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Denali National Park

Denali National Park

Denali National Park includes the highest mountain in North America, Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) 20,320 ft high.  The Alaska Range of snowy mountains towers over an amazing landscape of alpine tundra and taiga evergreen forests.  The park is home to a wide variety of animals – caribou, Dall sheep, moose, wolves, grizzly bears, foxes, wolverines, lynxes, pikas, beavers, ptarmigans and snowshoe hares. Wherever you're traveling through the park, kids will want to keep their binoculars handy to spot the wildlife.

Tip:  In planning your visit to Denali National Park, there's only one road into the park, with limited access.  You can drive to Savage River, from that point, excursions on shuttle buses are necessary.  The only lodging inside the park is at Kantishna at the end of the road, but there are lots of places to stay in Canyon at the park entrance, and Healy close by.


Denali Visitor Center – For a good introduction to the national park, the 18 min. movie in the theater beautifully follows the seasons and wildlife in the park. Check out the scale model of Denali, and full-size dioramas of Dall sheep, moose, pika, grizzly bear (and bear poop), beaver, snowshoe hare, lynx, plus a giant size model of a mosquito (the mosquitoes are extra large in Alaska).  Hands on exhibits about the native people living in Denali show how plants and animals were used in daily life.  At the front desk, check out a Denali Discovery Pack daypack, filled with guides to Denali wildlife and wildflowers, animal tracks, crayons, and compass.

Denali sled dogs

Sled dog demonstrations – Alaskan huskies are "working sled dogs" used in winter to transport supplies and carry out trash from snowbound locations deep in the park. Come early, so kids have an opportunity to meet and pet the sled dogs in the kennel. Each of the 33 dogs has a name, e.g. Nuna, Swift, Chulitna, Pingo, Skeeter, Aurora, Chinook, Tuya, Coho. For the demonstration, five dogs are harnessed to a sled with wheels and run with the dog musher.


Check at the visitor center for times (when we visited, it was 10am, 2pm and 4pm daily).  The sled dog demonstration is a "must see" and is free.


Trails – 

Beaver dam
    Horseshoe Lake Trail – Not far from the visitor center, take short hike down the 1.5 mile Horseshoe Lake Trail.  On the north end of the lake we saw three amazing beaver dams, each bigger than the other and the construction was incredible.  Across the lake, the beavers have made a lodge at the edge of the lake, excavating underwater tunnels and rooms in the dirt bank. As you're hiking along, look for tree branches chewed by the beavers also.
Baby marmots
    Savage River Loop Trail –  At the Savage River bridge on the park road, take the loop trail on either side of the river.  Start at the parking lots on either side of the river, and follow the trail north.  When you reach the footbridge, cross over and come back the other way.  It's a 1.6 mile loop, and easy level trail. The parking lots have picnic tables, restrooms, and kids can play in the shallow "braided" river.

The trail goes through the tundra, with gorgeous wildflowers in bloom, amazing lichens and rock formations.  We saw white baby marmots playing, chubby willow ptarmigans in the bushes, and look for Dall sheep in the rocky ridges. 


Wildlife viewing – Take the shuttle bus or tour bus rides into the park for wildlife viewing.  The shuttle bus will stop when wildlife is spotted, but you can't get off the bus. There are bathroom breaks every hour and a half, and you'll need to bring lunch, drinks and snacks.  

      The shortest shuttle bus ride is to Toklat River and back, 6.5 hours. The "Natural History" tour bus is 4 to 5 hours, and includes lunch.

The wildlife you'll see from the shuttle bus varies at lot.  One day you might see a grizzly bear and moose up close, on another day just a few caribou are way off in the distance. 


Tip: Make bus reservations in advance online or at the Wildlife Access Center in the park. Kids under 40 pounds will need a car seat to ride the bus.


Rafting on the Nenana River –  Go rafting on the Nenana River that flows along the entrance to the park.  The upper Nenana River has raft trips with class II and III rapids, for kids 5 and up, or class III and IV rapids on the Nenana Gorge, for kids 10 and up.  The rafting companies are located in the Canyon area at the park entrance.


Alaska Railroad –  A fun way to arrive at the park is to take the Denali Star from Anchorage or Fairbanks.  If the weather is good, there are views of McKinley from the train. 

  Tips for enjoying Denali

Bring binoculars – Binoculars for everyone in the family are a must.  Wildlife in Denali is often spotted at a distance, and for some animals, such as a grizzly bear or moose, you don't want to get too close.

Mosquito repellent –  Denali is a wet spot and the mosquitoes are big here. Slather on repellent before heading out on a hike.

Footwear – Make sure everyone has comfortable shoes; closed toes are best.

Rain gear – The wettest months in Denali are June, July and August. In summer, it's just as likely to rain as not, and temperatures can be cool-ish.  Bring a sweatshirt or fleece, and rain jacket for everyone in the family.

Don't feed the animals – The squirrels know they're cute, and will even pose for you, but don't feed them. Chips and snacks are bad for squirrels, marmots and birds.

Bear safety – Most of the bears in Denali are grizzly bears.  Don't ever try to get close to a bear, particularly a mother and cubs.  Don't leave food around, even at a picnic site – you don't want to attract the bears.
kids books denali national park
Up on Denali  
Up on Denali
Shelley Gill, Shannon Cartwright

Wildlife, wildflowers, tundra, glaciers, legends, and history of Denali National Park. Find out about the habits, tracks and scat of all the different animals in the park, geology, seasons, Native Alaskan creation story, and a mountain so high it makes it own weather. Gorgeously illustrated, this is a gem! (Picture book)


A Caribou Journey
Debbie S. Miller, Jon Van Zyle

In northern Alaska, it's spring but there's still lots of snow of the ground and the caribou search for lichens to eat. Follow the caribou herd across frozen lakes, avoiding wolves, until the days grow longer and the caribou migrate to the calving grounds on the tundra. Bold illustrations capture the caribou through the seasons.  (Picture book)


A Caribou Journey
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