The Best Things to do in Denali National Park – An Overview

Published: August 19, 2022

If you’re coming to Alaska, you’re likely dreaming of getting a view of the infamous mountain of Denali. And while the mighty peak and most popular Alaska attraction can be seen from Anchorage to Fairbanks, many travelers set out for adventure seek a close-up view of Denali National Park and park wildlife. Denali National Park is chock full of many fun features and sweet surprises awaiting discovery. From hiking the scenic trails to wildlife watching and exploring the Denali Visitor Center, read on as we discover the must-see attractions and hidden gems of this stunning park.

2022 Denali Park Update and Notice to Alaska Travelers: In Fall 2021, a landslide on the Denali Park Road caused significant road damage which is still being repaired at Mile 43. Access to some of the Denali National Park experiences listed below may be impacted.  This has also resulted in the closure of specific Denali National Park campgrounds and popular stops located beyond the slide area. Check the National Park Service website for the latest alerts and status before planning your visit.

Here are just a few of the hottest spots within Denali National Park, possibly Alaska’s coolest natural wonderland.

The Denali Park Visitor Center

Overlook, Denali National Park

Even if you spend months doing research and prep before your Denali Park arrival, there’s always more to learn, and the activities within the park are constantly changing. That’s why your first stop on any Denali National Park tour should be the Denali Visitor Center, conveniently located a short drive just inside the park’s entrance. Once there, you’ll be able to collect park maps and get tips for wildlife viewing and safety, enjoy inspiring exhibits and a short film about the Park, and of course, get the latest weather, road and hiking trail conditions, and so much more. You can chat up staff on just about anything park-related and even follow a Ranger into the park on one of the many excursions offered to visitors. This is truly the hub of Denali Park information and activity, and it’s not unusual for visitors to pop into the Center numerous times over the course of a park trip.

The Reflection Pond – Kantishna – Wonder Lake

Arguably the best spot to see Denali at its most iconic is literally at the end of the Denali Park Road, 90-plus miles into the park, at the Reflection Pond near the humble housing and camping areas of Kantishna and Wonder Lake. As if seeing the massive peak standing as big as can be here isn’t breathtaking enough, the pond lives up to its name on a clear, calm day. That’s when an almost magical reflection of the peak is projected onto the pond surface. It doesn’t get better than this, which is why many people can stand or sit there for chunks of time simply enjoying it, some emotionally moved, some just smiling, and most snapping photos of a view that will instantly bring them back to the memory of being in that exact spot every time they see it.

The Reflection Pond is just one of the fabulous features that make the Kantishna/Wonder Lake areas hot spots in their own right. By bus, bike, or plane, however you get to the end of Denali Park Road, this area is an adventurer’s dream location. A stop at Kantishna or Wonder Lake offers visitors big-time payoffs of unblocked views of Denali as well as many other impressive Alaska Range peaks. There are also lodging and camping spots if you want to stick around to explore and enjoy the sights for a while, go lake canoeing and kayaking, hit the hiking trails, or take advantage of other adventure opportunities. While plenty has changed since Kantishna was a Gold Rush must-stop, so much hasn’t. It’s peaceful here, in the heart of the park, where it’s easy to find fresh air and peaceful surroundings. This has to be on any list of the best things to do in Denali National Park.

Denali Park Bus

Denali National Park bus tours, NPS Photo

Because Denali Park Road is closed to private vehicles after the Savage River Trailhead (at Mile 15), most people who travel into Denali Park get there on one of two bus types: tour bus or transit bus. If you want an educationally narrated trip, take the tour bus; if you can go without the narration, hop on a transit bus. No matter which Denali bus trip you choose, it’s definitely one of the best things to do in the park. You’ll see the occasional and always spectacular views of Denali and the Alaska Range at hot spot stops like Polychrome Overlook (Mile 46), Stony Hill Overlook (Mile 62), and Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66). And you’re also likely to see some of Alaska’s big-name wildlife: bears, moose, caribou, eagles, and, if you’re lucky, even a wolf. And then there is the always changing (but never-ending) experience seeing the diverse wild Alaska landscapes and sub-Arctic ecosystems present in Denali.

