denali National Park camping to experience this. And it’s a magic park. Why?
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No cars allowed beyond mile 15
Denali has only one road and only one park entrance. The way is 92 miles long and runs from east to west. It is a scenic road made mostly of gravel. Be prepared for a lot of dust and dirt. The way starts in a low, forested area, but rises and falls through mountain passes. And you can admire the highest mountain in North America – Mount McKinley, also known as Mount Denali 20,310 feet (6,190 m) from the road.
You can go to this Denali park road in your car only to Mile 15. If you want to go further, you have to take a bus. Yes, the first impression might be annoying. What? Why must I go by bus? Why I have to sit with dozens of people in a bus if I have a comfortable car. We thought the same till we understood the idea of nature protection.
There will always be a good economic argument to overcrowd an experience until we redefine what a good economy is. National parks don’t happen by accident. They are established – and preserved-by great force of character, heroic at times, often tedious and downright hard. This is stewardship. (text by Kim Heacox).
Hundreds of thousands of park visitors travel by bus every summer on this single road through the park. The bus system reduces traffic and roadside disturbances so you can better see wild nature.
When our bus driver said: When you see a bear, caribou, moose, or other animals say stop, and I will stop. We thought that is a joke because it seems impossible to see all those wild animals from the bus. But we were wrong. It’s strongly possible! Just after 50 minutes’ driving, we saw the first bear, a few minutes later the next one, then caribou, then moose!
Camping in Denali National Park – Igloo Creek
And then we had to leave the bus. It was our stop. The plan was to stay for two nights in a tent. We decided to take some hike to have more opportunities to take landscape and wildlife pictures of Denali National Park. If you are camping in the park, you can get off and get on the bus whenever and wherever you want to hike. We reached our Igloo Creek Campground on Mile 34. Then we chose our site and put up a tent. It’s important to pack food and cosmetics to bear-proof containers so we did it.
Talkeetna is the last stop before Denali, where it is good to buy necessary things as food or gas. We took our bear bells and bear spray and went for our first hike. It’s essential to prepare for encountering a bear in bear country. Respecting bears and learning proper behavior can help you avoid conflict. It’s worth to know the most crucial bear safety rules.
We decided on an easy hike around Cathedral Mountain. But… it wasn’t easy at all. Denali is a wilderness. There are no marked trails beyond the Visitor’s center, so you need a compass and good map, watch with GPS or even better you should take Handheld GPS if you plan to do anything far from the main road.
Trail wasn’t easy because there was no trail. And we didn’t use to go off the trail. It was so easy to lose the path. But the hike was amazing, the colours of the autumn so beautiful and impressive. In the end we were exhausted and a little bit frightened because of this emptiness, space, and silence. When you live in a city and you are still in the rush, you forget how silence sounds.
PROTIP: If you are less experienced, consider an organized guided mountain hike. Check viator.com, which offers excellent trips, and you will safely enjoy Denali wildlife.
After coming back to the campground, we prepared our simple but hot meal on our ultralight trekking stove. It was much colder after sunset. We were prepared for winter with mummy sleeping bags which helped us survive till morning. It was a great idea to take them because during night temperature, go down to almost 32 Fahrenheits (0 Celcius degrees). We woke up before sunrise awakened by silence. Mists hovered over the mountains. In the morning we washed our faces in an icy stream. On campgrounds in Denali, there are no power, showers, nor wi-fi. Simplicity.
End of the road
We took the first green bus from the road and decided to go to the end of the Denali road. It was a great trip. We did not expect that it would be possible to take so many exciting and good photos of the bus windows. But the driver stopped very often. So we could easily take pictures of the beautiful mountains.
From the Eielson Visitor Center we had excellent panorama view. On the way we encountered moose and caribou and grizzly bear next to the road too. The weather was great, the morning fog has fallen and the light was beautiful. More information about photo opportunities you will find in Photography hints section.
When we get to Wonder Lake we took off the bus and went for a short, beautiful trail. We took an easy two-mile hike from the Wonder Lake Campground to the McKinley River. This is part of the historic route that climbers used to access Denali (Mt. McKinley). It’s easy to imagine what it must have been like as you walk in the shadow of the great one. The weather was great so we could admire the highest peak of North America – Denali.
We returned by the last park bus. With another nice driver. We must admit that the national park service is at the highest level. Each of the drivers told a lot of stories related to the park. They also shared an excellent knowledge of the habits of wild animals. They shared their experiences and given useful hints.
