Denali National Park
Welcome to our unique Denali guide (updated 2019) with tips for each month, hiking insights, and everything you should know about the bus transport service. When is the best time to visit? Denali is open year-round. However, main activities and tours are being offered in summer only. Shuttle busses will get you into the wilderness from May 20 until mid-September. Now, read our season guide below the quick navigation or jump directly to the top hiking and bus tips.
- The Best Denali Hotels (Avoid Glitter Gulch!)
- Shuttle Bus and Tour Bus (The Definitive Bus Guide)
- Hiking & Off-Trail Hiking (With Easy Hikes & Walks)
Special Tip: Don't forget to check out our unique Denali Bus FAQ at the end of this article. It's extremely helpful and answers all of your questions!
Weather overview? Find helpful weather details at: Denali Park Weather Monthly averages here: Climate Denali National Park (switch from C to F at the top right. Keep in mind that the temperatures vary depending on the elevation and the part of the park). Check the Denali Webcam at Wonder Lake and read on for more details about a summer, winter, spring or fall visit:
The best time to experience amazing fall foliage in Denali: Late August/early-September
Mid-May - late May (spring): May is the driest month and the weather starts to get warmer. Average high: 52°F (11°C). Most tours and the shuttle bus service start around mid-May. However, some snow has still to melt. As a result, the deeper parts of the park are often not fully accessible. Rates are low and there are no crowds.
June (late spring, summer): June is also a very dry month and temperatures climb. Average high: 66°F (19°). Flowers are in bloom and you get the most hours of daylight (Sunrise-Sunset Denali). After the first week of June, the park is usually fully accessible. Early June until mid-June is a great time before it starts to get crowded with tourists coming from cruise ships and everywhere else. Drawback: Mosquitoes are an issue from June until the end of July.
July (summer): July is the warmest months with temperatures climbing to 70°F (21°C) and still a lot of daylight (18-19 hours). There is slightly more precipitation than in June, but no need to worry about long periods of rain. July is the peak month in terms of visitation. Again, small drawback: Mosquitoes are still an issue.
August (late summer): It's still pleasant. However, temperatures already start to drop slightly but it's still a great month temperature wise. Average high: 62°F (17°C). Also, there are slightly fewer daylight hours in August (16-17 hours). August has the highest average precipitation of all months. However, nothing to worry about. You need to bring rain gear regardless of the month. In terms of visitors, it's still very crowded.
Early September - mid-September (early autumn): As temperatures drop it will be cooler in September and there is also less daylight (11-14 hours). Average high: 50°F (10°C). However, it's still a great month to visit as the temperature is still pleasant and all services are being offered until mid-September. After Labor Day Weekend (beginning of September) the crowds dissipate as well. You'll enjoy a much more peaceful park. Looking for the leaf color explosion? Fall foliage starts early in Denali. The peak time for the beautiful fall colors is usually the end of August and early September.
Mid-September - mid-October (autumn) and April - early May (spring): Most services are shut down, restaurants, hotels, and shops are closed from mid-September to mid-May. However, the shoulder season can be quite rewarding as you can experience the 'real' Alaska. In the fall temperatures can still be pleasant or already freezing cold in October. Always check the weather forecast. In fall and spring, you need to rent a car as the shuttle service is not available. More helpful details about visiting in shoulder season: Fall and Spring Visit
Late-October - March (winter): It gets freezing cold and it's time for Winter Activities. Including skiing, winter biking and snowshoeing. Temperatures are ranging from -40 degrees Fahrenheit and colder, to high 20s on warm days.
Avoiding Tourist Crowds
The summer months experience the highest visitation. Check out the visitation chart below, then our tips for enjoying a more peaceful visit to Denali National Park.
Shoulder Weeks (late spring/early fall):
To avoid the most crowds at the popular spots (entrance areas, bus tours, visitor centers, famous spots) during peak season, still use the shuttle bus service and enjoy mostly pleasant weather: Visit during either in the very short late spring or early fall season: End of May until mid-June or early September (after Labor Day) until mid-September.
