This post is part of a series on travel to Alaska. You can read my primary post with our full itinerary here.
Today, I’m diving into the details of our adventures to Denali National Park. This portion of our trip was long, making this post is the longest and most photo-heavy in the series. Below, I’ll cover traveling to and from Denali (an ordeal unto itself!) as well as what we got up to during our time in Denali National Park.
Wednesday | Anchorage → Denali Star Train
Although you can technically drive to Denali National Park in about 4 hours from Anchorage, the train allows you to enjoy the scenery without the hassle of driving. The Denali Star Train is an iconic fixture of Alaskan tourism. Besides serving a practical purpose, riding the train is an experience unto itself. Car rentals and gas are expensive in Alaska, so having the train can be a sensible option, too. Unlike planes, the train seats are comfortable with generous leg room. Also unlike planes, we spent a lot of our time standing or walking around to enjoy the sights. Student interns provided frequent commentary throughout the day on historical and geological features of the area, which added another perk that we wouldn’t have gotten on a drive.
For this leg of the trip, I upgraded our seats to Gold Star Class for a few extra amenities and comfort, including better viewing options and a slightly more luxe cabin. Alaskan weather is notoriously erratic, and we got our first taste of that on this train ride. On the 8ish hours we were on the train, we cycled through a wide range of weather conditions multiple times over, including ample rain.
As we edged closer and closer to the park, the scenery became more and more breathtaking. After a couple days in the city of Anchorage feeling distant from the wild, seeing the increasingly stunning landscapes lifted my spirits.
Finally, we arrived at the train station at Denali in the late afternoon and took a shuttle to Denali Cabins. Most lodging, including the Cabins, sit just outside the park along the main highway. Fortunately, that afternoon, the sun broke free and gave us a few hours of sunshine. I even went for a short run down the wide shoulder of the Parks Highway. We grabbed dinner at the restaurant attached to the Cabins, and then walked down the road a little ways and sat by the river.
Should you take the train while you’re in Alaska? I vote yes! The train is both practical and an enjoyable experience itself. It’s especially economical if you’re traveling solo or with one other person. Families or other groups may spend less with a rental car instead. Depending on your destination, Alaska Railroad offers scenic routes to lots of popular destinations, not only Denali.
Thursday | Denali Park Road → Denali Backcountry Lodge
Since Denali Cabins and our next destination are owned by the same tourism company, logistics were incredibly smooth. Our next bus picked us up right at the lodge in the morning to sweep us away to the next leg of our long journey. Perhaps you’ve figured this out by now: getting places in Alaska takes forever. It’s a big state, friends. If you want to see more than one area of Alaska, be prepared to spend a lot of time in transit!
Although Denali Park Road is only 92 miles, it takes several hours to make the journey. After mile 15, the road is closed to private vehicles. After that, the only way to access the rest of the park is by shuttle buses that take visitors up and down the unpaved road, across valleys and over slightly frightening mountain passes. Thanks to ample wildlife and spectacular vistas, spending a day on a bus tour driving up and down the road is actually a popular activity unto itself. There were many, many stops on the way both planned and unplanned for rest, vistas, and wildlife.
On our bus ride, we saw caribou (so. many. caribou.), ptarmigans, moose, bears, Dall sheep, a beaver, and even a brief glimpse of a lynx. And of course views, views, and more views. Like the day before, most of the day was a bit dreary, casting moody cloudscapes over the wilderness.
Look closely at the photo above to spot the lynx naturally camouflaged in the brush.
Those who haven’t spent a lot of time on mountain passes might want to brace themselves. On a couple sections of road, like at Polychrome Pass, the unpaved road is flanked by steep dropoffs with no guardrails and buses passing narrowly on either side. It might feel scary, but don’t fret, these drivers have loads of experience. And anyway, these sections are relatively short, so you won’t be holding your breath for too long.
One of the most stunning views was from Eielson Visitor Center, a stop at mile 66. There, the clouds broke into stunning blue skies, revealing brightly hued vistas in all directions. Eielson is a great vantage point to see Denali, but as is often the case, she remained shrouded in clouds while we passed through, despite blue skies in basically every other direction.
Our destination at the end of Denali Park Road was an old mining town called Kantishna. There are no mining activities these days, and instead a handful of tourism-oriented lodges and private buildings pepper the valley. Denali Backcountry Lodge, where we stayed, is one such establishment. Since there are no stores or restaurants and no private vehicles allowed in this part of the park, a stay at the lodge includes all meals and activities.
