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:
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:
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
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.
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):
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 😀 . (After backpackers leaving the bus).
Some of the views along the bus route:
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:
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.
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!
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.
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!
At the Denali you can pet one of the strongest and smartest dogs on Earth (it is true):
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!
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 😀 . There were 5 seats in the airplane: for a pilot and 4 of us:
Note, you and the kids will have to wear headsets, otherwise, the noise from the engine is pretty loud:
Views on the way to the Mt. Denali:
We have never ever seen such scenery! The glacier runs through Alaska Mountain Range:
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:
One more time we were convinced how bog, wild, and beautiful Alaska is. Aerial view of Alaska Mountain Range:
Playground and a grassy area on-site K2 aviation was a nice addition to the tour:
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:
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:
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! 🙂