Popular Tours in Shoulder Weeks:
The very popular day tours which do not include hiking like the Tundra Wilderness Tour or the Kantishna Experience Tour are usually fully booked during peak months. During shoulder weeks (see above) there is a good chance that a tour bus is less than half full. That means you can spread out. The tours usually run from mid-May until mid-September (Kantishna from early June until mid-September). Read below for more info on bus tours.
Own Activities / Trail Hiking:
You can avoid crowds in peak season by planning your own activities. And even if you only drive to Savage River (by free bus shuttle or with your own car) for the short hike and to spend time there, you'll avoid tourist groups by starting early. Check the list of trails: Denali Trail Details. Always start early, and you'll avoid the crowds. If you take a shuttle bus: Make an online reservation and book the earliest departure.
Even in the summer, it's quite easy to get away from every group of tourists and spend time in solitude: Book a transit shuttle bus early in the morning departing from the WAC (Wilderness Access Center). Get off the bus wherever you like and start hiking or walking. Regardless of your fitness level or age! If you feel intimidated, you can stay close to the park road the whole time and still experience stunning wilderness and wildlife. Get back on the bus to WAC whenever you like for free. Find more details about easy off-trail hikes (even short 1-2 hours hikes/walks) below in the hiking and shuttle text section.
Stay at a Hotel Outside the Park:
The entrance area is always filled with thousands of people in the summer. The same applies to the hotels very close to the entrance (Princes Lodges, Bluffs Hotels, …). The easiest way to avoid those heavily crowded areas is to take advantage of the more quiet lodging alternatives in Healy (17 Minute Drive - Google Maps). You'd need a rental car in case the hotel doesn't offer a shuttle service (UBER is also available now), but the hotels there are also less expensive. Check the best prices and book well ahead: Healy - Recommended Hotels
Wildlife / Flora / Northern Lights
The best time of day to spot wildlife is in the morning or late afternoon/evening. Being on a bus long enough increases your chances. Best season is during the warmer summer months. There is not much wildlife in the winter due to hibernation. Denali also has a rich and amazing flora. Wildflowers begin to bloom in early June till late July. How to spot the Northern Lights? Since the Denali region is almost free light pollution, it's an excellent area to see the aurora borealis (Northern Lights). The sky must be dark enough and clear. With a partly clouded sky, it's less likely to experience it. Time of day? Usually, you can start looking after 1,5 hours after sunset. It's possible to see the Aurora here between mid-August and early-May. However, the highest chance to spot Northern Lights is in March/April and September/October.
Six million acres of wild land: Taiga forest, alpine tundra, and snowy mountains and stunning wildlife. An amazing place year-round. Read on before you visit and check our detailed insider tips for walks, hikes and using the bus!
- To dodge the crowds in peak season avoid the most popular bus tours. Plan your own activities like the Savage River hike or wilderness hikes and walks.
- 'Check in' at the Visitor Center first to pay your fee and visit the WAC (Wilderness Access Center). Check for wildlife closures, buy a map and grab the bus schedule at the WAC.
- Dress in layers. For example, even after a short drive to Savage River, it can be colder there than at the entrance area. Also, bring good waterproof clothing.
- The bus (shuttle or tour) is the only way to get deeper into the park than the first few miles up to Savage River. Read our bus guide below for more details and tips.
Hiking (Day Hikes / Easy Hikes / Walks)
In general there are two ways of hiking option in Denali National Park: Trail hiking on a known marked trail or off-trail in the wilderness. Want to know the best part? You can and should hike off-trail even if you're not a hiker or you think it's physically too demanding. Believe us, it's not, as you can even 'walk off-trail' only. Let's compare both options first:
Denali National Park - Mount Healy Hike Overlook
There are several marked trails around the entrance area. A great overview with details for each marked trail and a map can be found here: Denali - Featured Trails Most of the hikes are very easy and short, some of them are rather walks than hikes. Usually the hikes start at a trailhead behind Denali Visitor Center. Three very easy and short hikes/walks, but still great ones are:
- Mount Healy Trail: A hike halway up Mount Healy with beautiful views. Distance (one-way): 2.7 miles. Start: Denali Visitor Center.
- McKinley Station Trail: A moderate but fascinating walk to Riley Creek Campground: Distance: 1.6 miles. Start: Denali Visitor Center
- Savage River Loop Trail: A gorgeous short hike along Savage River. You can either drive to Savage River (limited parking) or take the bus (see below). Distance: 1.7 miles Start: Savage River parking lot
Denali National Park - Hiking View
If you want to experience 'the real' Denali, off-trail hiking is a must in Denali National Park and the most memorable and rewarding experience. Denali is a trailless wilderness and almost the size of Massachusetts. The following quick guide is especially for those, who are not accustomed to off-trail hiking and prefer short hikes or walks. However, even if you want to take longer and strenuous day hikes, you will benefit from our seven tips:
- Why Off-Trail? First of all, it's the easiest way to get away from the crowded spots and activities (busy entrance area, popular bus tours) in Denali in the summer. It feels like you have the whole park to yourself! Second, you'll spot the most wildlife and experience those stunning areas in the wilderness.
- Very Easy Hikes or Walks? Even if you're not into hiking, there are so many easy off-trail hikes which are family friendly as well as suitable for all ages and fitness levels. There are even exciting short 1-2 hours hikes/walks in the wilderness.
- How to Prepare? Get a map and the bus schedule at the WAC (Wilderness Access Center). You could also download the bus schedule (download link at the top), print it and then bring it with you. A compass is usually not necessary as it is fairly easy to tell where you are. Only for longer day hikes in certain areas and when it's getting foggy, a compass is required. Don't forget, that you are also required to check at WAC or with a Ranger about wildlife closures.
- Where to Hike? First of all, you can take short hikes almost anywhere near Park Road. Also, don't be afraid to get lost: You can get off the shuttle any time and hike along the riverbeds very close to Park Road. It's easier to get lost in any foreign town! However, we suggest to buy a really good guidebook in advance to make the most out of your hikes or walks. First one is: Anchorage, Denali - Moon Travel Guide. The second one is: Denali National Park: The Complete Visitors Guide
- Are Permits Required for Day Hiking? No, you only need a backcountry permit for camping. As long as you get back in the evening you may hike almost anywhere in the park. However, the rules for backpackers still apply: Denali Backcountry Rules
- How to Get into the Wilderness and Back? With a private vehicle, you are only allowed to drive until Mile 15 (Savage River) on the Park Road. For any other hike, you need to take the shuttle (transit) bus. If possible, book the earliest departing transit.
- How Easy Is It to Use the Shuttle (Transit) Bus? It couldn't be easier. You get on the bus and get off anywhere you like in the wilderness, along the park road. If a bus is full when you're ready to head back east to the entrance, you would have to wait for another. However, the buses typically run at 20-minute intervals. In the worst case, you might you have to wait for an hour or more. Read more about the shuttle bus below.
The Park Road is 92 miles long (148 km) and connects the park entrance in the east with Kantishna in the west. It travels through low valleys and high mountain passes and is the only road in Denali N.P. Along its route, you'll view gorgeous landscapes as well as wildlife. With a private vehicle (from late May until early September) you are only allowed to drive the first 15 miles up to Savage River.
Getting into the Park (Monthly Overview)
- May 20 - Mid-September: Use the bus (shuttle or tour) to reach almost every spot along Park Road. Alternatively, drive with your own or rental car 15 miles to Savage River. Further driving with your own car is not allowed in the summer months
- Mid-September (4 Days): After bus operation stops, you have the chance to drive as long as you like with your car on the Park Road for one day on one of 4 lottery days. However, you need to win the Lottery (NPS Park Road Lottery) to do this. The application period is during May every year
- Mid-September - October: After the Park Road Lottery weekend is over, you are allowed to drive further into the park than in summer. 30 miles into the park up to Teklanika if weather allows. This is possible until park road closes any time early October and late October (sometimes even in late September) due to snow.
- October - Mid-April: Park Road is closed in winter due to snow.
