Many people dream of visiting Denali's 6 million acres of forests, glaciers, mountains, rivers, and valleys, all with just one winding road leading into the rugged wilderness. Most of the park's 400,000 annual visitors arrive in the summer, but the long, dark winters offer snowy solitude, stark vistas, and plenty of activities for those who are experienced and comfortable dealing with extreme weather.
1. Denali National Park & Preserve Map
Denali National Park and Preserve is only accessible by one road, known simply as the Park Road, located off of the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Though cars are permitted on the first 15 miles of the 92-mile road during the summertime, beyond that, visitors must ride park buses in lieu of private vehicles—the fee depends on how far into the park you go. What few visitors there are in the winter will need either skis or a dog sled to get beyond first three miles, as the road is closed by snow.
2. Mount McKinley at sunrise
Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in North America, standing at a staggering 20,320 feet. All climbers attempting the peak must register with the park 60 days in advance and pay a special fee to support the mountaineering ranger’s safety program and help pay for search and rescue, including a high-altitude helicopter that is on call during the climbing season, from late April to mid-July.
3. Mountaineers in the Alaska Range
Mountaineers travel near the Pika Glacier on the south side of the 600-mile-long Alaska Range. Glaciers make up roughly one million acres within the park.
4. Making camp
Two mountaineers in an igloo light up a camp stove. While most visitors come in the summer, a few hearty souls can be found winter camping at the Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance, or backcountry camping, which is allowed with a permit.
5. A safe space for grizzlies
A female grizzly bear crosses a snowfield with her cubs. Fortunately, bears are better protected in national parks like Denali than they are in other parts of Alaska. Last year in Denali, the Park Service specifically banned “spotlighting,” a hunting practice that involves shining light into the dens of hibernating bears, then shooting them. NPCA is working to ban spotlighting in national parks throughout the state, as well as other objectionable bear- and wolf-hunting practices like baiting and snaring.
6. Hardy mountain dwellers
Dall Sheep are mountain dwellers that live in high peaks and craggy areas of the park. This iconic species is one of the “big five” animals in Denali that many visitors go to see, along with wolves, grizzly bears, moose, and caribou (though these larger animals are generally much easier to see in warmer months). Researchers can accurately determine a sheep’s age by the number of rings in its horns; the animals typically live 12 to 15 years in the wild.
7. An unpredictable light show
When winds from the sun meet magnetic and electrical forces from the earth’s core, the atomic reactions in northern latitudes can sometimes create a shifting, colorful light show known as the aurora borealis (named for Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, the Greek name for the north wind). These reactions are unpredictable. Auroras occur more frequently near the equinoxes, although some say that the winter months create more intense color displays, due to the deeper darkness. It may be worth staying up extra late, especially on the night of a new moon.