Before you read any further, ponder this fact for a moment: Denali National Park encompasses six million acres, and there is but one road in or out. One narrow, dirt road that bisects the space, shared by thousands of eager visitors each year.
And we got to drive it.
Denali National Park is by far the most popular park in Alaska, mostly due to its accessibility from the main Parks Highway heading north and south between Anchorage and Fairbanks. You can’t miss it, actually, even if you tried. Summer means crowded campgrounds, park visitor centers, and ancillary services in the area known as “Glitter Gulch” where cruise lines accommodate enormous crowds and attractions fly, float, and bus guests to various activities. For Alaskans, especially those who treasure quieter ways to experience their hometown national park, summer can be a bit much, no matter how much they appreciate the benefits of tourism to the state, and this makes an autumn visit even more precious. Not an Alaskan? That’s okay, we’ll let you in, happily.
The post-Labor Day visitor demographic is definitely hardier than summertime visitors; these are folks who chose to visit when leaves are changing, temperatures are dropping, and weather becomes unpredictable. Wildlife in Denali National Park are generally active, wanting to gather the last bits of food or fuel for a long, cold, and dark Alaskan winter. Colors are vibrant, even riotous, with reds and golds dominating the landscape, cast brilliantly against The Mountain.
Ah, yes, The Mountain. Denali, The High One; whatever you call her, the 20,310-foot snowy, icy rock of fame dominates everything, even if she doesn’t grace you with her presence (and often she won’t). During the summer, Denali contrasts greatly against green tundra and sometimes-blue sky; in the fall and winter, she is sharper, as if competing against the colorful landscape below her flanks.
Most autumn visitors to Denali National Park prefer to attempt an annual luck-of-the-draw drive with the Denali Park Road Lottery, the application for which begins in May, with winners drawn in July. For the lucky who win a spot, a permit is issued allowing the bearer, their entourage, and a personal vehicle to drive the entire 90 miles from the entrance area to Wonder Lake in one day. It’s dusty, bumpy, and often exhausting, but for lottery winners, worth every bone-jarring, jaw-dropping moment. Curious about the lottery? Read about the process HERE.
For those not so lucky to win a permit, or who choose to visit after lottery weekend (generally the second weekend in September), there are still plenty of opportunities to play in the greater Denali National Park area. Below are some great options for families:
1. Camping. Why not? Riley Creek Campground is open ALL YEAR, and can be a lovely, bug-free experience in the fall. Bring extra warm, weather-proof clothing, firewood, and let your kids experience Alaska from the ground up, literally. A few other Denali National Park campgrounds stay open in the fall, check out their list HERE.
2. Visitor Centers. The experience of roaming the Denali National Park visitor centers before mid-September is simply delightful. No crowds of people, access to Junior Ranger backpacks, art kits, and guided hikes and walks; the list goes on. Park Service rangers are always thrilled to see late-season visitors, and kids in particular. If you’ve won the Road Lottery, the main visitor center also acts as the check-in kiosk. After that week, operations for the park move to Murie Science and Learning Center across the road, and is open all winter.
3. Dogs. Did you know Denali National Park operates the last NPS sled dog kennel in the United States? Yep, and oh, my, those pups are cute. Stop by through mid-September for a demonstration and the opportunity to walk through the kennels and give a pat to this dedicated team of park protectors. Oh, and the current litter of puppies is usually tumbling around in their kennel.
4. Hikes. Crazy-beautiful hiking exists in the fall. The smells, the sights, the sounds – everything is both amplified and simple during the autumn months. From August to September, leaves provide a lovely backdrop for kids to explore. Try any trail around the entrance area, Savage River, or even Polychrome Overlook further up the road. Each is unique, and each might bring more wildlife to your viewfinder! Note: After the Road Lottery Weekend, all private vehicles are allowed to drive up to 30 miles into the park, until snow shuts down the road. Take advantage of this opportunity!
5. Wildlife. Really, that’s why most people venture into Denali National Park. Bears, moose, caribou, foxes, and even the occasional wolf can be spotted from the park road, making the experience even more special. Do heed all warnings and posted signs, however, as Denali wildlife are not the urban critters you might see wandering the streets of Anchorage.
EXTRAS: Pay attention to weather in Denali National Park, as it can and does change in seconds. Sun to wind and rain, or even snow, can occur at any time, so call ahead 907-683-2294 for current conditions, especially after Road Lottery Weekend. Bring your own food, water, and extra snacks to last an entire day on the road. No services area available, and it’s a bummer to be stuck 30 miles up a dirt road with hungry, thirsty kids (or grownups). If camping, consider purchasing some prepared, healthy, and extremely yummy snacks from Adventure Appetites, a local company whose food beats the typical backpacker fare. We love it. Fill the car with fuel before driving anywhere; during late fall/winter months, the closest gas station is at least 12 miles from the entrance area. If you have an infant or small child in diapers, bring enough for a few days; none are available anywhere in the entrance area.
LODGING: Visit the Denali Chamber of Commerce for a great listing of B&Bs, hotels, and cabins for rent during the fall and winter months, very helpful once the main cruise industry hotels shut down for the season.