AK Kid gazed wonderingly across the tundra-clad valley near the Savage River check station. “We can see so far away,” my Anchorage-raised son mused. “I think I’ll like it here.” And like it, he did, even though we were a mere 15 miles into one of Alaska’s most fantastic family travel gems: Denali National Park.
A last-minute decision on my part to blast up the Parks Highway some 4.5 hours north from Anchorage, I had made no reservations beyond lodging (we stayed at Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge in nearby Nenana Canyon). Curious to see if a family could indeed combine enough National Park with value-added activities, my young explorer and I hit the ground running early Friday morning, hovering around the 15 mile roadway that introduces visitors to Denali National Park.
This post focuses on the Denali National Park entrance area, actually a conglomeration of three unique facilities – the Wilderness Access Center (WAC), Denali Visitor Center (DVC), and Murie Science and Learning Center. Each is accessible from the Parks Highway via road or via an excellent trail system, and it’s worth spending time learning the unique attributes. WAC is where you’ll pick up shuttle tickets (if you want to venture further than the 15 miles to Savage River), get a map, learn about bear safety, and watch the myriad backcountry hikers get ready for their own adventures. DVC is the hub of visitor operations, and a fantastic two-story series of exhibits explaining the park’s history, culture, and environment are worth at least an hour of time, including the use of Kids’ Discovery Packs, available at the door. It’s also a great spot for a little break should kiddos become tired and/or hungry, with a cafeteria-style grill situated a mere toddle from the main center. Interpretive signs and short walks circle the property, and AK Kid loved to follow the puppy and dinosaur prints painted on the pathways, from one building to the next.
Lastly, stop by the Murie Science and Learning Center, operated by Alaska Geographic and the newest building on the park grounds. Truly a place to learn and grow, MSLC provides a deeper understanding of the park’s makeup, including some fascinating information about the critters who inhabit the area. A wonderful Kids’ Corner is full of books, touchable exhibits, and activities to engage little ones while parents catch up with their own learning. Older kids will enjoy utilizing the interactive computers throughout the center, taking quizzes and reading age-appropriate essays about Denali National Park and the people who made it a reality. To reach all three of these centers, park in any of their lots and follow the signage (or painted prints). It’s a great walk, and a fun journey of discovery. Allow at least two hours to see all three, travel time included.
My biggest happy dance came from the knowledge that the entire Denali National Park entrance area, and the subsequent two miles to Park Headquarters, are full of completely accessible and kid-friendly pathways. Have infants? Pop them in a jog stroller and away you go. Toddlers or preschoolers? No prob – the trail tread is crushed gravel, mostly level, and a great place to teach both hiking and bear-aware skills (although I saw nary a sign of bruins in the entrance area, and rangers tell me it rarely happens). The addition of interpretive signs and the popular Junior Ranger program make this area a wonderful experience, indeed.
Park Headquarters, two miles up the Park Road, is where you’ll find the only working National Park sled dog team in America. Friendly, squirmy, and people-acclimated dogs are simply estatic to see people, and are trained to do some canine ambassadorship to the thousands of park visitors each summer. Demonstrations are offered daily at 10 a.m., 2 p.m, and 4 p.m., and are certainly worth a stop, even if you are Alaskan and think you already know everything about sled dogs. Just look at AK Kid, one of the know-it-alls, cuddling with “Sylvie”, a decidedly lovely old lady of mushing. Each year a litter of pups is born, and these dogs will be the future of the DNP team in two years, and NPS rangers work hard to make it so. The demonstration itself is about 15 minutes of talking by a ranger, followed by a short spin around the property, and then some photo ops. The value to us came in seeing the traditional leather harnesses and sled, and visiting the Sled Room, where history came alive and we could nearly feel the harsh Denali National Park winter settle in upon us. Loved it.
Getting around the Park entrance area is simple with or without your own vehicle. Shuttles run from all three of the visitor centers, to HQ and back, and further up the road to Savage River, a place we’ll discuss in our next post and where family hiking is primo. If you take the shuttle and plan to hike around between the facilities, bring snacks, drinks, and appropriate clothing for ever-changing weather. And relax – you’re on Park Time, now. The wilderness is at your feet; let it be there.