This post is a deviation from our usual articles about our travels outside the US, but Denali deserves a special mention. At more than 20,000 ft. and the highest peak in North America, Denali means "the great one" or "the high one" in the indigenous language. It was formerly known as Mt. McKinley.
Located about 230 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Preserve is a national treasure, encompassing about 6 million acres. It's home to moose, bear, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep among others. We visited in early September when the park and surrounding area exploded with fall colors. We were so fortunate to have sunny skies and beautiful weather!
The primary visiting season is the third week of May through the third week of September, but the park is technically open all year. There are numerous ways to explore the park. You can camp in any of several locations or hike or take a day tour. Private cars aren't allowed past mile 15 so we opted for the day tour. The tour bus requires advance reservations and until late summer 2021 the trip lasted about eight hours and turned around at mile 63. A landslide in August 2021 closed the road after about mile 42 which reduced the trip to about five to six hours. Our driver said it will take a year or two to reopen the damaged portion. This website has good information about options to see the park.
We took the Tundra Wilderness Tour which was perfect for us. The transportation is a converted school bus, driven by a naturalist who spots wildlife and gives lots of interesting information about the park and its four-legged residents.
They provide chips, a cookie and water, but visitors are free to bring their own food onboard.
Our driver began our tour by informing us that within the park's 6 million acres there are about 300 bears so he said, "you do the math", obviously trying to let us down gently about the possibility of seeing a bear.
This is a pretty terrible photo because it was taken from inside the bus and the bear was moving, but our driver said it was a juvenile male, probably about four years old. They stay at their mother's side until they're about three then the mother boots them out and they're on their own. There are many signs around and in Denali about bear safety.
The morning started out a bit cloudy, but cleared up as the day progressed and we were treated to some of the most beautiful landscape that we've ever seen, including an incredibly blue sky.
The aspens stood out so beautifully.
This was the first glimpse of Denali, about 75 miles in the distance. It's partially hidden behind the clouds in the middle of the photo, but we felt lucky to see it.
Then as the clouds moved out...
Then around mid-day...
Denali is so tall that it creates its own weather and only 30% of visitors actually see its peak. We're now members of the 30 percenters club! Notice the dark area of the peak to the right. That's the north face and, we were told, the inspiration for the name of the outdoor clothing company.
We also saw these Dall sheep which are fairly common in Alaska. It's amazing how they navigate and thrive on the sides of steep mountains!
This lady peered at us. Although we didn't see caribou, we were fortunate to see a moose. Our driver said it was probably a little late in the season for Caribou.
This is Savage Rock, an interesting formation named after a local hunter of years past. Notice how it resembles a face.
This sign indicates the highest elevation along the park road. If you look closely, you'll see nails coming from the top of the sign. This is because the bears kept eating it. So far the nails have done their job!
At a rest stop in the park...
There are a variety of options in the area from basic to luxurious. We chose to stay at the Denali Lakeview Inn in Healy, about 10-15 minutes up the road from the park entrance. Each of the 21 rooms is unique. It's located on Otto Lake and all the rooms look out on the lake. It's owned by a couple, Tara and Daryl, who have poured their hearts and souls into offering the best possible experience. It was exquisite.
One of the best features is the view of Otto Lake from the balcony of each room.
The inn provides kayaks which we didn't take advantage of, but it would be a lovely way to experience the lake.
The icing on the cake was the visit from mama moose and her calf each evening.
One evening another adult female showed up. You can see that the one on the left is a bit heftier than mama. Adult females range from 800 - 1,300 pounds. The staff at the Inn said that the two females spar from time to time.
I could have watched them and stared at the lake all day!
An Interesting Tidbit
We noticed millions of these stick-thin fir trees as we drove up to Denali and were intrigued by them. Our naturalist told us that their slender shape allows the branches to maintain enough warmth due to the proximity to the trunk so as not to freeze during the extremely cold months.
Their roots can't dig very far into the permafrost, so they're fairly shallow. When the permafrost begins to melt, the shallow roots can't support the trees well and they start to droop. They call these "tipsy" or "drunken" forests.
There are two viewpoints, North and South, along Route 3 which connects Anchorage and Denali. We were able to see the peak from the North viewpoint as we left Denali to drive back to Anchorage. Another breathtaking experience!
Here are some more photos from the area. We'd highly recommend visiting in the early fall for the colors.
➜ Top Tips
No matter what season you visit, pack layers. The weather changes quickly.
Bring a good camera!
Read the signs and listen to the experts' advice about encountering moose or bear wherever you are in Alaska.
Alaska is vast with more land area that California, Texas and Montana combined! Distances are deceiving, so give yourself enough time to travel between sights and cities.