Home to the highest peak in North America, Denali National Park is a vast and untamed wilderness. The park features some of the most rugged terrain in Alaska, a state that is known for its wild landscapes. At the heart of Denali sits the 20,194-foot mountain with which the park shares its name.
On a clear day, the summit of the mountain—which was formerly known as Mount McKinley—can be seen in Anchorage, which sits nearly 250 miles to the south.
Viewed up close from within the national park, Denali stands as a stone sentinel over a wilderness stuffed with wild animals, wild terrain, and wild dreams. Here’s a guide to this unforgettable destination and how to explore it from an RV.
Why Visit Denali National Park in Your RV?
Spread out across almost 5 million acres of land, Denali National Park is enormous. That leaves a lot of ground to cover on your vacation. Wouldn’t you rather camp inside the park, catching a shuttle bus every morning to a new hiking destination?
Driving outside the park’s boundaries every night to stay at a motel takes time that could be used to explore Denali’s wonders. With your RV in a park campground, you may even spot some of the park’s most popular residents, like moose, marmots, and bears.
When to Visit Denali National Park
Denali is open year-round, although your experience in visiting the park will vary greatly depending on when you go. This is what you should expect during each season:
Denali National Park in Spring
Spring is slow in coming to Denali, with cold conditions and snow common throughout April. Dress in warm layers and expect conditions to change quickly. The Park Service begins plowing the road in mid-March, with the weather slowly changing after that.
By May, temperatures begin to rise, and the skies clear, as it is the driest month of the year inside the park. The average temperature at this time of year hovers around 28ºF but warms into the 40s as the spring moves along.
Denali National Park in Summer
In the summer, warmer temperatures arrive at long last. Occasional rain showers and 20+ hours of daylight help the park green up quickly, and wildflowers are in bloom throughout June, July, and August. The summer brings plenty of mosquitoes, so pack your bug spray and a rain jacket.
By late-July temperatures begin to drop once again, and August can sometimes be chilly. It is not uncommon for it to snow in the park at that time, so an extra layer of clothing is always appreciated.
The average temperature throughout the summer is about 53ºF, with the mercury occasionally climbing into the 60s on clear, sunny days. June, July, and August see the most precipitation of any of the four seasons, so bring a rain jacket.
Denali National Park in Autumn
By early fall, the park has already begun to shift towards the off-season. After Labor Day, the number of visitors quickly wanes, and weather conditions start to turn the corner toward winter. Visitor centers often shutter for the season by mid-October, and cold temperatures and snow become more common.
It is a good time to visit with the proper clothing and an adventurous attitude, as the autumn colors are spectacular and the crowds are nonexistent. Autumn temperatures quickly fall to an average of 25ºF, with cool breezes and less-frequent rainfall.
Denali National Park in Winter
Winters are cold and harsh inside Denali National Park, which sees only the hardiest of adventurers in December, January, and February. It is not uncommon for temperatures to drop to -40ºF, with the occasional heavy snowfall.
The days are incredibly short at this time, with very few daylight hours. Most of the park’s services and locations are closed for the season, although rangers still maintain a presence at all times.
The average temperature during the winter is just 5ºF, although it is possible for conditions to be much colder. It is advised that only seasoned outdoor enthusiasts with plenty of experience in winter backcountry travel venture into the park at this time.
Where to Stay
There are six established campgrounds in Denali National Park, three of which are open to motorized vehicles with access via car or RV. The other three are only accessible by shuttle bus. Those campgrounds include the following:
- Riley Creek Campground – Located near the entrance, Riley is open year-round and allows tent camping and RVs no longer than 40 ft.
- Savage River Campground – Located at Mile 14, the campground is open from mid-May to mid-September with campsites for RVs and tents.
- Sanctuary River Campground – Located at Mile 22, Sanctuary is only allows tent camping and is accessible by bus. It is open from mid-May to mid-September.
- Teklinika Campground – Located at Mile 29, this campground accepts RVs and tents and is open from mid-May to mid-September.
- Igloo Creek Campground – Located at Mile 35, Igloo is open from mid-May to mid-September for tent camping.
- Wonder Lake Campground – Located at Mile 85, this campground is open June 8 to mid-September for tents only.
Staying Outside the Park
If you’re looking for RV camping that includes electricity, water, internet, and other amenities, there are a few options nearby. Those private campgrounds include:
- Denali RV Park & Motel – This campground has back-in and pull-thru sites, showers, and a gift shop.
- Denali Rainbow Village RV Park – This popular park has 54 full hookup sites with showers and laundry available.
- Denali Grizzly Bear Resort – With 21 RV campsites, wireless internet access, clean restrooms, and onsite laundry, this is a popular place to park your motorhome.
