Imagine a landscape of pristine, natural serenity. Imagine a scene where wildlife roams around without fear of human intervention. Imagine waking up to the sight of the tallest peak in North America with the Northern Lights glowing brightly in the background. Now take a moment to stop imagining and realize that after reading this post, you can experience all of this plus much more! Taking a Denali National Park tour is a no-brainer if you are visiting Alaska in the near future.
Forget Yellowstone…Forget Yosemite…Forget all 58 other areas that have been nominated as National Parks! We want to introduce you to Denali National Park which we now consider to be even more spectacular than any of the other parks we have experienced on our travels.
We absolutely LOVE both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks and both offer spectacular scenery that I honestly thought couldn’t be bettered. However, after visiting Denali in the heart of Alaska’s “preserved wilderness”, I really believe you could argue that this offers even more breathtaking scenery than the aforementioned parks.
But of course, all of this is subjective and if I had to put money on my favorite…well it would be a really tough call!
Where is Denali National Park?
Let’s start by taking a look at how you can reach Denali National Park. Located in the heart of Alaska, the reality is that you will be flying into Anchorage and then making your way north via the Parks Highway which runs for 323 miles between the capital and Fairbanks. Whether you choose to take a tour bus or perhaps go with a car rental as we did, there will be countless opportunities on the drive to admire Denali’s main attraction.
Mount Denali, or Mount McKinley as it was formerly known, is the tallest peak in North America. Standing at 20,310 feet it is the only mountain in the continent that exceeds 20k feet. Located among other iconic peaks such as Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter, Mount Denali is understandably the focal point of all visits to the national park. But don’t let this peak fool you because there is so much more to experience!
A drive of around 4 hours will see you reach the entrance to Denali National Park, though the reality is that you will need a couple more hours given that you will likely want to stop along this route for your first pictures of Denali along with a possible visit to the quirky town of Talkeetna.
How to take a Denali National Park Tour?
Ok, so you have arrived at Denali National Park and you are raring to explore! The first reality check arrives when you realize that you can’t explore much of Denali without taking one of the pre-organized shuttle buses. At this point, you have a couple of options open to you because, since 1972, no private vehicles are allowed (a couple of exceptions here!) beyond mile 15.
A visit to the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) should hopefully alleviate your concerns and if you arrive at Denali later in the day, we recommend visiting the WAC in preparation for your exploring the following day. If you can plan well in advance, you can organize a shuttle bus tour online, though there are only limited spaces available through the online portal and the remaining tickets are sold at the WAC.
The following tour options are available – Shuttle Bus and Narrated Tour Bus.
Shuttle Bus (Green Buses)
This is the ‘cheaper’ option and the route we opted for. You will provide your own food and drink and for the most part, this will be just a ‘shuttle’ experience though we later found out that our driver was incredibly knowledgeable and shared a plethora of information on the ‘tour’ (though she ‘claimed’ it wasn’t a tour).
Shuttle bus ticket prices vary from year to year, but as of September 1, 2016, here are the latest prices and destinations that you can reach.
- Toklat River (Mile 53)
- Adults – $26.50
- Children (Under 15) – FREE
- Duration – 6.5 Hours
- Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66) – $34
- Adults – $34
- Children (Under 15) – FREE
- Duration – 8 Hours
- Wonder Lake (Mile 85) – $46.75
- Adults – $46.75
- Children (Under 15) – FREE
- Duration – 11 Hours
- Kantishna (Mile 92) – $51
- Adults – $51
- Children (Under 15) – FREE
- Duration – 12 Hours
Please note that these fees DO NOT include the entrance fee which is an additional $10 per person unless you have the National Park Annual Pass which waives this fee.
The key benefits of the shuttle bus option aside from being more cost effective are related to the flexibility. If you are interested in hiking through the Denali National Park wilderness, this is definitely the best option.
You can leave the bus at any point during your journey and once you have finished your exploring, simply flag down the next green bus and continue your journey or return to the WAC.
Green shuttle buses will stop for all wildlife sightings and everyone on board is encouraged to keep their eyes open in all directions as much of the wildlife is frequently difficult to spot. We were fortunate to spot grizzly bears, caribou, moose, and Dall sheep during our journey through the park.
Narrated Tour Bus (Tan Buses)
There are a couple of different ‘narrated’ tour buses available each day where the drivers are certified ‘driver-naturalists’ and will share much more knowledge and information on the route you take through the park. These are a more expensive option and offer less flexibility but do offer a box lunch and beverages.
Here are the different tour options available if you prefer a more structured tour.
- Natural History Tour – $77.25
- Tundra Wilderness Tour – $130.25 (A shortened version is available in the Spring and Fall for $66.50 per person)
- Kantishna Experience – $194
Regardless of which Denali National Park tour bus you take, we can guarantee that this is an experience you won’t want to miss! Exploring Denali National Park is a breathtaking experience that words and pictures will never do enough justice.
As we work on editing literally thousands of amazing photographs that we captured throughout our Denali journey, we hope that you will consider these various options when you plan a trip to Alaska. Be aware that visiting Alaska outside of the ‘peak period’ (May to September) will prevent you from experiencing these tours but if you plan a visit during this timeframe, you will have the ultimate experience just like we did!
Be sure to check out website over the next few weeks as we share more stories and breathtaking images from our journey through Denali National Park.
Have you taken a Denali National Park tour? Do you prefer flexibility when taking a tour or would you prefer to learn as much information as possible from a knowledgeable tour guide?
We’re planning to take both the shuttle bus and the guided tour bus (guided tour on our first day then shuttle bus on the second), just so we can see the best of both worlds!
Then staying overnight in Talkeetna on the way back to Anchorage because we might stay longer in the parks. Hopefully it is a feasible itinerary. Can’t wait for my hubby & I’s Alaska honeymoon trip in May!
[…] Chris and Heather from A Brit and a Southener […]
Good writeup. If you have camping gear, they can shuttle you into the campgrounds too. I stayed at Wonder Lake for a few days. It was fantastic.
My husband and I just got back from a two-week Alaska vacation. We visited the park and actually took a third option–the white bus with red letters. They offer different routes, I believe, but we went the whole 92 (they actually stop at mile 91) miles. We were provided snacks and once we reached Kantishna, a meal at the Roadhouse was included in our fee of $170 each, plus $10 for parking. I highly recommend this tour! Our guide was very knowledgeable about the park and had a keen eye for spotting wildlife. We do not regret spending a little extra for this exciting adventure!
Years ago, my wife and I did an Alaskan cruise and got to see this amazing state firsthand. Sadly, we didn’t make it up to Denali, but next time for sure. I’ve heard about a glass-roof train that sounds pretty awesome, but the bus option looks like a pretty cost-effective way to see the park as well. Thanks!
Yes, the bus is a great way to get around and explore the very best of Denali! If you get the opportunity to visit again in the near future, I have my fingers crossed that you get to experience Denali the way we did. We were incredibly fortunate to visit on several days where the weather was perfect. As you can see, we had unobstructed views of Denali all the time which was amazing and actually is highly unusual as apparently only 30% of people generally get to see the peak!
What side of the bus has the best view for the Tundra Wilderness Tour?