Denali National Park Alaska Tour Packages: Hotels, Wildlife, Sightseeing
Denali National Park is 120 miles south of Fairbanks, or 240 miles north of Anchorage, on the George Parks Highway, which is the most common access point. There's a second, seldom-used road to the park: the Denali Highway leads from Paxon, which is accessible from the Richardson Highway (and connects Fairbanks and Valdez) to Cantwell, coming out just south of the park entrance. This 134-mile road is mostly unpaved, with few services.
Denali National Park and Preserve is Alaska's most visited attraction for a reason: the most accessible of Alaska's national parks and one of only three connected to the state's highway system, the 6-million-acre wilderness offers views of mountains so big they seem like a wall on the horizon. The park is a natural wonderland. Thirty-seven species of mammal call the park home, including moose, black bear, wolves, caribou, and Dall sheep. The park's grizzly population is a subspecies unique to the area, the Toklat grizzly: smaller (not as much fish in the diet) than their coastal cousins, Toklats tend to be a beautiful cinnamon color. There's also a second grizzly subspecies in the park, the Kluane grizzly, but even park officials can't really tell them apart from Toklats in the wild. Watch for bears around Sable Pass, Cathedral Mountain, Savage River, and the Toklat River.
In summer, herds of caribou migrate through the park, often shadowed by some of the park's rarely seen wolf packs. Watch for them around Eielson and in the wide open areas of tundra. Moose are common in the forested area around the park entrance and around Eielson. The park also has many smaller mammals, from the Kenai red fox to the wolverine. About 167 species of birds have been recorded in Denali, with 149 of them showing up regularly - although all but a few of them are summer-only residents. In addition to golden eagles and ravens, watch for goshawks and for ptarmigan waddling by the roadside. Northern hawk owls hunt martens on the tundra, and Trumpeter swans swim across kettle ponds.
The park's plant life is equally diverse, from the forested area at the park's entrance - black and white spruce, and different kinds of willow and bircs - to the incredible richness of the tundra, which is like a world in miniature. The park also holds more than 50 kinds of shrubs, from dogwood to honeysuckle. If that weren't enough, there are more than 650 flowering plants in the park, including 59 species of aster and 32 of buttercup.
Only one road penetrates Denali's expansive wilderness: the 92-mile Denali Park Road, which winds from the park entrance to Wonder Lake (as far as the regular buses go) and on the inholding of Kantishna, the historic mining district in the heart of the park, where there are a couple of private lodges. The first 15 miles of the road are paved and open to all vehicles, but beyond the checkpoint at Savage River access is limited to tour buses, special permit holders and the community members of Kantishna. To get around the park, you need to get on one of the shuttle buses or sightseeing tours. The park's own shuttle buses don't include a formal interpretive program or food and drink. They're less expensive, and you can get off the bus and take a hike or just stop and sightsee almost anywhere you like, then catch another bus along the road. Most of the drivers are well versed in the park's features and will point out plant, animal, and geological sights. The shuttles are also less formal than the tour buses, and generally less comfortable.
If you decide to get off the shuttle bus and explore the tundra, just tell the driver ahead of time where you'd like to get out. Some areas are closed to hiking, so check with the rangers at the visitor center before you decide where to go. Some areas are closed permanently, such as Sable Pass, which is heavily traveled by bears; others close as conditions warrant, such as when there's been a wolf kill nearby. When it's time to catch a ride back, just stand next to the road and wait; it's seldom more than 30 minutes or so between buses. The drivers stop if there is room on board. However, during the mid- and late-summer peak season, an hour or more may pass between stopping buses, as they are more likely to be full. Be prepared to split up if you are in a big group in order to fit on crowded buses during peak times.
At mile 66 on the Park Road is the Eielson Visitor Center, the park's pride and joy. LEED-certified as a green building, Eielson offers amazing views of the mountain, the glaciers, and what happens to a landscape when glaciers go away. Inside is the usual interpretive material. The center offers a daily guided walk at 1 pm, an easy 45-minute or so exploration of the landscape.
The national park visitor center at the park entrance is open from mid-May to mid-September and exhibits beautiful displays about the park's natural and cultural history, and holds regular showings of "Heartbeats of Denali" in the Karstens Theater. In addition, the center offers a wide variety of interpretive programs and a chance to browse the nearby Denali Bookstore, a great source for wildlife guides, birding guides, and picture books; send some to relatives to make them jealous of your trip. While the park itself is open year-round with limited vehicle access, everything is up and running from mid-May through mid-September.