Alaska’s Denali National Park

Tundra Landscape deep in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Tundra Landscape deep in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Alaska! There is no place quite like it in the rest of the United States. In the heart of Alaska lies one of the the largest national parks in the country – Denali National Park. With more than six million square miles of incredible wilderness, Denali is larger than the entire state of Massachusetts.

Visiting Alaska had always been one of those “trip of a lifetime” dreams my husband and I had dreamed about for years.  We could never justify the expense, and it always seemed out of reach. Then, at age 48, my husband had a sudden heart attack and had to have quadruple by-pass surgery. When you realize how quickly life can end, it changes the whole perspective about justifying the expense.

We made the decision to go, and I scoured the internet and everything I could get my hands on to figure out how to maximize our travel dollars. It does help to go in a group, and in our case, that meant our family. Our two younger sons and daughter and son-in-law joined us on the trip. It really helped make it cheaper to have other adults to share the lodging costs, and a thrill to share the amazing experience with some of our family. At the end of the post I will share the resources I used to help save money on our trip.

Hiking the tundra in Denali National Park, Alaska.

My sons and son-in-law hiking the tundra in Denali National Park, Alaska.

Denali is home to the highest point on North America – Mt. McKinley (more often referred to as Mt. Denali or simply “the mountain” by Alaskan natives). At a soaring 20,320 feet, it attracts hikers and mountain climbers from around the world. It was a huge attraction for us, too, and I tried every day we were there to get good pictures of it. All of the photos in this post were taken by yours truly, by the way, but the best photos I got of the mountain were from the air.

The summit of Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska

The summit of Mt. McKinley seen from the window of our small plane.

One of the most amazing things we did during our trip was to take a flight in a small plane around Mt. McKinley. When I say small, I mean eight seats, including the pilot! I was nervous as heck because this old gal has lousy equilibrium and I was so afraid of getting sick. I am came close, but it was SO worth it!! Getting photos of the landscape out of the window of the plane was a dream come true for me! We had views of Alaska that you just don’t get any other way, even when flying in a big commercial jet. We flew around the summit of Mt. McKinley, saw hikers actually climbing the mountain (see the photos below – the tiny dots are people!), flew over glaciers and saw the incredible color of glacier melt from our plane.

IMG_5231- Hikers on Mt.McKinley-WM-M

Hikers on the side of Mt. McKinley, Denali National Park, Alaska

The photo below is one I took from the window of our plane as we flew over some of the glaciers. I just could not believe the beautiful color of the water! We would never have had this view from the ground.

IMG_5272- glacier melt water -enroute to Mt. McKinley-M-WM

Glacial melt water- viewed from the plane.

To access the park by automobile means driving the one and only road into it. Only the first 15 miles are actually paved, and that is all you are allowed to drive your own vehicle. Not that 15 miles of Denali isn’t pretty awesome, it is. But to see the rest of the park, you will need to take a park shuttle bus over the rest of the almost 100 miles of gravel road into the heart of Denali (yes, I said one HUNDRED miles!). They do that to protect the park, and although you can hike as far as you want on foot, if you want to go by vehicle, that does mean taking either the park shuttle bus or a tour bus. Shuttle buses do make stops at the various rest stops, and you can get off and hike and then catch another shuttle bus. We did some of that, just taking time to walk the tundra. It was awe-inspiring! I caught the photo below of my husband as he was walking around taking in the view. Here is a link to information on getting around in Denali on the National Park website – Getting around in Denali.

My husband strolling the tundra in Denali National Park.

My husband strolling the tundra in Denali National Park.

We took the bus as far as Wonder Lake, about 85 miles into the park. This incredible spot is one of the most photographed spots in Denali, and of course I had to take a lot there myself. It is popular because there are a myriad of views to get both with and without the mountain reflected in the water, and depending on time of day you are there. The photo below is just one of many that I got off the bus to take at that shuttle stop.  That was a very full day, which started at 5:30 a.m.! I signed us up for the early shuttle route so we might have a better chance of seeing wildlife.

Wonder Lake -Denali National Park.

Wonder Lake -Denali National Park.

We were exhausted by the end of the day, but it did not help that we had stayed up so late the day before. It is hard not to when it does not get dark in the summer! Because of Alaska’s latitude position, they have almost six months of daylight per year (sorry, that is the geography teacher coming out!). We were hiking around the area of the park that we could drive into, and at 11 p.m. at night, it was still daylight! The two photos below were ones I took literally at 11 p.m. at night. It made it hard to stop looking at the beauty and go to bed.

My son Jacob hiking in Denali National Park at 11 p.m. at night.

My son Jacob hiking in Denali National Park at 11 p.m. at night.

That night in particular Denali was putting on a show with rainbows. Of course, I had to have a lot of pictures of the rainbows! The one below is just one of many I took of the rainbows over the tundra.

Rainbow over the tundra in Denali National Park.

Rainbow over the tundra in Denali National Park.

Besides the beautiful landscape, top on our list to get to see was wildlife, and we were not disappointed! On our bus trip into Denali the day we went, we saw coyotes, moose, reindeer, marmots, pikas and, top on our list to see – grizzly bears.  The shuttle buses are good about stopping when any of these animals are sighted so people can take pictures.

Grizzly bear and cubs on the tundra - Denali National Park, Alaska.