- Cantwell RV Park – With 76 RV sites, on-premise showers, laundry, and dump stations, plus good cell coverage and Wi-Fi, this is a popular place to park your RV.
Tips for Your Camping Stay
- Reservations are suggested, as the campgrounds fill up quickly in the summer. All locations to camp in Denali can be booked using the park’s third-party reservation partner.
- Riley Creek, Savage River, and Teklanika River are the only RV-accessible campgrounds in the park.
- None of the campgrounds have hookups or showers.
- In all campgrounds, campsite selection occurs upon arrival — not in advance. Sites are classified as a certain type. You must select an unoccupied site according to the type you reserved.
- The maximum stay is 14 nights during the summer season.
- Quiet hours run from 10 pm to 6 am in all park campgrounds.
How to Get To Around Denali National Park
Getting to the park is easy. Travel the Parks Highway (Alaska 3) north from Anchorage for approximately 240 miles or south from Fairbanks for 120 miles to reach the entrance to Denali. Both roads are well marked and offer good signage.
Denali is a massive park, about the size of New Hampshire. However, there is only one road within its boundaries. Denali Park Road takes visitors from the park entrance about 92 miles into the interior, crossing open valleys and mountain passes.
Most people travel the road via shuttle buses, but cars and RVs are allowed to drive to the end of the paved portion to access campgrounds and the Eielson Visitor Center. That point sits at Mile 15, after which no private vehicles are allowed.
Places to Go
For a place with only one road, there certainly is a lot to see on a visit to Denali National Park. Here are just a few places to have on your must-do list:
Denali Visitor Center
Open during the summer season, the Denali Visitor Center is located at the entrance to the park. A movie and several exhibits describing Denali’s natural and geologic history are on display here. The center is a great place to check in with park rangers to get updated information about what’s happening in the park or to join them on a guided tour. Visitors can also pay their entry fees here and get backcountry permits as well.
Eielson Visitor Center
Also only open during the summer months, visitors can find this center at Mile 66 of Denali Park Road. It is accessible by park shuttle or Kantishna Experience tour bus and offers restrooms, ranger programs, and a small art gallery. This is a good location to stretch your legs while exploring the Denali wilderness.
Murie Science and Learning Center
Serving as the winter visitor center for Denali during the winter, spring, and fall, this structure displays research from living laboratories in the national parks in northern Alaska. It is located at Mile 1.4 on Denali Park Road. During the summer months, the MSLC offers science activities that are educational and fun on a daily basis. Check the schedule when visiting to see what’s on tap.
Denali Bus Depot
Purchase bus tickets, make reservations, and check in at the Bus Depot, which opens in mid-May and closes in mid-September each year. This is the main hub for bus tours and other transportation in the park. If you want to hop a ride into Denali’s backcountry—and get a closer look at the mountain itself—you’ll want to stop here.
Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station
Located in the town of Talkeetna, approximately 100 miles southeast of the park, this is the main center for mountaineers preparing to climb Denali. Here, climbers can get intel on the current conditions on the mountain and obtain their climbing permits. The station is open year-round, with limited services in the winter.
Toklat River Contact Station
Found at mile 53 on the park road, the Toklat River Contact Station is a small outpost that is accessible by shuttle and tour bus. The location has restrooms, a quaint bookshop, and visitor information. It is typically staffed by knowledgeable and helpful park rangers and representatives of the Alaska Geographic Association—one of the park’s nonprofit partners.
Located near the end of the paved portion of Denali Park Road, visitors can take a shuttle to the area and spend a day or a week camping and exploring the backcountry. The Savage River Loop Trail is a short hike—1.7 miles roundtrip—along the river, where it cuts through a canyon. Wildlife is plentiful, and a campground is available for those who wish to stay longer.
Things to Do in Denali National Park
Denali is a vast, open playground for outdoor enthusiasts with many things to see and do. Here are some ways you can enjoy the park while visiting:
One of the best ways to see the park in winter is from the back of a dog sled. Rangers continue a tradition that began in the 1920s, running dog sled patrols during the year’s colder months. The park has many routes that are maintained just for sled dog teams, or adventurous visitors can choose to break their own trails.
Visitors who want to go dogsledding in Denali should contact EarthSong Lodge. The rustic resort is located near the park and is the only commercial guide service operating inside its boundaries.
Denali’s vast landscapes are perfect for snowmobiling, and there is nothing quite like experiencing the park during the winter. Bring your own sled—or join a tour—and explore the vast winter wilderness in Denali. Be sure to check the park’s website for news releases and maps to see which areas are accessible to riders and to get updates on current conditions.
There are two ways to day hike in Denali National Park, on-trail or off. Most marked trails can be found near the entrance and are located around the visitor center (the distances listed are one-way):
- Bike Path – 1.7 miles
- Horseshoe Lake Trail – 1 mile
- McKinley Station Trail – 1.6 miles
- Roadside Trail – 1.8 miles
- Rock Creek Trail – 2.4 miles
- Tiaga Trail – .9 miles
- Triple Lakes Trail – 9.5 miles
There are a few marked trails further into the park, including hiking routes at the Savage River area, Eielson Visitor Center, and Wonder Lake. Many visitors enjoy hiking off-trail, preferring to explore where their feet take them.
While the idea of wandering into this vast wilderness without a route to follow may seem intimidating at first, it isn’t as daunting as you might think. The park’s single road and regular bus service make it easy to hop on and off where you choose and provide a good safety net for finding your way back to civilization.
Hike away from the road and make your way back to it when the hike is complete–just keep a close watch on the time and make sure you know the shuttle schedule If hiking in groups, spread out so as not to permanently trample fragile tundra, and to avoid bears, make some noise. Always hike with the proper gear, including food, water, an extra layer of clothing, and a map and compass.
Backpacking in Denali is an adventure unlike any other. The park’s remote and wild backcountry is one of the last true wildernesses on the planet, with endless miles of open country to explore. Those who embark on a journey into this breathtakingly beautiful land will find no trails to guide their way, nor any established campgrounds. But they are rewarded with a great sense of solitude and a connection with nature.
Permits are required for all backpackers traveling through Denali National Park. The permits are free and can be obtained at the Denali Bus Depot. Check in at the Backcountry Information Center to complete the proper paperwork and share your intended schedule. A bear-resistant canister is required for storing food.
Note: Denali’s backcountry is a wild and remote place that isn’t always accommodating to beginner backpackers. It is recommended that inexperienced hikers travel with veteran backpackers or a professional guide. The National Park Service also recommends that anyone visiting the backcountry watch a series of orientation videos before arriving at the park.
For more tips on planning your adventure, visit the park’s backpacking/backcountry orientation page.
Denali’s wilderness setting makes it a fantastic place to spot wildlife. Whether you’re traveling on foot or aboard a shuttle bus, chances are you’ll see some of the park’s amazing animal inhabitants. Keep your eyes peeled for moose, grizzly and black bears, Dall sheep, caribou, marmots, wolves, foxes, or any of the other species that call the Alaska range home.
The Park Service has even provided visitors with a list of areas where wildlife tends to venture along the road.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
If you’re staying at one of the campsites inside Denali National Park, you’ll have access to fresh water but not much of anything else. Here are a few tips to help you prepare for your trip:
- Bring plenty of food and water along with you, as exiting the park to get supplies can involve a long drive.
- If you’re traveling outside of the summer season, it is a good idea to make sure you have plenty of gas in the tank, too.
- Always bring bug spray and sunscreen, both of which are especially important during the summer months.
- If you’ll be hiking or backpacking, bear spray is a must, and a bear canister is required if you camp in the backcountry.
- A good pair of comfortable hiking boots are highly recommended no matter what time of year you visit.
- Bring a versatile layering system to help you stay comfortable. Weather conditions can change quickly, and the park can sometimes get very cold in the middle of summer.
- A rain jacket is necessary from late spring to late fall, and a down jacket will be useful anytime.
- Fleece layers and active base layers are also good travel apparel for Denali.
A Brief History of Denali National Park
Evidence suggests that indigenous people have lived on the boundary of what is now Denali National Park for more than 8,000 years. Those tribes likely hunted and migrated across the area but found the mountains to be too inhospitable for permanent settlement. Due to high altitudes, rugged terrain, and hard winter conditions, those early Native Americans tended to set up camp elsewhere.
That changed about 1,500 years ago when the Athabaskan people settled in the region as they made much of Alaska their home. They created more permanent encampments within the park’s boundaries, learning to live off the land and adapt to the harsh conditions. Today the Tanana, Dena’ina, and Koyukon peoples are descendants of the park’s inhabitants. In fact, the name “Denali” is Athabaskan for “the high one.”
In 1897, a prospector who entered the region actually named the great mountain in front of him for the US president at that time, and thus began a years-long dispute over the name. For many Americans, the peak would always be “Mount McKinley,” but for the indigenous tribes, it would remain “Denali.”
A mere 20 years later, Mount McKinley National Park came into being, creating a protected space around the mountain. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter designated a separate parcel as Denali National Monument. Two years later, the national park and the monument were combined to create Denali National Park, but the name of the peak hadn’t officially changed. That was rectified in 2015, almost 100 years after the initial park was created Mount McKinely officially became Denali once more.
Have you ever been to Denali National Park? What were your experiences there?
Shelley Dennis is a travel photographer and writer who threw caution to the wind and gave up most of her belongings to travel the country in an RV. Her trusty sidekick for this lifetime adventure is her Golden Retriever, Sully. You can find them both at www.PhotoTrippingAmerica.com