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How to Spend the Perfect Day in Denali Out in the Wild

Alaska Denali National Park National Parks Insider Guides Hiking
by Jacqueline Kehoe Mar 2, 2020

Most visitors see Denali National Park from a bus window and a few scenic overlooks. There’s nothing wrong with that per se — it’s one of the most accessible ways to see extremely remote and rugged land. But if you are willing to get out into the wild, you’ll be one of the only ones to do so.

To maximize your time spent in the wilderness, park at the Denali National Park visitor center or take a shuttle there, and just go. There are 13 marked trails around this area, plus the wide-open spaces you’re welcome to. This suggested itinerary is one of the best ways to spend a summer day in Denali’s breathtaking wilderness. Start early, pack a light jacket in case of wind or rain, and wear your best hiking boots. This is going to be a day to remember.

Hitting the trail

Photo: attilio pregnolato/Shutterstock

The National Park Service Discovery Hikes depart from the Wilderness Access Center across the way from Riley Creek Mercantile at 8:00 AM sharp. These are great if you want a moderate to strenuous hike with a guide and to learn some backcountry basics from a pro. You’ll navigate through dense vegetation, cross water, and tackle uneven terrain. But where that terrain will be is anyone’s guess. It won’t be announced beforehand — some are a quick walk away; some are a two-hour bus ride into parts unknown. Because of this, leave your day wide open and pack plenty of snacks. Be sure to sign up at the visitor center a day or two in advance.

If you prefer to set out into Denali’s wilderness immediately and on your own, start with an easy and uncrowded morning hike to and around Horseshoe Lake. The trailhead is just north of the visitor center. The earlier you go, the more likely you are to spot wildlife like moose or caribou, and Horseshoe Lake is a great spot for critter-sightings as well. A beaver dam can be found just off-trail to the north, and you also might catch other waterfowl and moose livening up the morning serenity.

Lunch with a view

Photo: Matej Halouska/Shutterstock

Head back south on the Taiga Trail with its spruce, aspen, wildflowers, and plenty of berries for emergency snacking, breaking west for a long hike up to Mount Healy Overlook. It terminates at an open, albeit windy, plateau looking southeast over all of your fellow hikers. If the wind isn’t too much, this could be a nice spot for lunch. Otherwise, stay on flatter terrain and break southwest for a meadowy trek along the Rock Creek Trail — 2.4 miles, with great views of Mount Healy’s ridgeline — all the way to the sled dog kennels. Spend the afternoon with a pack of huskies. Denali is the only park manned by canine rangers, and they’re the main mode of transportation come winter.

Photos worth writing home about

Photo: Gail Johnson/Shutterstock

If time allows, take your car or the free shuttle out to Savage River at mile 15. Remember, wherever you are, that you don’t have to stay on the trail. Set out on the Savage River Loop — a mellow walk along the water but fairly uneven terrain — and find a quiet off-gravel spot near the water to work on your long-exposure photography. Spend a moment on the bridge looking for foxes and Dall sheep, or turn around and figure out which mountain is which, Mount Healy or Mount Margaret. Head north into the foothills, up the icy gray river, and further into the canyon for some serious isolation. This is what Denali’s about. Note that in the height of summer, the last shuttle departs Savage River at 9:30 PM. Be sure to check the schedule that applies to your trip.

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