Alaska With Kids: Denali. 8 Possibilities to Explore the NP

Alaska with kids and Denali in particular is a once in a lifetime experience. How we explored it, what to expect, best time to go, and must-haves.

Denali National Park is a family-friendly place: the park provides different activities for the big and small ones. Exploring such a wild, vast, and unique place can be a life-long experience. “Alaska With Kids: Denali”, – is the post about challenges we had with kids 2 and 7 y/o, our expectations, reality, and the most memorable moment (no, it’s not Mt. McKinley :D)

Denali or “The high one” in Alaska Native language used to be Mt. McKinley from 1917 until 2015.

When heading up to Denali NP, fuel up in Wasilla. Gas prices will be much higher at any place after that. Same for food.

Best time to visit Denali

Summer is the best time to visit Alaska and Denali in particular. Park tour buses, the main and one of the most rewarding activity, operates from the second week of June till mid-September.

We like July for the finest possible weather and wildflowers in full bloom:

Fireweed in bloom. Denali, Alaska
Fireweed in bloom. Denali, Alaska

Weather in Denali

Alaska Range is so tall, that it forms its own weather, which most of the time hides the Range from sight with rain, snow, fog, and clouds. Dress properly and be ready to experience several seasons in a single day!

8 Possibilities to explore Denali National Park, Alaska

Start your visit from the Denali Visitor Center. Check out activities, schedules, trail conditions, watch the movie about the National Park, and get to know its many exhibitions:

Artem training to be like a local hoofed residents at Denali Visitor Center exhibition
Artem training to be like a local hoofed residents at Denali Visitor Center exhibition

1. Alaska With Kids: Denali. Savage River Loop Trail

Savage River Loop Trail is a great kid-friendly 1.7 miles round-trip hike with spectacular views. The trail during our visit was closed because of bears wandering nearby.

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.

2. See the Heart of the Denali National Park. Shuttle “Green” bus service

There is a single road that runs through the Denali NP and only one road entrance. Private vehicle restricted beyond Mile 15

Map of Denali: Private vehicle aren't allowed on "grey road"
Map of Denali: Private vehicle aren’t allowed on grey part of the road

Although Park Road runs for 92 miles, you can’t drive further than mile 15. Only foot traffic, bicycles, and shuttle buses are allowed beyond that milepost.

Book the green shuttle bus or “transit bus” to see the heart of Denali National Park.

Green shuttle bus in the heart of Denali National Park
Green shuttle bus in the heart of Denali National Park

This strict policy is 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! (One-lane gravel road with a steep drop-offs):

THANK YOU driver for bringing us home safely!
THANK YOU driver for bringing us home safely!

There is no “formal narration” in transit buses, but drivers are very informative and helpful to spot the animals.

A couple of remarks from our driver:

– A ground squirrel is on the left side! Known as “fast food”, – all local animals snack on it.

– Be careful, guys! You are now stepping into the food chain πŸ˜€ . (After backpackers leaving the bus).

Some of the views along the bus route:

Alaska With Kids: Denali NP
Alaska With Kids: Denali NP

Many people come to the Park to spot “The Big 5“: moose, wolves, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, and caribou.

Stories of watching bears scratching their backs at the signs along the road are pretty common among the visitors :D. Apparently, your chances for an up-close wildlife encounter are higher when the weather is not warm and sunny. Do not avoid Denali if it rains and you may be pleasantly surprised:

On the opposite side, you only get to see Mt. Denali on a clear sunny day. This privilege is given to less than 10% of the park visitors, and we were lucky to be among those:

Mount Denali (aka McKinley) on a clear day. With a zoom

Alaska With Kids: Denali. The most challenging part

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 but… everything went surprisingly smoothly!

Knowing that we would 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 a toddler.

3. Alaska With Kids. Junior Ranger Program

The biggest pros of the Junior Ranger Program program – it keeps children interested and involved.

They talk to rangers, ask a lot of questions and bring home something more meaningful than gifts: a Junior Ranger Badge, memories, and excitement of taking the Pledge.

Denali National Park Junior Ranger activity book
Denali National Park Junior Ranger activity book

If you didn’t have time to complete the program, you can mail the Junior Ranger Activity Book to the Visitor Center and receive the Badge via mail!

Erika was too small for the program, but it gave us a lot of ideas about what and where to look for :)
Erika was too small for the program, but it gave us a lot of ideas about what and where to look for πŸ™‚

4. Alaska With Kids: 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.

laska With Kids. Little Rangers at Denali Visitor Center
Alaska With Kids. Little Rangers at Denali Visitor Center

5. Nature Walk with a local guide

Joining a ranger on a nature walk is a cool way to learn about the area from the ones who know the area like nobody else. 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.

6. Alaska With Kids. Sled Dogs Demonstrations

There is only one place among all National Parks in the US with canine rangers. At the Dog Sled Demonstration, you can learn about the outstanding job those dogs do.

A small part of the talk at the demonstration:

– Why rangers still use the dogs and not snowmobiles (besides the tradition)?!

