A special thank to Pursuit for providing accommodations for our stay in Alaska. The opinions expressed below are our own.
There are so many destinations to choose from when visiting Alaska. If you are going to spend some time on land, a stop in Denali is essential.
Denali National Park is six million acres of wilderness with one small road going through it that is not open to public transit after the 15th mile. Traveling the road you enter three different ecosystems, giving you the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife, vegetation and amazing views of unique landscapes including North America’s tallest peak, Denali, glaciers, streams and other mountains that make the park unique.
Most people experience Denali in one day on a bus tour provided by the park. While that is still a great experience, we recommend spending at least two full days in Denali if you can. When you visit Denali there is no guarantee you will see Denali’s peak since the mountain stays behind the clouds. Additionally, there is no guarantee how much wildlife you will see. By staying multiple days the more opportunities you will have to get a glimpse of Denali and more wildlife. In order to have the best experience at Denali, stay at one of the lodge located inside of the park. The second best option is to take the bus tour one day and taking a shuttle bus another day to go hiking. The shuttle bus will drop you off where you would like to hike. Later you can take another bus out of the park.
Denali Backcountry Lodge
For our stay, we went to Denali Backcountry Lodge. The experience starts with a 7 hour bus ride taking you the entire length of the Denali park road. You can then stay in the park for as many nights as you would like. (3 nights recommended).
When I was first researching the area and accommodations, 7 hours sounded like a long ride. When school busses pulled up I was even more apprehensive. To my surprise, the bus ride was one of the best parts of the trip. As you go down the windy road you are always on the lookout for wildlife which makes the time fly by. Part of the 7 hours included stopping and watching wildlife, learning about the history and geology of the area and taking pit stops which included warm drinks and snacks along the way.
You do have the choice of flying a small plane in or out of the lodge, but If you take the bus both in and out of the Lodge you have twice the opportunity to see wildlife.
To give you an idea, on our way in the park we saw 2 moose, 1 bear far away, plenty of Dall sheep and a Caribou fairly close to us. On the way back we saw 4 bears, all fairly close, 3 moose, 4 caribou that ran across the road and plenty of Dall sheep. The one thing that a small plane will provide that the bus can not is breathtaking views of the park including glaciers and closer views on the mountains.
The Denali Backcountry Lodge is an all inclusive experience and is one of the only properties that makes it possible to stay overnight in the park without camping. The cabins are nice with full bathrooms and showers. I will say that accommodations in Denali cost a lot more than most places for what you get. That’s not just at Denali Backcountry Lodge but also outside of the park anywhere you stay. Also, all accommodations are rustic so you won’t be finding a Four Seasons or anything like it around Denali. Instead you want to enjoy your time outside and the lodge allows you to do that comfortably, taking care of food, cabins, guides and equipment.
What really made the lodge stand out was the service provided by the staff. Three meals a day are provided with breakfast and lunch buffets as well as plated dinners. The standouts for me were the lamb at dinner and the beef stew at lunch. At night you can also enjoy s’mores fireside.
For activities, our tour guides on the way in and out of the park were very passionate about the area and it showed. There are several guided tours you can sign up for at night for the following day. I chose to go to the nearby Wonder Lake to hike around and then ride a bike back to the lodge.
After picking out a mountain bike it was loaded into a van which took us to the lake. We were able to hike around and lucky for us the skies were clear and the view of Denali was unobstructed. As I took some photos of Denali, a Caribou saw I was taking photos and wanted a photo of his own with Denali in the background and his fully grown antlers. He walked between me and Denali to get the perfect shot.
After some time around the lake we hopped on the bike and went mostly downhill all the way back to the lodge.
In the afternoon we went on an easy guided hike. The hike ended in a spot overlooking a stream that came from a valley. We took some time to lay down on the tundra and relax.
I can not remember a more relaxing environment. The ground is not covered in grass but with lichens, mosses, sedges, perennial forbs, and dwarfed shrubs. This basically creates a spongy area that is very comfortable to sink into. The plants provided a very pleasant scent I only knew before from spas.
The soothing sound of the stream below, the cool breeze and sun on our faces made it hard to leave. Not to mention the blueberries and cranberries we could snack on as long as we wanted.
In addition to seeing wildlife and hiking around the area there are multiple adventurous activities like rafting, ziplining and more that I wish we had time for.
Getting to Denali
Denali is accessible by train, motorcoach or car. They all have their disadvantages and advantages. The Alaska Railroad is the slowest, but provides the best experience and view. If you are coming from Seward it will require you to stay overnight in Anchorage. The motorcoach is faster and cheaper but does not give you the rail experience. I decided to drive simply because timing did not allow for the other modes of transportation. That also allowed me to stay at Talkeetna Alaska Lodge in between Anchorage and Denali where you can book a room with a view of Denali in the distance.