Kid-Friendly Day Hikes in Denali National Park

Today’s incredible weather makes me want to dig out the hiking boots, fill up my favorite water bottle, and hit the trail with happy anticipation. Holy sunspots, Batman, what a day! If you are among the fortunate to be hanging out in Denali National Park right now, you will be among the 30% of folks lucky enough to see mighty Mt. McKinley herself. Don’t forget to take it all in while enjoying some of the best family-friendly hikes in Alaska.

Last weekend, AK Kid and I focused upon a wide section of real estate surrounding the DNP entrance area and the 15 miles of road accessible to private vehicles. In a previous post, I talked up activities within the visitor centers and nearby sled dog kennels. But Denali is, of course, more than just a casual stroll around a beautiful building. Even when traveling with small children, hiking Denali NP can be rewarding and tons of fun, and the Park Service has worked hard to bring hiking accessibility to visitors, especially those with shorter legs and even shorter attention spans.

A few favorites, found HERE on the NPS map:

Park Road in the distance, from Savage Canyon Trail.

Savage River Loop and Savage River Canyon. Located at Mile 15 of the Park Road, terminus for private vehicles not possessing a special permit, Savage River offers level alpine hiking with the added bonus of an interesting river, cute rodents, and lots of other kids. We hiked the Canyon trail loop to a fun footbridge and a bit beyond, capturing amazing views of Primrose Ridge and Mt. Margaret. The tread here is narrow and rocky, but still manageable for kids preschool on up, provided they remember the “no running” rule. Bring a lunch for a picnic atop one of the rocks near the footbridge, then hike back to the Day Use area on the other side of the river, a two-mile round trip. For those who merely wish to stroll along a lovely river, catch the Nature Trail loop on the south side of the road’s bridge, and enjoy the wildflowers, arctic ground squirrels, and babbling streams fed by the swift Savage River. Restrooms and picnic areas are available on both sides of the river, and there are enough pools of shallow water for a little wading if the weather is warm. Do bring bug spray, extra clothing, and your best bear-aware behavior. Strollers are not appropriate for the Canyon trail, but will work well on the Nature Trail, provided it is of the off-road type.

Mountain Vista Day Use Area. A great choice for families due to its level tread and amazing views of the Alaska Range, not to mention a host of great picnic spots and bathrooms, Mountain Vista is adjacent to Savage River Campground at Mile 13-14. It’s a short trail, just over 1/2 mile, but Mountain Vista also offers interpretive signs showing the change in landscape and people since the park’s inception in the early 1900’s. Jog strollers will be fine, here. The tread is wide, but in an alpine brush area, so talk and sing and remember that bears will likely run the other way once they hear you.

Mountain Vista Day Use Area offers plenty of views and excellent hiking for small children.

Park Headquarters and surrounding trails. The most awesome feature about the entrance area of Denali National Park is the network of fabulous, kid-friendly trails right smack in front of visitors. A lovely option is to catch a shuttle to view the Sled Dog Kennels at Mile 3.4, then walk the two miles back to the Denali Visitor Center through a beautiful boreal forest. Listen to squirrels chatter and scold, investigate mossy areas and crowberries growing close to the ground, and take your time. The trail is mostly level, crushed gravel, and jog strollers will be fine, as will toddlers. Your Junior Rangers will be able to complete some sections of their book, too. Shuttle buses run according to the sled dog demonstration, and pick up riders about 30 minutes before the 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. programs.

AK Kid poses in the lush greenery surrounding Horseshoe Lake near the Park Entrance.

Horseshoe Lake. Oh my goodness, AK Kid pooh-poohed any trail that wasn’t “narrow” after our awesome Savage Canyon hike, so I pored over the entrance area map, hoping to find an appropriate trail for his enthusiastic but not-always-enduring 7 year-old legs. Bingo!  Horseshoe Lake trailhead is located at Mile 1.5, right next to the railroad tracks as you proceed up the Park Road from Highway 3. Utilize the parking spots next to the tracks, and follow the tracks about 50 feet to a safe crossing marked by a directional sign (psst, the train comes through about 11 a.m., how fun is that?) The trail is not suitable for strollers, due to its up/down and bumpy, narrow tread in many spots, but is well worth the effort to guide kids along. Infants and toddlers should definitely be in back or front packs – there are a few drop-offs early on. Follow the trail down until you see the little lake itself, then pick a social trail and explore the area. Beaver families have established quite a colony here, and it’s fun to see their work, provided you stay out of their yard (ha!). It’s buggy here, but not terribly so, and a small cluster of benches sit on the north side of the lake for a snack break.

Ready, set, HIKE!


Posted in Denali National Park, Hiking in Alaska.