Keep in mind that even on a clear day, you cannot see Denali from the lodge, because you are at the bottom of a hill. It’s a couple miles up the hill (walk, bike, or bus) to Wonder Lake, where you can get unobstructed views of the mountain on the rare occasion that she decides to make her grand appearance.
Logistics tip! When I was booking our stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge, I called Pursuit’s Alaska office to make my booking. Keep in mind you cannot book online, you have to call. Being a typical phone-averse millennial, I didn’t love that I had to make a call, but it ended up being a good thing. The woman I worked with was extremely helpful in helping me understand the logistics, answering my questions about how much time things would take, explaining what my options were (and were not), and offering different options I might be interested in. She was able to book the train tickets, Cabin stay, and Lodge stay all in one itinerary with one phone call. It was incredibly convenient and gave me peace of mind that the timing for all of the bookings would line up. These folks are tourism professionals and it shows. Instead of endlessly googling, talking to a real person who does this for a living was so efficient and relieved a lot of stress.
Friday | Exploring Denali National Park
The lodge offers numerous activities on any given day, both self-paced and guided, ranging from casual to strenuous. The grounds of the lodge are tranquil and beautiful, backing right up to Moose Creek. Keep in mind, trails in the Kantishna area are generally unmarked, so you’ll either need to go on the guided hikes or come armed with strong wilderness route-finding skills.
For my activity that day, I opted for a guided hike, intended to be about 6 miles. It was a rainy day, but a small group of us donned our rain gear, stuffed our packs, and embraced our soggy fate.
Our hike started out with a bushwhack through an impossibly thick patch of alder trees and only the vaguest semblance of a trail. The alder leaves shed water on our hands and flicked drops onto our faces as we pushed branches out of the way. After a hefty climb, we popped out above the tree line and into the alpine tundra. At this very northern latitude, tree line is very low. We could see the lodge down below, through the mist. The social trails were much easier to follow across the tundra as we broke above the trees, where the path was visibly worn and the terrain was open.
Well, easy to follow for a little while.
As we walked another mile or so, we found ourselves completely socked in. Fog formed so thickly around us that we could barely see more than 50 feet. Suddenly, the path to complete the loop we planned had vanished. Every direction looked the same. We wandered for a brief while, looking this way and that to try to return to familiar territory. It didn’t take long before we realized we were too socked in.
Add to that, some of our clothes was beginning to soak through uncomfortably. Waterproof gloves and gaiters would’ve been valuable, but I didn’t have any with me. (Planning to do some hiking? Bring some!) Water had seeped into the tops of my socks, wicking down into my feet. While none of us were truly freezing yet, things were trending away from “fun adventure” and more toward “all I want is to be warm and dry.”
With the aid of GPS, we decided to abandon the loop route and retrace our steps back down through the alder patch. Not one of the four of us regretted this decision, despite ending up with an abbreviated 3-mile day. We welcomed the sight of the warm, dry dining room and the restoring power of a hot lunch. The lodge has a drying room to hang wet clothes in, an ideal convenience that kept our rooms from becoming strewn with wet clothes. The drying room was quickly was packed to the gills with the detritus of the rainy day.
A couple hours later, refreshed from a warm shower, hot lunch, and dry clothes, I decided to make a second run at some outdoor recreation. The rain had abated for the moment, so I grabbed one of the hardtail mountain bikes the lodge makes available for guests and biked up the road to Wonder Lake. It’s a hearty climb up the road, and it felt good to put in some work after my hike got cut short. My mom had taken the shuttle up to the lake around the same time to take a walk of her own and look for wildlife. Unfortunately, we got rained out pretty quickly, trying to make the best of it as we made faces at the chilly rain under the hoods of our rain shells. My mom grabbed the shuttle, I dashed back down the hill to the lodge on my bike, with just enough time to put another full set of clothing into the drying room before dinner.
Back at the lodge, the main building features a dining room as well as a lounge area. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style with open seating, but dinner is a plated meal in the dining room, where guests are seated family style with other parties. Only about 25 guests are seated at a time, in two seatings, so the experience feels quite cozy and communal. The social nature of dining was an unexpectedly memorable part of our stay. This type of lodging and experience definitely attracts guests who are passionate travelers and enthusiastic about the natural world. Every guest we interacted with had fascinating stories to share.
In the evening, we sat around one of the lodge’s fire pit (screened in to ward off Alaska’s notorious mosquitos) with a handful of other guests we’d met at dinner, enjoying the heat from the flames and telling stories. After a soggy, chilly day, spending time with fellow travelers and laughing together was exactly the warmth we needed.
