views of snow capped denali national park

How To Spend Three Days In Denali National Park

Visiting Alaska and Denali National Park was one of the most extraordinary opportunities of my life. We spent three days in Denali, where we saw wildlife and the tallest mountain in North America, hiked, and camped under the midnight sun.

For a place that sees less than 500,000 visitors, I count myself lucky to have been one of the few people to set foot here. But hopefully, if you’re reading this, it means you, too, will be visiting Denali in the near future. If that is true, I hope this Denali National Park itinerary and guide help you plan a trip!

I will say there are far fewer things to do here than in other National parks. The hiking is limited, and if you don’t score transit bus passes, you might find yourself with a lot of free time. If that’s the case, embrace the slowness and enjoy being out in the wild.

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How Many Days in Denali?

I personally think that three days and two nights is the perfect amount of time to explore Denali National Park. This is even more apparent with the current road conditions limiting the transit busses at Mile 43 due to a landslide.

In three days, you’ll get to do some hiking, see the scenery and wildlife, and enjoy life in central Alaska.

a tourist spreads her arms on her trip to alaska
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Should You Visit Denali?

Yes, you should! I view Denali National Park more as a ‘holy grail’ than just a place to see. People talk about Denali all across the country, and being able to say that you visited and explored is something that can never be taken away. Now, there’s not much to do outside of the main hiking trails, which can be a bummer to some.

But there are some cool activities to check out that will help fill up your long days in Alaska.

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Overall Thoughts on Denali National Park

Denali is a genuinely remarkable national park, but it’s also challenging to experience. With it being so vast and not easy to travel in, it can make it hard to really “see Denali.” This is where flightseeing comes in.

I strongly recommend to anyone they take a flightseeing tour (all flight options). This will showcase the Alaskan Range, get you up close to Denali and her glaciers, and show off what makes this one of the most magical places on Earth.

Most people take the trip from Talkeetna (because it’s closest to Anchorage), but you can also take it from near the Denali Park Entrance. Either trip is highly worth it, and you’ll have memories and photos forever.

Even if you don’t want to pay for a flight, hopefully, the skies will be clear, and you’ll see The Great One from the ground!

the denali bus in alaska
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Summer Adventures: Three-Day Denali National Park Itinerary

Here’s how our trip to Denali went down! If you have a transit bus pass, I would 100% take it as far as possible and hop on and off at various points. If we had this chance, we would have!

Day 1 in Denali

We left Talkeetna sometime after 1pm (our Denali flight trip was bumped back a day due to weather, so we had a later start) for the 2.5-hour drive to Denali National Park. First off, it’s a majestic drive. We were also lucky to have clear skies and could see Denali. There are two spots I recommend stopping at: Denali View North and South.

We stopped at the South one, which was an hour away from Talkeetna.

After checking into the campground, setting up, and eating dinner, we headed into the park for a nice evening drive. (It was 10pm!) We had the place to ourselves and enjoyed taking it slow and soaking in the magical views of the Alaskan Range!

(If we’d gotten there earlier, I wanted to do Mount Healy.)

jagged peaks of the alaskan range
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Day 2 in Denali

The following morning, as we were heading out, we spotted a momma moose and two calves near the visitor center. After watching them for a bit, we headed down the road towards Savage River.

The Savage River Trail is a 2.5, pretty easy hike that loops around the river bend. It’s one of the few established trails in the area that isn’t on tundra. This took us 90 minutes, but we wanted to see more of the park!

But we didn’t have a bus permit in 2021, so we started walking on the road, and shortly after, a nice family picked us up and drove us a few miles down the road. Here, we hopped out and walked two miles up a hill with stunning views of Denali.

On our way back, we encountered a herd of Caribou, allowing us to cross that off our Alaska checklist. That evening, we saw another moose family before enjoying a campfire and heading to bed.

Day 3 in Denali

Our final day in Denali National Park was brief. We packed up our campsite and drove a few miles into the park to where we could see The Great One.

Here, we made breakfast and enjoyed the views before flipping around for the next leg of our journey – Wrangell St. Elias National Park.

NOTE: I would check out the kennel dogs at some point. We were still in pandemic mode, so I’m not sure if they had them out, but in 2024 and beyond, it would be cool to see.

a hiker looks out at the landscape in denali national park
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Where to Stay in the Area

Lodging in Denali

If you’re not in the camping or backpacking mood, there are some excellent lodging options in the Denali area. I would not expect to find too many in the budget variety, but there are some top-tier spots to stay at while on your trip.

