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How We Explored Denali as a Family: 8 Cool Things to Do There with Kids

Denali National Park is a truly kid-friendly place: the park promotes multiple possibilities to explore the park as a family and has different activities for the big and small ones. Don’t forget to take your car seats as well as plenty of water, food, rain gear, and warm layers.

Denali National Park is a truly family-friendly place: the park promotes multiple possibilities to explore the area as a family and has different activities for the big and small ones.

We expected that the most challenging for us (for the 2 y.o., to be precise) would be the shuttle bus tour to the heart of the park. We chose the 6.5 hour round trip tour to Toklat River, but everything went surprisingly smoothly! Knowing that we would probably try the longer 8-hour tour to Eielson Center. By the way, we weren’t the only people there going on such a long tour with little ones.
Don’t forget to take your car seats as well as plenty of water, food, rain gear, and warm layers. If you are lucky, you’ll get a sight of the well-known highest peak in North America, Mount McKinley or Denali – “The high one” in Alaska Native language.

Start your visit from the Denali Visitor Center.
Check out activities, schedules and trail conditions, watch the movie about the National Park. They had a great variety of snacks upon our visit as well as many picnic tables. If you are really hungry, there is the Morino Grill restaurant next to the Visitor Center.

We really missed guides for identifying mushrooms and edible berries during our trip.
In Denali, there were tons of them, any size, color, and texture. Just after moving to the Pacific North West we realized, that many of berries were edible and are pretty tasty!

Here’s our list of top things to do in Denali with kids:

Exhibition at Denali Visitor Center

Junior Ranger Program

An excellent way for families to explore Denali National Park together. What I like the most about this program, is that it keeps children more interested and involved in exploring the park. They will talk to rangers, ask a lot of questions and bring home something more meaningful then gifts: a Junior Ranger Badge, memories, and excitement of taking the Junior Ranger Pledge. If you didn’t have time to complete the whole program on-site, you can mail the Junior Ranger Activity Book to the Visitor Center and receive the Badge via mail!

Huge mushroom along one of park’s trails

Denali Discovery Pack

Borrow Denali Discovery Pack – a backpack full of tools and fun activities kids can complete during the stay at the Denali National Park. We found it a little bit heavy to carry all day around the park for a 7 y/o child, but it was worth it anyway and free of charge.

Nature Walk

Joining a ranger on a nature walk is a cool way to learn about the area and its inhabitants. Try the Horseshoe lake walk – a great choice for families with children. If you missed the scheduled ranger walk, go on your own anyway! The trail is worth checking out. 2 miles round trip.

Dog Sled Demonstrations

Watch and learn about canine rangers, the only ones among US National Parks, at the Dog Sled Demonstration. We were surprised how different husky may look. If I meet one of them outside of the park, I wouldn’t even know it was a husky. 🙂 You can pet one of the strongest and smartest dogs on Earth and learn how good they are at their jobs. Somebody asked why rangers use the dogs and not snowmobiles (besides the tradition) – “The dogs will warn you about crevasses, a wild beast or other danger and save your life, while machine won’t”.

Denali Canine Ranger
Little one petting Denali Ranger dog

There is a unique and family-friendly place to cuddle with husky and husky puppies, learn about mushing and Iditarod from sled dog racer Jeff King: Husky Homestead, Denali.

Savage River Loop Trail

Savage River Loop Trail is another great kid-friendly hike with spectacular views. Note, this is as far as you can get into the park without the shuttle bus service. No cars are allowed further into the park beyond this point. Unfortunately, the tail was closed during our visit because of bears wondering nearby.

Nenana Canyon

Striking landscape, good for a quick stop. If you are into rafting, you have found a perfect spot. Nenana River is one of the most popular places for whitewater rafting in Alaska. All levels, from easy to difficult. We didn’t do rafting but were so fascinated by the canyon views, that drove several miles up towards Fairbanks just to watch a train passing by along the canyon.

Nenana Canyon, Denali National Park

See the Heart of the Denali National Park

Book the green shuttle bus or “transit bus” to see the heart of Denali National Park and possibly spot “The Big 5”: moose, caribou, wolves, dall sheep, and grizzly bears. The park road runs for 92 miles, but you can’t drive further then mile 15. Only foot traffic, bicycles and shuttle buses are allowed beyond that milepost. The policy is there for a good reason: only highly experienced, trained drivers, with a rational mind and a good sense of humor should drive a road like this! While there is no “formal narration” in transit buses, drivers are very informative and helpful to spot the animals. I still remember a couple of remarks from our driver:

  • “A ground squirrel is on the left side! Known as ‘local fast food’, all local animals snack on it.”
  • “Be careful, guys! You are now stepping into the food chain.” (after some backpackers leaving the bus).
View from the bus window at the narrow mountain road
Views along the bus route
Mount Denali (aka McKinley) – the tallest peak in North America – on a clear day. No zoom

K2 Aviation

A true “once in a lifetime experience” – bird’s-eye view of Denali National Park aboard the K2 Aviation sightseeing tour. Worth every penny. Loved every minute!
Our kids managed it well. While the big one enjoyed the flight, the little one was mostly sleeping (she was very tired by the time we boarded). Squeezing into the tiny aircraft (and installing the car seat) was quite amusing. There were only 5 seats: the pilot and the 4 of us.

Ever heard about pink snow? We did not! But spotted it for the first time in our lives during that flight. Entire snowfields covered in pink “watermelon snow”.. 🙂
Note, you and the kids will have to wear headsets, otherwise, the noise from the engine is pretty loud.

Picnic tables, play structures, and a grassy area for kids to run free are on site. K2 Aviation is located in Talkeetna, right in-between Denali and Anchorage, You can take a tour on the way to Denali or back (as we did). If you have more time, Talkeetna Wild Woods playground is worth checking out. It has several creative wooden structures on site for kids.

Squeezing into our plane. K2 Aviation, Talkeetna, Alaska
Denali National Park, view from the plane. Alaska
Glacier run through Alaska Mountain Range
Aerial view of Alaska Mountain Range
Patches of pink (watermelon) snow, Alaska Mountain Range
Little one peacefully sleeping during Denali Flight Tour, Alaska
K2 Aviation playground, Talkeetna, Alaska

Have a wonderful trip! 🙂

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