Discovery Hikes

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a male ranger and four hikers stand on a dirt road laughing
A ranger speaks with well-prepared discovery hikers on the Denali Park Road, before setting off for a day-hike in the trail-less wilderness.

NPS Photo / Neil Blake

Discovery Hikes are a great way for the adventurous and well-prepared to explore the heart of Denali.

These ranger-led hikes travel everywhere, so expect uneven terrain, small stream crossings, close encounters with dense vegetation and unpredictable weather. Along the way, you can engage the park with all your senses and build memories of this special kind of "walk in the park."

How to Sign Up for a Hike


You may sign up for a hike one to two days in advance, and you can only sign up in person at the Denali Visitor Center. All members of your party must be present during the sign-up process in order to claim a spot. There are no exceptions to this rule. For safety concerns, rangers may turn away unprepared hikers. Unfortunately, if the hike fills up, there is no way to be placed on a waiting list or to ride "stand-by". However, rangers at the Denali Visitor Center will be happy to discuss alternative options for exploring Denali's trail-less wilderness areas without a ranger.

All disco hikes begin with a bus ride into the park, originating from the entrance area between 8 and 8:30am (exact location and meeting time will depend on hike location). Most hikes require the purchase of a bus ticket (same cost as an Eielson-bound transit bus). Plan on a bus ride lasting anywhere from one to four hours, to hike for three to five hours, and then a similar-length bus ride back to the park entrance.You should be prepared to return to the entrance area as late at 7pm.

Please read our preparation guide, below, for more details on how to ready yourself for this special experience.

Where You'll Go


All disco hikes begin with a bus ride into the park, originating from the Wilderness Access Center. Plan on a bus ride lasting anywhere from one to four hours, to hike for three to five hours, and then a similar-length bus ride back to the park entrance. The disco bus leaves at 8 am every morning.

These ranger-led adventures vary from moderate (elevation gain less than 1,000 feet) to strenuous (elevation gain more than 1,000 feet, or will involve large river crossings). They may start from just about anywhere on the Park Road, which is why the bus ride has such a wide range of duration (i.e., the closer to the park entrance your hike begins, the shorter your bus ride will be).
 

Upcoming Hikes

Hikes begin on June 8 each year. One to two occur each day thereafter, until they end in early September.

Locations are typically indicated by what mile they begin on the Denali Park Road. The entrance is 0, the western end of the road is 92, so if a hike begins at Mile 45, you can expect to ride a bus about half the length of the park road before disembarking and starting your hike. You may wish to refer to the park map. You'll use a special bus (the "disco hike" bus) to get to your hiking location, so don't worry about reserving bus tickets before you sign up for a hike. (If you do wish to reserve transit bus tickets in advance, and then decide to sign up for a discovery hike once you are here, you can exchange your pre-paid transit tickets for "disco bus" tickets).

As mentioned above, you must sign up in person at the Denali Visitor Center one or two days in advance of a hike - there are no exceptions to this rule. Hiking in the wilderness is a challenging experience, and signing up in person means you have a chance to talk with a ranger and ensure that you are prepared for this experience. You cannot sign up the morning of a hike - the bus leaves earlier than the visitor center opens.

Details of upcoming hikes can be found at the visitor center, where you must sign up. Details will include the approximate duration, distance, difficulty, etc.

 

How to Prepare for a Discovery Hike

Bring layers for changing conditions

Any day of the summer could be sunny, rainy, sleeting, or snowy. As you travel farther west, the elevation increases. While it might be beautiful at the park entrance, it might be much cooler and windier farther out the Denali Park Road. Bring layers to respond to changing conditions. A waterproof jacket is required, and rain pants are always a good idea because you may be walking through wet vegetation that will soak your clothes even when it is not raining. Wear fleece, polypropylene, synthetic or wool under-layers to wick away moisture from your skin, and continue to insulate even when wet. Avoid wearing jeans, or other cotton layers, since cotton tends to stay wet and has little insulating value.