Grizzly bear and cubs on the tundra – Denali National Park, Alaska.

Although the buses will stop so that you can take photos, they will not let anyone get off of the bus to hike anywhere within 5 miles of seeing a bear. It is just TOO dangerous. So, we got to watch them from a distance and take pictures from within the safe but distant confines of the bus. I snapped the photos above and below of a sow grizzly and her cubs on the mountainside when our bus stopped for photos. I had to zoom in a lot, and the photos are not close up, but it was so awesome to watch them. The cubs played around their mother, and then she finally just plopped down and the cubs started nursing (second photo).

Grizzly bear and cubs on the tundra - Denali National Park, Alaska.

Grizzly bear nursing cub – Denali National Park, Alaska.

Wildlife in Denali are just that – wild. They roam free on their own schedule, so seeing them can be just pure luck. That was part of the thrill for us – seeing them wild and in their own world. We were fortunate to see all we did when were there, but early and late in the day are when they are usually on the move. I caught this picture of a moose staring at us late in the day and closer to the park entrance.

Moose in meadow - Denali National Park.

Moose in meadow – Denali National Park.

We spent a lot of our bus ride scoured the views on either side of the bus looking for wildlife. In one instance, we actually had a critter come right up to the bus when we were stopped. This coyote ran right behind our bus when it was stopped on the gravel road, and this is one of several photos that I took as he meandered on by.

Coyote in Denali National Park.

Coyote in Denali National Park.

Along with the sweeping views and wildlife, some of the most beautiful things to see in Denali are small. It is amazing that despite the very cold and harsh climate that is Denali, wildflowers make their appearance every summer. It is almost as if they have to make the most of the time they have to show off, because they are spectacular.

Blue flower at Wonder Lake.

Flowers at Wonder Lake.

Have I convinced you this is an incredible place to visit? The photos don’t do it justice. Denali is definitely a once in a lifetime experience! Below are a few suggestions I have for when you go.

Must See:

  • If you can do it, take a small plane flight around Denali. It is even more amazing than it sounds!
  • Take the shuttle bus deep into the heart of the park, and get out and explore the landscape. It will be good for your soul!
  • Take an early shuttle bus if you can, as this is the best option for seeing wildlife.

Things to remember:

  • Take bug spray! The mosquitoes are HUGE in Alaska and they will eat you for lunch. You need the strong stuff, so wait until you get to Alaska to buy it.
  • Dress in layers. The temperature fluctuates from hot and humid near the lakes to really chilly in the morning and evening, and also depends on the time of day. We wore the hiking pants that can convert to shorts, and were glad we did.
  • Be prepared for photos with lots of memory card space and extra batteries because you will use them! If you don’t have a really nice camera, you might think about renting one for your trip. Check out my previous post on renting cameras – How You Can Use Great Camera Equipment Without Having to Buy It .

Places to stay:

  • The basic options are camping, staying in a private lodge inside the park, or staying outside the park entrance.
  • Inside Denali, there are six places to camp. Check out the park’s website on the campgrounds – Camping in Denali .
  • There are four privately owned lodges in Denali, and they book up fast and can be expensive. If we were not pinching pennies on that, I would have loved to have stayed in one of these. Here is the link to the information on them – Lodging in Denali .
  • I used a website called Vacation Rentals by owner to find a place for our crew to stay in the various places we went in Alaska. We got reasonably priced places to stay, and sharing helped on the expense. You can find everything from tiny one room cabins to huge houses. The link is www.vrbo.com .

 Discounts on attractions:

  • We saved money on several activities by using the Alaska Tour Saver Coupon book. The year we went, there was actually a coupon for the flight trip we took around Mt. McKinley that made it affordable for us to do. The coupon book was $99, but it more than paid for itself and saved us money. It does help to check with the attractions you want to go to before you buy the book to make sure they take coupons. Here is a link to their site – http://www.toursaver.com/home/
  • There is also another coupon book, the Northern Lights Discount book that is cheaper that you might want to check out.

 For more information of all types on Denali, there are two websites that were invaluable for planning our trip.

Tundra in Denali National Park

Alaskan Tundra in Denali National Park

Visiting Denali National Park was an incredible experience for me and my family. I would LOVE to go back. Have any of you been, or are you dreaming of going? Please leave me a comment and tell me about it!

Watch for my upcoming post on the rest of our Alaska trip!

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About Sandy

My life revolves around my faith in Jesus Christ and chasing the dreams I believe He has placed in my heart.

Comments

  1. Stunning! Thank you for the gorgeous photos and the information. Denali is on my bucket list, sooner than later I hope. You’ve saved me a lot of time researching. The color of the glacial melt is beautiful.

  2. Wow, these pictures are amazing!

  3. These pictures are amazing! I have always thought it would be great to see Alaska, but this just moved it up the list. My favorite was the bear nursing- just out in the wild, doing what it does. Thanks for sharing!

  4. A beautiful post with beautiful photos!!

    Becky | http://www.thebiglphotographyblog.blogspot.co.uk

  5. Oh my GOSH I’m dying over this post. Everything looks so beautiful!! It is one of my dreams to go to Alaska and go to all the national parks there as well. Your trip sounds like it was incredible and I can’t believe you say a momma and baby bear! So cute/scary!

  6. Wow. How amazingly beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing on Wherever Wednesday!

Please leave a comment and tell me what you think!