Denali National Park is more than mountains. It’s pure wilderness. We have been to many places and national parks, but Denali is unique. We visited this park a few times and loved it. Moreover, we decided to stay in one Denali National Park camping to experience this emptiness, silence, and nature. And it’s a magic park, but you should prepare to visit it, as it’s pretty challenging. We give you tips on preparing for an adventure in Denali National Park. Moreover, we give you essential regulations and changes for the 2023 season.This article may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.
Camping in Denali National Park – Important for the 2023 Season
Due to road renovation in Denali National Park, a large part of the only route in the park is closed to tourists. The summer season begins on May 15 each year. In Summer 2023 (through 2024), part of the road will still be closed at Mile 43. But it still is worth visiting Denali in 2023, and we help you plan your trip with those changes.
- Transit buses and tour buses will travel no further than the East Fork Bridge (Mile 43 of the Denali Park Road).
- Eielson Visitor Center is closed.
- Wonder Lake Campground is closed.
So before your trip to Denali National Park, check the official park website.
Below you will find detailed information about the whole road in the park while it’s open and about all campgrounds. We tell you what to do and what to expect for season 2023 and which campgrounds will be available to reserve. All you need to know to prepare for the 2023 Alaska trip.
Camping in Denali National Park – Introduction
Visiting the Denali National Park is a must-see on any road trip in Alaska. So far, we have visited Alaska 4 times, and each time we were also in Denali. Here we share our first impressions from our first stay in Denali. The park is magical. But Denali National Park Camping requires good preparation. This vast national park is extremely wild and inaccessible. Therefore, follow our tips before you go there. In addition, you will also find information on where to spend the night outside the park if you do not want to pitch a tent in Denali National Park. We also tell you the park’s highlights and the best ways to explore it, including the best tours, such as a stunning flight over Denali with a glacier landing.
No cars allowed beyond mile 15 in Denali
Denali National Park and Preserve have only one road and park entrance. The scenic road 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 Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, 20,310 feet (6,190 m) from the road.
You can go to this Denali park road in your own 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 do I have to sit with dozens of people on 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 the 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. You can go on a one-day trip by bus or stay overnight at one of the six Denali National Park campings. Here you can check the Denali bus system. But we describe the details below.
TRIP TIP: Currently, traffic only is open up to mile 43. Please keep this in mind when planning your trip.
When our bus driver said: When you see a bear, caribou, moose, or other animals, say stop, and I will stop. We thought that was a joke because it seemed impossible to see all those wild animals from the bus. But we were wrong. It’s strongly possible! Just after 40 minutes of driving, we saw the first bear, a few minutes later, the next one, then caribou, then moose!
TRIP TIP: If you plan to rent a car for your trip, consider Alaska Auto Rental. We used the cars and services of this company during the Dalton Highway trip, and we can honestly recommend it. You can read a detailed review here.
Camping in Denali National Park – Igloo Creek
And then we had to leave the bus. It was our stop. You have six Denali National Park Campings to choose from. Below we described all of them. Our plan was to stay for two nights in a tent in Denali National Park camping. We choose Igloo Creek. We decided to take some hikes 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 in bear-proof containers; we did it.
Talkeetna is the last stop before Denali, where buying necessary things such as food or gas is good. We took our bear bells and bear spray and went for our first hike. It’s essential to prepare for encountering a bear in a bear country. Respecting bears and learning proper behavior can help you avoid conflict. It’s worth knowing 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 a good map, a watch with GPS, or even better, you should take a Handheld GPS if you plan to do anything far from the main road. Check our Alaska Packing List before you hit the mountains!
The 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 autumn colors so beautiful and impressive. Ultimately, we were exhausted, and a little bit frightened because of this emptiness, space, and silence. When you live in a city and are still in a rush, you forget how silence sounds.
PROTIP: If less experienced, consider an organized guided mountain hike. Here you can check our photos & tips from the flight tour over Denali, which was an amazing experience!
After returning 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 at night the temperature goes down to almost 32 Fahrenheit (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. Denali National Park has no power, showers, or wi-fi on campgrounds. Simplicity.
End of the road in Denali National Park
In the morning, we took the first green bus from the road and decided to go to the end of Denali National Park 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 and animals.
From the Eielson Visitor Center, we had an excellent panorama view. On the way, we also encountered moose, caribou, and grizzly bears next to the road. The weather was great, the morning fog had fallen, and the light was beautiful. More information about photo opportunities you will find in the Photography hints section.
When we got 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 climbers’ historic route to 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 that we could admire the highest peak in 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 were 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 about Denali National Park Camping
How to get to Denali National Park and Preserve?
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. Commercial airlines, like Alaska Airlines, fly into Fairbanks and Anchorage throughout the year.
Car or RV
Car and RV rentals are available in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and we share our opinion about the rental car in Anchorage in our 10 Days Alaska Itinerary for 2023. Check day 1. Check our review of Alaska Auto Rental, as we can highly recommend this rental company, which offers great cars and services.
Shuttle service to Denali
It is possible to take a shuttle service from Fairbanks, the fastest and the most economical way to transfer between Denali National Park and Fairbanks.
Train to Denali
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.
Where to stay – lodging outside Denali National Park
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 2023. Check the Denali lodging section or check below.
Where to stay – Denali National Park Camping
If you would like to stay in a tent in a Denali National Park 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 staying 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 a place in advance because sites are also limited. As for season 2023, part of Denali road is closed; make sure on the official website which Denali campgrounds are available for booking.
Denali National Park Campings
You have six campgrounds to choose from for camping in Denali National Park. But for the summer season of 2023, not all are available. Summer season 2023 in Denali National park is May 20 – September 15. Campground fees vary slightly, but sites are around $19.25 – $39.75 / per night. Camping is free in winter (roughly late September to early May each year).
You may make reservations online through a third-party reservation system. Reservations are possible as early as December 1 of the year before you wish to visit Denali National Park.
Six campgrounds in Denali National park are:
Riley Creek Campground in Denali National Park
The Riley Creek Campground is on Mile 0.25. Open year-round to RVs and tents. You can check the details on the Denali National Park website.
Savage River Campground in Denali National Park
The Savage River Campground is on Mile 14. Open in summer only (mid-May to mid-September) to RVs and tents. You can check the details on the Denali National Park website.
Sanctuary River Campground in Denali National Park
The Sanctuary River Campground is on Mile 22. Open in summer (mid-May to mid-September) for tents only and access only by bus. You can check the details on the Denali National Park website.
Teklanika River Campground in Denali National Park
The Teklanika River Campground is 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 in Denali National Park
The Igloo Creek Campground is on Mile 35. Open in summer only (May 20 to mid-September) for tents only, and access by bus only. You can check the details on the Denali National Park website. It’s closed in the 2023 season.
Wonder Lake Campground in Denali National Park
The Wonder Lake Campground is on Mile 85. Open only in summer (June 8 to mid-September) for tents and access by bus. You can check the details on the Denali National Park website. It’s closed in the 2023 season.
We were camping in Denali National Park in Igloo Creek Campground on Mile 35. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place, and we highly recommend it. Camping fees, including permits, are 115,50 USD for two people and one tent for two nights. The bus was included in the 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 pack for Denali National Park Camping?
Denali National Park is a vast area, wilderness, and some threats. Therefore, prepare well for this adventure. Camping in Denali National Park might be challenging. Check our Alaska Packing Lis carefully. After three road trips in Alaska, one of which lasted over a month, we know how to prepare and what to pack. So, check our detailed tips.
What to do in Denali National Park?
Enjoy the wild nature! It’s a beautiful experience. In our 10 Days Alaska Itinerary for 2023 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 considering some of the organized Denali tours.
Denali tours are well prepared. You get the chance to know the exact information about the park, its flora, and its 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 you cannot experience alone.
The most exciting suggestions are:
- Denali flightseeing. Flight over the mountains is possible from Talkeetna. Denali Flight with Glacier Landing was a fabulous experience. It wasn’t cheap, but worth the price, especially the flight with glacier landing, which we highly recommended. It’s a fantastic experience. During your flight, you can take great mountain photos and Kahiltna Glacier photos, the longest in Denali National Park, during glacier landing. Here you can check our photos from our flight over Denali and our review! A cheaper but still great option is Denali flightseeing without glacier landing.
- If you are in Denali during Aurora season, it’s great to catch Northern Lights. If you don’t have experience, it’s worth doing it with guides during the Denali Aurora tour. They know the 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 maybe macro photography, it’s worth considering a short hike with a guide along the tundra and taiga. The guide teaches you about the local wildlife, flora, and history of the Denali area during the Denali Midnight Sun Backcountry Hike.
Where to eat in Denali National Park?
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 for what you need. The Riley Creek Mercantile is the last stop where 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, clothing, and other services and conveniences, but prices are higher, and choices are limited.
Photography Hints for Denali National Park
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, visiting Denali is possible, but you need permits, so check it, please.
What time of day is best?
The best time for taking photos in Denali is the morning for sunrise and the afternoon for sunset. So it’s worth staying for a night in Denali. But if you are going by bus and have only one day – you still have many opportunities to take great shots of wildlife and landscapes. You can also check our recommendations in our 10 Days Alaska Itinerary for 2023.
What photographic opportunities are in Denali National Park?
You have plenty of opportunities. It depends on how long you are going to stay in Denali and how the weather will be.
If you take only a one-day bus trip, take the longest one. Then you can 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 take, the better your odds of seeing wildlife. The bus driver gives people time to take photos. They are also some longer stops during the trip.
Mount Denali dominates the landscape, so you can take a picture if the day is clear. 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, the 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 a 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, you probably 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 a great experience. Before you go, prepare yourself to encounter a bear.
What kind of clothes do you need?
You have to be prepared for the four-season, especially if you are going to 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. A windbreaker jacket is a 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. A winter waterproof jacket, winter hat, and gloves will be needed. More tips you will find in our Alaska Packing List.
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 as much time as possible to take magnificent, unique photos there. If you have only one day, your chances depend mostly on the weather. It might be raining, a 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.
Plan Camping in Denali National Park? Check out other Alaska articles to find more inspiration
If you don’t already have a specific itinerary for Alaska, please browse through some of our articles below to find the most exciting activities that match your interests and needs. Finally, oll our articles about Alaska you can find here.
- Ready-to-go 10 Days Alaska Itinerary for 2023.
- The Best Denali Flight Tours From Talkeetna
- Dalton Highway Alaska Comprehensive Guide
- Bear Viewing Alaska – Eye to Eye With a Brown Bear
- Visiting Katmai National Park – How to Plan a Trip?
- 10 best places to visit on your trip to Alaska
- Lake Clark Bear Viewing Tour Review
- The Best Matanuska Glacier Tour
- 27 Top Things to do in Homer Alaska
- Alaska Packing List