- Mid-April until May 19: The Park Road is usually snow-free and plowed by mid-April. That means you can drive again 30 miles up to Teklanika with your private car until the bus tours start on May 20.
- Special Adventure Tip for Spring/Fall: Biking the park road is a great adventure. Especially in the spring and fall, when there is less traffic. Even better: You can also bring your bike with the car and continue from Teklinako on your bicycle instead of walking.
- Hotel Tip for Spring/Fall: Most hotels in the area are closed from mid-September until early or mid-May. That's whey the best alternative is to stay in Healy since the offer accommodations which are open year-round! It's just 11 miles north of the park entrance and even cheaper than the 'direct hotels'. Check the hotels there (bookmark the link): Hotel Deals in Healy - At Denali
Bus Guide (Shuttle and Tour)
The bus is the only option (besides exceptions like the road lottery) to get deeper into the park: Denali Bus Information. Besides special free buses like the one to Savage River (Savage River Shuttle), there are two main types of buses: Shuttle buses and tour buses.
Shuttle Bus (non-narrated, green): Also called transit bus. You may disembark / re-board anywhere along the park road. Getting back on is free of charge. Usually, you head back eastbound to get back to the main entrance area. However, you may even get back on a bus to get farther into the park. They also stop for wildlife viewing, restroom stops, and stunning landscape scenery, exactly like tour buses. A sub-type of the shuttle bus is the camper bus. You need a campground reservation or a backcountry permit to use this one. Tip #1: Book the earliest bus in the morning to avoid crowds.
Tour Bus (narrated, tan-colored): Those buses feature a trained naturalist who both drives and narrates during the whole trip. Tour buses make the same stops as the non-narrated buses, and of course, will stop for views of wildlife and beautiful landscapes. However, unlike the shuttle buses, you cannot get-off anytime you like. It's also not possible re-board on tour buses. There are three bus tours: Natural History Tour, Tundra Wilderness Tour, Kantishna Experience Tour. The NPS sites describes all 3 of them: Denali Bus Tours - Description Are they worth it? Personally, we prefer the shuttle bus. Read our bus FAQ below for more help!
Shuttle/Transit Bus Prices
- Toklat River (Mile 53): $31.25
- Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66): $40.00
- Wonder Lake (Mile 85): $55.00
- Kantishna (Mile 92): $60.00
- Camper Bus (Variable): $40.00
- Children: free
- Ride back: free
Tour Bus Prices
- Natural History Tour: $72.00 (children: $36.00)
- Tundra Wilderness Tour $136.00 (children: $68.00)
- Kantishna Experience $208.00 (children: $104.00)
Denali Bus FAQ
- When do the buses run? Usually from May 20 until mid-September
- Where is the current shuttle bus schedule? Download the 2018 version here: 2018 Bus Schedule (Note: The 2019 schedule will be available in spring 2019, but changes from year to year are usually small)
- Where can I book online in advance? You can make your reservation in advance here: Reserve Denali (click Check Rates at the top right)
- Can I also purchase a ticket on the spot? 35% of the tickets are available for walk-in purchase at Wilderness Access Center (within two days of shuttle departure). However, it's highly recommended to make reservations online.
- Which bus should I take? For your own (off-trail) hiking activities it's always the green shuttle (transit) bus. You can get off anywhere you like and ride back for free. Just wait along the park road.
- Can I really get off the green shuttle bus anywhere I want? Yes, just tell the driver. The drivers are also excellent at wildlife spotting. That means you may get off, right after the spotted something. The tour buses on the other hand only run twice a day and are usually fully booked with no option to get off anywhere you like.
- Do the shuttle drivers really not narrate at all? In fact, almost all of the shuttle drivers do narrate and not only the tour bus drivers. And most of them are good. That means you can ignore the official statement and learn a lot about Denali even on the shuttle buses.
- Is a bus tours (tan-colored) worth it? It depends. Usually we recommend taking a green shuttle bus (read details above), as it can also take you deep into the park. However, if you really don't want to hike at all, not even extremely easy short hikes (walks), then go on a bus tour.