There are two ways to experience Denali on your own two feet - on a marked trail, or off-trail in the wilderness.
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Trails near the park entrance
Trails beyond the park entrance: Savage River, Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake
Hiking around the Eielson Visitor Center
Trails in Denali
Trails in Denali are largely centered around the Denali Visitor Center. Some of these trails are utilitarian - they travel alongside the Park Road and connect the visitor center with other important facilities in the entrance area of the park, such as the park sled dog kennels, Riley Creek Campground and the Wilderness Access Center. Other trails offer a departure from the immediate surroundings of the Park Road, allowing you to seek a bit of solace and quiet, while still having an obvious, established path to follow.
With a few exceptions, trails in Denali are generally considered easy to moderate in difficulty, and some trails are ADA accessible.
Below is a map featuring trails in the park. Zoom in and click on the various trails to get descriptions, difficulties, and lengths. A few trails exist farther west in the park, and can be seen by scrolling in that direction. The menu in the upper-right of the map lets you change what type of base map you are using.
Check out resources for self-guided trail hikes. You may wish to download or print these materials in advance, though cell / 3G service is available while on many of these trails, if you wish to access them while hiking.
Trails Not Near the Park Entrance
A few trails exist deeper in the park, beyond the first three miles of the Park Road. You can find them in the map above by scrolling to the west-south-west.
Savage River Area: Located around Miles 13-15 on the Park Road, you can either drive to Savage River and park for the day, or you can board a free bus, called the Savage River Shuttle, at any entrance area facility.
Learn more about the Savage River area
Eielson Visitor Center: Located at mile 66, you can reach this center by any shuttle bus traveling to Eielson or beyond. On a clear day, the entire area offers magnificent views of Mt. McKinley. A map of trails around Eielson can be found below.
Wonder Lake: Located at mile 85, you can reach Wonder Lake with either a Wonder Lake or Kantishna shuttle bus.
There is one trail in this area, leading from Wonder Lake Campground to the McKinley River. It is 2.5 miles one-way, with negligible elevation gain. The trail travels through spruce forest and past several small ponds, offering chance to see water fowl and terrain which is different from much of the park. However, it is plagued most of the summer by mosquitoes, so bring a head net.
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A map of the area around Eielson Visitor Center.
Hiking Off Trail
Denali National Park and Preserve is nearly the size of Massachusetts (or just over half as large as Switzerland), and most of the park is devoid of human-made trails.
The idea of hiking in the wilderness, with no trail to follow, excites some hikers and confuses or intimidates others. However, the nature of Denali's Park Road and bus system, and the terrain itself, can make trail-less hiking more approachable than it may seem at first blush.
Where to Start?
This is a question that only you can answer. Every person will want something slightly different out of their day hike, and the sheer size of Denali prevents any one spot from being "the best."
A good strategy is to take an early shuttle bus into the park, traveling to your turn-around point and scouting the terrain from the Park Road. On your return towards the park entrance, you can tell your driver to let you off at whatever area looked most appealing.
After your hike, you need only return to the road and wave down any passing shuttle. You can get a copy of the latest bus schedule upon arriving in the park, or you can download one. While uncommon, the first shuttle or two that you try to re-board may be full, so prepare for a worst-case scenario of waiting an hour for a ride. Many hikers will carry a book, or will cycle through their digital photos just taken during the hike to make the potential wait go by quicker.
In a trail-less wilderness like Denali, you will dictate your route. By avoiding terrain traps like pockets of spruce forest and alder, you can make navigation easier. Tree-line in Denali is generally around 3,000' above sea level, and much of the 92 mile Park Road travels near or above that level.
Above tree-line, you will find either brushy tundra, with plants that may slow your travel but allow you to see over them, or alpine tundra, with extremely short vegetation that offers no impediment to your speed or your visibility. In many parts of the park, you will find that the Park Road stays in your view, even after several miles and several hours of hiking.
Learn more about terrain types in Denali
Ideally, you will be hiking with at least one other person, and will stay in areas where visibility is excellent - allowing you to see animals at a great distance, and avoid them when necessary. In areas of brushy or alpine tundra, you can sometimes see for miles.
However, you will likely face areas of reduced or limited visibility while day hiking. When your visibility is reduced, you should make noise, either by talking with your partner, singing, or simply shouting "Hey bear!" every few minutes. The human voice is distinctive, and tells wildlife that you are in the area - thus minimizing surprise encounters, which are the most likely scenario for a large animal to harm a person. Bear bells, whistles, etc., are no substitute for your voice. The first few "Hey bears!" may seem silly, but with enough repetition, they will seem a natural part of hiking in Denali.
Read more about wildlife safety
The list below is not exhaustive, but should help in planning your off-trail adventure.
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Did You Know?
The vast landscapes of interior Alaska are changing. Large glaciers are receding, permafrost is melting and woody plants are spreading. Comparison of "then-and-now" photographs and data from major vegetation monitoring should allow detection, understanding and potential management of these changes.