Denali (by park entrance)

If you want to minimize your drive time and be right by the park, these are your best bets. They will be more expensive, but these look pretty dang special! Make sure to book these far in advance as they sell out for summer.

$$ – Denali Rainbow Village RV Park and Motel
$$ – Denali Grizzly Bear Resort
$$$ – McKinley Chalet Resort
$$$ – Denali Bluffs Hotel
$$$ – Denali’s Crows Nest Cabins
$$$$ – Grande Denali Lodge
$$$$ – Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge

Healy (15 minutes north of the park entrance)

Are you looking for a little cheaper accommodation? These in Healy are geared towards those looking for more budget-friendly lodging. Or, they will be the only ones left because there are only a handful near the park entrance. Still, they are pretty good to use for your Denali National Park itinerary.

(Side note: we were able to pay for showers in Healy while camping, which felt so good!)

$$ – Denali Park Hotel
$$ – Denali Totem Inn
$$ – Denali Tri-Valley Cabins
$$ – Aurora Denali Lodge
$$ – White Moose Lodge Hotel
$$$ – Arctic Dragonfly Inn
$$$ – Earthsong Lodge

Denali National Park Camping

There are five campgrounds in Denali National Park (plus Wonder Lake if/when it reopens). Three of them are accessible by car, while two are only accessible by bus.

  • Riley Creek Campground – Right at the park entrance; open to tents and RV’s
  • Savage River Campground – Mile 14; open to tents and RV’s
  • Sanctuary River Campground – Mile 22; bus access only and open to only tents
  • Teklanika Campground – Mile 29; Three-night stay required if you drive here (RV and tent available) –
  • Igloo Creek – access by bus only and open to tents only

Our experience camping here was terrific, and we had no issues with wildlife or weather. Just remember that it doesn’t get “dark” until 2am, and even then, it’s still pretty light out. If you do camp, make sure to have an eye mask.

Backpacking

I briefly looked into backpacking, but it’s not as easy as it is in the Lower 48, and we would have needed to bring all of our gear up here.

So, I’m by no means an expert, but here’s what I can tell you.

The park is broken up into units, and you can get a permit to backpack in unit 30, for example. If you want to go from one unit to another, you’d need to have multiple unit permits. That said, backpacking in Denali is slow-moving, thanks to the tundra. We hiked a bit on it, and we moved so slowly and hardly covered any ground, even though it felt like we were moving forever.

So, if you are considering backpacking, lower your expectations and mileage, as you’ll cover far less terrain than you’d normally do.

Denali National Park Hikes

There are very few hikes in Denali National Park, which might surprise some, considering when they think of Denali, they surely think of epic hiking. The thing is, you can hike literally anywhere in Denali. The problem? It’s not on established trails, making it slow going.

Here are some of the top trails. Most, if not all, are within the first 20 miles. After that, you can blaze your own path.

mountain and river views from denali national park and the savage river trail
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch
  1. Mt. Healy Overlook Trail
    • Distance: 5 miles round trip
    • Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
    • Highlights: Stunning panoramic views of the park, wildlife sightings, and diverse flora.
  2. Savage River Loop Trail (Limited Parking)
    • Distance: 2 miles round trip
    • Difficulty: Easy
    • Highlights: Scenic river views, easy terrain, and opportunities to see wildlife.
    • NOTE: You can do the Savage Alpine Trail, which is 4 miles long and connects the Savage Campground to the start of the Savage River Trail. If you went there and back, plus the loop, it would be a 10-mile day.
  3. Horseshoe Lake Trail
    • Distance: 3 miles round trip
    • Difficulty: Easy
    • Highlights: Beautiful lake views, beaver dams, and chances to spot moose.
  4. Triple Lakes Trail
    • Distance: 9.5 miles one way
    • Difficulty: Strenuous
    • Highlights: Three picturesque lakes, diverse ecosystems, and fewer crowds.
  5. Taiga Loop Trail
    • Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
    • Difficulty: Easy
    • Highlights: A short and easy loop starting from the Bus Station area.
  6. Rock Creek Trail (Currently closed)
    • Distance: 4.4 miles round trip
    • Difficulty: Moderate
    • Highlights: Lush forest, creek views, and potential wildlife encounters.
  7. Eielson Alpine Trail (Currently closed)
    • Distance: 2 miles round trip
    • Difficulty: Strenuous
    • Highlights: High alpine terrain, incredible views of Denali, and a challenging ascent.
  8. McKinley Station Trail
    • Distance: 3 miles
    • Difficulty: Easy
    • Highlights: A hike along Riley Creek. This combines the campground and bus station
  9. Bison Gulch
    • Distance: 7 miles round trip
    • Difficulty: Hard
    • Highlights: Mountain views, less crowded, and a great chance to experience the park’s wilderness.
  10. Wonder Lake Trail (Currently closed)
    • Distance: 5 miles round trip
    • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
    • Highlights: Stunning views of Wonder Lake, reflections of Denali, and excellent photography opportunities.