The setting sun illuminated and warmed the colors of the autumn mountains. Suddenly the driver stopped. On our left, right next to the road, there were two mighty, majestic moose. Their massive antlers swayed sideways. They were so close! It was a fantastic experience! We want to back there as soon as possible.
Before you go – Practical Information
How to get there?
Denali National Park and Preserve, located in Interior Alaska, is accessible by train or car. Located at Milepost 237 on the George Parks Highway (Alaska 3), Denali National Park & Preserve is 237 miles north of Anchorage and 125 miles south of Fairbanks. Car and RV rentals are available in Anchorage and Fairbanks and we share our opinion about rental car in Anchorage in our 10 Days Alaska Itinerary for 2020. Check day 1.
From Fairbanks it is possible to take a shuttle service, which is the fastest and the most economical way to transfer between Denali National Park and Fairbanks. During the summer months, the Alaska Railroad Corporation makes daily trips from Anchorage to Denali. If arriving via the Alaska Railroad, don’t forget to book your shuttle service between the Denali National Park & Preserve Train Depot and your hotel. The depot is located several miles from most hotels and taxi service is not readily available. Commercial airlines, like Alaska Airlines, fly into Fairbanks and Anchorage throughout the year.
Where to stay – lodging
Accommodation options in Denali are very limited and rather expensive. We strongly suggest booking them as soon as possible and far in advance. And we share our opinion in our 10 Days Alaska Itinerary for 2020. Check Denali lodging section.
If you would like to stay in a tent in a campground, you have six campgrounds available in Denali Park. They are very rustic. No showers, no electricity, no Internet. But they are located in picturesque places. It’s worth to stay there to be closer to this beautiful wild nature and take some hikes. It’s also a better chance to see wild animals. You should book place in advance, because sites are also limited.
For camping in Denali National Park you have six campgrounds to choose:
- Riley Creek Camground on Mile 0.25. Open year-round to RVs and tents. You can check details on Denali National Park website.
- Savage River Campground on Mile 14. Open in summer only (mid-May to mid-September) to RVs and tents. You can check details on Denali National Park website.
- Sanctuary River Campground on Mile 22. Open in summer only (mid-May to mid-September) for tents only, and access by bus only. You can check details on Denali National Park website.
- Teklanika River Campground on Mile 29. Open in summer only (mid-May to mid-September) to RVs and tents (requires a minimum 3-night stay if you drive). You can check details on Denali National Park website.
- Igloo Creek Campground on Mile 35. Open in summer only (May 20 to mid-September) for tents only, and access by bus only. You can check details on Denali National Park website.
- Wonder Lake Campground on Mile 85. Open in summer only (June 8 to mid-September) for tents only, and access by bus only. You can check details on Denali National Park website.
We were camping in Denali National Park in Igloo Creek Campground on Mile 35. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place and we highly recommended it. Camping fees including permits was 115,50 USD for two people and one tent for two nights (September 2019). The bus was included in price. The rule is that if you are staying in a campground, you can get in and get off the green buses on the road.
You may make campground reservations online, through a third-party reservation system on the website.
What to do?
Enjoy the wild nature! It’s a beautiful experience.
In our 10 Days Alaska Itinerary for 2020 we give you detailed suggestions on what to do for two days in Denali. Check it please. And if you have questions – ask.
Even if you have only one day to spend in Denali – it’s worth doing it! It’s still a chance to take magnificent wildlife and landscape photos from the bus. If you have more than one or two days to spend in this park it’s worth to consider some of organized Denali tours.
Denali tours are well prepared. You get the chance to know the exact information about the park, its flora, and fauna. And above all, during organized Denali tours, you have the opportunity to take magnificent wildlife and landscape photos because the guides know where to go. You can also take advantage of various organized activities that you cannot experience on your own.
The most exciting suggestions are:
- Denali flightseeing. Flight over the mountains is possible from Talkeetna. You have few options: Mountain Voyager with Optional Glacier Landing or Grand Denali Flight with Optional Glacier Landing. They are not cheap but worth their price, especially with glacier landing which we highly recommended. It’s an amazing experience. You have a chance to take great mountains photos during your flight and take Kahiltna Glacier photos, the longest in Denali National Park during glacier landing. Cheaper but still great option is Denali flightseeing without glacier landing: Denali Southside Explorer Scenic Air Tour.
- If you are in Denali during Aurora season it’s great to catch Northern Lights. If you don’t have experience it’s worth to do it with guides during Denali Aurora Quest tour. They know ideal location for stargazing and catching the elusive Aurora Borealis.
- If you like increasing your adrenaline during off-road adventures you can consider jeep or safari Denali tours: Denali Backcountry Safari or Denali Highway Jeep Excursion. But during these tours, it’s rather difficult to take photos.
- If you like flora and fauna and mayby macrophotography it’s worth to consider short hike with a guide along the tundra and taiga. Guide teaches you about the local wildlife, flora, and history of the Denali area during Denali Midnight Sun Backcountry Hike.
Check Things to do on Viator.com:
Where to eat?
There is no food available in the park. There is no store, no restaurant or bar. You have to take food with you. Regardless of whether you go on a 1-day bus trip or decide to stay a few days at the campsite, you need to buy and take all the food yourself. There are several shops in Denali before entering the park, but the prices are quite high. So it’s better to think carefully and shop early what you need. The Riley Creek Mercantile is the last stop when you can buy something. It’s located 1/2 mile along Park Road at the west end of Riley Creek Campground. The Mercantile offers firewood, groceries, and clothing as well as a number of other services and conveniences, but prices are higher and choice is limited.
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What season is best for Alaska photography?
The season lasts 4 months – from Mid-May to Mid-September. From mid-September Denali roads and campgrounds are closed for the winter season. During winter it is also possible to visit Denali, but you need permits so check it please.
What time of day is best?
The best time for taking photos in Denali is morning for sunrise and afternoon for sunset. So it’s worth to stay for night in Denali. But if you are going by bus and have only one day – you have still many opportunities to take great shots of wildlife and landscapes. You can also check our recommendations in our 10 Days Alaska Itinerary for 2020.
What photographic opportunities are here?
You have plenty opportunities. It depends how long you are going to stay in Denali and how the weather will be.
If you take only one-day bus trip take the longest one. Then you have chance to see some wild animals: bears, moose, caribou and even a wolf. Wildlife can be seen just about anywhere in the park. The longer a bus trip you choose to take, the better your odds will be of seeing wildlife. Bus driver gives people time to take photos. They are also some longer stops during trip.
Mount Denali dominates the landscape, so if a day is clear, you have a chance to take the picture. There are few viewpoints on the road where it is possible to see McKinley. A great view is at Stony Dome, located at mile 62. You can reach this point with the Eielson, Wonder Lake or Kantishna transit buses; or with the Kantishna Experience Tour. One of the most iconic and photographed images of the mountain is from Reflection Pond, just beyond mile 85. Check our 10 days plan to see bus trip recommendations. You can see mountains of every size and shape. Fall colors are amazing, but also during summer views are breathtaking.
What gear should you take?
Long lenses would be the best for wildlife and landscape. Our choices are light and flexible: Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR (Agnes choice) and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens (Chris’ choice).
For landscape photography sometimes it is better to use wider lens. We had regular 24-70/2.8. Agnes used Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED Vibration Reduction Zoom Lens and Chris used Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM.
Regarding the camera choice, Agnes used Nikon D750, and Chris Canon EOS R. Both cameras were ideal for Denali due to their quality and flexibility. They were light enough as well to pack into a camping backpack.
Tripod is necessary for landscapes for sunrise and sunset. We are using Sirui, but you can try one of those. If you have only one day trip probably you won’t use it.
Does it require any hiking or other activities?
You can take all day round trip by bus. And it doesn’t require any activities. But hiking in Denali is great experience. Before you go prepare yourself for encountering a bear.
What kind of clothes do you need?
You have to be prepared for four-season, especially if you are going to the Denali. It might be warm during the day but it can still get cool in the evenings and mornings. So for us, the best idea is to pack thermal underwear. Most notable in the mountains are hiking waterproof boots. Our choice is Mammut. It’s a good idea to bring a lightweight rainjacket because of often showers. If you are going to the mountains windbreaker jacket is must have as well. And if you would like to stay a few days higher in the mountains, especially in Denali National Park, you should be prepared even for winter. So winter waterproof jacket, winter hat and gloves will be needed.
How long I need to get great pictures here?
Spend there as much time as you can. It’s a fantastic place for photographers, and worth spending there as much time as possible to take magnificent, unique photos. If you have only one day, your chances depend mostly on the weather. It might be raining, cloudy day, and your chances are much lower. So 2-3 days for taking photos in Denali should be a minimum and the week in Denali National park would be perfect.