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Denali National Park Activities and Visitor Center

More than a Mountain
Denali is six million acres of wild land, bisected by one ribbon of road. Travelers along it see the relatively low-elevation taiga forest give way to high alpine tundra and snowy mountains, culminating in North America’s tallest peak, 20,320′ Mount McKinley. Wild animals large and small roam unfenced lands, living as they have for ages. Solitude, tranquility and wilderness await.

Note that most activities in the park can be done independently,

The Denali Visitor Center
Built in 2005, the Denali Visitor Center and its surrounding “campus” are worth a stop, either at the beginning or end of your trip.

The center itself is the main National Park Service welcome and information center. Surrounding facilities include a restaurant, bookstore/giftshop, bag check, bus stop and railroad depot.

Exhibits in the Denali Visitor Center offer a chance to learn about this wild place.

Complete your trip by visiting the Denali Visitor Center, located at mile 1.5 on the Park Road.

The center offers visitors a chance to learn more about the park by speaking with park rangers, viewing the park film, “Heartbeats of Denali,” and exploring an exhibit area.

The film is about 20 minutes long, and is shown throughout the day on the hour and half-hour, with a few exceptions. It is a non-narrated film that shares with you the various seasons, landscapes and wildlife of this beautiful place.

Many ranger-led activities occur in or begin from the Denali Visitor Center. Most of the trails in Denali can be accessed from the center. There is ample parking at the facility for day-use.

Open: May 15 – mid-September, each year
Daily hours: 8 am – 6 pm

With the exception of Discovery Hikes, all ranger hikes, sled dog demonstrations, campground programs and other talks in Denali are free and do not require you to sign up in advance. Discovery Hikes are technically free, but will likely require you to purchase a bus ticket and you must sign up for them in advance.

A variety of ranger-led walks and hikes are offered throughout the park. Joining a ranger is an excellent way to learn more about Denali.

While on a guided walk, you will experience the park with all your senses. You may or may not see wildlife, but you will certainly see signs of their passing. You will also see the indelible traces of winter, the dominant season that shapes all life in the subarctic.

Ranger-led hikes are offered from early June to mid-September each year. Trail descriptions are below; you may also want to check out a map of hiking trails in the park.

A park ranger gathers visitors behind the Denali Visitor Center for a two hour trail walk.
nps photo / kent miller

Horseshoe Lake Walk
The Horseshoe Lake Walk starts from the Denali Visitor Center, mile 1.5 on the Park Road. Parking is available at the center. No sign-up is required – simply arrive at the center a few minutes before the group begins.

The trip is slow paced, though the trail does change from easy to moderate at various points. In wet weather, the trail can be muddy in areas. The program lasts about 2.5 hours.

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 3 miles round-trip
Highlights: Scenic views of Horseshoe Lake and the Nenana River; occasional sightings of beaver and other wildlife
Elevation change: – 250 feet
Grade: 20% sections
Width: 60 inches
Surface: Native soils with roots and rocks

McKinley Station Walk
This 2 hour trail walk starts at the Denali Visitor Center, mile 1.5 on the Park Road. Parking is available at the center. You do not need to sign up in advance.

The McKinley Station Trail travels through an area that once housed early pioneers and, for a short while, National Park Service Headquarters in Denali. Occasional human artifacts can be found, including the remnants of a fox-farm. The trail eventually parallels Riley Creek and passes under the Alaska Railroad trestle which spans said creek.

The walk ends at Riley Creek Campground, where folks can catch a courtesy bus back to the Denali Visitor Center.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 2.6 miles (2 hours) round-trip
Highlights: Spruce forest; historic pioneer artifacts and remnants of habitation; views of Hines Creek and Riley Creek; views of a railroad trestle spanning Riley Creek, – 75 feet overhead
Elevation change: – 200 feet
Grade: 5% sections
Width: 72 inches
Surface: Well-compacted gravel

Eielson Stroll
The Eielson Stroll is offered at Eielson Visitor Center. The center is located at Mile 66 on the Park Road, and is accessible by any Kantishna, Wonder Lake or Eielson shuttle bus. Choose a shuttle bus that arrives at Eielson Visitor Center well in advance. The stroll is at a leisurely pace. Expect to spend forty-five minutes to an hour exploring the trail with a ranger.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 0.5 miles
Highlights: High-alpine tundra, tremendous views of Mt. McKinley on clear days, and chances to see large mammals such as grizzly bears and caribou
Elevation change: Negligible
Surface: Well-compacted gravel

Eielson Alpine Hike
The Eielson Alpine Hike is offered at Eielson Visitor Center. Choose a bus that arrives at Eielson Visitor Center well in advance. The hike is strenuous. Expect to spend two to two and a half hours hiking up and down Thorofare Ridge with a ranger. Hikes are limited to the first 11 visitors who sign up at the center that day, so arrive early to ensure a spot on this strenuous but memorable hike.

Difficulty: Difficult
Distance: ~2 miles
Highlights: High-alpine tundra, tremendous views of Mt. McKinley on clear days, and chances to see large mammals such as grizzly bears and caribou
Elevation change: 1,000′ gain and loss
Surface: Native rocks, some gravel

Mount Healy Trail Hike
At 10 am daily (except Sundays), join a ranger at the Denali Visitor Center for a strenuous naturalist hike up the Mount Healy Trail. The hike is guided for two hours one-way up the Mount Healy Trail then you have the option to continue to the overlook on your own or return with the ranger to the Denali Visitor Center. Returning with the ranger means descending without naturalist stops, and you will thus arrive at the center by 12:30 pm.

Difficulty: Difficult to very difficult
Distance: Varies depending on conditions; minimum ~2 miles round trip
Highlights: Transition from boreal forest to tree-less alpine environment; occasional views of Mt. McKinley (on clear days)
Elevation change: Varies depending on conditions; minimum 500′ gain and loss
Surface: Native rocks, some gravel, some areas of mud and debris

Ranger Talks – Campground and Theater Programs
Located in the Denali Visitor Center, the Karstens Theater is normally the venue for “Heartbeats of Denali,” the twenty-minute long park film. Twice a day in mid-summer, however, we offer interpretive programs – often featuring beautiful images of the park – in the Karstens Theater.

To attend a program, simply arrive at the Denali Visitor Center (mile 1.5) a few minutes before the program is set to begin. Programs are offered at 9:00 am daily and 2:00 pm daily. Programs are offered from early June through mid-September each year.

Topics vary from the very specific (e.g., bears or other wildlife) to the general (e.g., sustainable living), but all connect to the greater themes found in the story of Denali National Park and Preserve.

The programs run about 45 minutes, and are followed by a showing of “Heartbeats of Denali.” Daily theater programs are made possible through the support of Princess Cruises and Holland America Line.

Sled Dog Demonstrations
Rangers and dogs work together to demonstrate a traditional Alaskan mode of travel. These unique, 30 minute programs include an opportunity to tour the park kennels and visit Denali’s Alaskan huskies.

Free buses leave the Denali Visitor Center for the kennels approximately forty (40) minutes before each demonstration. No parking is available at the kennels, so please plan on using the buses or walking the 1.5 miles from the Denali Visitor Center to the kennels.

Some seating is available for the demonstration, and there is plenty of standing room. Programs are given rain or shine, so be prepared with an umbrella or rain coat if skies look forbidding.

No fees or reservations, for either the bus or demonstration, are required.

Demonstrations are given three times daily in peak season, at 10 am, 2 pm and 4 pm.

Visiting the Kennels
The kennels are open to visitors year-round, generally from 8 am – 5 pm. Safety bulletins are posted at the kennels entrance – please read through these before walking into the kennels. Also, please do not bring pets into the kennels.

In summer (roughly mid-May through mid-September), you can easily reach the Headquarters and sled dog kennels via a courtesy bus. Public parking in this area is limited – if you drive yourself to the kennels, do not expect to find a parking spot.

In winter (roughly mid-September through mid-May), the kennels focus on preparing for long patrol trips in the park. You may get to see teams packing or harnessing to leave on a run, teams returning from a run, or you may find very few dogs in the kennel as the rest are out on a run.

Courtesy Shuttle Buses
Courtesy buses are identified as Riley Creek Loop, Savage River Shuttle or Sled Dog Demonstration in their marquis.
There are three free bus services available in the park’s entrance area to facilitate visitor travel between the various visitor service buildings. They are called the Savage River Shuttle, the Riley Loop Shuttle and the Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle.

As the facilities are somewhat spread out, the courtesy buses eliminate excess traffic, confusion, and parking challenges for those visitors not wishing to utilize the trails that link all facilities.
The main entrance area bus stops are located at the north end of the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) and the Denali Visitor Center (DVC) bus stop – between the Alaska Railroad Depot and the Denali Visitor Center complex.
All entrance area shuttle buses are wheelchair accessible. All operate daily and are free.Savage River Shuttle
This courtesy bus is perfect for visitors wishing to experience a short bus ride into the park. Regularly departing from the Denali Visitor Center and the Wilderness Access Center, this shuttle travels to trail heads at Mountain Vista and Savage River. At Savage River, Mile 14 on the park road, visitors can hike the Savage River Loop Trail, picnic beside the river, or just enjoy the 2-hour round trip ride.

This is a perfect activity if you only have a couple of hours or don’t have time to take one of the long shuttle rides further into the park.

Visitors may also access the Savage River Campground by taking this shuttle.

Riley Creek Loop Shuttle
This courtesy bus continuously circuits the entrance area, linking all major visitor facilities roughly every 30 minutes. Stops are located at the Riley Creek Campground, Wilderness Access Center, Denali Visitor Center bus stop, Murie Science and Learning Center, Riley Creek Mercantile, and the Horseshoe Lake/Mt. Healy Trailhead.

Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle
This round trip transportation service is the only way to get to the park sled dog demonstration other than walking.

Boarding takes place at the Denali Visitor Center (DVC) bus stop, and you must be there at least 40 minutes before demonstration time.

There is no parking at the kennels, and there are no late departures from the DVC bus stop. Demonstration times vary during shoulder seasons; check at the DVC bus stop or at the DVC for departure times. The walk from the DVC to the kennels is about 1.5 miles each way, mainly uphill on the way to the kennels.

You Have To Take A Bus To Get Into The Park
The park bus system is designed to provide access to visitors who want to see remote areas of the park, who want access to campgrounds, or who are hiking in Denali National Park. A bus is the only way to travel beyond Savage River on the Park Road. The idea is to keep the wilderness wild and to let the animals wander freely.

Free Buses
In the entrance area of Denali National Park, the park service offers free buses between Riley Creek Campground and the visitor center and park headquarters. There are free park buses to the sled dog demonstrations and another free hourly bus to Savage River. There are also free local buses and vans to take you to hotels, local businesses, raft companies, restaurants, and adventure tours.