Saturday | Exploring Denali National Park and Kantishna
Our first full day at the lodge had been a bit of a rough go, and so we hadn’t been quite as eager to jump into the fray of a hike the next day. In fact, every day of our trip thus far had been largely characterized by less-than-ideal weather and obscured vistas, punctuated by only brief moments of clear skies.
That morning, the sky was out in a big way. As we munched granola and fresh fruit, an employee rounded our table and asked if we wanted to go flightseeing around Denali. The mountain was out in all her splendor, and conditions were good enough for flying. My mom’s and my eyes widened to the size of the plates that held our breakfast. Heck yes we did. Finally, we were getting our lucky break.
We hurriedly gathered our things from our room, giddy with excitement that we were going to see. that. mountain!!
We were shuttled to the tiniest air strip I have ever seen, a short stretch of grass lined with a handful of Cesnas. Our pilot greeted us there, a retired commercial pilot who had made his way up to Alaska to use his skills for something a bit more leisurely. My mom and I crammed our bodies into the rear row of the six-seater plane, grinning at each other like kids on Christmas morning.
From the air field, we flew over the braided rivers where glaciers had sliced through, vast swaths of grey rock adorned with shining ribbons of water flowing through. Denali came into view almost immediately, and we flew straight toward her north face. She was skirted in cloud cover so the full prominence of the mountain wasn’t visible, but it was easy to get a sense of her majestic, towering size.
We made a couple of sweeping turns, seeing all the facets of the highest, most desolate reaches of the mountain, and flying close enough to make out a little detail. The pilot gave us plenty of time to take it all in, narrating in practiced, meticulous detail. Since I currently have no aspirations to climb to Denali’s summit, seeing some of her features from a plane was probably the closest I’ll get to seeing the more subtle details.
After ample time to take in the main event, the pilot swept us away from Denali and directed us toward other peaks along the Alaska range. The clouds had begun to build, and the scene took on a grey, wintry cast. Our pilot pointed out numerous other majestic peaks, notable glaciers, and even plane wreckage from ill-fated adventures. Even in late July, the scene before was a deep, endless winter. Although these photos look desaturated, they are in full color. The swirls of clouds floating in and out of the peaks created stunning, ethereal scenes that tugged at my heart.
Surprisingly, the hour-long flight was completely smooth and never bumpy. We landed safely and smoothly back on the airstrip, breathless from the sights of our adventure. Even in that short span of time, Denali had already retreated into her shroud, disappearing from view again. Despite being in the Denali area for several days, these moments in the plane were the only time we saw the mountain on our entire trip. For that reason, only a fraction of summertime visitors see the mountain in all her glory. We both felt delighted we hadn’t missed the moment.
After our flight, we walked a short distance up the road to Under the Mountain Studio, the summer residence of artist Matt Unterberger. I bought a print of one of his Denali paintings, which is not only a beautiful addition to my decor, but a perfectly suited memento for the events of that morning.
Keep in mind, lodging in Kantishna is very expensive due to the remote nature, short season, and high demand. I was able to secure our stay about 5-6 months in advance, but the dates were already limited. The Lodge recommends a stay of at least 2 nights, and I agree with this. Our stay of 3 nights was enough time to really enjoy it, but not long enough to completely destroy my budget. If you’d like to stay in the area longer and/or have a limited budget, lodging outside the park is a fraction of the cost, and camping is an option as well. In this case, you may end up paying with your time by burning extra time in the car or on buses to get to points of interest.
Despite the high cost, don’t expect full-on luxury accommodations. In terms of furnishings and decor, expect accommodations to be similar in quality to a firmly mid-grade hotel–think rustic. Service was very thoughtful and thorough. Most of your dollars are paying for location and experience, not necessarily luxury in the typical sense.
Sunday | Denali → Anchorage
Unlike our trek into Denali, which we broke up over a couple days, we compressed our return trip to one long day. We took the bus back out Denali Park Road, saying hello to more wildlife along the way. The bus ride out is just a little bit faster than the way in, with slightly fewer stops since passengers have already taken extra time to see the sights on the way in. The drivers are also conscientious that most passengers are catching the train, and they time the trip accordingly.
When we reached the train depot at the other terminus of the road, we caught the Denali Star train all the way back to Anchorage, arriving late in the evening at the Anchorage station and finally catching a Lyft back to our Airbnb.
Is Gold Star service on the train worth it? I enjoyed the leg of the trip that we spent riding in the Gold Star cabin, and you definitely get clear benefits from the upgrade. That said, in my opinion it’s not a must-do. If you’re looking to save some cash on an expensive Denali trip, Adventure Class does the job just fine.