A Birds Eye View While Flightseeing

If you want the park’s closest and most impressive views of its namesake peak, buckle up for a Denali flightseeing trip. Just imagine the thrill of circling so close to the mountain that you can see the colorful jackets of climbers on the mountain with their campsites set on glaciers below. Many flightseeing outfits land their planes on a glacier so visitors can grab incredible photo opportunities or even experience dogsledding with a yapping sled dog team. You’ll never forget a flightseeing ride over Denali!

Soaring above Denali, flightseeing from Talkeetna.

Shop for Keepsakes

A Denali Park trip will surely fill you with memories … but there’s always room for a few park keepsakes, too. On your return along the Parks Highway, just before you leave the Denali Park Road, is the urban “Glitter Gulch” area, where everything from hotels to gift shops to restaurants to adventure outfitters offer rafting, helicopter sightseeing, and more. Nothing says “I’ve been to Denali Park” than a Denali Park T-shirt. These shirts, hats, and magnets are instant conversation starters and longtime reminders of the best Alaska trip ever. Glitter Gulch is also a perfect place to enjoy a hearty Alaska-inspired meal, drink some of the state’s best brews, and share stories with fellow travelers worldwide about your incredible visit to world-renown Denali National Park.

How many days do you need in Denali National Park?

With its vast size, it can be hard to determine how many days to spend in Denali National Park. How long to spend in the park is largely determined by which of the many things to do in Denali you want to tick off your list, so it’s best to build your itinerary around that.

For Short Visits (1-2 Days): If you’re limited on time, a 1-2 day trip can still be enough. Allocate a day to explore the Denali Park Road by bus, which provides opportunities for wildlife viewing and spectacular sights like Polychrome Overlook. If time allows, spend a few hours hiking one of the shorter trails near the park entrance or the Denali Visitor Center.

For Medium-Length Stays (3-4 Days): On a trip of 3-4 days, you can delve deeper into Denali’s wilderness. This time frame allows for a mix of bus touring and more extensive hiking or backcountry exploration. You might choose a day hike in areas like Savage River or Horseshoe Lake, or even embark on a guided tour or ranger-led program to enhance your understanding of the park’s ecology and history.

For Longer Visits (5 Days or More): Those who can spare five days or more have the luxury to explore Denali at a leisurely pace. This duration is ideal for backcountry camping, more challenging hikes, or even multi-day guided expeditions. You could also take time to visit both the less crowded areas of the park such as Wonder Lake or Kantishna, and engage in activities like fishing, photography, or even flightseeing tours for a bird’s eye view of the park.

What is the Best Way to See Denali National Park?

The best way to see Denali National Park depends on your interests and how you enjoy nature, but we often find that most people enjoy a mixture of formats.

Denali from the Air

Exploring Denali from above is an unforgettable adventure, offering a perspective that ground tours simply can’t match. Flightseeing from a small plane or helicopter gives you a bird’s eye view of the park and allows you to spot things you might miss from ground level.

Denali on Wheels

One of the best ways to get around the vast expanse of Denali National Park is on wheels. There’s no better way to truly immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the park than being as close as possible, and a tour on a 4X4 or ATV will give you just that. As Denali is closed to private vehicles from Savage River, a bus is your best option if you want to delve deeper.

Denali National Park: A Truly Unforgettable Experience

Denali National Park offers visitors so many things to do. From awe-inspiring views at Reflection Pond to exhilarating hikes, Denali is a place that will stick with you for a long time.

Ready to embark on your Denali National Park adventure? Contact us to learn more about our Denali tours, and book your unforgettable Alaskan adventure today!

Hikers in the shadow of Denali (c) Jeff Schultz/ RIGHTS RESERVED