Wear appropriate footwear

Supportive hiking boots with rugged tread and ankle support are strongly recommended for hiking off-trail because the uneven terrain places more strain on your feet and ankles than hiking on a trail. Low top hikers or running shoes with good tread are acceptable, but not ideal. No sandals or open-toed shoes allowed. Keep in mind that even if the hike is not planning on crossing a river, you are likely to have wet feet by the end of the hike - consider bringing an extra pair of socks or lightweight shoes for the bus ride home.

Start hydrated, stay hydrated

Being properly hydrated will help your body adjust to changes in altitude, temperature, and exertion. Although it may be raining, Denali’s climate is quite dry. As you sweat, you will need to replenish the fluid in your body. Start your day well-hydrated and bring at least two liters of water per person. Bring all the water you may need with you. There are few or no sources of potable water available beyond the park entrance area. Surface water from streams and lakes should be both filtered and disinfected prior to human consumption.

Difficulty ratings

We describe discovery hikes as being 'moderate' or 'strenuous' in difficulty. These are a little subjective, but here are some general measurements for each:
  • Moderate
    Elevation gain of less than 1,000 feet (305 meters); may include some areas of thick brush, muddy or boggy ground, large and uneven tussocks, rocks and generally uneven terrain.
  • Strenuous
    Elevation gain of 1,000 to 2,000 feet (305 to 609 meters); in addition to conditions mentioned previously, may include river crossings, extremely steep slopes and areas of loose rock.

Gear Checklist

Essential items:
  • Water (two liters minimum)
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain pants
  • Sturdy waterproof hiking boots
  • Long pants (no shorts)
  • Warm layers (fleece or wool)
  • Warm hat and gloves
  • Lunch and snacks
  • Discovery Hike bus ticket (voucher required)
Recommended items, if you have them:
  • Rain pants
  • Trekking poles
  • Gaiters
  • Camera
  • Binoculars
  • Insect repellant/head net
  • Sunblock
  • Field Guides
  • Extra socks or shoes for the bus ride home

Common terms

When you speak with a ranger about signing up for a Discovery Hike, expect to hear some of these terms:
  • Stream crossing
    Less than calf deep, usually a single or few channels of clear, cold water.
  • River crossing
    Up to knee deep, usually several swift, silty streams comprise each braided river.
  • Gravel bar
    A wide area of uneven rocks following the course of a glacially-carved river valley. May include stream or river crossings.
  • Stream- or river-crossing shoes
    It is strongly recommended to cross water in your hiking boots, and save spare footwear for after the hike. Hiking boots provide the best foot protection and insulation, which is important when silty water obscures the uneven rocky river bottom and water temps are near-freezing.
  • Brush
    Thick vegetation, often knee- to thigh-high. Wet brush will soak you if it has rained recently.
  • Willow or alder thickets
    Up to 15 feet high. Pushing through thickets is exhausting. If the vegetation is wet you will get fully soaked.
  • Bog
    Wet, spongy ground with shallow standing water mixed with grasses, sedges and rushes. Bog hiking is like walking on a leaky water bed.
  • Tussocks
    Dense, wobbly clumps of grasses rising out of bogs. Tussock hiking is a bit like walking on basket balls.
  • Scree
    Loose rocks usually found on steep slopes above tree line. Scree varies in size from peas to potatoes to pumpkins. Most of the mountains in Denali are covered with scree toward the top. Can be pleasant walking once you adopt a proper technique. First time scree walkers may feel uncomfortable as the rocks slide or roll underfoot.
  • Alpine tundra
    Vegetated areas above tree line where plants grow in a thin, delicate carpet.
 

Weather

Discovery Hikes occur from early June to early September, so prepare for spring, summer or fall weather, depending on when you will be visiting. 

Summer is typically cool and wet, with highs typically in the upper 50s to low 60s, and lows in the 40s. On occasion, summer highs reach the low 80s, though this is rare. Snow can fall any month of the year, so be prepared for chilly weather even in summer. Fall colors emerge on the alpine tundra in August and in the low valleys in early September. Winter generally starts in mid-September, with temps often getting down to -40 by January. Spring is a short season in April / May, with highs above freezing.

Last updated: July 9, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755

Phone:

(907) 683-9532
A ranger is available 9:30 am—5 pm daily (except on major holidays). If you get to the voicemail, please leave a message and we'll call you back as soon as we finish with the previous caller.

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