– Well, the dogs will warn you about crevasses, a wild beast, or other danger and save your life, while machine won’t.

We were very 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!

Yes, I’m a husky and Denali Canine Ranger

At the Denali you can pet one of the strongest and smartest dogs on Earth (it is true):

Alaska with kids was unforgettable experience. Petting Denali Ranger dog
Alaska with kids was unforgettable experience. Petting Denali Ranger dog

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

7. Alaska With Kids: Denali. Nenana Canyon

Nenana River is one of the most popular places for whitewater rafting in Alaska. (All levels, from easy to difficult). It is a scenic place, good for a quick stop.

We were so fascinated by the canyon views, that drove several miles up towards Fairbanks just to watch the canyon!

Nenana Canyon, Denali National Park. 63Β°44’13.1″N 148Β°53’12.6″W

8. K2 Aviation: bird’s-eye view of Denali National Park. Kids friendly

If you are ready for a “once in a lifetime experience” – bird’s-eye view of Denali National Park, book a K2 Aviation sightseeing tour. Worth every penny. Loved every minute!

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).

Our kids (Erika just turned 2 y/o, and Artem was 7 y/o) managed it well. While the big one enjoyed the flight, the little one was mostly sleeping (she was tired by the time we boarded).

Squeezing into the tiny aircraft (and installing the car seat) was quite amusing πŸ˜€ . There were 5 seats in the airplane: for a pilot and 4 of us:

"Mom, may we get a plane when we'll be back home?" :). K2 Aviation, Talkeetna, Alaska
After the tour: “Mom, can we get a plane when we’ll be back home?” :D. K2 Aviation, Talkeetna, Alaska

Note, you and the kids will have to wear headsets, otherwise, the noise from the engine is pretty loud:

Erika sleeping peacefully during Denali Flight Tour, Alaska
Erika sleeping peacefully during Denali Flight Tour, Alaska

Views on the way to the Mt. Denali:

Denali National Park, view from the plane. Alaska
Denali National Park, view from the plane. Alaska

We have never ever seen such scenery! The glacier runs through Alaska Mountain Range:

Alaska Mountain Range, Denali National Park
Alaska Mountain Range, Denali National Park

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”, pictured below:

Patches of pink (watermelon) snow, Alaska Mountain Range
Patches of pink (watermelon) snow, Alaska Mountain Range

One more time we were convinced how bog, wild, and beautiful Alaska is. Aerial view of Alaska Mountain Range:

Best birthday present ever. We would definitely come back.
Best birthday present ever. We would definitely come back.

Playground and a grassy area on-site K2 aviation was a nice addition to the tour:

K2 Aviation playground, Talkeetna, Alaska

If you have more time, Talkeetna Wild Woods playground is worth checking out. It has several creative wooden structures on-site for kids, as well as picnic tables.

Alaska with kids. Essentials

  • Don’t forget the car seat for a baby/kid on the shuttle bus tour.
  • Pack plenty of snacks, water, rain gear, proper boots, and warm layers.
  • Bring your Annual National Parks Pass if you already have one.
  • Good camera (you’ll need that zoom!) and/or binoculars.
  • Bug spray would come in handy for any place in Alaska during summer.
  • Guides for identifying mushrooms and edible berries. 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 them were edible and are pretty tasty!

P.S. Where did we stay while visiting Denali

There are no so many places to stay near Denali NP, especially if you are looking for “something special and on a budget”.

We were lucky to find “Denali hostel and cabins” and it turned out to be a destination on its own. We had a cabin overlooking a creek with an intimidating name “Iceworm” and would never trade it for a hotel:

Hostel aka “sleep-away camp for the entire family”. Bonfire and beautiful sunsets over the mountains guaranteed ;)

Other things we liked at the Denali hostel: the well-organized kitchen, no lines to the bathrooms or showers, and friendly staff. How cabins from above look inside:

Inside waterfront Iceworm Cabin, Denali Hostel, Alaska

We met a family from NY, who stayed at a wall tent next to us. They said it felt like camping without bringing any gear. And clean, with really warm sleeping bags.

We were surprised, how many guests arrived from different corners of the globe to Denali. Australia, Korea, China, Europe, all of us cooking in one kitchen, having dinner at one big table. Felt like a summer sleep-away camp!

All the places mentioned above on My Maps

Alaska is a once-in-a-lifetime destination. For me, it was a childhood dream come true. If you grew up reading Jack London, you’ll understand :D.

Take it slow, save plenty of time (driving around to see places can take hours one way), money for the tours, and enjoy! Alaska worth it.

Thanks for reading friends and have a wonderful trip! πŸ™‚

Read next:
Seward, Alaska: scenic community, glaciers, and fjords.

Wildlife lover experience: a very close encounter with a reindeers

Top places to see North of Anchorage, Alaska

By Mrs. Grazy Goat

I am Ira, the author behind Grazy Goat. My husband and I run this blog and share our experiences about thrilling places and cultures. Our son Artem recently joined us and helps with editing.

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