Things to Do Near Denali National Park

Explore Talkeetna

My partner and I loved Talkeetna. It’s a super cute town and a great place to stay before or after visiting Denali. This is also where I’d recommend booking a flightseeing tour of Denali.

One tip: If you want a great view of Denali at sunset while you eat ice cream or have some wine, the Talkeetna Riverfront Park is the spot to be. Just walk to the water’s edge, and you’ll see it!

lookout at at denali from talkeetna river front
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Check out Fairbanks

If you are looking for the midnight sun, check out Fairbanks! I’ve only visited during the winter months for the aurora, but it’s a nice spot to stop if you’re heading to the Arctic Circle.

One tip: They have A LOT of Thai food, and it’s all amazing!

See the Old Denali Highway

This is 100% off the beaten path, but it was one of the highlights of our trip. We drove the Old Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxson, which is a 135-mile dirt road through the heart of Alaska. For most of it, you’ll be the only person for dozens of miles.

Rental car agencies usually prohibit you from using their cars here, but if you rent from Turo or a spot that does allow it, I highly recommend driving through this untouched wilderness.

Wildlife Watch

Denali National Park is one of America’s best places to view wildlife. If things turn up aces, you’ll see moose, caribou, grizzlies, and much more! It’s a truly phenomenal place to see.

But remember, these are wild animals. Please use caution when watching them and do not approach them – especially those with babies.

Tips for spotting wildlife:

  • Dawn and dusk are great time to see them
  • They will blend into the landscape, so binoculars are key
  • Moose like to hang out by the visitor center as it’s a “safe” zone
  • A 400mm lens is needed for photography, but a 600mm is ideal.
  • The rule of thumb is to stay 25 yards away from herbivores and 100 yards from carnivores.

FAQ: Denali National Park Itinerary

How to get to Denali?

Most people will drive here, but there is a train. The train starts in Anchorage and will take you to the park entrance. You can continue on to Fairbanks or return to Anchorage. This is a great way to see Alaska if you do not want to rent a car or are here on a cruise.

Alaska Railroad Anchorage to Denali One Way
Alaska Railroad Denali to Anchorage One Way

When does “winter” start here?

Winter in Denali starts in mid-September 2024 (September 13, to be exact). While it isn’t snowy, this is when their “winter” calendar kicks off, and the summer bus stops running. Other park services are also limited after this date.

When can I reserve summer bus and campground reservations in Denali?

Start planning early! These reservations opened on December 1, the year prior. (For summer 2024, reservations started on December 1, 2023.) Making your Denali National Park itinerary early will save you a lot of headaches later on.

What campgrounds are open?

Currently, all campgrounds are open this summer except Wonder Lake. Once the road is cleared (TBD), this should change. But we don’t know when the road will be improved.

Do I need more than four days?

The only way you’d need more than four days here is if you’re backpacking. I mean, yes, you could spend a week here hiking and sightseeing, but if you’re trying to go to multiple places, you only need three days in Denali.

Final Thoughts on Visiting Denali National Park

Exploring Denali National Park is a bucket list opportunity that so many hope and wish for in their lifetime. Getting to see the park, fly over it, and photograph the tallest mountain in North America was an opportunity of a lifetime and one I’ll never forget.

I hope this three-day Denali National Park itinerary helps point you in the right direction and allows you to have a wonderful time exploring Alaska!

Until next time, adventurers, stay safe.

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Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on ExploreWithAlec.com. Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside