Denali National Park – Unpacking the 2020 season

There’s no question that Denali National Park ranks high among visitors’ must-do lists. For Alaskans as well, since Denali is one of our state’s most accessible national parks, given its location along the George Parks Highway, about five hours north of Anchorage.

Typically, visiting Denali between May and September requires abundant planning and preparation, thanks to an influx of Outside tourists flocking to the greater entrance area, Nenana Canyon (aka “Glitter Gulch”), and in-park campgrounds. It’s a bustling, busy place that often feels exhausting for the pace of “go here, do that, see this” large tour companies, Alaska Railroad arrivals, and an almost frantic need to see Denali’s Big Five wildlife (moose, bears, caribou, wolves, Dall sheep). 

In the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the National Park Service has placed a hold on many access points, activities, and opportunities in most park sites around the United States, and Denali is no different. For Alaskans, this means opportunity: a chance to see Denali National Park without the frenetic march of a normal summer. 

The Denali NP team has created a system of alternative ways to visit the park this summer, juggling local, state, and federal mandates with a desire to provide access. It’s not perfect, of course (the park is also dealing with a huge slough issue of soil and rock along Polychrome Pass, a critical section of park road), but as a package, a family vacation to and into Denali National Park could be one of the best parts of the summer. 

Hiking in Denali National Park. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

But let’s unpack the nitty gritty, because it does require some study: 

WHAT’S OPEN: 

  • Riley Creek Campground’s Bear and Wolf Loops (Caribou Loop is undergoing renovation) 
  • Riley Creek Mercantile opens June 16 
  • Savage River Campground and Teklanika Campground open June 16
  • Sanctuary and Igloo Campgrounds open July 1 with the opening of bus service
  • Denali tour and transport buses will begin operations July 1 (schedule still TBD)
  • Denali Visitor Center will open July 1, daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through September 23 
  • Eielson Visitor Center will open July 1 through September 22

WHAT’S CLOSED: 

  • Murie Science and Learning Center (all summer)
  • Denali Sled Dog Kennels (all summer) 
  • Wonder Lake Campground (most likely, the Park is still making a final decision) 

WANT TO CAMP INSIDE THE PARK? 

  • Make a reservation via the park’s concessionaire, ReserveDenali. 
  • Campgrounds are FILLING UP inside the park, so get on it now. Note restrictions on each campground’s page.

A very nice ranger checks to be sure we have everything necessary for a comfortable camping experience in Denali National Park. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

WHAT ABOUT DRIVING INSIDE THE PARK?

Ah, yes, the hot item for 2020. Denali National Park announced that in addition to the September Road Lottery (by the way, you have between June 1-June 30 to apply for that, so please do it now), DNP has opened up sections of the 90-mile Park Road to private vehicle traffic. When, you ask? That’s where many people are getting confused, so here’s a breakdown, according to the Denali National Park’s website

  • Mile 1 to Mile 30 (to Teklanika) is available between now and June 30, 2020
  • Mile 1 to Mile 66 (Eielson Visitor Center) is available on certain weekends (July 10-12; July 24-26; August 7-9; and September 4-7) 
  • You may not drive your private vehicle past Eielson Visitor Center. 

Driving the Park Road in your own vehicle requires a permit that must be purchased online up to two weeks prior to your visit. If you try to purchase it too early, it will state “no permits are available,” so watch your dates. Drive times are staggered to allow for a better flow of traffic in and out of the park, and to follow COVID-19 protocols outlined by the National Park Service. The usual rules also apply for any drive along the Park Road, and you can read them HERE

Denali National Park’s Riley Creek Campground is within walking distance of the main visitor center. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Aren’t planning to stay overnight at a campground? Check out the Denali Chamber of Commerce website for an outstanding list of open businesses from Cantwell to Kantishna, and everywhere in between. Also look for the chamber’s “Rally For Denali” specials that offer deals on lodging, activities, and a host of other opportunities in the greater Denali area. 

Other posts related to Denali National Park: 

Kid-Friendly Hikes in Denali

Walter Harper Ranger Station, Talkeetna

~ EK

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