The winter season in Denali National Park officially begins when summer ends, on the third Wednesday after Labor Day each September, and runs until early May. In mid-winter, temperatures can get as cold as negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but the park is still open for those excited about bundling up and getting out into a humanless expanse.
In December and January, the park usually sees fewer than 1,000 visitors, and even in the “shoulder months” immediately before and after, visitation is a tiny slice of what’s seen in summer. The road will be closed at Mile 3 in the coldest months, but into autumn and from February onward, the park road may be open up until Mile 15 (but no further). Check the park website for current openings. Either way, there’s still plenty to do — and chances are you’ll be one of the only ones doing it.
Grab free snowshoes from the MSLC — In the winter months, the Murie Science and Learning Center (MSLC) serves as a visitor center. Talk to a ranger here about trail conditions and directions, and check out a pair of snowshoes to get exploring. Moose and Caribou are still out and about during the winter months, and you may more easily spot one through the leafless aspen and birch trees, intermingled with Denali’s evergreen spruce trees. Barring holidays, the MSLC is open from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM.
Camp at Riley Creek Campground — At mile 0.4, Riley Creek is open year-round to tents and RVs and is free in winter. (There is no potable water during the off-season, however.) It’s a short walk to the MSLC, and trails abound in this area.
Visit the sled dogs and go mushing — Denali has been using sled dogs to patrol the park for nearly a century and is the only US National Park with a sled dog kennel. From November to March, Denali Kennel is open from 1:00 to 4:00 PM on weekends. Just note that the dogs may be out exploring and protecting the park (and no pets may be brought to the kennel). Ask a ranger beforehand as to their whereabouts; you may see them out in the wild. If you want to actually ride a sled pulled by dogs, Denali Dogsled Expeditions offers one-day, two-day, and overnight dog-sledding tours.
Cross-country ski or fat bike — Some of Denali’s summer hiking trails are good for cross-country skiing, but the dogsled trails are a safer bet. Bikes need to stick to the park’s main bike trail. Accessibility depends on temperature and snowfall; ask at the MSLC about conditions. Bikes and skis are not available for rent in the park but can be reserved through Alaska Outdoor Gear Rental in Anchorage or North Shore Cyclery in Talkeetna. You can also call ahead to the AMS Mountain Shop in Talkeetna to see what they have available. Denali Dogsled Expeditions offers cross-country ski tours, as well.
Go flightseeing — Several flight operators in Talkeetna offer winter flights across the mountains and frozen rivers and lakes surrounding Talkeetna, giving you a bird’s-eye view of the entire Denali area. Afterward, stop by Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna for a pint as you peruse your photos from the day.
View the northern lights — There’s no good or bad spot to view the northern lights in Denali, especially in the dead of winter. Simply get yourself here, check the forecast, and — if it looks good — stay up past 9:00 PM. If you do decide to go to bed, most lodges offer wake-up calls to see the aurora borealis when it appears. Even if you don’t get to see the northern lights on your visit, if the sky is clear, the stars will likely be as bright and plentiful as you’ve ever observed them.