Family Destination: Denali National Park

posted on August 19, 2016

photos by W. H. “Chip” Gross

Early Native-Americans called it “Denali:” Great One. Those Americans who came later named it Mount McKinley. Just recently, the official name has been changed back to Denali. But either way, at 20,320 feet it’s the tallest mountain in all of North America. And if you’re looking for the ultimate outdoor-adventure vacation, you won’t do better than Alaska’s Denali National Park.

Located in the Alaskan interior just a two-hour drive from Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Preserve is a staggering six million acres in size, larger than the entire state of New Hampshire!  But surprisingly, even at that size, it’s not America’s largest national park. That honor goes to Wrangell-St. Elias, also in Alaska, at more than 13 million acres.

My wife and I had the opportunity to visit Alaska’s Denali National Park. a few years ago and it was truly the outdoor-travel trip of a lifetime. We stayed for a week, including several days at the end of August and a few during the first week of September. That general time period is considered autumn in Alaska, and it’s no exaggeration. The trees and tundra were in full fall color—rivaling anything New England has to offer—and by the time we left it was snowing in earnest. The region is so far north that much of the park shuts down for the season by mid-September.

In addition to its sheer size, Denali attracts visitors from around the world because of its breath-taking mountain scenery and spectacular wildlife; grizzly bears, moose, and caribou to name just a few of the larger species. The park has only one main road, but it’s 92 miles long. Private vehicles are allowed on the first 15 miles, but at that point visitors must transfer to a park shuttle bus to go farther. Denali Park Road eventually ends at the Kantishna Roadhouse, once a Gold Rush town.

Along the stretch of road near the park entrance is a five-mile moose rutting zone, where in the fall huge bulls with massive antlers square off to battle each other over rights to breed any cow moose in the area. During our first morning of photography in the park, within minutes we came across two moose standing in the middle of the road that were soon joined by a third.

One way to get an idea of the size of Denali National Park is from the air. Climbing aboard an eight-passenger, single-engine De Havilland Turbo Otter aircraft on an airstrip outside the park near Healy, Alaska, we took off on a one-hour flight to Ruth Glacier located at the foot of Mt. McKinley.

“You’re very fortunate,” said pilot Dan McGregor, as we climbed. “We only get about 20 days like this per season, and today is one of them.” McGregor was referring to the blue skies and light winds, a perfect day for flight-seeing. Of the estimated 400,000 people visiting Denali National Park annually, only about 30 percent are lucky enough to get a full view of Mt. McKinley, because the summit, if not most of the mountain, is usually cloaked in clouds.        

Stepping out of a small airplane onto the back of a living glacier in the middle of miles and miles of Alaskan wilderness is a very special feeling. You stomp around in the snow, take too many photos, and try to slow time down. You want the experience to last as long as possible. But then, all too soon, it’s over. After about 20 minutes, the pilot announces, “Okay, everyone back in the plane, please.”

To get to Denali National Park, most people fly into Fairbanks International Airport, rent a car, and drive to the park. (Yes, the road is paved.) Scenic bus and train trips are also available, and popular, with rail lines running next to the park entrance. Many hotels and restaurants are located near the entrance, as well, in what’s called the Front Country. 

Campgrounds are also numerous, both inside and outside the park.  For online information to help you plan a visit, go to for National Park Service information, and for general information.

Alaskans are a hardy, self-reliant people, but also friendly, welcoming, and more than willing to share their great state with others. A trip to Alaska and Denali National Park is not inexpensive, but one you’ll never forget. So save your pennies and get there. There’s nothing in the Lower 48 that compares.  

Death in Denali
In 2012, a backpacker in Denali National Park was attacked and killed by a grizzly bear, the first time such an incident had occurred in the park’s nearly century-long history. Any such event is tragic, but this one likely could have been avoided, as park rangers instruct all visitors venturing into the backcountry to stay at least 300 yards from any bears. This particular backpacker inadvertently came across the grizzly at a distance of only about 70 yards. But instead of slowly backing away as he should have, he stood his ground and took pictures of the bear as it slowly moved closer and closer. The last pictures recorded on the man’s digital camera—recovered at the scene—were of the bear no more than 30 yards away. 

Following the man’s death, park rangers positively identified the bear in question and shot and killed it the next day, an unfortunate but necessary consequence to a situation that could have been avoided. If you ever venture into bear country, in Alaska or elsewhere, at the very least, always carry a can of bear pepper spray and keep it handy somewhere on your outer garment.        


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