For people using park campgrounds, "winter" in Denali starts in the middle of September and lasts until the Friday of Mother's Day Weekend. When we talk about the rules for backpacking, however, "winter" means October 1 through April 14. If you are backpacking in the other half of the year (April 15 - September 30), all of the summer backpacking rules apply.
Campgrounds in Winter
Roughly two weeks after Labor Day each September, after summer bus service ends, all park campgrounds but one close.
One of the three loops comprising Riley Creek Campground, at the park entrance, remains open year-round. There are no nightly-fees to stay in this campground outside the summer season (Mother's Day Weekend—mid September), and you may camp with a tent or a vehicle/RV.
Note: This is a rustic campground, with no running water and no electricity. Until May 15, water is only available at the winter visitor center (called the Murie Science and Learning Center, open daily from 9:30 am—5 pm). There is a vault toilet in the campground, and fire grates at each campsite. You may collect firewood within the campground, but only wood which is dead and downed—i.e., you may not use an ax or saw to gather wood.
The nearest services, like food, gas and restaurants, are located in Healy, about 11 miles north of the park entrance.
This campground sometimes grows full in spring (e.g., the first week or so of May), but is otherwise very quiet and fairly empty.
Denali is an amazing place to enjoy winter activities such as snow-shoeing, skiing, or dog mushing. During any of these activities, folks are welcome to camp overnight in the park, though they must acquire a (free) backcountry permit, in person at the winter visitor center.
Many winter visitors enjoy using the trails created by the park dog teams, which greatly speeds up your travel. You're welcome to set off on your own path, however, and explore more of the park than where we regularly travel.
October 1—April 15 is the winter camping season, though snow levels in October and November can be pretty thin in some years. The best months for winter travel are typically February and March, when daylight hours are increasing and snow conditions tend to be better than in early winter (i.e., October - December). By April, day-time highs are often above freezing, and rivers and creeks may begin unlocking from their deep-winter freeze.
At any point in winter, temperatures can dip as low as -40 F (-40 C) or colder. You must be prepared with extreme-weather gear, and should pay close attention to the weather forecast.
Whether you are an experienced winter traveler in Alaska, a novice, or somewhere between the two, you can plan a backcountry trip in Denali that meets your expectations, skills, and comfort level. Even a short-mileage, one-night trip in Denali will feel like you've entered a remote winter wonderland of your very own.
How to Get a Camping Permit
Permits are only for backcountry users; people camping in Riley Creek Campground outside the summer season do not need permits or reservations, just go to the campground and find a spot you like.
The winter visitor center, called the Murie Science and Learning Center, is open daily from 9:30 am—5 pm, and is where you acquire a backcountry permit. The center is closed on major holidays.
The permit process can be as short as fifteen minutes, or as long and in-depth as you wish. We will record your itinerary (or help you plan one, if you have no preconceived ideas) and important information, like tent color, travel mode and emergency contact information. We will also provide a safety talk, which can be as detailed as you desire. Permits are free, but you are required to speak with us in person to get your permit before you can begin your trip.
Winter weather and snow conditions can change rapidly. It is possible for temperatures to rise from -40 F to 35 F (i.e., above freezing) in just a few short days - or for the reverse to happen. We will share a weather forecast with you during the permit process, but you must be prepared for extreme conditions.
You must also be prepared to self-rescue if you run into problems. Cell phone coverage ends just beyond the winter visitor center, so do not rely on a phone to call for help. Be aware of your strengths and limitations, and make wise choices while in the backcountry. It is always safer to travel with a partner / group, than to travel alone.
A winter backcountry adventure in Denali is likely to be a trip of a lifetime, and we want to make sure you come back safe and feeling good about the experience.
Last updated: March 26, 2020