When you visit Alaska, there is one thing that you just have to experience – a trip to Denali National Park! For most visitors, your introduction to Alaska will start in Anchorage. Rather than concentrating on what to expect inside the park, we want to share the overall experience of taking the scenic drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park.
I am sure you are all familiar with iconic national parks such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite but Denali is potentially superior to all of these in terms of natural beauty. Not only can you appreciate the panoramic scenery within the confines of the park but also from a distance while you take the gorgeous drive along the Parks Highway.
We want to share a couple of spots along this route that you should take some time to experience before you actually arrive at Denali.
Before you leave Alaska’s largest city, perhaps you will be inspired to explore what this city has to offer. It may not have the iconic skyline as some of the other leading cities around the nation, but Anchorage offers a variety of intriguing reasons to make you stay and explore.
A visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center is perhaps a great way to start your visit to ‘The Last Frontier’. However, you will likely be itching to get on the road and start exploring the ‘real’ Alaska. The best way to get around and explore everything Alaska has to offer is by renting a car at the airport. It’s convenient and offers flexibility rather than relying on official tour companies to take you around their pre-determined locations.
I will be perfectly honest and say that we spent very little time in and around Anchorage. Our visit to Alaska was purely about heading out and exploring the natural beauty around the state so we simply used Anchorage as a base to spend a couple of nights at the beginning and end of our trip.
Let’s head out of Anchorage and start our journey north!
A short drive outside of Anchorage will immediately offer a variety of gorgeous landscapes, the first of which being Mirror Lake. Moments from the highway, Mirror Lake is a relaxing location where you can admire the reflections off the lake with the backdrop of the Chugach State Park mountains providing an eclectic blend of natural scenery.
Mirror Lake offers a boat launch, picnic tables, ample parking for visitors and restrooms. If you want to grab breakfast or lunch in Anchorage and take the short drive, Mirror Lake is definitely a spot I would recommend to enjoy the relaxing surroundings.
We only spent about 30 minutes here before heading onwards to Denali but you could easily spend more if time allows. There are a number of walking trails around the lake which offer different angles and perhaps you will stumble across wildlife during your time at Mirror Lake.
A little further north is the impressive Eklutna Lake. Located about 15 miles off the highway along Eklutna Lake Road, this is another popular attraction for visitors looking to explore outside of Anchorage.
Located in the heart of Chugach State Park, this lake offers a campground providing the perfect spot for an overnight stay to explore the 25 miles of trails that intertwine throughout the park.
Although we visited Eklutna during our first day, it is one of the recommended points of attraction on the drive from Anchorage to Denali. Again, this will depend completely on your time constraints and how much time you want to explore Eklutna. The Eklutna Lake valley was carved by the Eklutna Glacier and what we see today was created as the glacier receded.
The views across the lake are stunning and the difficult part will be leaving given that you will feel you are leaving a lot behind. A visit to Eklutna Lake is perhaps best suited to a day trip from Anchorage but if you are interested in getting a brief preview of what beauty awaits you, I recommend taking the short scenic drive from the Glenn Highway.
You have probably established that this stretch of highway offers an abundance of gorgeous lakes that you will want to experience. Our final stop in the early part of this drive was at Reflections Lake which I have to say was my favorite of all three.
The solitude was apparent as we parked outside the entrance and took a short walk to the banks of the lake. We were the only visitors there aside from a couple of folks camping but we were able to appreciate the quiet sounds of wildlife going about their morning routine and admire the fog lifting from the heat of the water against the cooler atmosphere.
Dawn and dusk here can be stunning, with sunset colors playing across the water and on the peaks. (Alaska.org)
A one-mile trail around Reflections Lake is an easy walk all year round and although the trail is mostly wooded, there are various spots that open up to appreciate the stunning views in front of your eyes. The mountain range line one end of the lake providing a majestic backdrop and offering reflections across the lake.
By the time we reached the quirky yet quaint town of Talkeetna, we couldn’t help but have already fallen in love with Alaska! The aforementioned lakes are enough to sell this beautiful state but if you are looking for something a little different, wait until you reach Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is a popular spot for visitors who choose to take the train from Anchorage but although it’s a little out of the way to visit if you are driving, it’s well worth taking the short drive from the Parks Highway to explore what this town has to offer (plus there is a gorgeous spot along this road to capture another view of Mount Denali).
The town is primarily catered towards tourists with a number of souvenir shops selling locally made merchandise. We explored several and bought a couple of mementos but I was particularly impressed by Aurora Dora, a shop solely selling pictures of the Northern Lights captured in Talkeetna.
The owner Dora Miller is also the photographer who has taken all of these amazing images and she gave us the tip about the Northern Lights being active later that night and to ask about a wake-up call at our hotel. We are thankful for this because our experience was amazing!
Time quickly got away from us as we explored Talkeetna and this is certainly located perfectly to capture the attention of visitors traveling north who want a spot to grab a bite to eat before making the final trip to Denali.
It’s about half-way along the drive from Anchorage and Denali, so depending on how much time you spent at the lakes, you could expect to reach here in a little over 2 or 3 hours.
After leaving Talkeetna, depending on the weather, the views of Mount Denali will become even more prominent. There are two distinctive overlooks that provide stunning views of the Alaskan range.
Denali Viewpoint South is located at milepost 134-135 of the Parks Highway. A paved parking lot offers visitors the chance to take a short walk to a platform that opens up to panoramic views of the Alaskan Range.
Whether your focal point is Mount Denali or perhaps you want to admire it’s smaller counterparts, if you are fortunate to visit on a perfectly clear day as we did, you will be treated to a stunning overlook.
Denali Viewpoint North is about 30 miles further north at milepost 162-163. By now, you will have driven around the eastern side of the Alaskan range so the angle of Mount Denali has completely changed.
However, this takes nothing away from the beauty that lies in front of you. It’s great to see a different perspective of the mountain and again we were incredibly lucky to have a perfect day to appreciate these panoramas.
Welcome to Denali National Park
Did you know that your adventure won’t start until you reach Denali National Park? After spending several hours driving up from Anchorage, you could be forgiven for thinking it can’t get any better. We took this drive in late August when the Fall colors were in full bloom and it’s a breathtaking scene that we could certainly get used to.
However, when you arrive at the entrance to Denali National Park, this is when your journey into the gorgeous, untouched wilderness will begin. Depending on how much time you take to reach Denali, it’s feasible that you will arrive late afternoon as we did.
Fortunately, we arrived just in time to hop on the last shuttle bus to the Denali Kennels to watch the sled dog team in action and also show some love to the newborn puppies that were clearly attracting everyone’s attention.
If you are taking the drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park, you can expect to spend several more hours along this route as you explore everything we recommended. The drive is advertised as taking a little over 4 hours but I think it’s realistic to think you could double this and still feel like you could have spent more time in each of the stops along the way.
We encourage you to take your time on this drive and appreciate everything available. There are plenty more hidden gems that you can stumble across and we barely covered the surface with our recommended stops. It’s inevitable that you will be excited to reach Denali but hopefully, you will have enough time in your itinerary to enjoy both the scenic drive and the national park once you arrive.
This is one of our favorite drives and we can highly recommend late-August, early-September as a great time of the year to enjoy this.
Have you taken the drive along the Parks Highway to Denali?