Fall in Denali National Park

Plan your family’s visit

by Erin Kirkland

Photo credit: Erin Kirkland

Autumn in Denali National Park and Preserve is quick and colorful; show up too late and you might miss it. As Alaskans, we’ve got a soft spot for fall in this wilderness gem five hours from Anchorage, partly because we love exploring one of the state’s most popular national parks during shoulder seasons, but also because autumn provides a plethora of sensory adventures not found during any other time. It’s my favorite, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Technically, Denali’s fall season begins in mid-September and lasts until the snow falls and obstructs travel along the 90-mile gravel road stretching from the entrance area to Wonder Lake. But, as Alaskans know, autumn really begins in late August with the telltale paling of leaves and the cooling of temperatures coupled with a feeling of pressure to complete projects and prepare for another long, cold winter.

Denali’s autumn visitors need to be prepared, though, as weather, road conditions, and a transition from summer to fall and winter seasonal staff mean different hours of operation at some facilities, like the main visitor center. Operations move from the large visitor center to the smaller Murie Science and Learning Center across the parking lot, where a cozy wood stove and multiple activities for kids happen all winter.

Photo credit: Erin Kirkland

Planning your adventure

There are two ways to get to Denali National Park: driving or via the Alaska Railroad. Traveling the Parks Highway from Anchorage, it takes approximately five hours to reach Denali’s entrance area. If coming from Fairbanks, the drive is a bit shorter, only about three hours. The Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star train departs daily through September 17, 2017, with a stop just inside the entrance of Denali National Park, a trip totaling (one way) over seven hours from Anchorage or four hours from Fairbanks. For more info, visit alaskarailroad.com.

As is true around much of Alaska’s tourist-heavy locations, Labor Day weekend marks the official end to most operations in the Nenana Canyon area just north of the Denali National Park entrance. Also called “Glitter Gulch” by locals, this row of hotels, restaurants and tour offices slows way down in early September, which means fall visitors may be out of luck when it comes to spontaneously finding food or lodging. For a listing of accommodations, visit denalichamber.com/denali-member-directory.

Calling ahead to the myriad cabins, hotels or campgrounds is a worthwhile way to make sure you have somewhere to sleep. Denali National Park’s closest campground, Riley Creek, is open year-round and can be an excellent option for families who are willing to put up with cooler nighttime temperatures and who have the gear to cook, sleep and stay busy in the outdoors. The other five campgrounds within the park boundary are open through mid-September, road conditions permitting. For info on Riley Campground, visit nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/campground-riley.htm. Also, check road conditions at nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/conditions.htm.

Denali National Park has only one restaurant within the park boundary. The Morino Grill remains open through mid-September (closing September 19 this year) and offers an abundance of food appealing to children and “grab-and-go” items for a lunch on the run. Just 11 miles North of the park entrance, Healy has a few dining options. After a busy day of exploring, we like to order a big pizza from Totem Inn at Milepost 248.7. For info, visit thetoteminn.com.

Family fun in Denali National Park

I always recommend that families spend three nights in the greater Denali National Park area. With a long drive to and from, it makes sense to have two full days of exploration and activities before heading home. With this idea in mind, here is a sampling of our family’s favorite Denali activities.

Visitor centers: Through mid-September, all of Denali National Park’s visitor centers are open for business. From the main visitor center near the park entrance to Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 of the Park Road, families can be assured of interesting exhibits, helpful information and access to the famous Junior Ranger program just for kids. We like to stop into the entrance area centers, grab our Junior Ranger books, then head out for a few days of exploring, swinging back through to receive our badges (grownups, too). After mid-September, the Murie Science and Learning Center provides all visitor services, with the addition of science-based activities, a small bookstore, and periodic ranger-led walks and hikes. Learn about visitor centers at nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm.

Park Road tour: The famous Denali National Park buses operate until mid-September, since private vehicles are not allowed beyond Mile 15 of the Denali Park Road. One type of bus is configured to be a basic shuttle between the entrance area and Wonder Lake, with stops in between for hiking, camping or checking out wildlife. Another type, known as a narrated tour bus, offers a more in-depth trip along the park road, covering topics like wildflowers, natural history, or Denali’s tundra wilderness. All buses have a fee depending upon the type of transportation you require. Reservations are recommended, even in the fall. Remember to bring a car seat if your child requires one, snacks, water and books for kids who may become bored with the long ride. Be prepared for inclement weather at any time, but especially in the fall. If traveling to Wonder Lake, keep in mind that this trip is nine hours one way, so smaller children may not enjoy this experience. We like to travel on our own to Savage River at Mile 15, then hop a shuttle for a bit of a ride before getting off and catching another bus back to our car. Shuttle schedules can be accessed via the Denali National Park website, but generally operate between 6 am and 10 pm daily.

Hiking: Denali’s entrance area was built with families in mind. The looping, well-marked and wide trails crisscrossing the property are perfect for kids and parents to get outdoors and walk a few miles without venturing into the backcountry. From easy nature trails to more difficult scrambles, park trails are an excellent way to see Denali’s unspoiled landscape safely. The Park Service has an excellent hiking guide available online or upon your arrival in the park. Along the park road, Savage River and Mountain Vista offer more challenging trails, but still highly doable trails for families with hiking experience and those with older kids. Always be bear aware anywhere in the park, but especially in the lower-populated areas of trails. Find more on hiking in Denali at nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/dayhiking.htm.

Photo credit: NPS Photo / Claire Abendroth

Sled dog kennel: Did you know that the only canine ranger force of the National Park Service is housed in Denali National Park? These pups’ home is a kennel full of yowling, wiggling, wagging members of the park service, and they love visitors before they begin a winter of patrolling remote sections of the park. Located near the park headquarters, the sled dog kennel is the place to learn more about their important history and contribution to rangers since 1922. See demonstrations of the sled dogs’ skill daily through mid-September. Kennels are open year-round, but the dogs are sometimes running with a dog cart or ATV. Learn more about the kennels at nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/kennels.htm.